Boyd was like thousands of subway families in Atlanta, making a living staying in extended-stay motels, which are the last step to homelessness. Certainly, a motel room is better than a Mercury Mountaineer, in which Boyd and his family slept from time to time. But motels are becoming a difficult trap to escape.
This week, Denise Fisher, Vice President of St. Vincent de Paul, Georgia, presented Norcross City Council with a progress report on a successful, but modest, program to help lift families out of this purgatory. In 2020, Norcross and United Way each contributed $ 25,000 to fund the Motel to Home program, which is run and managed by social workers at the Catholic organization. The city and the United Way have recovered for another year.
The program has so far accommodated around 30 families who have spent an average of 16 months in motels. St. Vincent workers partner with families, helping with rent, financial literacy, sourcing government programs and grants, and lending an ear when clients are feeling down.
So far, every family has stayed successfully with the program, Fisher said. I was suspicious of this statistic. But Fisher said, “There’s no one more motivated to step out of a hotel room than a mother with a family.”
With 14 facilities in six square miles, she said Norcross is “the zero point for extended stay motels in America.” This concentration brings conflicts and misfortunes. In 2016, Norcross decided to crack down on these motels. Police said they generated 5,800 calls for service in two years, ranging from drug dealing and prostitution, shootings and robberies.
The ordinance prohibits the occupancy of a room for more than 15 consecutive days or more than 60 days in a period of 180 days. It was tough, well-intentioned – and clueless. The ordinance targeted the scoundrels and the criminal element, but also ensured that there was no room at the inn for those most in need of help.
Norcross City Councilor Bruce Gaynor, elected in 2019, said the town backed down after realizing the consequences, but relied on motels to provide better security. In 2019, Norcross published a study which found that most families in these motels were working but could not afford the upfront fees to move back to apartments. The city then embarked on this pilot program because banning the needy from housing was not a solution.
Divonia Boyd said she experienced some sort of homelessness for about 18 months, sometimes in extended stay motels, other times in her SUV. Her odyssey began with the disintegration of her marriage and then her expulsion in November 2019. An eviction is a blow that devastates families, making it almost impossible to find rental accommodation. Who wants someone with a criminal record to not pay their rent?
Boyd’s children are young, now aged 4 to 9, so the prospect of living in a motel was almost like a “night’s sleep” for them, she said. The New York native tried to put them at ease. But it was never home.
She heard about the Motel to Home program after advocating on social media site Nextdoor. She used to work in home health care and has since gotten a job at Children’s Healthcare in Atlanta caring for teens with autism. She needs to show the advisers her finances while they come up with a survival plan.
During that time, she reduced deportation debt by $ 6,333, half of which ultimately came from federal COVID relief money.
“It’s absolutely impossible to go anywhere with an eviction in your name, or at least anywhere that is safe,” Boyd said. While paying for the motel and the regular incidentals that come with the kids, “you can’t save to get anywhere.”
The workers at St. Vincent found a way to pay her rent for the next five months while she cashed half of that rent to build up her bank account.
The idea was to create a down payment for a small house. However, she totaled her vehicle last month and now owes Uber to her job in Atlanta four days a week. It’s $ 50 a pop and, again, she barely keeps her nose above water. (She had insurance but couldn’t afford full coverage.)
Savings for a house have now turned into a fund for new cars. Those on the fringes of society seem to continually absorb the physical blows. But people like Boyd have to get up everyday and face whatever there is. Head on.