The motel kids don’t know all the details that led their families to turn to the state for a roof over their heads. They just know that a motel room does not feel like home.
“I know we move a lot,” said Emma Precourt, 9, who has lived with her mother and sister in a room with two beds for 18 months at the Super 8 in Weymouth.
“I have a tough life here; I want to go home,” said Jaliyah Rogers, who is 6 and moved to the Home Suites Inn in Waltham seven months ago with her father.
“I just want to go back home and play with my toys again,” said Pauly O’Brien, 7, who has spent the last 13 months living with his parents in a small room that has a window looking out at the Econo Lodge parking lot in Danvers.
Each day, more than 3,600 children across the state who wake up in motel beds that they sometimes share with a brother, sister, or parent slip into a compartmentalized world of contradiction: mornings are often chaotic, where family members form a line to take showers, race to microwave food, and get the children dressed for school. Some kids go to nearby schools, while others are bused as far as an hour away. In the classroom, some find structure. At recess, they embrace open air.
At the end of the day, they leave their friends behind and return to the motels, where guests are not allowed in rooms, there are few places to play outside save for the parking lots, and early-evening curfews are enforced.
“We see homelessness as a trauma itself, and living with the burden of that and growing up with that, there’s financial insecurity, food insecurity, and constant stress over the housing situation,” said Dr. Aura Obando, who works for the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program and treats kids and parents every week at a makeshift clinic set up in a hotel room at the Home Suites Inn in Waltham.
With a lack of affordable housing, the state turned to motels in the 1980s to provide temporary housing for homeless families. It costs about $84 a night for each room, and $58 million a year. The motel housing program was supposed to end this year, but its 2,700 affordable housing units statewide have not kept pace with the demand, forcing nearly 1,900 families into motels, according to the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development.
“Families are continuing to struggle to make ends meet,” said Aaron Gornstein, who oversees emergency housing for the homeless as undersecretary of the state agency. “We have persistent poverty, and many of them lack some skills and education to increase their incomes and obtain employment.”
While communities have worked hard to integrate the motel kids into their schools, some have had to dig deep into their budgets to pay for transportation costs. Under federal law, cities and towns have to provide transportation for students who want to stay in their hometown schools.
Last year, state Representative Ken Gordon met with Gornstein and explained that Bedford was spending $40,000 a month on transporting the motel kids to out-of-town schools. Since October 2013, the homeless family count at the Bedford Plaza Hotel has dropped from 77 to 22, with the homeless resettled in affordable units.
The parents still in motels spend their days meeting with case managers to find permanent housing. Kids return to motel rooms after school, to an environment some parents liken to a prison.
“I feel like I’m the warden, and that’s not a good feeling,” said Katrina Precourt, 34, the mother of Emma and Summa, 10. Precourt has lived with her daughters and boyfriend at the Super 8 in Weymouth for 18 months and hopes to move soon.
She knows living in a one-room motel has affected her children, but she’s unclear how deep a psychological toll it’s taken.
“I don’t think they can even find the space to collect their thoughts because they’re so scattered. It’s hard for them because they aren’t allowed to have a life here. They can’t be with children their own age and play and get their energy out,” said Precourt, who lost her job in Florida a couple of years ago and moved back to Weymouth to be close to family.
Jennifer Gearhart, who oversees therapists at South Bay Mental Health — which sends counselors to the motels to work with the kids — believes the earlier kids start expressing their feelings about motel life, the better they’ll feel. Still, the combination of poverty, hunger, and witnessing everything from domestic violence to substance abuse can be a lot for a child to overcome, she said.
“You’re going to see a lot of symptomology around depression, anxiety, and PTSD, because there’s a lot of trauma that they’re suffering from, and the fact that they’re living in awful circumstances. They’re really looking at their basic needs survival, so you see them focusing a lot on just being able to eat and sleep,” said Gearhart.
Cheryl Opper thinks focusing on education is one of the best ways to help homeless kids in motels. She runs School on Wheels of Massachusetts, which provides one-on-one tutoring and mentoring at motels in Weymouth, Brockton, and elsewhere. Students are given backpacks filled with school supplies, and the nonprofit pays for older children’s sports activity fees, school pictures, proms, yearbooks, and college applications.
“They need hope,” Opper said. “They need to know that there’s possibilities, that there’s something bigger and better than what they’re experiencing at this time.”
While each school district is required to have a liaison for homeless students, some go beyond. Waltham provides tutoring during school hours to homeless elementary students, books to support family literacy, school supplies, lunch, snacks, and taxis for parents to attend conferences and school functions. The school department also coordinates a preschool story hour program, a healthy microwave cooking class, family literacy training, and workshops to help women and adolescents who are victims of domestic violence.
At the Home Suites Inn in Waltham, about 100 rooms are filled by families. A few years ago, the hotel’s management filled in the pool and put in basketball courts and picnic tables; conference rooms were turned over to nonprofits for early childhood classes; and a medical clinic was set up in a converted hotel room. In addition, the hotel helped bring in tutors from Bentley University to work with kids after school.
On a recent afternoon, Jaliyah Rogers, 6, played a board game in the Home Suites breakfast area, and yawned. “I worry a lot here,” said Jaliyah, who lives with her dad and thinks constantly about returning to Braintree, where she remembers living in a white house a year ago.
Around that time, Josh Rogers, 38, quit his restaurant job in order to take care of Jaliyah full time. That’s when he ran out of money and was given a motel room by the state.
Rogers wants to move out, but like the other families in the motel, is waiting for an affordable unit, a process that could take over a year. In the meantime, he takes Jaliyah on hikes in nearby woods to help clear her mind of the lack of privacy that comes with motel living, and the stigma he says that kids deal with in school.
“The kids lack confidence and self-esteem. They feel different from other kids in their class,” said Rogers. “They see kids getting picked up and hear kids talking about their homes and rooms. My daughter told them she shares a room in a hotel with her dad, and kids don’t understand that.”
At the Econo Lodge in Danvers, Holly Brauner works out of a converted motel room, meeting with some of the 77 families that live in the two-floor motel behind a Denny’s parking lot across from the Liberty Tree Mall. Brauner, the program director for Housing Pathways at North Shore Community Action Programs, helps parents apply for affordable housing, medical insurance, and food stamps, and helps kids receive counseling.
“Any hotel would be a horrible place to raise your kids,” said Brauner. “We’re expecting people to live here, be at their best behavior, get over the stress that got them here to begin with in a very stressful environment.”
With his mother in one bed and his two sisters in the other, Michael Pimentel, 13, sleeps on the floor near the door in Danvers, never getting a full night’s rest.
“This is not a safe place for kids,” he said. “It makes me very frustrated.”