The New York Times
As Jobs Vanish, Motel Rooms Become Home
By ERIK ECKHOLM
March 10, 2009
COSTA MESA, Calif. — Greg Hayworth, 44, made a good living in his home state, California, from real estate and mortgage finance. Then that business crashed, and early last year the bank foreclosed on the house his family was renting, forcing their eviction.
Now the Hayworths and their three children represent a new face of homelessness in Orange County: formerly middle income, living week to week in a cramped motel room.
“I owe it to my kids to get out of here,” Mr. Hayworth said, recalling the night they saw a motel neighbor drag a half-naked woman out the door while he beat her.
As the recession has deepened, longtime workers who lost their jobs are facing the terror and stigma of homelessness for the first time, including those who have owned or rented for years. Some show up in shelters and on the streets, but others, like the Hayworths, are the hidden homeless — living doubled up in apartments, in garages or in motels, uncounted in federal homeless data and often receiving little public aid.
The Hayworths tried staying with relatives but ended up last September at the Costa Mesa Motor Inn, one of more than 1,000 families estimated to be living in motels in Orange County alone. They are among a lucky few: a charity pays part of the $800-a-month charge while Mr. Hayworth tries to recreate a career.
The Garza family has been living since October in the Costa Mesa Inn, where 9-year-old Celine shares a bed with two younger brothers, toys and schoolbooks piled on the floor.
Monica Almeida / The New York Times
The family, which includes a 15-year-old daughter, shares a single room and sleeps on two beds. With most possessions in storage, they eat in two shifts, on three borrowed plates — all that one jammed cabinet can hold. His wife, Terri, has health problems and, like many other families, they cannot muster the security deposit and other upfront costs of renting a new place.
Motel families exist by the hundreds in Denver, along freeway-bypassed Route 1 on the Eastern Seaboard, and in other cities from Chattanooga, Tenn. to Portland, Ore. But they are especially prevalent in Orange County, which has high rents, a shortage of public housing and a surplus of older motels that once housed Disneyland visitors.
“The motels have become the de facto low-income housing of Orange County,” said Wally Gonzales, director of Project Dignity. one of dozens of small charities and church groups that have emerged to assist families, usually helping a few dozen each and relying on donations of food, clothing and toys.
In the past, motel families here were mainly drawn from the chronically struggling. In 1998, an exposé of neglected motel children by The Orange County Register prompted creation of city task forces and promises of help. But in recent months, schools, churches and charities report a different sort of family showing up.
“People asking for help are from a wider demographic range than we’ve seen in the past, middle-income families,” said Terry Lowe, director of community services in Anaheim, Calif. The motels range from those with tattered rugs and residents who abuse alcohol and drugs to newer places with playgrounds and kitchenettes. With names like the Covered Wagon Motel and the El Dorado Inn, they look like any other modestly priced stopover inland from the ritzy beach towns. But walk inside and the perception immediately changes.
In the evening, the smell of pasta sauce cooked on hot plates drifts through half-open doors; in the morning, children leave to catch school buses. Families of three, six or more are squeezed into a room, one child doing homework on a bed, jostled by another watching television. Children rotate at bedtime, taking their turns on the floor. Some families, like the Malpicas, in a motel in Anaheim, commandeer a closet for baby cribs.
Local officials estimate that 1,000 families who live in motels in Orange County, Calif. go uncounted in federal homeless data.
Monica Almeida / The New York Times
The Garza family moved to the Costa Mesa Inn in August, after the husband, Johnny, lost his job at Target, his wife, Tamara, lost her job at Petco, and they were evicted from their two-bedroom rental. Their 9-year-old daughter now shares a bed with two younger brothers, their toys and schoolbooks piled on the floor. The couple’s baby boy, born in April, sleeps in a small crib. Rental aid from federal and county programs reaches only a small fraction of needy families, said Bob Cerince, coordinator for homeless and motel residents services in Anaheim, who estimated the families at more than 1,000.
President Obama’s stimulus package may give hope to more people and blunt the projected rise of families who could end up in motels and shelters, said Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness in Washington. The package allows $1.5 billion for homeless prevention, including help with rent and security deposits. Schools have made special efforts to help children in displaced families stay in class, and some send social workers to connect families with counseling services and food aid.
Wendy Dallin, the liaison for the homeless in one of Anaheim’s seven school districts, said that in the last three months she had learned of 38 newly homeless families, bringing the total she knew of in her district to 376. About 48 of those families are living in motels, Ms. Dallin said, with the rest in shelters, renting a room or garage, staying with relatives or living in cars. At the same time, in California’s budget crisis, some school social workers are being laid off.
By necessity, most cities here have been lax in enforcing occupancy codes. Still, a source of turmoil for motel families is a California rule that after 28 days, residents are considered tenants, gaining legal rights of occupancy. Some motels force families to move every month, while others make families stay in a different room for a day or two.
Many motel residents have at least one working parent and pay $800 to $1,200 a month for a room. Yet even those with jobs can become mired in motel life for years because of bad credit ratings and the difficulty of saving the extra months’ rent and security deposits to secure an apartment.
Paris Andre Navarro, 47, knows how hard it can be to climb back. She and her husband used to have good jobs and an apartment in Garden Grove, near Anaheim. But they have spent the last three years with their 11-year-old daughter in the El Dorado Inn.
Paris Andre Navarro, 47, and her daughter, Crystal, 11, have been living at the El Dorado Inn in Anaheim, Calif. for three years. Ms. Navarro said the $241 weekly rent makes it hard to save.
Monica Almeida / The New York Times
The bottom fell out when her husband’s medical problems forced him to leave his job as a computer technician and her home-care job ended. They were evicted and moved into the motel, and she started working the night shift at Target.
Last year, when Ms. Navarro’s husband started a telemarketing job, they thought they might escape. That hope evaporated when her hours at Target were cut in half. What with the $241 weekly rent, the cost of essentials and a $380 car payment, they cannot save.
“Now we’re just living paycheck to paycheck,” Ms. Navarro said.
Their daughter, Crystal, tries to sound stoical. “What I miss most is having a pet,” she said. The motel does not allow pets, so she gave away her cat and kittens.
Greg Hayworth, whose family has spent six dispiriting months in the Costa Mesa Inn, tried working in sales but has had trouble finding a lasting job. Paul Leon, a former nurse who formed the Illumination Foundation to aid motel families, has promised to help with a security deposit when the Hayworths are able to move out.
Mr. Hayworth’s teenage daughter has had the roughest time because of the lack of privacy. She is too embarrassed to take friends home, and is uncomfortable dressing in front of her brothers, who are 10 and 11. Not long ago, she was attacked at school by classmates who mocked her for living in a motel.
“I’d promised my daughter that we’d be out of here by her birthday,” Mr. Hayworth said. “But that came last week, and we’re still here.”
“It really hurt me the other day,” he added. “My son came home and asked, ‘Are we homeless’? I didn’t know what to say.”
Correction: March 19, 2009
An article on March 11 about homeless families living in California motels, using information from Greg Hayworth, a member of one such family, referred incorrectly to Mr. Hayworth s educational background. Mr. Hayworth neither graduated from Syracuse University nor ever enrolled there.
An earlier version of this story contained an erroneous hyperlink for the Project Dignity’s Web site. The correct Web address is projectdignity.org .