Kansas City area motel families live in limbo but help is available

Friday, November 9, 2012 | 11:03 a.m. CST

INDEPENDENCE — On a sun-splashed afternoon, a yellow Independence school bus rumbles into the parking lot of a motel along Interstate 70.

The doors fling open, and a handful of schoolchildren scamper to the waiting arms of parents and relatives.

The children laugh and squeal, anticipating what the evening's activities may hold.

For these and scores of schoolchildren across the area, home is not a street address or an apartment number but a motel room number. The kitchen, living room and bedroom are all the same.

They have no home beyond a week-to-week existence.

Though comprehensive statistics are hard to come by, it's clear that this lifestyle is becoming more common.

In Missouri, the number of students known to be living in motels or hotels jumped 140 percent from 2007 to 2012. In Kansas, it was up by half.

Typically, these families can't afford the upfront costs of an apartment, so it's either a motel or a shelter or the street.

"I went from a two-story, five-bedroom home with an attached garage to this," said Lorie Lytle, 38, whose marriage collapsed.

She now shares a two-bed motel room in Independence with her 22-year-old boyfriend and her 4-year-old daughter.

"It is hard, and it is depressing, very depressing at times," she said.

Long-term-stay motels don't attract wide public attention until authorities are forced to intervene, as happened last month at an Extended Stay Inn along Interstate 35 in the northern part of Kansas City.

Police, animal-control officers, health department workers, fire inspectors and codes officers converged to close the motel, which had been a focus of crime complaints for years.

About 50 units were occupied, and everyone was evicted, even those who were not causing problems.

Not all long-term-stay motels are troubled. But, these are places where the management often accepts payment on a daily or weekly basis, forgoes credit and background checks and does not require a credit card as a security deposit.

Many people live there after losing their homes. They are often working poor who struggle to keep their children fed and clothed.

The rent may be $800 to $900 a month. Though a larger apartment might be a better value, emergency expenses often prevent families from putting enough money aside for rent and utility deposits.

They become trapped.

Some families move from motel to motel, often for years, trying to be closer to jobs or to escape the harsh culture that sometimes develops.

Some are victims of the economy, but others find themselves in this situation because of bad choices.

"It's almost like drinking from a fire hose. They've got a bunch of problems," said Cotton Sivils, director of Hillcrest of eastern Jackson County, a nonprofit program that helps people move from homelessness to self-sufficiency.

A broken taillight may lead to traffic tickets that, if unpaid, may lead to missed court dates and warrants.

"Things snowball," Sivils said. "They don't know where to solve problems or how to prioritize."

John Wiley, founder of the local nonprofit River of Refuge, said these are basically good people for whom "life gets in their face" as it does for everybody. But for people trapped in motels, ordinary setbacks can be catastrophic.

"They may manage to save $300 to $400, and if a kid gets sick or if the car breaks down, that money gets eaten up," Wiley said. "Things you and I recover from easily, it takes them years."

River of Refuge purchased the shuttered Park Lane Medical Center in east Kansas City and is trying to convert it into an apartment-style haven where homeless families can live rent-free until they can be self-sufficient.

That program is still developing, and for now, the charity works directly with families still living in motels. River of Refuge tries to rescue those families that want out bad enough to work at it — and stay out once they're free.

Wiley acknowledges that's only about one in 10 of the families his agency meets.

But for those who are truly motivated, River of Refuge will help with money and supplies, while they save enough to move into a real apartment. But, they must have jobs and make weekly deposits in a savings account.

One such family is that of Elizabeth Williams and LeRoy Tolston. During a recent weekend, they, their four children and a beloved cat escaped the motel room they had been crammed into for eight months.

After an eviction and credit problems — and wearing out their welcome with relatives — the family ended up at a Kansas City motel.

"We had stuff in every inch, every corner," Williams said of their motel life. "We try to keep it homey for the kids, like it's home, but it isn't."

Three of the kids, ages 4 through 7, slept in one bed, and the baby was in a crib. A microwave and toaster oven sat on the desk next to the TV. On the other side was a refrigerator.

When they fried dinner, they put the griddle on the floor between the beds. With six people, there was no privacy and little room to turn around.

"It's very stressful," Tolston said of motel life.

He drives a trash truck, and she works full time in the motel office. With her job discount, the couple paid $640 a month instead of the regular $920 for a room with two beds.

They managed to pay down debts but were still motel-bound until River of Refuge chipped in with $200 toward a two-bedroom apartment in Raytown and offered to help them move so they could avoid the cost of a U-Haul.

Their new rent will be less than they were paying at the motel.

Williams was looking forward to cooking for her family in a real kitchen.

"We won't have to brush our teeth where we wash our dishes," she said.

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