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A room to call home

State sheltering a record number of struggling families in motels

By Jenifer B. McKim
Globe Staff / June 24, 2009
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Robert Cutler and Tanya Labitue wake each morning in a rundown Saugus motel room to the buzz of busy Route 99 and the coos of their 6-month-old daughter, Ashleigh.

For more than three months, the tiny room has been their home. Cutler and Labitue spend each day caring for Ashleigh, looking for work, and watching television. They eat microwaved food, cram provisions into a small refrigerator, and dream of a place of their own.

Still, said Cutler, the motel is “better than being on the streets, and we get to be together.’’

Cutler, 34, and Labitue, 30, found themselves homeless in March after Cutler lost his job. They are among 751 families, including about 1,000 children, housed in 39 motels at a cost to state taxpayers of $85 per room a night on average - nearly $2 million last month alone.

Many motels are in congested commercial districts on busy thoroughfares without sidewalks. They often are dingy, with poor lighting, worn carpeting, and - in some places - bedbugs. Families are not allowed to have visitors in their rooms, some of which lack microwaves and refrigerators. Children have parking lots as their only playgrounds.

More homeless families are being lodged in hotels than ever. Officials blame the increase on rising unemployment and a flood of foreclosures. The state says it provides families with services similar to those offered at shelters, including transportation for children to their original school districts, and referrals to community resources for food and clothing.

“We are obligated to put them in a place where they can have at least a roof over their head,’’ said Bob Pulster, executive director of the Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness, created by Governor Deval Patrick in 2007 to end homelessness by 2013. “A motel may be the best we can do right now.’’

But advocates for the homeless worry that motel families are left largely on their own, without the in-house support of shelters equipped with kitchens, living rooms, and play areas.

Nancy Paladino, director of the family team for Boston Health Care for the Homeless, said the nonprofit agency, which helps families obtain medical care, has been overwhelmed by the need for assistance.

“I don’t see a solution or an end in sight,’’ said Paladino. “It’s really challenging if you have kids with special eating needs, or a parent with diabetes. It is tough to eat healthy.’’

Cities such as Cambridge are grappling with issues brought on by an influx of motel families. For instance, officials last year learned about a growing number of homeless families at the Cambridge Gateway Inn following an uptick in emergency calls about medical problems and criminal activity at the motel. The Fire Department found minor safety violations, including prohibited hot plates and toaster ovens, and now makes weekly checks.

The city’s health department is concerned about bedbugs, after complaints from residents and reports from school nurses that children from the motel appeared to have suffered bites. Sam Lipson, director of environmental health for the Cambridge Public Health Department, said officials worked with the motel in February to address the problems and have heard no new complaints. But hotel guests might be reluctant to complain for fear of being forced out, he added.

“They should feel confident that reporting the presence of bedbugs won’t put them at any risk,’’ Lipson said.

Gateway management declined to comment about their arrangement with the state, as did several other motels, including the Colonial Traveler Motor Court, where Cutler, Labitue, and their baby live. Several motels also refused a reporter and photographer access to their premises.

Marlena Woodliff, 22, said she is fortunate to have a room at the Gateway, despite the tight living space. Woodliff moved in with her now 21-month-old son, Jaidel, six months ago after she could no longer tolerate sharing a one-bedroom South End apartment with her boyfriend and his father. She is saving money to get into subsidized housing by working part time as a supervisor at Fenway Park. Her boyfriend brings Jaidel home-cooked food because, she said, he was losing weight from eating microwaved meals.

“It’s hard, but it’s better than raising him on the street or in a car or whatever,’’ Woodliff said.

While the state has placed families in motels since 2007, when the 2,000 rooms in homeless shelters reached capacity, the temporary solution has become a long-term problem. The number of families in motels as of June 15 - 751 - was 355 percent higher than the 165 housed in them as of mid-June last year. Families are also staying longer. As of May, the average time was two months, compared with one week a year ago, but stays can stretch as long as eight months.

As a result, budget motels like the Gateway Inn have essentially become homeless shelters, with nearly all rooms occupied by state-paid guests. Massachusetts is one of the few states that mandate shelter for homeless families.

Last week, the Legislature voted to tighten family eligibility requirements for emergency shelter, something that could leave hundreds scrambling for a place to live. Currently, families whose income does not exceed 130 percent of the federal poverty level qualify for shelter. The new law drops it for incoming families to 115 percent of the poverty level, or $25,357 annually for a family of four.

Some question whether motels are an efficient use of tax dollars. A monthlong stay costs an average of $2,550 - similar to rent in some upscale Boston high-rises.

“It’s an extraordinary waste of money when we know the best way to house people is in permanent housing,’’ said Joe Kriesberg, president of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, which works to promote affordable housing and economic development.

But housing options remain limited.

“The only reason they are in the motels is because shelter space is full,’’ said Robyn Frost, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless. “We should not take down the safety net until every single person is housed.’’

The state hopes to reduce the ranks of motel families over the next six months by offering short-term housing subsidies.

The subsidies will be overseen by the Housing Stabilization Division, under the Department of Housing and Community Development, and run by Pulster, currently the Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness director.

In July, the state’s emergency shelter operations will be transferred to the division from the Department of Transitional Assistance.

Officials also anticipate receiving $44.5 million in federal stimulus money to help communities prevent homelessness.

“What we are trying to do is get families out of the shelters and motels as quickly as possible and stabilize them in their homes,’’ Pulster said.

For now, Jessenia Martinez, 26, is raising her daughter, Aaliah, 6, at Worcester’s Quality Inn and Suites. She fled her parents’ home in October because of what she called domestic problems.

Originally from Springfield, Martinez said she feels isolated and helpless in the motel, where families rarely intermingle.

“They told me it was going to be temporary,’’ she said. “They put you in a place faraway with nobody.’’

At the Quality Inn in Brockton recently, several single mothers smoked cigarettes in the parking lot as their children sat in a nearby car. The women said they don’t know what they will do with them during the summer heat, especially since the pool is closed.

“I don’t want to sound ungrateful,’’ said Kim, who declined to provide her last name because she said she is a victim of domestic abuse. “But you can’t expect to keep children locked up all day.’’

Jenifer McKim can be reached at jmckim@globe.com.

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