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Last-resort motels home to many of Bay area’s poor

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Published:   |   Updated: December 1, 2013 at 08:14 AM

TAMPA — Homeless people don’t all sleep under bridges or on park benches. Some sleep in roach- and rat-infested hotel rooms and pay exorbitant rents to do so.

Wandalyn Hayes is one. At 48, Hayes is disabled and the guardian of her two granddaughters. They survive on a $710 monthly disability check from Social Security and $147 a month in food stamps.

Hayes pays $145 a week to stay at the Budget Inn, 4011 E. Columbus Drive, in a room that has no air conditioning, refrigerator or microwave oven.

Holes in the bathroom provide pathways for vermin; exposed wires hang from fluorescent lighting fixtures.

“Nasty, nasty, nasty,” Hayes said, speaking of the room she’s lived in since early October. “I would never have come here except for one thing — it was the only place that had a room — and for another, it was the only thing I could afford.”

The manager of the motel, Megan Frederick, said the motel was inspected two weeks ago and wasn’t in bad condition.

“Any issues they would have had with room, they could come down and it would have been taken care of it immediately,” Frederick said.

Within a few hours after Frederick spoke with the Tribune on Friday, and nearly two months after Hayes moved in, a crew was at work in the motel room making repairs.

Interviews with two other families forced to live in low-rent motels tell of conditions similar to those Hayes experienced.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of poor people — many who work at low-wage jobs — can’t scrape together enough money to pay the month’s rent plus utility deposits that could get them into an apartment.

So they live in low-end motels where the rent can range from $140 to $300 a week, depending on what the room includes.

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Critics say these people’s predicament illustrates the failure of government to craft a comprehensive, affordable housing program for poor people. And a recent scandal at Hillsborough County’s Homeless Recovery program shows some county leaders, for all their professed concerns about homelessness, didn’t have their eye on the ball.

Supervisors at the county program looked the other way while hundreds of needy families were sent to substandard, roach-infested apartments, trailers and rooming houses.

The failure of the recovery program was so complete that County Administrator Mike Merrill decided the county should hand it off to nonprofit organizations.

Michael Doyle, a volunteer with the St. Vincent de Paul Society, takes issue with Merrill’s decision, saying it is just one more example of the county’s dereliction of duty to poor families.

“County officials have known of substandard housing conditions for at least 20 years,” Doyle wrote in a recent essay published in The Tampa Tribune. “Our neighbors are homeless largely due to a lack of affordable housing and our county has a legal responsibility to provide humane housing options.”

Merrill publicly apologized at a county commission meeting for the failings in the Homeless Recovery program and fired the director and supervisors who were responsible.

An internal audit of the program is nearing completion, and county code enforcement has been inspecting housing where clients were sent to make sure they are safe and sanitary.

“We’ve already done a lot to alleviate the problems,” Merrill said. “You can’t fix 16 years of mismanagement overnight.”

Merrill defended his decision to give the county’s homeless money to nonprofits, a move the county commission supported.

“It eliminates duplication and puts services in the hands of those who are really skilled at it,” Merrill said. “That seems to be something the community agrees with.”

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Both government and nonprofit leaders agree the breadth of the problem is daunting.

In Hillsborough County, more than 7,000 people are listed as living on the street or in shelters.

The county school system identified 3,165 homeless students during the 2012-13 school year.

And the Tampa Housing Authority says there are approximately 14,000 families on the city and county wait list for rental assistance, including the federal Section 8 voucher program.

The wait list is closed and may not reopen for five to seven years, according to the Housing Authority website.

“There’s not enough affordable housing,” said Karl Celestine, director of outreach services for Metropolitan Ministries. “Employment is a big part of it because they don’t have a job so they can’t pay rent, or they’re on Social Security, so they’re living on fixed incomes.

“And the economy has changed; it costs a lot more to live.”

For many families on the edge, all it takes is one crisis to push them out of stable housing and into a more precarious situation.

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Albert Burrus and Tina Bennett had been living in an apartment complex where the landlords allowed them to pay partial rent at the first of the month and the rest later.

But when the complex was sold, the new owners said all tenants had to pay a full month’s rent plus what they owed in arrears.

Bennett, who has Crohn’s disease and lupus, had to quit her health care job when her lupus flared up.

Burrus, who had been a cook, was injured on the job. The family was living on his disability check and what little he could pick up doing day labor.

The couple couldn’t pay the full rent all at once, so they moved into a motel on Fowler Avenue where they paid $200 a week.

During their nine months there, Tina Bennett said, sheriff’s deputies were at the motel every week conducting drug raids.

In a nearby apartment, a disabled woman wailed as her boyfriend beat her.

“My 2-year-old would wake up with roaches crawling in her hair,” Bennett said. “There’s no point in complaining; they’d just say, ‘If you don’t like it, find another hotel.’ ”

During their stay in the motel, the couple lost a baby. They had to choose between giving the infant a funeral or paying their storage compartment bill. They chose the funeral and lost most of their belongings.

They had to move to two other motels before Burrus heard about the federal Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program, funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the federal stimulus program.

They qualified and moved into an apartment Nov. 19. Tampa Home Makers, a volunteer ministry, furnished it for them.

Yolanda Elijah got her family out of a motel and into an apartment with no public or nonprofit assistance.

Elijah, her sister Alexis, and her son, Jacoby, had been staying in the motel since February.

Elijah worked extra shifts at her job as a server at Chili’s and took on extra work such as baby sitting and washing clothes.

It took her two months, but Elijah was able to pay one month’s rent, water and electric deposits in a cramped but neat apartment in north Tampa.

“God gave me the ability to get out,” Elijah said. “I know he can give other people that ability. They just need some help.”

msalinero@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-8303

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