Motels Now Home To Recession-Hit Families

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When hard times force families out of their homes and into motels, the transition is especially hard for children. A visit to Costa Mesa, Calif., illustrates the problem.


From the studios of NPR West, this is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.


And I'm Alex Cohen. Coming up, the head of the insurance giant AIG is on the hot seat today on Capitol Hill. Members of Congress want to know how the company is spending all that bailout money.

BRAND: But first, President Obama is here in Southern California this afternoon for a town hall meeting. He'll be in sun-drenched Costa Mesa in Orange County. No doubt, he will talk a lot about the economy. This area has one of the nation's highest foreclosure rates, and California's unemployment rate is well above the national average, at more than 10 percent. Families are struggling to make it and when they don't, some of them end up here, less than two miles from where the president is speaking.

In this motel, the Costa Mesa Motor Inn. I went there yesterday. It's on a busy street opposite a mall and a McDonald's and next to a golf course. And it looks like a fairly nice motel. Not bad at all from the outside. And apparently, at least 60 families are living here. These families are paying up to $1,000 month for a room. They can't scrape together enough money to save for a deposit on an apartment, or they have bad credit, or they don't have a job. A lot of them have kids who go to the local public schools. Jane Garland talks to these kids every day. Her job at the Newport Mesa Unified School District is to keep these kids in school and try to help out their parents. Jane says more and more families are coming to her now.

Ms. JANE GARLAND (Child Advocate, Newport Mesa Unified School District): Every day, we have somebody who's been evicted. Every day, somebody else has lost a home. We've been hit in - all throughout Newport Beach. We give them a supply - group of supplies here that we are able to give out to people. We give out shoes, socks, toiletries, backpacks full of school supplies. And no longer are they going to the same people that have been in trouble every year. There's families who come down, who are just - the church is holding them together; this is holding them together. But no longer can they afford just the basics, and I think that's a new thing we're seeing.

BRAND: OK, so now there are homeless families, perhaps newly homeless families, and their children living in motels in this area. Can you describe the situation and when it became a crisis situation?

Ms. GARLAND: Well, it's been a growing situation for many years in this area. And we get one to two new families each week that are in stable situations, who are now becoming homeless.

BRAND: One to two families...


BRAND: New families, each week.

Ms. GARLAND: Who are becoming homeless.

BRAND: And moving into these motels?

Ms. GARLAND: And many of them end up doubled up and tripled up with other family members. And we do have many of them who have been in the situation for years.

BRAND: Years?

Ms. GARLAND: Years.

BRAND: Now, tell us how this affects the children who go to school here.

Ms. GARLAND: Certainly, the fact that they don't sleep as well at night. That they don't have to clothes the other children have to wear the school. That they know they're coming on free buses. They're getting free breakfast, free lunch, which many of our children do. And the transiency of these children does not help them to keep to grade-level work. And these children vanish quite often. You know, we have so many children in general who are out there who just have a hard, hard time. Sometimes we get lucky and we save one, and all too often we don't. I get very emotional with these children because they really are our children and we're really responsible for them. And I love them all, but I know we can't help them all. Then, sometimes you go home at night, and I have a great husband who says to me, you know, at least you got one. And I feel good about that.

(Soundbite of crying) Ms. GARLAND: Turn that thing off…

(Soundbite of child playing outdoors)

BRAND: Mike Jansen and his wife live with their three children in the Costa Mesa Motor Inn. He told me it's a lot better here than in the last place they lived - another motel.

Mr. MIKE JANSEN (Resident, Costa Mesa Motel): The last place? Yeah, my daughter's found a syringe. She's found pills, crack pipes. There was a syringe right outside our door when we woke up in the morning. I mean, the other place wanted to cater to the prostitutes, told us we had to keep the kids inside. I go, I'm not keeping my kids in while you cater to prostitutes, man. And we - we left.

BRAND: They've been here for a year and a half. In their room, the two double beds are pushed together. They take up most of the space. Mike and his wife sleep in one, and their 4-month-old baby usually sleeps there, too. Their 8-year old son and 10-year-old daughter, Shannah(ph), sleep in the other bed. Then Jansens have been homeless for a decade. The kids have known nothing else.

So, tell me what is it like living here?

Ms. SHANNAH JANSEN (Mike Jansen's Daughter): It's OK. They have nice friends and stuff, but I need bigger space. I don't want to feel like sleeping to him all the time.

BRAND: Sleeping next to your brother all the time?

Ms. JANSEN: Yeah.

BRAND: On this bed?

Ms. JANSEN: Mm-mmm.

BRAND: And I don't know if you can say this, but what is the hardest part about being homeless for you?

Ms. JANSEN: That you like, don't have your own space like relaxing and like, when you just want to be alone and you can't be alone, kind of. You've got to be with everybody else.

BRAND: Yeah. So, you want some Shannah time?

Ms. JANSEN: Yeah.

BRAND: Your dad says sometimes you have sleepovers here?

Ms. JANSEN: Yeah.

BRAND: What's that like?

Ms. JANSEN: That's like - we want to talk about other stuff. I can't - we got to talk really soft or my dad is going to hear them and we don't want him to hear them, sometimes.

BRAND: What's your biggest hope for the next year? What's your - when you...

Ms. JANSEN: That we move out of here, but my friends - I could invite them and they'll have more room. That way, we could talk about other stuff.

BRAND: Shannah takes out her homework. There's no chair, no desk. So she sits on her bed. She tries to write, balancing the homework packet on a tin box. Above her on the wall, Shannah's dad, Mike, has taped his children's school portraits.

Oh, wow, and you have hamsters. What are those?

Mr. JANSEN: Yeah, hamsters.

BRAND: Hamsters?

Mr. JANSEN: Yeah, for the kids.

BRAND: A couple of hamsters?

Mr. JANSEN: Yeah, they love them. Got to have pets for the kids, you know.

BRAND: So, we're focusing on children for this piece. And I'm wondering, the children will - they come home from school and then, what is their life like here after school?

Mr. JANSEN: They do their homework. They get homework for the whole week. So, I look and see it for four days. So, I see how many pages they do and I divide it by four and tell them, they've got to do those pages - every day. And then they can go out and play.

BRAND: They go out and play, and then they come back here and have dinner.

Mr. JANSEN: Yeah. Yup, yup. We have no burners, nothing, but I've got an oven, electric skillet, you know. I make do.

BRAND: Do they ever get teased at school?

Mr. JANSEN: I don't know. In the last school, they did.

BRAND: They did?

Mr. JANSEN: Yeah. So, that's why we moved them down here.

BRAND: What happened?

Mr. JANSEN: Ah, they were just calling them names. Tough on me - for this, too.

(Soundbite of crying)

Mr. JANSEN: We make do, do the best we can.

BRAND: Mike used to be a forklift operator. He can't work now because of a bad back. He says most of his public assistance goes to pay for this motel room, $1,000 a month. Mike is hoping to move his family into a nearby mobile home park soon. It would be their first real home. Outside, the sun is beginning to set. Children are playing before dinner.

Unidentified Child #1: I can get you. You can't get me.

Unidentified Child #2: I'm going to catch you.

BRAND: It almost looks normal. And for a growing number of families in this country, it is.

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