From the editor:
When Vicky, a Contributor vendor, pitched a series about the rarely mentioned homeless residing in hotels, her enthusiasm for writing was just one of the reasons I greenlighted the project. But when she turned in her work – five pieces with compelling angles and interviews – I knew it deserved and needed to be our cover story.
Officials in Nashville currently do not have a count of how many homeless are hidden in hotels – those paying hundreds weekly for a place to sleep, bathe and microwave meals. Nashville’s federal funding excludes those in hotels in Metro’s count of “literal” homelessness. Despite no official tally, we hear many stories from our vendors about their own experiences in hotels. No story of becoming homeless is the same, but one theme can be traced through their hotel living experiences: after paying for the room, nonperishable food and laundry, saving money to get into permanent housing is nearly impossible.
“People don’t know and think people live in this hotel because it’s a choice. And that’s not the case,” Vicky said. She’s lived in her room with her two sons and dog for nearly a year following an eviction after she wasn’t paid for the work she was doing. She described to me the choices that a mom has to make when she’s given just a few days to pack up her home and move into one room – like tossing out a vacuum cleaner because it left no room in the car for her son. She pays for her rent – $742 every two weeks – by selling The Contributor and with the help of her son. Vicky recently had to give up her dog Faith because she could no longer afford the pet fee. (Luckily, she found someone to foster the dog.)
The title of this series, “The Forgotten Homeless,” is Vicky’s own words. She told me that she wants to be a voice for the voiceless, and her words are certainly an intelligent, passionate and clear voice. I did little editing on this piece so that you can hear her voice – the voice of a woman who is a survivor, a micro-business owner, a Nashville resident, a mother and an aspiring writer. - Amelia Ferrell Knisely
The family in 217
Living in a hotel is stressful. The fights, drugs and not to mention coming up with hundreds of dollars for rent each time. Now imagine that you’re pregnant with a new baby girl due Sept. 19 and you have nothing prepared for this new addition.
This is the story of the family living in Room 217. The mother’s pregnancy is high risk due to the stress. She has two children already. Your doctor has put you on bed rest, but someone has to care for the kids. You do your best for this new unborn life that you love with all of your heart. This should be the happiest time for this family, but I hear her tears through the walls.
The room they rent for $365 a week is a small room with two beds, a bathroom, small fridge and microwave. One bed is filled with a 10-year-old boy and two-year-old daughter. The husband and wife share the other. There’s no crib, no newborn clothes, no baby formula or diapers. The only sign a baby is on the way is a very pregnant mother.
Prior to having to move into a hotel in Davidson County, the family rented a room from their aunt. It wasn’t the best of places, but it was cheaper than the hotel. Then, there was a house fire and the room they were renting caught fire. They were displaced again. Previously, the father worked as a security guard at a local apartment complex; they lived rent free for two years until a huge corporation bought it and evicted them.
You see a husband that works 12 hours a day, six days a week to pay the hotel bill with nothing left over for the new baby. What will he do when landscaping season ends? There’s no car to get a better paying job. His boss does everything he can, even to the point of not hiring anyone else so that the father can get all of the hours. You see the determination and pride in his eyes to provide for his family. He refuses to let you see how tired he is. To give up isn’t an option. His family is relying on him and he won’t let them down.
The family is trying their hardest to stay together. A shelter would only split them up. There’s no hope for any place to rent due to a felony the father committed. He’s paying his debt to society, but he still pays for it on a daily basis.
Affordable housing, Section 8 vouchers and public housing won’t help. I thought public housing was supposed to help the low income families into housing? I thought affordable housing was supposed to make homes more affordable for families? They don’t accept felons and you need good credit… I guess not all families.
When will these tragic circumstances end? When will this family be able to be in a real home and out of a hotel? We’ve all made mistakes, but we’re good hard working people.
I look out my dirty window and hear kids playing on their concrete playground. That’s what I call the parking lot of this hotel, where you can hear mothers gasp whenever tires screech. If the kids fall, there’s no place soft to land. There’s always the possibility of a car coming out of nowhere and hitting one of these precious souls. Where else is there to play besides in the room? The room, tiny and crowded with belongings, doesn’t leave much space to play. There’s a grassy place in front of the hotel, but it’s too close to the busy road. There’s also a grassy place in the back, but that’s where most hotel residents take their dogs because it’s closer to their room. So the hotel kids are left to play on their concrete playground.
Standing outside on the balcony trying to catch a WIFI signal, I can hear the mothers talking downstairs. They want something better for their children. One mother is sharing her frustrations, saying, “There is just no way out of here.” A new mom of a baby girl says her family has lived here for three years and she has no clue how long they’ll be here. Her husband, who just became the maintenance man for this hotel, has a felony on his record and they won’t accept him for a rental. Another young mother of three discusses the new people that moved in next to them. She talks about the yelling and pounding on the walls, and the drug use. “I’m so shocked they haven’t woken up the kids yet, but each time they pound on the walls my heart stops,” she says. “I’m afraid one time it’ll be gun shots.”
3 generations in 1 room
A grandmother named Tammy, a son named Tek, his fiancée Kristen and her two kids live at this hotel in a room with two beds. The family has lived in this hotel for four years due to credit and tax issues. The family is waiting for the grandmother’s disability money to come in so that it can help with the rent at this hotel, but for now, it’s all on Tek. His paycheck is taken up by the price of this “cheap” hotel.
