Dozens of residents jogged in and out of the rain Wednesday morning at the Economy Inn on Brainerd Road, piling their belongings into cars after being surprised with a notice their building was being condemned.
Residents said they were alerted by police officers who told them they had an hour to get out with whatever they could take with them — everything left would be boarded up in their rooms.
"Not one notice," said Christine Grey, cramming trash bags full of clothes into the back of her car. "The only notice we got is what you see. It's hard with a family."
Police officers walked up and down the hallways as workers cut plywood in the parking lot to board up the rooms. Parents discussed how they were going to find a new place by the time their kids were done with school.
Grey said she has two children at East Ridge Middle School and had to pack everything she could while they were in class. Her children are among 12 students displaced by the eviction, Hamilton County administrators confirmed Wednesday.
"This place was our only option," Grey said. "They say we've got a place to stay, and I hope that's right, because I don't know where else to go."
Economy Inn, owned by Lookout Mountain Suites LLC according to online property records, was shuttered as a result of a petition for abatement of nuisance filed in Criminal Court by Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston. Pinkston's office stated in the petition that "the motel is the site of a disproportionate amount of illegal activity."
"Between October 12, 2015 and December 31, 2017, officers from the Chattanooga Police Department have responded to the motel for over 800 calls for service," the petition states.
It states hundreds of those calls involved crimes, including narcotics violations, assaults, complaints of weapons being fired, thefts, robberies and attempted rape.
Court documents entered in support of the nuisance petition included statements from Chattanooga police officers who have worked in the Brainerd area for years and responded to numerous calls at the Economy Inn.
"Most of these calls for service involved disorders, public intoxication, fights, suspicious persons and drug related activity," Officer Ayriek Novak stated.
Investigator Jamaal Noble said the hotel is "a well-known location for the illegal sale of narcotics."
"The amount of calls that police respond to, for this business alone, is outrageous compared to calls for service that police respond to at other surrounding businesses in the area," he stated.
He said he also noticed several rooms had bed bugs and an "overwhelming" infestation of cockroaches.
"Trash would literally be scattered throughout the hallways, uncapped needles discarded in the parking lot and even children playing in the midst of all that has been described," he stated.
The petition was filed in Hamilton County Criminal Court on Wednesday morning and Criminal Court Judge Tom Greenholtz granted a temporary injunction/restraining order shortly after, stating the inn was to be closed until further order of the Court.
The order sent residents scrambling to find a new home Wednesday as they tried to get refunds for the rent they had already prepaid, and city officials passed out a list of alternative hotels and support services in the area.
City officials were on site "to recommend short-term housing options to individuals who may be displaced by today's civil action against the owners of the property," said Kerry Hayes, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's deputy chief of staff, in an emailed statement.
"We are concerned about the safety and welfare of everyone involved, and will do our best to connect anyone in need with resources and services that may be useful to them," she added.
But service providers at the scene, some of whom helped those displaced by a similar situation at the Superior Creek Lodge in East Ridge in 2015, said they had received advanced notice of the situation just two days before.
Ken Sauer, pastor of East Ridge United Methodist Church, said his church was contacted by school resource officers who said multiple students were going to be displaced. It was unclear how many people were displaced but there are more than 60 rooms in the hotel.
"They asked if we could house and feed and if we could be a hub for the social workers to come together with the people," he said.
"Our priorities are to get people in place that can be at the church to help folks as far as helping to calm people, helping to man the phones, getting cots set up, getting food ready and just having people who are prepared."
He said the situation was reminiscent of Superior Creek Lodge, and even though Economy Inn is significantly smaller, it would be even "crazier" if they hadn't received some heads up.
"We're a church in the area that has helped in this kind of a situation before," Sauer said. "We didn't have any advanced notice when Superior Creek Lodge closed down, which put 1,700 people out on the streets."
Asked what steps were taken to ease the transition of residents displaced by the order on Wednesday, Melydia Clewell, a spokeswoman for Pinkston's office, said the Hamilton County Health Department and Chattanooga Neighborhood Services were both contacted this week.
"I'm not certain which day, either Monday or Tuesday of this week. We were originally working with the Red Cross, but at some point, early this week (again, not sure which day) we learned the Red Cross would not be able to offer help for extended housing needs," she wrote.
"They only do overnight vouchers and I believe the max is three nights, but that's only for people who've been displaced by house fires. In this situation, they would only be able to offer a one night voucher. So, we realized we would need to do more than just offer displaced residents a one-night stay."
Tom Bodkin, spokesman for the Chattanooga- Hamilton County Health Department, said department employees were on site all day assisting residents.
"The Chattanooga- Hamilton County Health Department became aware of the planned closure late Tuesday afternoon," he said in a statement.
"Our Case Management staff has been onsite to support the residents by conducting needs assessments. This means helping them find shelter and/or housing and connecting them to other community resources. Our staff has been onsite all day and will continue to provide support for the residents as needed."
Chattanooga City Councilman Russell Gilbert said he's also been doing what he can to help those in his district who have suddenly found themselves without a home.
"It's a tragedy that this happened, but at the same time, we and the city are trying to place everyone," he said. "I know myself I'm trying to call different churches to get them involved to see if they can help, along with the city's resources."
Looking ahead, he said he'll be asking both the District Attorney's Office and the Mayor's Office about the steps taken in this process, because he feels "we should have had more time to place people."
Deborah Campbell stood in the rain at the rear of her car with a Bible and some picture frames in hand, fighting back tears as she watched her husband load whatever belongings he could into the back seat.
"I'm devastated. I don't know how to load all this stuff in the car, where to go, what to do. I'm sick with the flu — I don't need to be out here right now," she said. "I knew conditions were bad here, but I didn't ever dream they were going to shut it down. This just shocks me to my core. Everybody in here is so poor — I don't know where they're going to go or what they're going to do.
"I'm having to leave all kinds of stuff. I'm just going with whatever's most important. Clothing, medication," she said.
Her husband, Gary Campbell, said he was just as surprised as his wife by the lack of notice they received before eviction.
"I didn't want to pay them too far in advance because of something just like this happening. I was afraid I wouldn't get my money back," he said.
"They said they're going to try to get us our money back that we've paid in advance and they gave me a piece of paper with a list of different motels, but it looks like you're going to have to use your own money. We were paying $600 a month here — $150 a week."
Deborah Campbell shouted the news at other residents pulling up to the hotel for the first time that morning as she loaded the car.
"Hey, dude, they're shutting us down," she yelled at a man getting out of his car a few parking spaces down from her. "You've got to move immediately."
"Right now. They're boarding up the building," she yelled back. "I swear to God, go in there and talk to them. All of the buildings. District attorney shut it down."
This story was updated Feb. 14, 2018, at 6:22 p.m. and again at 11:22 p.m. with more information.