I met Lynn by accident. She is a housekeeper at a motel just off the interstate about 20 minutes from the church I serve. I was there to assist a homeless person get emergency housing for a couple of days for herself and her dogs as she made plans to move in with her sister in Maryland. She told me her sister couldn’t come to get her for a couple of days and she had no money and nowhere to stay. Lynn overheard this and as I was leaving, she approached me to seek assistance for herself.
Lynn shared with me that she lives in the motel. She is paid just enough to cover the weekly cost of living there, with a little left over for her other expenses. Not a great life for her and her two children. But it’s what she had to do after her husband walked out on her. She was trying to save up some money to move out to an apartment, but just couldn’t get any savings going. And she isn’t alone. Somewhere between 50-75% of the rooms of this particular motel are occupied by people who live there and pay their bill weekly.
Jeff lives in a motel just a few miles from the church I serve, along the Miracle Mile, just outside of Carlisle, PA. Jeff’s been there for several months, along with his two cats, which keeps him company. During his time, he’s racked up a debt and owes the motel owner enough that eviction proceedings have gone forward. Jeff will be evicted by the eighth of the month – becoming homeless in the more traditional sense of the word.
But really, Lynn and Jeff are homeless. They are what I call sheltered homeless – living in a motel, but not secure in their housing. They have shelter, but it’s hardly home.
In recent months I have spoken with several motel managers and front desk employees about people who live in these motels and pay weekly. Depending on the motel, anywhere from 25%-75% of the occupants of these motels are weekly residents, meaning that they pay an ongoing weekly rate to stay in a motel room. And that doesn’t count the more traditional homeless who will “splurge” for a night or two by getting a room at one of these motels in order to get out from the heat or cold, get a shower, and a free continental breakfast.
Along the Miracle Mile there are well over a dozen hotels and motels. At least half a dozen of these have weekly paying residents. Add this up and it’s easy to estimate that there are hundreds who live like this in just this area alone. At one motel, of the 64 rooms available, 16 had weekly residents. Other motels had higher percentages of weekly residents.
Homelessness is a growing challenge in the US, especially in the region of the country I live in – South Central PA. Our congregation comes in contact with the homeless regularly: doing ministry twice a month at the local Flying J truck stop where we make sure the homeless who live in their vehicles in the parking lot there are able to get their laundry done, can take showers, and get a meal. We also come in contact with the homeless and poor through our monthly Dinner with Friends community meal held in our fellowship hall and we do what we can to help these folks with emergency food and connecting them to other agencies that can help them. Sometimes the homeless will call or stop by the church during the week, seeking food, shelter, or references to agencies that can help.
Homelessness is on the radar for many people. But it’s also something that remains an abstract issue for many, especially if a person doesn’t know a homeless person by name or know their story. If you don’t know someone personally who is homeless, you probably never think about homelessness at the end of the day when you go to your own comfortable home that is warm in the winter or cool in the summer. It’s just another issue that can be debated by politicians, or it’s something that we can be against generally, as long as it doesn’t directly impact us, make us uncomfortable or inconvenienced. But when you know the homeless by name and know their stories, going home at the end of the day becomes another day in which you see how broken our world is.
People like Lynn and Jeff are a different variation of homeless – the sheltered homeless. Or rather, the trapped. They are caught in a vicious cycle that keeps them on the edge. While they are paying anywhere from $250-$300 a week for their small motel room, they are often going without other necessities like food, upkeep for vehicles, medication, and more – things they need to survive.
Often times, these sheltered homeless are working, but are not being paid enough to meet their living expenses. These are not lazy people. And they aren’t blowing money on frivolous things, unlike the false stereotypes that persist around homeless people. Those exist because someone, somewhere, worked the system and so the popular thought is that this must be true of all poor or homeless people. Except it isn’t.
They are spending anywhere from $1000 a month for their housing up to $1200 a month. That’s almost a mortgage payment for most Americans. All for a motel room. Not a house or an apartment.
The challenge arises because many of these people don’t have enough savings to pay for a security deposit and first month’s rent for an apartment that would in the long run make more financial sense, costing almost half as much as they are paying for a motel room. But they make enough money to pay for the weekly expense of a motel room. They end up getting trapped in this cycle – not enough for a long-term solution, but enough to stay off the streets or their vehicles. And the government assistance offices don’t help pay for motel and hotel rooms, considering these as not a long-term housing solution. Considering how much a motel room costs over the course of the month, I agree.
And then the trap really takes hold – an unexpected expense comes. Maybe it’s their vehicle that needs a repair. Maybe it’s a medication. Maybe it’s a death in the family. Maybe it’s all of those things. A bill comes due for several hundred dollars. Where does the money come from? And that’s how people get behind so easily. When there is no room for error or accident, errors or accidents are bound to happen and suck a person down.
Often a challenge in talking about homelessness is getting an understanding of a different sense of time. For many middle-class people, their focus is on the future. They have a bright future ahead of them. Middle class people are concerned about things in the future too – saving for a vacation, education for their children, retirement, etc. But they are always looking ahead.
But someone who is in poverty, either poor or homeless, doesn’t have that luxury. The only time that really exists for them is the present. There are immediate needs that need to be met and met now. And when someone is poor or homeless, there isn’t a lot of hope for the future. The future becomes daunting and unbearable. When you don’t really have a future to look forward to, why would you plan for it? No wonder Jesus kept saying that he was bringing Good News to the poor. He was bringing hope for a future for people who lacked any sense of future.
Crossing this bridge of understanding difference in time is important. It’s what allows us to connect with the poor and homeless. It’s what allows us to be where they are and also hopefully assist them in getting out of their situation if they so desire. Often that starts with a simple question – what are your goals? Not our goals – your goals. This isn’t a silver bullet, it’s only a start – a baby step.
When I asked Jeff what it was like to live in a motel, he said that there are benefits – you get everything you need: a bed and TV and Linen and towels. You don’t have to worry about utilities. Most places give coffee and juice and bread in the morning (his breakfast). And the most striking statement of all – You can move fast to a cheaper place if needed. People who live in what they consider home don’t try to move fast to a cheaper place.
Jeff, Lynn, and many others are the sheltered homeless among us. When we think that homelessness is just about making sure someone has a roof over their head, we are missing several things. Homelessness goes beyond just material needs. It involves people, relationships, and being trapped in an endless cycle that feels like a black hole. Just when you think you get a step away from it, it sucks you back in and keeps you down.
If we are ever going to eradicate homelessness in our midst, then we need to acknowledge the extent to which it exists in its many forms. From there, we learn people’s stories, we walk alongside them as best we can, and we celebrate with them when they finally do get a step away from the black hole that grips them. Overcoming homelessness, whether sheltered or not, is about relationships and community. It’s about value and worth of each person.
When we minister to and with a homeless person or family, we make a great deal of effort to ensure that they are reminded of their humanity, we hear their stories and get to know them, we invest ourselves and our time into their lives, we remind them that they are loved and that someone cares about them and their wellbeing. We empower them and tap into their value. We tell them that they are not alone – and we try to live that out. We proclaim Good News to them. We pray with them. We do what we can with them. We be with them.
And a big part of this ministry is about not being satisfied – not being satisfied that people have shelter even though it is keeping them poor and trapped. There is a different way – a much better way. We can do better. We are called to be better. Let’s eradicate homelessness here.