The kids started back to school recently, so the room is quiet during the day. This allows Tek to get some sleep after working nights at a local grocery store where he stocks shelves. He does his best to get some sleep, but when school was out, it was really a lost cause. “I’m glad the kids are back in school now. It gets them out of this hotel and into some normalcy for a few hours a day,” he said, beaming with pride like he does when he talks about Kristen’s two kids that he calls his own. The son is 12 and the daughter is 7.
Occasionally, I’ll see Tek and Kristen sitting on the back of the car talking. They appear to have a really solid relationship – loving, caring and no fights. They both admit, “We have our share of disagreements, but we treat each other with respect and talk things out.”
Tammy survived ovarian cancer and has been cancer free for two years now. She helps out with the grandkids while waiting on her disability. Kristen is also waiting for disability money.
This disability process is taking so long when it should be decided within 30 days. Some of these people have been waiting for over two years. When you can’t work, how do you pay your bills until some paper pusher decides you can or can’t have disability? If you’re forced to work, you end up in bed for a month recovering and looking for something new.
I asked Tek what the hardest part about all of this is. He said that it’s going to work and having your co-workers and even supervisors judge you by where you have to live. When people think about this hotel, they think everyone that lives here is a drunk, drug addict or a criminal. “We’re not all like that and it hurts that people who don’t know me think this way,” he says. “I’m not the type of person to judge people and here I’m being judged.”
4 nights a week
Glen is a fellow Contributor vendor and I’m also proud to call him my friend. We became friends shortly after I started at the paper. We both work in Hermitage so it was an easy bump into to him on the bus or at the quick mart. He’s not a resident at this hotel like most of the tenants are here; he stays here occasionally, maybe four nights a week. The owner charges him $55.00 plus taxes a night, so it’s all he can really afford. Like most others, there’s no money left to save. He also has to spend more money in groceries that are ready-made for the microwave. He’s just surviving the best way he knows how.
On nights when he can’t pay for the room by himself, he told me that he tries to find someone to split it with. Last night he chose the local drunk. He tries to keep in mind that it’s all for a hot shower and a roof. Other nights, he’ll sleep in an abandoned car wash. He’s says that it’s not a safe place, explaining, “I’ve been beaten and robbed in that place in the middle of the night. It’s not a place you’d expect to get a good night’s sleep, but it’s a dry place when I can’t afford the hotel.”
Glen gave up an apartment in Nashville that he had lived in for two years to pursue different opportunities in California. “You never know if you don’t try new things,” he says. He came back here two weeks later and started again right away with The Contributor. He says it’s been nice to be welcomed back with open arms after his old customers quickly found him. Glen makes enough each week to pay for his papers, about four nights in the hotel, his cell phone, an occasional hot meal and laundry. He tells me that he’d like to make enough money to get a car and deliver pizzas. “Something with a more regular pay, but still do the paper,” he says. He’d be a good driver with his courteous and warm smile.
I asked Glen, “If money came in through a government grant or local grants, what would you like to see that money channeled into for the homeless?” I was surprised when his answer came so quickly, “Temporary Housing. The Tiny House Nation is getting ready to build 50 tiny houses in a parking lot (in Madison).”
I think that’s a great idea and it gave me chills – that should happen here. Fifty homeless people would have a place to call home, at least until permanent housing can be found.
Ideas like this are needed to make a dent in the homeless population. But like everything in Washington D.C., it’s as slow as a snail when it comes to getting things done and this election won’t change a thing. The homeless population has been in a critical stage for some time now and not enough is being done. People like Glen fall through the cracks, like his example, “To go downtown to do paperwork, I’d have to miss half a day of work. I just can’t afford that.”
Housing is a human right
After meeting all these wonderful people who I call my neighbors, I’ve learned so much. I think that’s one thing great about being homeless: We learn from each other. We always look out for each other. A lot like our customers who look out for us. Then how come the programs that are out there for us aren’t helping all of us? Most programs seem to be tailored for one specific type of person such as an addict or alcoholic. While I understand the need for those, people are getting lost in the cracks. They are being forgotten about because they have a temporary roof.
Shelters are viable options for many homeless people. A shelter should be someplace safe to lie your head for some much-needed sleep. It’s not though. I hear stories about drunks, fights and thefts and it’s become a place only for some. They’ve been doing shelters the same way since the 1940s and it’s not working anymore. Isn’t that the first sign that something needs to change? It’s time for that change. It’s time to take care of all of our homeless instead of just a few.
Housing should be a human right, not a privilege. For the rest of us, it’s motels when we can afford them, and feeling lost in the system.
Why can’t Section 8 vouchers cover motels until the time when permanent housing can be obtained? It would be monthly payments from the government to assist those living in hotels that they can’t afford. The hotel owners would have guaranteed payments and it would be a less stressful environment for the residents. They might even be able to put in speed bumps for the parking lots or a playground for the kids. This could improve the neighborhood and maybe drop the crime rate.
Everyone should have dignity and hope for tomorrow. I’m thankful that The Contributor gives me that on a daily basis. I can stand there waving and smiling at my customers with my head held high and shoulders back with pride. I’m a boss, not a bum!
Now, I want more! I want to live like a normal person. I work as long as I can on my feet. But if I work too long, then I’ll be in bed for a couple of days and that’s money lost. That puts the pressure on my son to come up with what I’m lacking. It’s a revolving cycle that never seems to end well. Affordable housing is great, but now it’s time for more.