Jeff Farrell: Motel residents don't have many good options

Oct. 26, 2013 @ 11:53 PM

And now the gravity of trouble was more than I could bear,
At times my luck was so bad, I had to fold my hands,
Almost lost my soul, rarely I could find my head,
Wake up early in the morning, feeling nearly dead.

The Allman Brothers were singing about almost reaching the “End of the Line,” and that probably describes where the residents of some of Gatlinburg’s weekly rentals feel they’ve found themselves.

I wrote a set of stories about the folks living in some of those places a few years ago, and then let them slip to the back of my mind as time passed and other news stories consumed my attention as a reporter.

After writing about it, going out and meeting people in these circumstances, seeing the conditions they live in, it’s not that I forgot about them. I would drive by some of the motels and wonder what happened, how some of those stories turned out. But I admit, I didn’t stop.

Now, because the city moved to get renters at the Ski Mountain Motel out of a building first condemned in 2011, the issue is front and center again.

To the average person, the conditions at Ski Mountain Motel would have ranked somewhere below deplorable. Curt Habraken, our talented photographer, documented that sewage was seeping from some pipes but, worse, the toilet in one room was overflowing to the point that it ran out of the room.

City officials shut off water to the building until Kaplow had the plumbing fixed and the filth cleaned away.

This week, one of the tenants told me about going to her doctor when she got sick after that. She said she lived next door to that room, and her doctor believed she was ill from breathing that rancid air. He gave her medicine, she said, but she didn’t want to take it because she’s pregnant.

Other residents complained about bed bugs, roaches in the food, and other issues that I expect would send most readers scrambling for a new place.

But for most of the people living in the Ski Mountain, it’s the end of the line.

They can’t afford to pay the deposits on an apartment, much less the down payment on a home. Temperatures this week dropped below freezing; no one should be living in their car or out on the streets right now. And Sevier County doesn’t have a homeless shelter. The closest one is in Knoxville.

For the people living in the motels who have jobs up here — and many of them are working — moving means leaving behind their source of income, such as it is.

Their lodgings might be a single room with a bathroom, which is really to say their lodgings might lack a kitchen, other bedrooms for their kids and some privacy for everyone, a dining room or even a table to eat on.

But they do have a roof over their heads, electricity, running water and access to cable television, all included in one bill.

That’s something, when you’re at the end of the line. It beats being out of doors, at least.

The bills run high enough that many say they can’t afford to put away the money they need to make that deposit on an apartment.

There’s certainly more to some of their stories. You don’t usually get to the point they’re at without making some mistakes, without having some heavy problems.

In some cases their addictions have dragged them down. Sometimes it’s other choices they’ve made combined with circumstances they couldn’t entirely control.

A few of them, for whatever reason, are content with where they are. To be frank, if you’re going from work or wherever you make money to get a fix, there’s a chance you don’t care about much more than a mattress to flop onto, a warm room and a TV to have on while you’re stuck inside.

But that doesn’t cover everyone living there, including some who woke up from that kind of stupor one morning and realized they wanted more out of life or they had kids who deserved more than what they were giving.

So it’s gratifying to know there are groups trying to help, whether it’s Friends in Need in Gatlinburg, or the new program from the Smoky Moutain Area Rescue Ministry that will help qualified applicants pay deposits on apartments and start learning the skills they need to stay out of that situation.

Because, just like the narrator in the song, where they’re at right now doesn’t have to be the end:

Guess I opened my eyes in the nick of time,
Cause it sure felt like the end of the line.