WALTHAM - No one wakes as Nicole Sheck tugs open the door of Room 308 and slips into the too-bright hallway - not her boyfriend, nor her two older daughters sharing a bed, not even the baby, who sometimes stirs in the Pack N’ Play at this hour.
Sheck, 28, follows the floral red carpeting down the hall, past the rows of fake plants in the barren lobby and outside into the dark chill. A white taxi idles beneath a crescent moon. The driver knows her destination: “Joseph’s Two?’’ he asks as Sheck slides into the back seat.
This cabbie has ferried her many other mornings at 5 a.m., long before the 70A bus begins its daily loop, to Joseph’s Two Family Restaurant in Waltham, where she has waitressed since she was 16. When the driver pulls into the parking lot, Sheck hands him $13 in folded bills.
Back at the Home Suites Inn, where Sheck and her family have shared a room since they lost their Waltham apartment in September, the hotel is starting to come to life. In the dining room, a woman with long blond hair, a world-weary face, and hospital scrubs from a job she no longer holds pours hot water for tea into a paper cup. A man in a white bathrobe sits outside on a concrete step to smoke.
The hotel’s main rooms are nearly all occupied by 90 homeless families with children placed here by the state, both the working poor and the unemployed. The state pays $80 a night per room because traditional emergency shelters cannot handle the surge of families who have become homeless in the past few years.
As recently as 2007, the state placed almost no homeless families in hotels or motels. But the next year, as the economy faltered, the number of homeless began to climb. In Massachusetts, it peaked at 1,793 families living in hotels and motels in July 2011, and the state created HomeBASE, a program to help qualifying families pay rent.
But even as that program moved 1,600 families into apartments, it wasn’t enough: 1,442 families still live in hotels. More than 2,000 additional families are living in shelters. Last fiscal year, the state spent about $29 million on motels and hotels, out of about $154 million total for housing homeless families.
Families - mostly mothers with children - are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population in the country. Three decades ago, families made up just 1 percent of the national homeless population. Now they account for 37 percent, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness in Needham.
The Home Suites Inn on Totten Pond Road in Waltham, an interstate-exit hotel that looks like another resting spot for weary business travelers, now holds far more homeless families than paying guests. One hundred thirty-three children live here.
Everyone hopes that this incongruous place to raise children will be just a brief respite on the way to a real home. And yet, moving on is complicated.
Sheck and her boyfriend, Peter Braun, know their hotel neighbor, Rashita Clark, who shares a room with her two younger kids, only by sight. But these two families spend their days the same way: scrolling through Craigslist ads, looking for an apartment they can afford.
They make calls. And then they wait.
Challenges of life in a hotel
After 6 a.m., parents start flowing into the Home Suites dining room, filling foam plates and bowls with English muffins and cereal for their kids. Most students go to local schools, but some are delivered by taxis and car services to schools in other districts, including Boston and Brockton.
Only the hotel’s privately paying guests live in the larger suites with stoves and separate bedrooms, starting at $399 a week. The “state guests,’’ as management calls them in memos slipped beneath their doors, do not have stoves or ovens, so they have fed their children for months on microwave food. Their dorm-sized refrigerators force them to shop for perishables several times a week, at grocery stores most of them can only reach by bus.
Unlike the paying guests, who can come and go as they please, the homeless families have a 9 p.m. curfew. They cannot have pets. They must check in regularly with their state caseworkers and convince them they are looking for apartments. The penalty for violating the rules is high: They can be told they must leave.
Still, there are some perks to living in the comfortable hotel, with its thick carpeting, cozy rooms and televisions in every room. Housekeepers come every 10 to 14 days to clean. Trash is whisked away daily.
In Room 213, Rashita Clark wakes before the sun rises high enough to glint off the frost-glazed cars, an early riser from 13 years working for Delta Air Lines. She had just bought a townhouse in Georgia when the airline, which had filed for bankruptcy in 2005, cut her pay by 26 percent.
Fearing more pay cuts, or worse, she took a severance package and got a job teaching business education to high school students. She worked two other jobs to get by. But when the teaching job ended last summer, Clark, 38, moved back to Boston, where she grew up. She figured she would take any job she could find.
