For almost five months, Mary Thompson has scoured this city and those nearby for a home for her family, a place where she could cook a meal for her son and daughter-in-law that wasn't prepared in a microwave, a place where her two young grandchildren could play in the road and get a sound night's sleep.
"I love Brussels sprouts," she said. "I want to cook Brussels sprouts. I like to cut them down the middle and put butter on the inside and wrap them with bacon."
But she hasn't had a kitchen, and she's starting to wonder if she'll ever have one again.
Like so many of the residents at Superior Creek Lodge in East Ridge, Thompson thought her time at the extended-stay motel would be temporary. She got a room there after the home she rented on Hickory Valley Road was condemned because of a black mold infestation and she was forced to leave. She wasn't at Superior Creek to turn tricks or sell weed. She wasn't forced to live there because of a criminal record. She just needed time to save some of her disability check and her daughter-in-law's restaurant tips and find the right spot to go next, she said.
Yet, the choice will haunt her, she thinks. When the city of East Ridge forced Superior Creek Lodge to close it's door because of the motel's decaying infrastructure and turn out 1,500 people, it created a flood of demand for an already undersupplied affordable housing market. And it left her and her neighbors with a crippling disadvantage.
The reputation of the extended-stay motel as a hub for prostitution and drug deals is making it exceptionally difficult for residents, who became homeless overnight with no advance notice, to find a landlord who will rent to them, even if they have money for a deposit and consistent income to pay rent.
And because these families weren't forced to leave the motel because of a fire or a flood or "an act of God," the urgency, compassion or organized effort that is typically associated with a housing crisis of this magnitude hasn't really materialized.
"If East Ridge had flooded and 7 percent of its population was displaced, I believe there would have been a larger community response," said Pete Cooper, who heads the Community Foundation and is among a handful of people who have provided aid to the residents displaced by the Superior Creek closure. "But because these folks were all concentrated in one place and of lower income, the community did not respond as aggressively as I would have expected."
Affordable rental units, even in the most crime-infested neighborhoods, are a rare find, and landlords can afford to be picky, Thompson has realized. It isn't enough just to have enough to pay rent and utilities. Many apartment complexes require each adult in the unit to earn three times the amount of rent. So for an apartment being rented for $550 a month, each adult would have to earn more than $1,500 a month, which can be difficult without a college education. Even if every adult in the household worked a $10-an-hour job for 40 hours a week, they still wouldn't qualify.
And even if you make enough money you still need a relatively perfect past. If you have unpaid medical bills because of going without health insurance, you wouldn't make the cut. If you aren't making your student loan payments because you had to drop out of college to work full time to meet the needs of family, you wouldn't make the cut. If you had a drug or theft or misdemeanor assault charge as a teenager or young adult, you wouldn't make the cut.
Still, Thompson thought she would luck out. She had a clean record and good credit, she said. The family had enough to pay rent and were not late on the weekly payments to Superior Creek. She assumed permanent housing was just around the corner, just a matter of making more calls and putting in more applications.
Then, she found herself standing in the Superior Creek Lodge parking lot with hundreds of others, beside working women with small babies, elderly residents on fixed incomes, and mothers and fathers with school-aged children crying about wanting dinner and wondering where their pets were being sent to.
What happened at Superior Creek didn't fit within the technical definition of a disaster. So the community response became scatter-shot, lacking a designated lead agency, relief workers say.
The day after the last two buildings at Superior Creek were closed, a meeting was called by Hamilton County social service worker Carla Sewell. Representatives from Metropolitan Ministries, the Community Kitchen, the Homeless Health Care Center, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the United Way, Hamilton County and the City of Chattanooga attended. A handful of churches also wanted to step in and aid the families. There were attempts to reach East Ridge officials by phone.
"It was standing-room only," said Jens Christensen, who heads Chattanooga Community Kitchen, which offers services for between 400 to 600 people a day. "No one was really in charge."
But several key agencies said their hands were tied. There were no shelter beds in the city, as is almost always the case, since the homeless population has grown in recent years. Both Red Cross and Salvation Army representatives said they could not provide services they normally would, like cots, food and shelter because it didn't qualify as a disaster, said Anna Katherine Horne, a stability navigator at Metropolitan Ministries who attended the meeting. A United Way representative said the organization had some funding that could help but needed a nonprofit to front the money and paperwork had to be filled out. Sewell said the county would aid some families with money for deposits, but getting the money would take time and couldn't be used for emergency hotel stays.
