MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, you probably know Jada Pinkett Smith as an actress from films like "Set it Off" or "Jason's Lyric," but she is going to tell us about a film she is supporting behind the scenes. It's a documentary about the 1960s icon Angela Davis. She executive produced it. That conversation is coming up in a few minutes.
But first, we want to take a closer look at an issue that in many areas has been hiding in plain sight since the economic downturn and that is homelessness in the suburbs. According to the latest data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, family homelessness has increased in recent years, and about 36 percent of these families live in suburban or rural areas.
Now, many of these families once lived solidly middle class lives but now they are finding shelter in a surprising place - and that's hotels. Monica Potts recently wrote about this. She wrote about families living out of a Ramada Inn in Colorado. Her article "The Weeklies" appeared in the latest issue of the political magazine The American Prospect. And she's with us now in our Washington D.C. studios. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.
MONICA POTTS: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: How did you get interested in this?
POTTS: Well, I was looking at the data, the census data, about poverty, and in this part of Colorado, Jefferson County, Colorado which is just west of Denver, the poverty rate doubled in some areas. And overall, it increased by about half, from 5.2 to 8.5 percent.
MARTIN: Over what time period?
POTTS: Ten years.
MARTIN: Over 10 years?
POTTS: From 2000 to 2010. So I knew that would be a really dramatic story. It's a really big rise for an area that had has very little poverty before.
MARTIN: And so you wanted to know what was going on there. And you moved into this hotel yourself while you were reporting this story. One of the families you met there - somebody we called - her name is Audra Nix. She and her family were evicted and, she says, without warning from the house that they were renting in 2008, because the landlord was foreclosed upon. And this is what she told us.
(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)
AUDRA NIX: We went out for the day, came home, and they changed the locks on the door. And we had to go get a lawyer to go let us get all of our stuff, because the people that foreclosed on it just changed the locks. Because he had been over a year and a half behind on payments.
MARTIN: Was that a typical story, Monica?
POTTS: It really was. People were very much affected by the housing crisis but in different ways. Sometimes their landlords lost their homes. Sometimes they were homeowners and they lost their homes. Sometimes they struggled to pay the rent, because they had lost jobs or their income had declined because their hours were being cut. And there was just very little warning.
They were evicted very quickly. Landlords don't have to give much notice in Colorado. The rental vacancy rate is very low, so landowners wanted to get families in that could pay really quickly. So they had to rush to find places and that's part of what drove them to hotels.
MARTIN: How much does it cost for families to stay in this hotel, this particular one that you focused on?
POTTS: It varied and it varied without warning, but weekly they paid anywhere between $210 a week to $245 a week. In the summer it was $280 a week.
MARTIN: You know, that's not cheap.
MARTIN: That's not exactly cheap. And yet you noted a certain attitude on the part of the hotel staff toward many of these families - hence, the weeklies. Tell us a little bit about that.
POTTS: Sure. They were a little bit rude. They didn't trade them like guests. You know, you think when you stay in a hotel people are very compliant and they answer every request and they, sort of, get you what you need as soon as possible. That didn't happen. They, sort of, were grudging in their help. And they-
MARTIN: How come?
POTTS: I'm not a hundred percent sure why. You know, I spoke to them a little bit and they would say that this is the way the boss wants it. I think the boss, who I name in the article; his name is Bruce Rahmani. That's the name he goes by. He was very ambivalent about the weeklies staying there. They constituted almost the majority of his customers and so the hotel depended on them financially.
But, you know, he wanted it to be a nice hotel where people paid the nightly rate. And so there was this tension there. And I think that's part of what led to the treatment of the weeklies as sub-guests.
MARTIN: So even though they were paying the bills, they were treated with kind of a lack of respect, which you noted immediately, kind of a condescension, very distancing, very - a little bit rude. Our guest, if you're just joining us, is Monica Potts. She wrote about homeless families living in hotels in the suburbs. She wrote about this for The American Prospect. And speaking of the money, as we said, it's not cheap. It wouldn't seem to make sense, financially.
But, again, Audra Nix explained to us - this is one of the families whom you met - family members whom you met. She explained how she managed to afford it but couldn't come up with the money to make it out. Here's a clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)
NIX: When you're paying $260 a week and you're paying all this money out for food and gas, it's hard to save anything to get out. It's a cycle.
MARTIN: But she also talked about why she thought this made sense for her family. And I'll just play that clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)
NIX: They don't think they're homeless. And, you know, you really want to keep them as healthy as you can, you know, physically and mentally. And as long as they think this is just a transition time till we find something instead of technically we're homeless; we don't have an address, you know, we could be kicked out of here tomorrow and there's nowhere to go. Like I said, they think it's a transitional kind of thing. And that's why I try to keep it that way.
