If you're a typical American who celebrates Christmas, you're probably contemplating taking that tree down, sweeping up the needles, storing the decorations, putting the gifts away, and thinking about those thank-you notes.
But for homeless families who are living in motels, there weren't trees and tinsel, and few, if any, gifts and parties. There are currently 303 families living in motels in Braintree, Brockton, Middleborough, Wareham, and Weymouth, up from 211 families last year, according to the South Shore Regional Network to End Homelessness.
In Brockton alone, there are 157 such families with 128 school-aged children. Marie Robinson and her three kids are among them, living since late August at the Quality Inn in Brockton. They had their own apartment when Marie worked as a day care teacher, but her youngest child was having serious behavioral problems, so she left her job and lost the apartment.
The family split up, with the oldest son moving in with Marie's mother, and Marie and her youngest two with her sister for nearly a year. But things were crowded and tense, so they moved out. The state provides shelters for both families and singles who are homeless, and when the shelters are full, families are placed in motels.
The Robinson family shares a room with two beds: Mom and 7-year-old daughter in one, the boys — 13 and 17 — in the other. They had a small desktop Christmas tree, provided by Marie's mother, and some gifts sent from the kids' schools.
Homelessness in Massachusetts has increased dramatically in the past four years, since the recession. "There's just a huge plethora of people who fall into poverty," says Robin Frost, executive director of the Mass. Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit dedicated to ending homelessness. "There's an abundance of people who can't get any job at all, people living with disabilities and struggling, and there's a critical need for affordable housing in this state."
Currently, 2,000 families in Massachusetts are living in shelters and 1,752 are in motels, Frost says. Shelters at least have indoor public spaces and playgrounds. In the motels, families are confined to one room, isolated, and with a parking lot the only outdoor space around.
"Some of the mothers get together with the kids in the parking lot," says Marie. "Some of the kids sit in the hallways and play with their toys. They just sit there."
School vacation, with freedom and family time for many of us, is stressful for those without homes. "When they're not in school, they fight over everything," Marie says of her children. "They can't go to another room. Sometimes, they just get frustrated."
Still, she knows she is lucky in some ways. She doesn't have a car, but can borrow her sister's. And she and the kids spent Christmas at her mother's small apartment.
Her children are in the same schools as before, unlike many other homeless children, who must switch schools if their shelters or motels are far away. Two of Marie's children have individualized education programs, required by the state for those with various physical or emotional disabilities.
Being a single mom juggling three children under the best of circumstances isn't easy. In one room, it's that much harder. They do their homework at the desk, on the bed, or the floor. Marie cooks every Thursday at a nearby church that opens its kitchen to homeless parents, and provides fresh fruits and vegetables and coolers to take their meals with them.
School on Wheels of Massachusetts, a nonprofit that helps homeless children with tutoring and mentoring and their parents with support services, tutors Marie's daughter after school. "I don't know how the families in motels can maintain their sanity with not having any space to get away from each other, any room to breathe," says Cheryl Opper, the executive director. "At least in the shelters, there's a common area, a community room with a TV, a playroom for the children."
School on Wheels was one of the agencies that participated in Family Fun Day on Dec. 27, with families coming from shelters and motels for games, storytelling, books to take home, and food. The day was organized by Coordinated Family & Community Engagement of Brockton, a state-funded program that works with the city's schools.
And before Christmas, the Brockton Rox, a collegiate summer baseball team, threw a dinner for the families at the Shaw's Center. The kids got to dance with the team's mascot, and went home with gifts.
Marie Robinson hopes to be able to get back to work and her own place soon; meanwhile, she remains grateful for what she has. "Thank God we are all together," she says, "even if it's in one room."