But even jobs at corner stores and gas stations were hard to come by. Managers told her that her bachelor’s degree from Suffolk University and two master’s degrees overqualified her. In July, with no money and no home, she took her two kids to the Malden office of the Department of Transitional Assistance. They were sent to the Home Suites Inn.
“I’m a determined person,’’ said Clark, who grew up on Roxbury’s Elm Hill Avenue and graduated from Boston Latin Academy, one of the city’s elite exam schools. “I didn’t plan on being in this situation but I don’t want to stay in this situation. I want to be out of here, where I can take care of my family and give them the things that they need so that they can be productive people in society.’’
She and her daughter, Kennedy, 6, each sleep in one of the hotel beds. Marlon, 11, lately prefers the folding cot that fills the gap between his mother and sister, beneath a blue patchwork quilt from his great uncle, who lives in Mattapan. Kennedy drifts off each night holding her stuffed ladybug.
Their hotel room looks like a thousand others, striped tan wallpaper and two colorless prints of poplar trees. But this room is overflowing with the possessions of a family that has been here a long time: juice boxes, instant oatmeal, a folding chair, bags of laundry, toys, schoolbooks, paper plates, and plastic forks. Still, seven months after moving into the hotel, Clark has not unpacked everything. She wants to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.
She is also fiercely vigilant about not getting comfortable here, or succumbing to the despair that has settled heavily over the hotel’s guests. Everyone knows of families that have lived here a year or longer.
Clark uses the television, turned up loud, to block out the sounds of her neighbors. “You hear everything - babies screaming, people yelling, things that I don’t think are appropriate for you to hear,’’ she says.
Every night, she falls asleep to the sounds of “Law & Order,’’ or a movie on TBS, setting the timer so the TV will switch off. She leaves the television on during the day, creating a sound barrier between her room and the rest of the hotel. This week, hope arrives in the form of an e-mail from a friend whose cousin works at a Cambridge church looking to hire a part-time office manager. “It’s funny when people go, ‘I know the job is beneath you,’ ’’ Clark says. “Wait a minute, I have no job. How can it be beneath me?’’
The church asks her to come in for an interview, but she has already decided that she won’t tell her kids. If she isn’t hired, she doesn’t want to disappoint them. She has become an expert at managing expectations.
“As parents, the only thing to do is try to be positive,’’ she says. “But it’s kind of hard to tell your kids, ‘Oh, stay positive,’ and then we’re struggling to eat and get to school and get to work, can’t find a job.’’
At night, once her kids fall asleep, she works on homework for her online psychology course through the University of Phoenix, for her third master’s degree.
And she thinks about her kids. Marlon has grown tall and lanky, and in sixth grade, he already wears a men’s size 9 shoe. Normally, his mother would not let him play on two basketball teams, one at his middle school and one at the Waltham Boys & Girls Club.
But now, she makes an exception. All the practices and games, Clark calculates, will keep him out of the hotel.
For couple, troubles pile up
Clark’s neighbor, Nicole Sheck and her family, moved into Home Suites after they had to leave their Waltham apartment and could not find another place they could afford on her waitressing wages. She and Braun, her boyfriend, would like to stay near Waltham. Sheck’s oldest daughter is in second grade, and the two younger girls go to preschool programs in Watertown.
“I’ve got to be able to get to work,’’ Sheck says. “I can’t not have a job.’’
They couldn’t afford to keep their car but they’re planning to get another with their tax refund. They trek to the grocery store, often by bus, every other day to restock the tiny refrigerator in their hotel room.
Lately, she and Braun, 29, have been spending a lot of time at medical appointments with their 15-month-old daughter, Nevaeh. The toddler with wisps of blond hair was born with a cleft palate and has already undergone two surgeries.
Now a specialist suspects Nevaeh - her name is “heaven’’ spelled backward - has Stickler syndrome, a progressive genetic disorder that can cause serious problems with vision and hearing. Nevaeh’s jaw hasn’t grown since she was born, crowding her tongue.
She has trouble swallowing, and for a while, doctors prescribed a gluten-free diet, which burned through the family’s food stamps. It didn’t help. The doctors tell Sheck and Braun that she will need more surgery to expand her jaw with a bone graft.
The recovery will be painful. They hope they can postpone the operation until they have their own apartment.
