Patricia Rector, one of the over 1,000 Chattanoogans experiencing homelessness, said she camped in the same spot on Workman Road for 23 years until she was made to leave on Tuesday.
"My boyfriend came and woke me up and said you got to go in five minutes or you're going to get bulldozed," she said through tears Tuesday afternoon, as city employees and volunteers helped to clear the site that she and dozens of others have called home for decades.
As she spoke, construction vehicles began clearing a previously vacant lot on which one of Chattanooga's oldest and largest tent cities gave refuge to members of the vulnerable population until property owners chose to develop the site.
"[Chattanooga police officers] were all real polite about it but they didn't really care. They told me to head for the bushes, so I did. No one takes us seriously, but this is my home," Rector said with great emotion. "They didn't tell us. I lived here 20 years, and they don't give me any notice before taking away my home."
Rector and others said they were given little or no notice before Walter A Wood Supply Co., which owns the partially wooded piece of property, began unpermitted development on the property, displacing its long-time inhabitants. Representatives of the company did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday afternoon.
As she and others gathered on the edge of the property with volunteers to collect their things and relocate, Chattanooga police officers assisted the property owners in relocating those who had been living on the derelict piece of land.
"We were just asked to help keep the peace by the property owner so we went to make sure everything went smoothly," Sgt. Jeremy Eames said Tuesday. "There were no arrests, and no one was forcefully removed. Everyone left or was leaving as they were asked while I was out there."
Eames said police were made aware of the owner's plan to develop ahead of time and had made previous contact with those living on the property to warn them of the impending development.
"[Property owners] said they were going to build a structure on the site so obviously it would be unsafe to allow these individuals to stay," Eames said Tuesday. "So the owners said they put signs up and warned them this was coming, but the signs would get immediately ripped down."
While Eames said officers never saw any signage on the property, he said they made contact with some of the folks living on the site Monday and warned them of the upcoming removal. He noted that officers did not likely contact each of the up to 50 individuals who have camped at that site in recent years, but that the population was generally made aware.
"I'm not sure when or how much notice the owners really gave, but it's not even possible that they had no immediate notice since we were out there recently," he said.
Meanwhile, the city's homelessness outreach office and various volunteer groups who have worked with the group on a regular basis for many years found themselves blindsided and scrambling to assist those displaced Tuesday.
"We've been coming out here for years, and we had literally no idea they were going to be, you know, forced out," Union Gospel Mission Public Relations Director Kimberly George said. "Now we're just as surprised as they are, and we're going to try and help them with what they need to get through this."
While volunteers from the mission helped identify needs, representatives of McKamey Animal Center collected animals for free boarding as those displaced found a new place to stay. Other outreach groups sought to clothe, transport and offer aid to those struggling through the transition as the city's homeless team "dropped everything" to respond to the situation.
"To my knowledge, we did not have knowledge that these folks were going to need to leave today. We had not had contact from the property owner saying that the folks needed to leave at all," said Tyler Yount, director of special projects for the city.
"People have been staying on this site for years, it's been vacant property for a while. And so our outreach teams have been going out there, giving folks supplies, delivering meals to people and then also talking to folks about permanent housing and getting assessments done for them," Yount said, noting that the city's homelessness team was only made aware of the situation when contacted by the media. "So everyone bee-lined down there, dropped what they were doing and started seeing what we could do to help these people."
Yount said the city usually has a couple of weeks to plan clearing a site and helping its inhabitants to find permanent housing or temporary shelter before a large group is cleared from a given area. But this time, they had no time to prepare.
In part, because the property owners filed no permit with the city for conducting the land-altering development.
A spokesperson for the city told the Times Free Press Tuesday that the company had created significant enough land disturbance that proper permitting was required, but no paperwork had been filed prior to work beginning on the property.
"An inspector with the Land Development Office went out to the site on Workman Road and discovered that enough land had been disturbed that would require a permit," said Richel Albright, director of communications for Mayor Andy Berke. "A Notice of Violation (NOV) was written against the contractor and property owner, this NOV pertains to the area of land that was disturbed and for not installing proper sediment and erosion controls prior to beginning work."
This lack of notice, mixed with an uptick in homelessness spurred by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the city's chronic lack of rental owners willing to rent to the homeless population, will put an unexpected strain on the city's homelessness efforts.
"We obviously have to help this more emergent situation which will slow down some of our process for others in need," Yount said. "The thing we need most is rentals that will take the people going through this. Otherwise, it's just going to take us time to catch up."
For the displaced, recovery means more than finding a place to sleep.
"This kind of event is obviously going to be very traumatic for these people, and they're not going to feel secure for a while," George said. "We all want a sense of community, you and I do, they do, and this was theirs."
As the group disbanded, many planned to find camp in a new spot off of Vine Street, but others hadn't been heard from.
"Homeless people tend to stay in groups for safety," George said. "So you can imagine losing your community, your home and what little you had when you already had so little."
"It's going to be a really hard recovery for some of them."
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at 423-757-6416 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @_SarahGTaylor.