When the Academy Awards air Sunday, many viewers will not have seen “The Florida Project,” the film for which Willem Dafoe has been nominated for best supporting actor.
That is sadly apropos, for the film depicts an overlooked reality: the growing number of families around the country who live in motels. In “Florida,” 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) live at a motel near Disney World. Moonee plays with friends from nearby rooms, while her mother struggles to find ways to pay their weekly rent.
Around our own “Magic Kingdom” in Southern California, many likewise rent rooms in old motels long since bypassed by tourists for larger, fancier digs.
Paul Leon, the chief executive of the Illumination Foundation, which works to provide housing, medical care and other services for people on the streets in Orange County, describes the motel situation as part of the “crescendo” of collapse that more and more families today are experiencing. “People are [living] on such small margins,” he says. “Two years ago they were paying $1,300 a month here for an apartment; now it’s almost $1,700.”
Many rent rooms in old motels long since dismissed by tourists for larger, fancier digs.
Meanwhile, since the last recession, U.S. companies have grown ever leaner, employing fewer staff for fewer hours. Jennifer Friend, the C.E.O. of Project HOPE Alliance, which provides educational and other services for homeless Orange County youth, says, “They say the average family is one check away from homelessness; when the market crashed [in 2007-09], it increased the pool for whom that was true significantly.”
The recession eased housing costs for a time, but Mr. Leon says after 2010 the population on the street started again to increase. “In the last year it just exploded,” he says.
When a family loses the income they need for an apartment, a motel can seem like a good stopgap measure. Rather than scrambling to find $1,800 for monthly rent, they only have to provide a fraction of that amount at a time. “They think, ‘I’ll stay here a week until I get some work,’” says Mr. Leon. “But they don’t find work. And then it’s like being a drug addict. Each week you’re trying to pay that $300. Eventually, you can’t keep up.”
Motels often gouge such residents. “They charge $20 to watch HBO for a week, $15 for a key. The laundry is crazy expensive,” Mr. Leon says.
Illumination tried to buy one such motel to convert into a shelter; it discovered the motel was claiming only 30 percent occupancy to the federal government. “They put most of their residents off the books so they don’t have to pay taxes,” Mr. Leon says. As rundown as some of these places seem, for their owners “they’re cash cows.”
“It’s like being a drug addict. Each week you’re trying to pay that $300. Eventually, you can’t keep up.”
As a child, Ms. Friend spent nine months in a motel with her family; their experience was turned into a touring art installation called “214 Sq. Ft.” “It is always more expensive to live in a motel than in an apartment,” she says. “You don’t have a full working kitchen, a full refrigerator; we had a hot plate and a crockpot. And the only place for privacy is the bathroom. Going into my teenage years I spent countless hours in the bathtub.”
Without assistance, many motel families eventually end up living in their cars. “Almost all of our families do this,” says Mr. Leon. “Then they get towed or they can’t pay the registration,” and they are forced into tents or onto the streets.
Mr. Leon has been working with the homeless in Orange County for 12 years, and he says that he has never seen numbers this large. Ms. Friend points out that, according to the most recent study from the National Center on Family Homelessness, there are 2.5 million homeless children in the United States right now: “That’s a historic high for our nation, one in 30 children in the United States.”
In Orange County, there are other dramatic statistics: 27 percent of children under the age of 6 live below the California poverty line, with the East Santa Ana area at an astonishing 48 percent. Strikingly, 80 percent of children living in poverty in Orange County have at least one parent working.
“You hear people all the time saying the homeless want to live on the street,” says Mr. Leon. “It’s just not so.” For Ms. Friend, the greatest challenge is to get people to see these children for who they are. She points to a scene in“The Florida Project” in which Moonee and her friend sit in a tree that has fallen over. Moonee says it’s her favorite because though it’s on its side, it is still growing.
“The tree isn’t broken or mangled or sick,” says Ms. Friend. “It’s just tipped over. All it needs is someone to see it and stand it up; then it would grow the way it was created, toward the sun.
“Our kids are those trees,” she says. “They’re still hoping and believing that everything will work out, despite all evidence around them that it probably won’t.
“We as a society have the opportunity to allow them to not only maintain that hope but to realize it. I think that’s our moral imperative.”