For Homeless Families, Hotel Is a Life in Limbo: With Shelters Overflowing, They Wait and Hope for Something More
No one wakes as Nicole Sheck tugs open the door of Room 308 and slips into the too-bright hallway - not her boyfriend, nor her two older daughters sharing a bed, not even the baby, who sometimes stirs in the Pack N’ Play at this hour.
Sheck, 28, follows the floral red carpeting down the hall, past the rows of fake plants in the barren lobby and outside into the dark chill. A white taxi idles beneath a crescent moon. The driver knows her destination: “Joseph’s Two?” he asks as Sheck slides into the back seat.
This cabbie has ferried her many other mornings at 5 a.m., long before the 70A bus begins its daily loop, to Joseph’s Two Family Restaurant in Waltham, where she has waitressed since she was 16. When the driver pulls into the parking lot, Sheck hands him $13 in folded bills.
Back at the Home Suites Inn, where Sheck and her family have shared a room since they lost their Waltham apartment in September, the hotel is starting to come to life. In the dining room, a woman with long blond hair, a world-weary face, and hospital scrubs from a job she no longer holds pours hot water for tea into a paper cup. A man in a white bathrobe sits outside on a concrete step to smoke.
The hotel’s main rooms are nearly all occupied by 90 homeless families with children placed here by the state, both the working poor and the unemployed. The state pays $80 a night per room because traditional emergency shelters cannot handle the surge of families who have become homeless in the past few years.
As recently as 2007, the state placed almost no homeless families in hotels or motels. But the next year, as the economy faltered, the number of homeless began to climb. In Massachusetts, it peaked at 1,793 families living in hotels and motels in July 2011, and the state created HomeBASE, a program to help qualifying families pay rent.
But even as that program moved 1,600 families into apartments, it wasn’t enough: 1,442 families still live in hotels. More than 2,000 additional families are living in shelters. Last fiscal year, the state spent about $29 million on motels and hotels, out of about $154 million total for housing homeless families.
Families - mostly mothers with children - are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population in the country. Three decades ago, families made up just 1 percent of the national homeless population. Now they account for 37 percent, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness in Needham.
The Home Suites Inn on Totten Pond Road in Waltham, an interstate-exit hotel that looks like another resting spot for weary business travelers, now holds far more homeless families than paying guests. One hundred thirty-three children live here.
Everyone hopes that this incongruous place to raise children will be just a brief respite on the way to a real home. And yet, moving on is complicated.
Sheck and her boyfriend, Peter Braun, know their hotel neighbor, Rashita Clark, who shares a room with her two younger kids, only by sight. But these two families spend their days the same way: scrolling through Craigslist ads, looking for an apartment they can afford.
They make calls. And then they wait.