One would think that rather than raise a ruckus over homeless people being housed on Chattanooga's tax dime and the pandemic's "American Rescue Plan" in an East Ridge hotel, that East Ridge representatives like County Commissioner Tim Boyd would be all about lining up some charity — specifically some health assistance to give the homeless hotel tenants COVID-19 vaccinations.
Make no mistake, East Ridge — or at least its representatives — wouldn't be raising this ruckus if we were not talking about homeless people and COVID.
After all, no one at any hotel in East Ridge — let alone the Budgetel Inn & Suites on North Mack Smith Road in East Ridge just off Interstate 75 — is taking temperatures at the doors as travelers check in.
Indeed, in all other instances of late, all we've heard from any of our elected officials in Hamilton County and Tennessee is how "open" we are around here for tourism. Until homeless folks were mentioned in the mix, the conversation about those hotel rooms — no matter who's paying for them — has only been about how many tax dollars they provide to their respective cities and counties.
As for the homeless, just last week, everyone in our area seemed to have their hair on fire about tent cities popping up all over the place as the novel coronavirus took its toll on jobs, even while rents and housing costs rose causing more people to lose their homes or apartments.
Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition's annual point-in-time count of area homeless people found an 81% increase in unsheltered individuals in Hamilton County. The number had swelled from 201 in 2020 to 364 this year.
Letters to the editor in local news outlets piped up with alarm about the homeless people and their encampments.
So it seemed the caring and sensible thing to do Tuesday when the Chattanooga City Council met was to vote to pay for 100 hotel rooms for the growing local homeless population. With the federal government now offering a complete reimbursement for such programs, the city could — and plans to — spend up to $400,000 to shelter people and give them enough separation to prevent the spread of the contagious virus.
Throughout the winter, homeless individuals stayed in a modified version of a congregate cold weather shelter at the Community Kitchen, and the city already had a smaller, but similar, agreement with Budgetel for 25 individual rooms there to house those who were medically vulnerable to COVID-19.
The council's vote on Tuesday — now "paused" to calm the rift among East Ridge and Chattanooga officials — would extend and expand its non-group shelter program there with additional rooms for up to 90 days.
Chattanooga Council member Darrin Ledford on Tuesday praised the idea and suggested the council take a vote sooner rather than later.
"I think it's smart, I think it's strategic, I think it's compassionate," he said. "I think it's an impactful action that a lot of folks have been wanting to see, so I applaud your effort. If there's a way we can make a positive impact today, I would be in full support."
But when the story hit the paper, at least some East Ridge officials had a different reaction.
East Ridge Mayor Brian Williams said he found out about Chattanooga's plan from a news article, and Commissioner Boyd termed it "just wrong."
"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," Boyd said.
Boyd should probably have spoken first with the Budgetel folks. Chattanooga's Homeless Services officials have worked with Budgetel and other area hotels to provide non-group shelter for homeless individuals since April 2020. Of two bids Chattanooga sought and received, Budgetel offered the best rate and had more capacity to meet Chattanooga's needs, according to Communications Director Richel Albright. And let's not forget the tax dollars to East Ridge — the same tax dollars they were happy to look forward to after the former nuisance hotel reopened as an extended stay spot for construction contractors.
Rather than East Ridge folks whining about Chattanooga's action, perhaps they might, as we mentioned earlier, follow suit, or do Chattanooga one better and help those homeless individuals get a COVID vaccination. After all, everyone over age 16 is now eligible to be inoculated in Southeast Tennessee.
We're not prone here on this page to quote Scripture. But today, we make an exception.
Perhaps Williams and Boyd would do well to brush up on Matthew 10:8 and the charge Jesus gave to his 12 disciples:
"Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: Freely ye have received, freely give."