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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Tents are seen at a homeless camp off of 11th Street on Wednesday, March 17, 2021, in Chattanooga, Tenn. The Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition released data from its annual point-in-time count, which shows an 81% increase in the number of unsheltered individuals in Hamilton County.

A phone call or two would have been nice.

The mayor of East Ridge said he had to find out from a news article that up to 100 Budgetel Inn hotel rooms in East Ridge were to be rented by the city of Chattanooga to house some of its growing homeless population.

The Chattanooga City Council signed off on it this week, accepting the Budgetel bid over one other for its rate and its capacity. Here you go, East Ridge.

No big deal, city of Chattanooga representatives said. We've already been housing folks at the Budgetel on a more limited basis for almost a year.

Hey, wait a minute, said Hamilton County Commissioner Tim Boyd, whose district includes all of East Ridge. Not only might the hotel be operating in violation of its permit by providing housing for more than the number of days permitted, but there is no interlocal agreement between Chattanooga and East Ridge over the housing of the homeless. Without such an agreement, both municipalities may be violating their city charters.

A meeting between Chattanooga officials and East Ridge Mayor Brian Williams was scheduled for Thursday. On Thursday afternoon, East Ridge officials said Chattanooga was "pausing" its plan.

As Elvis Presley once intoned, a little more conversation would have been appropriate.

Without question, the county has a growing homeless problem because of the coronavirus pandemic. Over the last year, businesses have been closed, jobs have been slashed and hours have been cut with the mandatory shutdowns and fewer people going out. For some people, already living on the edge even in the booming economy of early 2020, the pandemic was the last straw. They could no longer afford to live in their homes.

Hamilton County, according to the annual point-in-time count of homeless people required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, increased its population of unsheltered people from 201 last year to 364 this year, a rise of more than 80%. The number in Bradley County more than doubled from 51 to 120 over the same period.

In downtown Chattanooga, about four blocks down 11th Street from City Hall, a tent community has been growing for the last several months on the east side of a 1930 railroad overpass and close to the Chattanooga Community Kitchen shelter and downtown police precinct.

Almost exactly three years ago, a homeless camp had risen just yards south of the current camp on city property. But the city said the site was unsafe because of contaminated soil and could cause long-term health problems, and some 100 campers were forced to leave. At the time, the Chattanooga Housing Authority and the Community Kitchen worked together to find accommodations for those who were staying on the property.

Tyler Yount, director of special projects for the city, said the current site is leased by the city from Norfolk Southern Corporation for $300 annually and "does not have harmful toxins on the surface of the soil and does not put individuals at immediate health risk."

Meanwhile, one could understand East Ridge being a little sensitive about hotels.

Six years ago, East Ridge became involved in another brouhaha when it condemned two buildings at Superior Creek Lodge, an extended stay hotel which in 2010 had been deemed a "public nuisance to the surrounding residents, business owners and taxpayers of East Ridge."

In 2015, East Ridge code enforcement officials found various "life safety" issues involving the structure of the building. In time, all four buildings were condemned. In all, about 750 people had to leave the hotel.

Some officials at churches and nonprofit agencies complained that the city did little to help the residents.

"The city didn't do a doggone thing except kick people out of their hotel," said a then-East Ridge minister.

In May 2018, the city of East Ridge passed an ordinance stating guests at extended-stay hotels and motels in the city, including Budgetel, can occupy a room for more than 30 consecutive days but in no case can they stay for longer than 120 consecutive days or 210 total days in one year.

Yount said "to our knowledge, everyone staying in our funded block of 25 rooms has stayed for no longer than 90 days."

Boyd, perhaps worried about another Superior Creek incident, said, "The city of Chattanooga has no authority to provide services using resources in another municipality. They didn't ask about any impacts to the citizens of East Ridge. They didn't ask about any impact to the services the city of East Ridge is going to have to provide to allow them to do this. East Ridge is not going to get compensated in any way. All that's just wrong."

We believe both Chattanooga and East Ridge are concerned about, and feel compassionate toward, the growing homeless problem. And we feel an agreement between the two is not out of the range of possibility. But communication on all aspects of such a move before, rather than after, can head off any problems. That should have happened.

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