MARTIN: Well, one of the things you reported is that one of the reasons a lot of the families chose this particular area was so that they could keep their kids in the same schools. And they also needed to have a place that they could clean up so that they could go to school and be presentable. But I did want to ask what affects you saw on the kids. I mean, Audra seemed to feel that the kids were doing OK. Was that your sense as well?
POTTS: I think there were aspects that the kids felt were OK. They had friends in the hotel and so they could all hang out. They got to know each other and there was a system of support there so other families could watch other people's kids while people had to go to work. And so there was a real community there. That was a benefit. The downside was that the kids knew. They knew that they were homeless.
They knew that they were in a transitional state that was less than desirable and they were afraid of being made fun of at school. They thought other kids were mean, generally. And they were crowded. They didn't have good places to do schoolwork. All their schoolwork was stuffed in their hotel rooms with all their family's other belongings. They didn't have space and that really wore them down after a while. And kids feel that too.
MARTIN: It would seem that the answer to this was - forgive me for saying rather simple - which would be for people to - since these families, many of them, were continuing to work and they couldn't make enough money or couldn't gather enough resources together to either save their houses or to get a down payment together, but they were working - they were obviously making enough money to stay in these hotels - it would seem that the logical answer would be for somebody to help them get into permanent housing.
Which there was a surplus of, because of all the foreclosures. And I just have to ask, was there any thought about that? Was there any entity in the area, kind of, thinking about a strategy to address this?
POTTS: There were a lot of really good charities in the area and really good organizations. The problem sort of came between sort of the gap in the build out. The build out that happened and the foreclosures - the houses that were foreclosed on - were really expensive. They were luxury homes. This was the suburbs.
And there was really a dearth of affordable housing built in the period. In the 10 years that these families became poor, there also was just a real shortage of what we thought of as apartments or family homes built in this area. They were mostly luxury condos and luxury homes. And so there really is a gap between what these families can afford and what's available in the area. And there's not a whole lot available in the area.
There's very few rental vacancies, and so landlords can be very choosy. Rents have skyrocketed in the Denver and that's a large part of what's happening here. There's a huge mismatch between need and availability.
MARTIN: And the other mismatch you wrote about was that many of these families reported - I don't know whether you were able to kind of dig into their individual stories to a great deal - but there were a number of families whom you interviewed who had been homeowners who said that they were trying to work out, with their lenders, to pay something, or at least to stay in their homes.
And they said in many cases they felt that they had worked it out but were evicted anyway. And, they then reported, that the homes were then sold for far less than they owed anyway. So it would seem to be a dislocation there. And, I mean, I know that there are, you know, federal housing policies that were supposed to address this. And I just have to ask, why don't you think it worked in any of these cases?
Were these people victims of scams? Were these people who were trying to negotiate with them really credible? You know, I guess what I'm asking is why is it that all these policies that allegedly were designed to address these very situations have not worked?
POTTS: Very few of the families I spoke with knew about any of the federal housing programs, or the federal programs designed to keep them in their homes. They tried to work with banks, but one of the things that was very confusing was that the banks that owned their homes and owned their loans were not the banks that they had borrowed from originally. So finding the right people to negotiate with was difficult in the first place.
Once the foreclosure process starts, that adds another layer of difficulty, and many of these families didn't have lawyers. Some of them were scammed. In the article, I wrote about a family that I believe was scammed, although the - you know, there were many, many people involved in the process of their foreclosure. So it was hard to pin down exactly who was doing what and why.
But, you know, a lot of these families were just caught in a system that moved very quickly and they didn't know how to get out of it, and they didn't know how to adapt to it.
MARTIN: And one of the other things I noted about your piece is this is a very mixed area, if you don't mind my pointing out. Ethnically, there was no one particular group affected by this. Or was there? Did you see any pattern to who tended to be more likely to be affected by this than others? Was there any pattern to it?
POTTS: It really cut across the board. The whole Denver metro area is very mixed ethnically, and Latino families in Colorado were very likely to be foreclosed on, compared to other homeowner groups. But by and large, this cut across all class lines, and it cut across a really wide income swath, too. But working class families were the most affected, because their intergenerational wealth, the wealth that they inherited from their parents, was almost completely in their homes.
MARTIN: In fact, one of the people you interviewed, or one family you interviewed had had a small business. They'd actually run several small businesses, and all of those were affected by the recession, and any cushion that they had from those was completely eliminated.
Monica, before we let you go, we have about a minute left. Did any of these families have a credible plan to leave? I know it must have been hard for you to leave, because your piece ends in limbo. Most of these families are still there. Did anybody have a plan to get out of there?
POTTS: One family had a plan. They were working with the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, and they're actually out now and they're in an apartment. It's a mother and her college-age daughter and her young son. Another family moved out, and they are staying in - they're doubling up with another family, which is another pattern that we see a lot.
MARTIN: Monica Potts writes for The American Prospect. Her article about suburban homeless families living in hotels is in the latest issue. She was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios.
Monica, thanks so much for joining us. Do keep us posted on this important story.
POTTS: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.