Same routine becomes rut
February is a tense month for the hotel families. Rumors have been flying fast that anybody who cannot find an apartment by March 1 will be kicked out of the hotel by the state. Some families worry their caseworkers will try to move them to dangerous Boston neighborhoods - and if they refuse to go, they will have nowhere to live.
For the adults in Waltham, their time at the hotel feels like life suspended, months piling upon months with no clear end. Every morning, the same food is laid out at the breakfast buffet. Every night, they must be home by the same curfew. Hope is an extravagance.
There is no shortage of outsiders, often from local churches and schools, who come to the hotel to visit, tutor, play, teach, talk, preach, listen, and pray. But much rarer are visitors who can help with the two things the families need most: apartments and jobs.
‘Almost ready to give up’
Thirteen miles away, in the kitchen of a Maynard apartment, a white dog chained to a white refrigerator yips, paces and growls. Another dog barks, unseen, from the second floor.
“Don’t open the bedroom door or he will bite,’’ warns the property manager, his voice barely audible over the canine cacophony and a gospel preacher thundering from the television.
Braun climbs the stairs and peers into the two unoccupied bedrooms. Then he and Sheck fill out a rental application in the chilly front seat of their newly bought used car and return the form to the property manager.
The apartment complex may not look like much, with its chipped front steps and a basketball hoop that rests, tilted and forgotten, against a tree.
But at this moment in mid-February, it is the best chance that Braun and Sheck have of leaving the hotel.
The night before, they visited another Maynard apartment where the landlord announced that he would increase the rent by $100 a month because they were part of HomeBASE, the new state housing program designed to move homeless families quickly into apartments, Braun said. (Even so, he later rejected their application.)
Many landlords balk at the idea of their three kids sharing a room, even though the program has approved them for nothing larger than a two-bedroom. Like other families in the program, they would put 35 percent of their income toward rent and utilities; the state would pay the rest.
“I’m almost at the point where I’m ready to give up,’’ Braun said, rubbing his hand over his eyes. “It’s so stressful. You just keep going and going and going.’’
‘Hotel is not a playground!’
Since the majority of hotel guests still count their ages in single digits, hotel owners have tried to transform some of the hotel’s business space into play space. They filled the outdoor swimming pool with dirt and sod, fenced in the expanded yard and installed a basketball hoop.
The owners also converted a meeting room near the front desk into a playroom. Energetic volunteers from Brandeis and Bentley universities arrive to host parties for the children and offer homework help.
But still, there’s often little to occupy the children, especially during the short, cold days of winter. They play inside, but it creates tension.
“It has been brought to my attention that some of the children have been running and playing in the hallways,’’ the hotel manager wrote in a recent memo. “This hotel is not a playground!’’
The staff has been instructed to get the names of the children breaking the rules, he wrote, so their parents can be reported to the state, if necessary. Families who are found “noncompliant’’ with state and hotel rules can be told to leave.
But convincing 133 children to play in their rooms is a formidable task.
“I was like, they’re kids,’’ Clark said. “What do you want them to do? They have nowhere to go, they have nowhere to play.’’
One morning after 6 a.m., a girl in a purple coat and a ponytail is nestled beneath her mother’s arm on a sofa in the lobby. They wait for the girl’s ride to school near an unlit fireplace and a wall lined with books, including “The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon,’’ and oil baron J. Paul Getty’s memoir, “The Joys of Collecting.’’
When a taxi pulls up, the mother swings her daughter’s pink backpack over her shoulder, and walks the girl outside, speaking to her in Spanish. She helps her daughter into the back seat and blows a kiss.
Other rides appear, a black sedan for one teenager, a van for other students. Waltham spent about $125,000 last year to transport homeless children to and from other school districts, part of a federal program to minimize disruption to students who have a high risk of dropping out of school. The rides are costly, but they allow students to remain in the school they attended before their families lost their homes.
A high school student with an especially long commute tells her school friends that she lives in Boston, so they won’t know she is homeless.
“I just kind of make up a line: ‘My mom’s a famous businessperson,’ ’’ she says. “That’s why I get a ride.’’
The teenager is a veteran of homeless shelters and can hold forth on the pros and cons of various places she has lived over the years.
