In a motel just off highway US-192, Jennifer Garcia watches as her 9-year-old son plays outside in the only space available for him—a parking lot littered with candy wrappers and cigarette butts.
Her son laughs with his friend, hiking up his red plaid pajama pants, and he doesn’t seem to mind playing outside in cracked asphalt instead of a grassy backyard. Perhaps it’s because after living in a motel with his family for seven years, that is all he has ever known. Sun Inn & Suites may not have a playground, but to Garcia and her family, it’s home.
“Seven years is a long time to be living in a hotel. I’ve been trying to get help, but there’s no funding,” Garcia said. “I’m stuck.”
Garcia is not alone.
It is estimated that at any given time there are 1,700 families living in motels in Osceola County, Fla. Since the recession, these numbers have been growing as more families are drawn to Central Florida’s growing economy.
A briefing conducted by Osceola County showed that between 2014 and 2015, there were approximately 4,700 homeless children enrolled in school, showing about a 245 percent increase of the number of homeless children in 2009-2010, which were 1,364. This is not accounting for the number of children under the age of five, as it is difficult to get a specific count since families are constantly transitioning from motel to motel. While there are laws about every child having a right to an education, there are no laws about children having a right to a home.
“When the recession hit and the tourists stopped coming, the motels became makeshift shelters for homeless families, even though they weren’t supposed to,” Homeless Advocate Coordinator Niki Whisler said. “But nobody really said anything, because where would we put the families?”
That’s the problem. There’s not enough affordable housing for the amount of low-income families Osceola County has.
Current fair market rental rates put a one-bedroom apartment for $836 per month. To be able to rent this, a person must have a minimum monthly gross household income of $2,050 per month. Most families living in motels do not meet this requirement.
Florence Ravenel, 77, lives in a Rodeway Inn motel for this very reason.
“I looked into low-income housing, but they told me because of this and that, I’d have to pay $900 for low-income housing,” Ravenel said. “How is that low-income?”
Wilson Valentin Jr. has lived in the Palm Motel for four years. He works overnight at Walmart, and during the day he helps out his dad sell used cars. He always makes plans to move back into a house, which is where they lived in before the recession.
“Every time we have the money to get there, something pops up,” Valentin said. “I want to live somewhere comfortable. I don’t want to be outside like this where I have to fix my car in the hot sun, when I can be in a garage perfectly fine.”
County Commissioner Brandon Arrington said the problem is that the majority of Osceola County’s jobs are in the service industry, where many times a person is making less than $12 an hour.
“If you work 40 hours a week and still can’t sustain to live—that’s a challenge that’s not going to go away,” Arrington said.
Whisler said that every case is different, and they all have different reasons as to why they’re living in a motel, but that they all had one thing in common.
“Family homelessness is caused entirely by economics,” Whisler said.
Motels become a viable option for housing for low-income families because they don’t have to worry about as many bills as they would have to if they had their own place. It’s a sacrifice, between the amount of the money they can afford to pay for rent, and the amount of space and privacy they receive in turn.
“It’s convenient in a way, because you don’t have to pay water, you don’t have to pay light, and you don’t have to pay cable,” Garcia said.
Arrington said that that was part of the complication in trying to get these motels and hotels back to their regular operations.
“If you keep having that opportunity for folks to move in and live in a hotel where there’s already utilities provided, there’s already cable set up, and that infrastructure is already in place, they’re going to keep coming,” Arrington said. “We’re trying to begin to work with those hoteliers to move them back to being motels and hotels, or if they choose to be apartment complexes, going through the code to be adequately equipped to offer those services.”
Osceola County is unique though, because according to a survey by UCF’s Institute for Social and Behavioral Sciences presented in a briefing on homelessness in January 2014, 74 percent of families living in motels are not from Florida.
“A lot of what’s happen is that folks move here with the promise of a job, or promise of opportunity, and when they’ve gotten here, the idea of the opportunity was no longer here,” Arrington said.
This was the case for 17-year-old Summer Momanen, whose family of six moved down to Florida about six months ago. In that short time frame, she’s lost count of how many motels she’s lived in, and her family is struggling.
“We moved away from our hometown in Pennsylvania to get away from everything down there, and it’s just the same stuff down here,” Momanen said.
Whisler said that with many cases of these families, they advise them to go back to their home states where they have a support system to fall back on. There are always different factors at play, and for whatever reason, oftentimes families decide to stay.
“Usually most families figure it out one way or another,” Whisler said. “They have to. They have no choice.”
Many families reach out for government assistance, but even if they wanted to help more families, there just isn’t enough state funding to help all of them. Out of the estimated 1,700 homeless families, Osceola County only has funding to assist about 160 of them a year to get back into housing of their own. That’s less than 10 percent of families being helped.
The Section 8 program, which is a government assistance program that helps people with their monthly rental payments, has a long waiting list in Osceola County. There are only 203 vouchers available in total, and the waiting list for one of these vouchers can extend to 3,000 families.
“The only way an Osceola County voucher opens up is if somebody is in noncompliance and gets kicked off the program, or somebody passes away,” Whisler said. “Because people don’t give up their section 8 vouchers.”
Garcia tried to apply for Section 8, but the application had already closed, and now she has to wait for it to open back up in 2016. The application only opens up every three years or so. Garcia worries that she’ll never get a voucher, despite her disabilities.
“These past 7 years, I’ve been in a hotel because the lack of funding,” Garcia said. “It’s keeping me here in a hotel, instead of helping me forward. I’m hoping that they find funding so I’ll be able to move to a safer place, and to be in a house.”
Garcia’s mother, Carmen Carlo, lives in a room in the first floor of the same motel Garcia does. She has a 47-year-old daughter with a mental disability, and that makes living in a tiny motel room hard.
“It’s not easy, but it’s better than the streets,” Carlo said.
She doesn’t leave the motel room very often, especially because she has to take care of her handicapped daughter.
“I stick to myself, I don’t bother nobody, and I do the best I can,” Carlo said.
Prevention seems to be the key to remedy the issue of homeless families, but preventing families from seeking a better life in a different state is hard to regulate.
“We’re the flame, unfortunately, to the moth,” Arrington said. “As long as we have those opportunities of folks being able to move into a motel, and live at a low-cost start of the housing opportunity, we’re going to continue to have this challenge.”
Garcia’s son might be content playing in the parking lot of their motel, but Garcia remembers what it’s like to have a home, to have a backyard. She’s had it before. And even though it’s been seven years, she’s never really gotten used to the lifestyle.
Cars can be heard whizzing by on highway US-192, and from where she’s standing on the second floor outside her motel room, her arms crossed on the railing, she never takes her eyes off her son.
“I don’t want to live my whole life in a hotel,” Garcia said. “This is not me, this wasn’t meant to be.”