They Need More than the Lord’s* Help

News media, politicians, and others jump on displaced Budgetel occupants while calling on the Lord to come down and save these lost souls.

Diane Nilan
4 min readMay 23, 2023

--

In East Ridge, TN, on the outskirts of Chattanooga, the Budgetel Inn was shut down by the county DA, Coty Wamp, on November 16, 2022.
In East Ridge, TN, on the outskirts of Chattanooga, the Budgetel Inn was shut down by the county DA, Coty Wamp, on November 16, 2022. Photo Diane Nilan

If a Chattanooga area tornado wiped out the Budgetel on November 16, 2022 displacing the 800 or so occupants, a humanitarian disaster would have been declared and every effort would have made to help people find housing, food, and supplies. Undoubtedly, some would praise the Lord and think that those who had stayed there were blessed by being forced out of the deplorable living conditions described in the media. Not so fast.

Because Hamilton County’s District Attorney Coty Wamp prefaced her mass eviction with stereotypical dog whistles (drug haven, nuisance, unsanitary, criminal activity, etc.), those evicted received far less help, relying on beleaguered agencies to work miracles. Those displaced were traumatized by the abrupt eviction, and many feared the worst, living under a bridge in Tennessee, where it is illegal to camp on government property, or losing custody of their children. And it took forever to get refunds from the hotel.

The Free Press points to doing “the Lord’s work,” referring to the hotel and the city, when suggesting that maybe their intervention would have prevented the mass eviction that worsened lives on that unforgettable day. To assume that “most families, having been supported by various organizations…have been given — or accepted the exact measure of help they needed,” is a horribly naive and deceptive assertion. That implies that everything was taken care of exactly as needed. No offense to the helpers and donors, but these mass disasters, no matter how they came about, never provide “the exact measure of help.”

The long-shuttered Budgetel Inn in East Ridge, TN, outside of Chattanooga, was “home” to over 800 adults and children during and after the pandemic.
The long-shuttered Budgetel Inn in East Ridge, TN, outside of Chattanooga, was “home” to over 800 adults and children during and after the pandemic. Photo Diane Nilan

As a concerned outsider who stuck my nose into this fiasco, I have been continually appalled at every aspect of the Budgetel closure. For example:

How many were staying at the hotel? I’ve seen references of “a few hundred” all the way up to 800. If this was a high-end establishment that was destroyed, officials would have a much more accurate nose count.

How many children? Again, numbers varied, with DA Wamp, the instigator of this illegal mass eviction, claiming in her petition, “Approximately three dozen children also reside at the Budgetel Inn.” Subsequent reports indicate over 120 children, which matters to the families, school district, and general public.

How many police and emergency calls? I suspect those numbers were fudged, too, to make the point that everyone staying there contributed to the public nuisance story fed to media. How many emergency response calls are made by other facilities serving the elderly, ill, or infirm?

Budgetel’s return to operating status will be interesting to watch. Will the officials pressured to enforce occupancy regulations ignored for years be the bad guys? The 120 consecutive day limit, 210 days per year total, might seem reasonable to the uninformed. Totally missing from the discussion of why people across the nation have turned to these transient, expensive arrangements, a confirmation of the sad state of our nation’s affordable housing picture. Where do people go if not to places like Budgetel?

The suggestion that if East Ridge officials and the hotel enforced the stay limits, people would have had incentive to find permanent housing, employment and drug treatment is incredibly uninformed and misleading. It makes it seem like they willfully chose the lesser evil — paying steep rates at the Budgetel over having a normal life.

What’s missing in the Budgetel’s news coverage is what brought the their customers, and the countless others who use motels as housing, to rely on such arrangements. My 3+ decades of working in the poverty and homelessness arena, being familiar with communities across the country, leads me to point out that most of these desperate clientele have a few things in common:

  • Poverty, for any number of reasons, hamstrings efforts to attain and maintain housing stability. How much is needed to rent a place? How much are rents? What about those evicted or with bad credit?
  • Housing availability, finally getting overdue attention in the news, has reached crisis level, with even middle class households encountering brutal housing costs and impossible housing searches.
  • Debt — housing (resulting in evictions and foreclosures), medical (leading to personal budget catastrophes), consumer arrears (limiting use of credit cards for household essentials), school loans (upending any hope of financial stability), etc..
  • Shattered family ties — no one to rely on for countless reasons, often tied to trauma. Or mobility.
  • Systemic dysfunction — local, county, state and federal policies contribute mightily to housing instability and create obstacles for housing (occupancy limits, post-incarceration bans, etc.)

Few people/organizations in Hamilton County (or elsewhere) understand this issue which often makes it worse for those needing help to avoid or escape homelessness. My organization created this chart to illustrate some of the underlying factors that cause and perpetuate homelessness.

The Chattanooga Regional Homelessness Coalition has done the heavy lifting in responding to the November 16th upheaval. Others have helped in significant ways. But the emergency will not go away because a headline proclaims “Regional Homeless Coalition helps 69 former Budgetel families find housing.

Jumping on the hate bandwagon with DA Wamp is a cheap shot for a news outlet to take. But I join you thinking the pattern will probably repeat itself, although not for the same reason. Those you label as potential “squatters” might not be in such a position if the Lord* would bless us with enlightened elected officials, respect for people of different backgrounds, fair wages and rents, and adequate support for families. As the saying goes, “Pray, but row away from the rocks.” Time to start rowing.

*With apologies to non-Christians

--

--

Diane Nilan

Founder/pres. HEAR US Inc., gives voice & visibility to homeless families & youth, ran shelters, advocate, filmmaker, author, 20 yrs. on US backroads. hearus.us