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Livin’s Uneasy for ‘Motel Kids’ : Single Rooms Are No Place Like a Home

Times Staff Writers

Sometimes, his mother says, 13-year-old Phillip Strickland feels as though his life is bursting at the seams.

Sometimes, when living with four other people in a cramped Westminster motel room becomes unbearable, Phyllis Strickland says, her hyperactive son locks himself in the bathroom and “tears it apart.”

“He doesn’t rip out the sink or anything,” Phyllis Strickland said, “but he’ll pour the shampoo down the sink, run the water all over, that sort of thing.”

Bespectacled and slightly built, the brown-haired Phillip has a host of medical problems that frequently keep him home from school, confined to Room 50 of the Newland Motel, where he lies on a bed watching television all day. Beyond a communal bathroom the size of a phone booth, there is no privacy in this, the home he shares with his mother, his younger sister, his 16-year-old cousin and her infant child.

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The living situation has left an equally dark imprint on Strickland’s 9-year-old daughter, who begged that her name and picture not be published.

“I would be embarrassed for my teacher and my friends to find out about where I live,” she said. Then she crawled under a bed to hide.

The Strickland children are among a sizable and growing population living a way-station existence in Orange County--trapped in tiny rental rooms on the verge of homelessness, referred to by school officials and poverty agencies as “motel kids.”

Like a suburban version of the migrant Joads in John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,” they lead a nomadic existence, moving from motel room to motel room throughout the county, sometimes for years. School nurses and counselors, as well as the free clinic directors and anti-poverty agencies that try to help them, agree that it is a tough way to grow up.

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There is no question that these children exist in large numbers--as many as 500 in the Anaheim Elementary School District alone, one board member estimated--but they are as difficult to count as their parents because of their frequent moves and, in many cases, because of simple pride.

‘They’re Proud People’

“They don’t show up in social services lines usually for help like the technically homeless do,” said Mary Ann Gaido, housing specialist for the Orange County Human Relations Commission, which advocates assistance programs for the homeless.

“They don’t consider themselves poor. They’re proud people--they’re working people. They don’t ask for food, so they’re not counted.”

In a 1984 study to determine how many motel dwellers might be uprooted by an anticipated influx of tourists attending the Olympics, the county Community Development Council found that about 6,000 people in Orange County were living in such lodging on a week-to-week basis. Public and private agencies dealing with the homeless suggest that in fact the number may be at least double or triple that figure, and rising.

“I must think it’s gone up another 1,000 or 2,000 at least,” said James Hamlett, spokesman for the CDC, the county’s largest anti-poverty agency. “But I’ve also had guestimations from our Planning Department of as many as 12,000.”

Of the people who have benefited from no-interest loans to the homeless and long-term motel residents under a 2 1/2-year-old program administered by CDC, just over 60% are children, according to Hamlett.

The CDC loans, a glimmer of hope for those otherwise unable to escape a long-term motel existence, are intended to cover expenses such as the last month’s rent and security and cleaning deposits required on most rental properties.

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Since the loan program was launched, more than $107,000 in loans has been granted, and nearly 600 people have directly benefited, Hamlett said. That is about 10% of the most conservative estimate of the size of the hidden homeless population.

Bill Loyer had never asked for help in getting out of the Costa Mesa motel room in which he had been raising six daughters and a son for weeks. But when his sister-in-law asked a local family support group six weeks ago to step in, the 37-year-old bricklayer swallowed his pride and accepted donations of food and clothing.

Loyer’s Ha’Penny Inn room is as neat as can be expected with eight people sharing two double beds and the floor. He earns an average of $400 a week doing non-union masonry work and pays $200 a week in rent at the motel, plus $15 for a phone. He is able, he said, to find work about four days a week in the winter months.

His oldest children, Regina, 17, and Tammy, 14, are his estranged wife’s by another father. One of the children has just recovered from chicken pox, and three of the others have not yet had it.

The family has moved from motel to motel, being repeatedly evicted because managers balked at the number of children. All the children are behind in school at least “a year or two,” Regina Loyer said. Nine-year-old Rosie Loyer is in the first grade.

Regina, who dropped out of high school a few years ago to work but recently quit her night job at a fast-food restaurant, tends to the children, getting them up for school and baby-sitting until their father returns from work about 6 p.m.

“This is really no place to raise a kid,” Loyer said with a short sigh, gazing at cars whizzing by just a few feet from his doorstep. “I can do it--I can still raise them. It’s just that I want to relieve my kids of a lot of stress. Right now I can’t afford things like a girls club or skating, taking them out for an ice cream. I just make enough to buy food and pay the rent.”

