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Jennifer Gross-Wrinkle, left, and Michael Disman, interviewed on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn., talk about their struggles after becoming homeless when East Ridge inspectors condemned the Superior Creek Lodge in July. They lived in a tent for a while, but are now staying in the apartment of a relative while they try to find a place of their own.

 

Jennifer Gross-Wrinkle doesn't remember everywhere she's lived since her home was condemned Sept. 9. She thinks it's around five, maybe six different places. A couple of days at someone's house here, four nights in a tent there.

"It's hard," she said, tears filling her eyes. "There's times I don't want to get up. There's times I just want to take a gun and blow my brains out."

Gross-Wrinkle and her partner, Michael Disman, were two of the 1,500 residents displaced when the four Superior Creek Lodge buildings were condemned by the city of East Ridge last month. The motel's decaying walkways were deemed "a life safety issue" by officials.

Superior Creek Lodge was an extended-stay motel that fought a reputation of drug use and criminal activity. The residents had low incomes and paid rent on a weekly basis.

Gross-Wrinkle said people get trapped there.

She did.

"The larger issue here is they didn't have anywhere else to go," said Anna Katharine Horne of Metropolitan Ministries. "It's a city issue because we don't have enough affordable housing."

Before moving to Superior Creek Lodge, Gross-Wrinkle and Disman lived in a tent for four months behind the McDonald's in East Ridge. Their room at the motel was awful, she said. If you weren't wearing shoes, your feet would be covered in black dirt. Still, she said, they weren't homeless.

"It might be small; it might be dirty; it might be bugs; but I'm not in a tent," she said.

But on Sept. 9 — the day before her birthday — she was told to leave. Police officers said residents had to be out by 10 p.m., leaving Gross-Wrinkle and Disman two hours to pack their lives.

Without a car. In the rain.

They left behind clothes, furniture and family pictures because they couldn't carry everything.

Gross-Wrinkle and Disman followed the herd of people who were forced into homelessness. They didn't know where else to go. They ended up back in a tent.

***

Metropolitan Ministries is the main agency helping a portion of the 1,500 displaced. After working with the organization, 44 families — 84 adults and 78 kids — have found permanent housing. Metropolitan Ministries has spent more than $80,000 in aid for former Superior Creek Lodge residents.

Horne, in her capacity as stability navigator, usually sees 33 clients a day. On Sept. 9 and 10, her workload got a lot heavier.

She stood in the parking lot of Superior Creek Lodge, calling area motels and hotels trying to find temporary housing for a few nights. Some motels had vacancies, but refused to take in Superior Creek Lodge residents because of the drug and crime stigmas, she said.

The initial chaos has subsided, but people still come to Horne asking for help. These people are all at different stages of crisis, Horne explained. Metropolitan Ministries now is working with 30-35 families to find housing. The disaster still isn't over.

Some just need financial help with a security deposit for a new place. Some need help figuring out what paperwork they need to complete. Some have no idea what to do.

Looking back, Horne doesn't know if she'd do anything different. This is the first "disaster" she's dealt with, so she has nothing to compare it to. Plus, she hasn't had time to be reflective.

"I haven't had a minute to think about it," she said.

The fate of Superior Creek Lodge still is unknown. Jerry Summers, the motel's attorney, said owners have consulted with engineers and are weighing the cost of knocking it down vs. repair. Each decision has hidden costs. For example, Summers explained, if you want to raze a building, the EPA has to get involved because there may be harmful substances that could get in the air when a dust storm is created.

"There has not been a decision to my knowledge," he said.

Superior Creek Lodge management did not respond to an interview request for this story.

Even if the lodge reopens, some said they'll never go back. Former resident Ben Strickland went before East Ridge City Council on Sept. 24 and handed over a petition full of signatures wanting it to stay closed.

"When you go there, you're looked at as scum," Strickland said.

Gross-Wrinkle is grateful they had a place to call home, but said it's not worth returning.

"I won't go back," she said. "I won't visit. I won't go inside that fence. Not after how they did us."

***

This experience has changed some people.

Gross-Wrinkle said she's usually a negative person. She was angry, but that anger controlled her, and she can't afford to have anything controlling her now.

"This can bring people closer together; it can tear them apart. This could have torn us completely apart. We chose to go a different way with it," she said, patting Disman on the leg. "We're still here. We're still kicking."

She and Disman now are staying at Gross-Wrinkle's daughter's place until they find somewhere permanent.

They were recently approved for Housing Choice voucher program. But they need to go to Catoosa County, Ga., to get Disman's birth certificate. And that requires a valid ID. And a car. The little costs add up, and a seemingly simple task ends up costing $50. But once they get everything in order, they'll have a new place to call home.

And, maybe, a party.

"I still haven't had a birthday," she said, laughing.

On the other side of the issue, Horne has gained valuable job experience. But more than that, she's changed as a person.

"I long more than before Superior Creek to see a day when the stigmas aren't there," she said. "We share the same sidewalks; we deserve the same amount of dignity and respect. And when the way we treat each other and the opportunities we afford each other lines up with that reality, that's the day that I long to see. I think I feel more compelled to fight for that.

"It's worth it. It's exhausting, but it's worth it."

Contact staff writer Evan Hoopfer at ehoopfer@timesfreepress.com, @EvanHoopfer on Twitter or 423-757-6731.

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