WARWICK, R.I. — When Heather Geraghty-Wright is going through a tough time, she looks at a tattoo on her right shin, where “Love Mommy” is written in her mother’s handwriting. Sitting on the half-made bed in her motel room, she caresses the tattoo with her electric-blue-painted nails as the ashes from her lit cigarette tumble down her leg.
At 49, she has dealt with more than a few hard times: Her mom’s boyfriend started molesting her when she was 2 and continued until she was 13. She started experimenting with crack and meth at a young age, and got pregnant twice by the time she was 21. She dropped out of school in the seventh grade, and was sent to prison for 34 months for her first drug possession charge. There, she earned her GED and took classes in building mechanics. But when she got out, she found herself in a series of abusive situations.
“I was hit in the face by a two-by-four. [Another time] my ex-husband snapped my face off a kitchen counter,” she told a Globe reporter recently. She needs dental work, and without it, her chances of employment are slim, she said. A longtime bartender, Geraghty-Wright said, “Who is going to hire me looking like this?”
Right now, she stays at this Motel 6 thanks to a grass-roots effort led by Help the Homeless R.I., which was reimbursed by FEMA funds from the state. She and about a dozen others were living in nearby tent encampments. The small nonprofit pays for the rooms using a mix of donations, city money, and other funds. But she’s facing another hardship: When funding runs out, she could be back on the streets.
They were supposed to leave on March 31. But Deputy Secretary of Commerce for Housing Josh Saal told the Globe that FEMA has agreed to continue funding reimbursements for sheltering individuals and families experiencing homelessness in the hotel program through June 30, including those staying at the Motel 6 in Warwick.
Providers are hoping it’s enough time for Geraghty-Wright and the others to find permanent housing, since other options are limited.
All 13 of the people who are still sheltering at this Motel 6 have been placed on housing lists, but the wait to find safe and affordable housing is long, as the housing stock in Rhode Island is limited and the homelessness crisis reaches a tipping point.
Shelter offers a second chance at life
About 245 people slept outside or in their cars from March 13 to 26, according to the state. Some staying in Rhode Island’s emergency shelters, like those at Motel 6, also work or have a steady income, but still can’t afford Rhode Island’s skyrocketing rents. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, an individual earning minimum wage would have to work 65 hours each week to afford a modest, one-bedroom apartment or 78 hours each week to afford an average, two-bedroom apartment.
While living at the Motel 6 on Jefferson Boulevard, Geraghty-Wright and others have gotten two meals a day, avoided fatal overdoses, kept up with their doctor’s and probation appointments, refilled prescriptions, and looked out for one another. Five people have agreed to go to detox. Some have reconnected with family members and children. Although the conditions aren’t ideal, staying at the motel has given many a second chance at life.
Geraghty-Wright said she has stopped using meth for days at a time, and for the first time in years, is looking forward to her future.
“When I was younger, I wanted to go to school for law and become an advocate,” she said, and rattled off a list of local schools to which she is applying to earn a degree. “I’ve gone through the system myself, see what needs to be changed, and have a lot of ideas.”
But if funding for their shelter at Motel 6 runs out, so many of the people there have no where to go but back on the streets. Much of the progress they’ve made could be diminished in a matter of weeks.
A room at the Motel 6 costs $75 to $100 per night, which is significantly lower than the cost of other nearby hotels. The NYLO, another Warwick hotel, was also used as shelter for several months by Crossroads Rhode Island through a $3.8 million contract with the state. But the organization is phasing out its use of the hotel because NYLO did not want extend the contract, and Crossroads CEO Karen Santilli said each person will have somewhere to go — whether it’s a Crossroads shelter or another solution — once they leave.
No right to shelter in Rhode Island
Outreach services and food are brought to hotel residents by Thrive Behavioral Health, Amos House, the Mathewson Street United Methodist Church, and other organizations. Bags of travel-sized toiletries, gift cards for local grocery stores, packets of socks, bus passes, and canned goods are dropped off, as the motel in Warwick is somewhat far from social services, which are mostly based in Providence.
“Without stable housing, you see people’s health decline so quickly. The toxic stress of being without consistent shelter can take an extreme toll,” said Kristina Brown, a program officer at the United Way of Rhode Island. “We don’t have a right to shelter in Rhode Island.”
A “right to shelter” means that someone who needs shelter cannot be turned away. Massachusetts ensures this right, as does New York City, and the United Nations has identified “adequate housing” as a fundamental human right.
While staying at Motel 6, people looking for work. Mason Deangelus, 34, worked construction last year, but the company ran out of work for him, he said. Now he only has one change of clothes and shoes that fit. Even when he goes to donation boxes, he can’t find size 13 shoes, XXL shirts, and size 42 pants.
“Kind of hard to work when you don’t have the right clothing... Or really, any clothing,” said Deangelus.
Deangelus grew up on the East Side of Providence, attending Bishop Hendricken, a Catholic all-boy’s high school in Warwick, before going to Sacred Heart University in Connecticut for a year before the school’s cost became too high. He transferred to the Community College of Rhode Island. He didn’t graduate.
After a snowboarding accident, he was prescribed painkillers and eventually became addicted. Deangelus said he hasn’t used since 2013, but drinks nearly two quarts of vodka each day.
“I water it down,” he said, shaking a half-empty Poland Springs bottle in his hand. “But I know I need to give this up too.”
He has been in the hospital frequently recently, and was diagnosed with cirrhosis. His doctor also found two lumps on his liver and bladder that they said could be cancerous. He has an appointment to have them checked.
“If I had to sleep outside, in the cold and without access to services, I’d probably be drinking myself into oblivion, too,” said Sarah Edwards, a recovery coach and outreach manager for the Parent Support Network of Rhode Island. She’s been sober herself since 2012. “It’s very hard to focus on your sobriety or think about recovery without a stable place to live.”
The threat of losing a stable place to live, like here, is often just as stressful,” she said.
Throughout the day, Deangelus looks out for the others: He takes the Narcan that outreach workers bring in case he needs to “bring back another,” he travels to donation centers and grabs donated clothing for others at the motel, and checks in on his motel neighbors, like Nick Cardullo.
Cardullo, 30, is often sitting with a composition book open in his lap. It’s filled with poems and songs that he wrote over the years, and he wonders if anyone else will read them. He’s been sober for the last eight years after growing up with two parents who used drugs and “liked to drink a lot.”
Most recently he was a groundskeeper at St. Ann’s Cemetery in Cranston, but his job was given to the boyfriend of one of the manager’s daughters, he said. He has lived outside for the majority of the last several years. A few months ago, he started staying at the motel with an on-again-off-again girlfriend. She has a housing voucher, and they were about to sign a lease nearby together, both of them escaping the streets. But his girlfriend took off over a week ago, and isn’t answering his calls.
“I can feel what [sleeping outside for years] is doing to my body, and I’m still young,” said Cardullo, whose 24-year-old brother is also homeless, couch surfing while on medical leave from his job at the nearby UPS distribution facility. “But at this point, this is what I know. I can do it. But I’ve just been at this for too long now.”
“It’s going to reach a point where I can’t anymore,” he said. “I just want to figure this out. Or else it’s back to a tent in the woods for me.”