His children have never ridden bicycles of their own, he said, and they get little individual attention from him.

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These are the sorts of things, experts say, that most motel kids have to live with--both now and later in life.

The Loyer children say they have had prostitutes and drug dealers as next-door neighbors.

A lack of privacy and personal space and the absence of a stable, permanent home trigger low self-esteem, the experts say. They say it is especially hard for children to concentrate on studies in the cramped, crowded conditions of a motel existence.

“They also aren’t in school long enough sometimes to have any consistency with learning,” said Judith L. Naslund, manager for the last five years of a county program called Safety Net that is involved with temporary placement of victims of domestic violence and their children. Frequently, she said, motels like the Ha’Penny Inn in Costa Mesa or the Anaheim Village Inn are all that the women with whom she deals can afford.

Delays in Development

“Many of my clients are turned away for the (CDC) loans because they haven’t had enough jobs for long enough to make them anything but risks for loans,” Naslund said.

“The children living like this really suffer delays in their social development because they don’t have friendships and attachments,” Naslund said. “They learn they can’t without getting hurt. And that affects them as they get older because they learn to deal with that loss by not trusting. There can be a low level of depression over this continual loss.”

At the grade-school level, educators say, it is both delightful and painful to watch the way a child living in this limbo arrives at school and is overwhelmed by the slightest gift, the pleasures that other youngsters take for granted.

They are excited, school counselors say, about having something of their own--such as a desk--and about being able to roam and run around the playground, to have the freedom to play rather than raise younger siblings.

“We do have a lot of these children--we not only have a lot of kids living in motels, we have kids living in cars and vans, and this is really bad for kids,” said Mary Lou McGilvray, chief nurse with the Anaheim School District.

Anaheim is said to have the largest concentration of perpetual motel residents in the county, in part because it is the county’s largest city and because Disneyland and its satellite tourist businesses provide such a large pool of entry-level and service-oriented jobs.

“Some of the kids have never seen a playground or that kind of space before they hit grade school,” said Legal Aid attorney Jeanne Blackwell, a former grade school teacher and current board member of the Anaheim City School District, which has 21 elementary schools. “So at that age they like going to school, and they are very happy and excited to be there, very responsive to their teachers.

“In junior high it is tougher. I heard last week that one girl wouldn’t go to school because she didn’t have appropriate gym clothes.”

The peer pressure at this age to fit in, wear the same kinds of clothes, ride the same kinds of bicycles “is very powerful,” she said. “It’s a money situation, and if you’re in a motel you’re not visible on the street, so you don’t stir the conscience of the population. It’s not a little child sitting hungry on the street corner.”

Janet Seto, dean of students and a guidance counselor at Warner Intermediate School in Westminster, where Phillip Strickland is enrolled, says it is hard to generalize about motel children. But some patterns are often repeated.

One of them, she said, is chronic absenteeism or truancy, perhaps because of family problems. Other patterns include poor academic performance and withdrawn behavior.

Some of the children, she said, are so deeply affected by their lives outside the school that they are distracted while in class.

“So much of what goes on here,” Doti said, “is secondary to them surviving.”

HOMELESS ODYSSEY

Phyllis Strickland, her son, daughter and teen-age niece have moved eight times since January, 1986, twice to motels:

1986

January--Family is evicted for nonpayment of rent after their Westminster apartment builjding is sold and rent is raised.

September--Family is evicted for nonpayment of rent from Stanton apartment after $75 rent hike. Moves in with friends in Bakersfield.

Ocotber--The next move is to a Bakersfield motel.

November--Family returns to Orange County to Garden Grove apartment of Strickland’s mother.

1987

September--Strickland’s mother leaves the state. Strickland, her children and niece move to friend’s garage.

November--Family moves into the bedroom of another friend.

Dec. 8--Niece’s baby born.

Dec. 11--Family moves into Newland Motel in Westminster on the same day the baby is brought home from the hospital.

LOAN PROGRAM FOR HOMELESS

The Orange County Community Development Council will lend up to $1,500, interest free, to people without enough money to cover security deposits, last month’s rent and other initial costs of renting a home--not including the first month’s rent.

To qualify, the applicants must:

Be Orange County residents or be employed here and relocating to Orange County.

Be homeless or living in a motel, or in substandard conditions.

Be members of a family that includes disabled or elderly persons or dependent children.

Meet maximum and minimum income requirements.

Since the program began in 1985:

581 people, including 349 children, have received no-interest loans.

A total of $107,219.18 has been lent.


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