“The first time is the worst time,’’ she says. Since this is not her first time, and since the hotel is nicer than other shelters, she sees her new home as an incremental improvement. “I’m grateful for that,’’ she says.
But, she adds wistfully, “I feel like I’ve been cooped up for so long.’’
Apartment passes kid test
It’s just one more apartment in a string of places Clark has viewed, the top floor of a gray triple-decker in Malden with three bedrooms, one bathroom, and a broken doorbell. Marlon investigates the hidden spaces inside, pulling open drawers, peering in cabinets, surveying the inside of the refrigerator.
Kennedy studies the empty rooms. “It doesn’t have any curtains,’’ she tells her mom. “Well, we’ll have to get curtains,’’ Clark answers.
“It doesn’t have a bed,’’ Kennedy says.
“We’ll have to put a bed in it,’’ Clark tells her.
Kennedy thinks about this. “OK,’’ she says. “I like it.’’
First, the landlord must choose them to rent the apartment, which costs $1,350 a month. Then the apartment must pass inspection by HomeBASE, which will pay for the rent and part of the utilities; Clark, who got the job at St. James’s Episcopal Church in Cambridge and earns $240 a week, would owe about $150 a month for utilities. She fills out an application and drives her kids back to the hotel to begin waiting, again.
Needed ‘breathing room’
March 1 slips by and the families are not ordered out of the hotel. This is good news for Sheck and Braun, because the landlord of the Maynard apartment rejected their application. Braun, who has not worked for several years, blames their bad credit.
They have one less thing to worry about: Doctors say their youngest daughter, Nevaeh, probably does not have Stickler’s syndrome. The family learned that she does have a genetic mutation that might be responsible for her tiny jaw, and she will still need surgery.
As they keep looking at apartments, Braun gets an important letter: Nine years after he applied for Section 8 housing, his number has finally come up. The federal-funded program is more desirable than HomeBASE because it can last longer.
In mid-March, Braun and Sheck carry copies of paperwork attesting to their low income to a hearing in Boston. They are still waiting to hear if they are approved.
Clark’s apartment search goes more smoothly. A few days after she sees the Malden apartment, she learns the landlord has agreed to rent to her. Only the state inspection is left.
“Once they call me and say, ‘Come get the lease,’ I’ll be jumping for joy,’’ Clark says, back in the hotel lobby. “But until then, I’m not getting excited.’’
The call comes, on a Friday afternoon. She tells the kids about the apartment on the way home from school. It is bittersweet - they are excited to have their own bedrooms, sad to leave their hotel friends.
Then Clark tells Zina, her only close friend at the hotel.
“She said not to say goodbye to her because she was going to cry,’’ Clark says. “She ended up crying when we were moving our stuff out Sunday. I said, ‘Please don’t start crying because you’re going to make me cry, and we’re all going to be out here crying.’ ’’
It takes just two trips, with help from Clark’s mother, sister, uncle, and oldest son, a 23-year-student at Roxbury Community College, to transport their belongings to Malden. Then Clark treats them all to lunch at Applebee’s.
She buys air mattresses at Target to sleep on until they can get some furniture. Clark’s own bedroom set is still on layaway at a store in Georgia. She hopes to retrieve it in April.
The first night in Malden, Marlon plays a video game on the living room sofa and falls asleep. Clark, her daughter, and her visiting 3-year-old niece, go to bed early. At the hotel, they were not allowed to have guests in their rooms, not even family, so the sleepover feels momentous.
Saturday night, Clark and her sister take the rest of their family out to Joe’s American Bar & Grill in Braintree to celebrate their mother’s birthday. Clark had set aside some money for the meal.
With no curfew, she and her family stay out until midnight.
Monday at 7 a.m., Clark drives her kids to their schools in Waltham. She plans to do this through June, so they won’t have to transfer in the middle of the year.
Next year, she is hoping that both kids can attend the Ferryway School in Malden, a science, math, and technology magnet school a block away.
Even as Clark starts to make plans for the future, she can’t let herself get too comfortable. She doesn’t earn enough at her part-time job to cover the rent. The HomeBASE money is guaranteed for only one year. She is on the waiting list for a Section 8 voucher. But this apartment in Malden is a start.
“It gives me enough time to get situated,’’ she says. “That’s all I needed was the breathing room to be able do that.’’