Some cried when they were told to leave. Others became angry. Three-year-old Jeremy Ginsvach got scared. He grabbed his favorite kitten and stuffed it in a suitcase.
About a dozen destitute families, many with small children and infants, were evicted this week from a dilapidated San Gabriel motel because of a city ordinance that forbids stays in a motel of more than 21 days over a three-month period.
In what looked like a succession of modern-day wagon trains, about 75 guests at the Valley Motel packed up their tattered lives in station wagons and pickup trucks and headed down Valley Boulevard in search of another place to live. The motel, facing a series of health and safety violations, was closed after the last family left.
Some of the families had lived at the motel for more than six months, unable to leave because they could not afford the deposit to rent an apartment or house. Most of the families depend on welfare checks, Social Security and sporadic employment to pay their bills--as high as $250 a week at the motel--which rarely left anything for savings.
New Lows in Last Week
Jeremy, his three sisters, mother and grandmother had lived in Room 17 at the back of the motel since June, spending all but $500 of their monthly income on lodging. Jeremy's life at the 35-room motel with its murky green swimming pool and run-down guest rooms had had its ups and downs. But the last week brought new lows.
For two days, Jeremy and his sisters ate a paste of flour and water for dinner because there was no money to buy food. Last Friday, his grandmother was told to move the family by Monday, but she had no idea where to go or how to get there since her car had been stolen from the motel carport.
Then, as the family pulled together its belongings, Jeremy's mother, Michelle, came upon an awful discovery. Jeremy's favorite kitten, the one with the white and gray patches that the little boy had hidden in the suitcase for safekeeping, had smothered to death.
"You have to look at it this way," said Jeremy's 71-year-old grandmother, Nell Snyder, who was forced from her rented Bell Gardens home in March when the owner sold it, "Today may be bad, but tomorrow may be worse. It isn't easy, but you have to take what life dishes out."
Snyder and a dozen or so other guests said they had never been warned about the San Gabriel law limiting stays to 21 days. Valley Motel Manager Ken Tang said he rented rooms well past the 21 days because the city never enforced the law. Last week, he posted a photocopy of the statute on the motel's office window for the first time after being contacted by the city.
San Gabriel city officials said they pressured the motel's owners last week about the long-term guests because of problems there, including alleged drug dealing, prostitution, robberies and child neglect. Officials said there is not a citywide crackdown on the residency ordinance. But police said problems at the Valley Motel were far worse than at any other motel in the city.
Police Capt. David Lawton said that since the first of the year there have been seven robberies, six stolen cars, 10 assaults and about 15 narcotics-related arrests at the motel.
In addition, an inspection of the motel last Thursday uncovered dozens of fire, building and health code violations, City Administrator Robert Clute said, ranging from an unsanitary swimming pool to heaters with gas leaks.
"It is terrible," said San Gabriel Police Lt. James Gardner, who helped several elderly guests find other places to stay. "It is like holding somebody up without a gun."
The motel, The Times learned, has been operating without a business license since January, apparently with full knowledge of some city officials. Tang applied for a change of business ownership in January when he took over as motel manager, but the license was never issued because an inspection by the city's planning, building and fire departments revealed numerous code violations.
Anthony Estrada, the city's code enforcement officer, said the motel was given until May 4 to correct the violations, which included such things as faulty wiring and non-removable iron bars over windows. Estrada said the city extended the deadline until mid-June, but never went back to inspect the motel until last week when the Police Department complained about conditions there.
"It is due to the amount of work we have here and the lack of staff," said Estrada. "That is what it comes down to. We have a lot of files that haven't been looked at in months. That is just the lack of staff. You can quote me all the way to China, I don't care."
City officials identified the owner of the motel as a partnership including Eddy Liu, a developer who has proposed tearing down the complex of stucco buildings and replacing it with a luxury hotel. Liu would need special approval from the city's Planning Commission and City Council to build the hotel because of a construction moratorium in San Gabriel.
A man at the motel on Monday, who would identify himself only as a co-owner of the property, confirmed that the partnership has considered tearing down the motel. The man said the owners, Stel Associates Inc. of Alhambra, were also considering renovating the complex. But he said the owners had no plans to immediately evict the guests.
"The police are the ones who drove these people out, not us," the man said. "We don't want this to happen."
The man referred other questions about the motel to Patrick Huang, an attorney for the owners, who was unavailable for comment.
Moving has become a way of life for many of the families forced to leave the Valley Motel, but that didn't make it any easier for them on Monday. There were sad tales in every corner of the beige and brown motel, whose marquee beckons passing motorists with the poetic promise: "Stay here tonite. The Price is Right."
For some, the eviction aroused old feelings of resentment toward a society that they feel has abandoned them. Many directed their anger at Tang, who moved to the area from China two years ago. They said Tang shouldn't have rented out rooms to long-term guests if he knew about the 21-day law.
Abel Moya, a 45-year-old Vietnam veteran, drowned his sorrows with a few friends and a case of beer on the porch outside Room 7. He said Tang owed him several hundred dollars for rent paid in advance. Without the money, Moya said, he had no where to go with his wife and four children.
Several rooms away, two teen-age boys fired a BB gun at a window. Around the corner, another boy set a large stuffed animal on fire. At a nearby pay phone, Susie Rivera, mother of six, desperately tried to find a lawyer to help them.
"All we need is more time," said Rivera, who paid $1,000 a month for Room 23, which reeked of mildew because its carpet had been drenched by a leaking faucet. "How can they expect us to find a place with such short notice?"
John E. Rittmayer, an attorney with the nonprofit Legal Services Program in Pasadena, wrote a letter on behalf of the guests demanding advance notice of at least one week before the eviction, but it did little good. The guests complied with the eviction notice, even though some said they would sue later.
At the advice of a security guard hired by the owners, Tang locked himself in the motel's office as the guard, Michael Gauvin, urged the guests to pack their things on Monday. By mid-afternoon, water, gas and electricity had been shut off. Families used pool water to flush their toilets.
By early evening, nearly all of the families had moved on. Some went to stay with relatives, while others found another motel. Some just drove away, not knowing where they would spend the night. Four families showed up at nearby St. Anthony's Roman Catholic Church, where Father Patrick Thompson took $275 from the parish's poor fund to put them up for two nights in a neighboring motel.
By Tuesday afternoon, police said, all but a few stragglers had left the motel and by Wednesday, they said, the owners had blocked the front entrance with a security fence. Even the cats were gone, taken by Gauvin to an animal shelter.