So the group broke and individuals did what they could. Christensen said caseworkers from Homeless Healthcare and the Community Kitchen went to Superior Creek to talk with residents and offer guidance. Kimberly George, a spokeswoman for the Salvation Army, went to Superior Creek to tell residents they could have mail sent to the Salvation Army and shower at their day center. Others from the Salvation Army offered to pray with the displaced residents. Spring Creek Baptist Church and East Ridge United Methodist provided church buses to carry residents to shelters and motels and offered to host some families. Eileen Robertson-Rehberg, the Building Stable Lives and 2-1-1 Director at United Way, said she helped bring mattresses from the Chattanooga Furniture Bank to one church for people to sleep on. But many other local pastors couldn't be reached or didn't return calls. Metropolitan Ministries, a downtown nonprofit that offers rent, utility assistance and other aid to families on the verge of homelessness, was the only agency able to pay for hotel stays for families who didn't go to shelters and had no family to stay with because the Community Foundation gave Metropolitan Ministries an emergency grant for $15,000.
"We were more of an emotional and spiritual care," said George, with the Salvation Army. "We were not able to bring any funding or housing."
Horne said she worked until almost midnight begging hotels to accept payment to house displaced families. She was turned down by almost a dozen hotels before one agreed to take residents. Kenny Custer, East Ridge's chief fire marshal and code enforcer, who made the decision to close Superior Creek, was with Horne the entire time pleading with hotel managers to accept the people he had just exiled from the hotel, said Horne.
Some hotels said they thought Superior Creek residents weren't clean and would trash their rooms or bring bed bugs with them. Others were concerned about residents bringing a criminal element. Custer then started calling in favors, leveraging relationships he had with local hotel owners and workers, and eventually doors started opening, Horne said.
"I was looking at kids and we were trying to do anything to keep them off the street," she said. "It didn't look good. There was a lot of waiting."
At the end of the night, everyone left in the parking lot had a place to go, she said. Metropolitan Ministries paid for 38 rooms through Monday and 10 rooms through Friday. That weekend, because of the need, the Community Foundation agreed to give another $10,000 and addition donations trickled in as well to total $50,650.
The Monday after, a service center organized by the United Methodist relief organization was set up at East Ridge United Methodist. The church handed out Walmart gift cards and caseworkers from the Community Kitchen and other agencies were available again to talk with people about services and give advice about next steps. The Chattanooga Housing Authority had a representative present to help people fill paper work out to be considered for a housing voucher, adding them to the long list of families who would qualify for subsidized housing but can't a voucher. But, aside from Metropolitan Ministries' small pot of money and an offer from Catholic Charities to pay for hotel stays for a handful of families, it was unclear to residents whether anyone could aid them.
"There was nobody to help us," said Jerry Hogan, a 35-year-old who brought his wife and three children to Chattanooga from Alabama to work a construction job for $15 an hour and who was staying at Superior Creek while he searched for a permanent rental. "The Salvation Army, you walked up to the table and they handed you a flier and that was it."
He said most agencies left the church at 2 p.m. but people waited in line to see Horne until 6 p.m.
Hogan said he didn't know about the extended -stay motel's reputation or its history. He just wanted to work. He and his wife had been Googling information about Chattanooga for years. They had shown their children images of the parks, the Creative Discovery Museum and the Tennessee Aquarium. They imagined taking them downtown for ice cream where they could walk along the river. They imaged bringing them to the zoo.
"It just looked beautiful," he said.
He hoped, like so many other residents that his time at Superior Creek would be temporary. He had saved money for a deposit, but between being forced to move, taking off of work to search for a new home and needing to send some money to his mother in Texas, he lost what savings he had. It would have taken a few weeks to build it back up. But Horne, who had booked him a short-term hotel stay, told him Metropolitan Ministries would help with the deposit if he found a place.
Yet every landlord or apartment complex he called told him no, even when he said he could pay between $800 and $1,000 a month in rent. His credit score was low, and that might have hurt him, he said. But most people didn't even get around to checking into him. They wouldn't even talk to him after he told them his last residence had been Superior Creek.
"Superior Creek is a bad thing," he said. "That counts against you."
Finally, though, he did find a person willing to rent to him, a friend of one of his bosses who can't know he ever lived at Superior Creek, he said.
On Monday, Horne handed him a check for $800 that was written to the landlord to secure the spot.
So far, she has cut checks for more than 22 other families who were able to find housing on their own but couldn't afford the deposits.
Still, dozens of other families remain in need, desperate for landlords to just meet with them and interview them and see that they aren't the unwashed meth heads and prostitutes that so many think they are, said Hogan.
Horne said she still is working with about 75 families, but because aid was so disorganized and people may not know who to reach out to for help, there are likely others who need assistance but don't know who to call.
She said anyone who wants to help, whether it's a church wanting to support a family or a landlord willing to give someone a chance, should call Metropolitan Ministries as soon as possible.
Contact Joan Garrett McClane at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6601.