An unending struggle for a temporary home

Motels: For the working poor, the last step before homelessness is sometimes billed by the week.

July 16, 2000|By Larry Carson

Jamie Bowen starts his two-job, 16-hour workday with a mile walk from the old Pin-Del Motel on U.S. 1 every morning. He builds greenhouses for eight hours, and then he manages a laundromat for eight more. Then he walks home.

Bowen, 24, has to earn the $220-a-week rent for the motel room he shares with his three children, Faith, 2 months, Aaron, 17 months, and Jamie Jr., 3, and their mother, Jody Darnell, 24. From Laurel to Elkridge along U.S. 1, and occasionally in newer, extended-stay motels in Columbia, a handful of working-poor families are clinging to the last rungs of America's economic ladder.

Beset by credit problems and the expense of young mouths to feed, they're struggling to pay high weekly motel rates, often too proud to seek charity or unsure where to turn for assistance. That way of life quickly becomes a treadmill that keeps a roof over their heads, but offers little chance to regain a stable life and an apartment they can call home.

This year, Howard County government is preparing to help, providing money for about 15 families that need an extra boost to put down a security deposit and pay the first month's rent for an apartment.

Howard County enjoys the highest median family income in Maryland, which makes it even harder for low-income people to afford rent and find transportation if they don't own a car. Businesses, especially along the county's U.S. 1 corridor, often find it hard to hire and retain employees for warehouse or manufacturing jobs because of these problems.

The idea for helping the working poor came from the staff at Grassroots, the county's homeless shelter, and was adopted as part of County Executive James N. Robey's budget for this fiscal year, which began July 1.

"They're spending every cent they make to stay in a motel," said Grassroots' shelter coordinator Kathy Dinoto. "We don't want people to be in the shelter if they don't need to be," she said, pointing out that the shelter could be the next step if these families miss a motel bill. Several motel residents said they would never go to the shelter except as a last resort, and despite Howard's reputation for wealth, the beds at Grassroots are often all taken, Dinoto said. "We have to turn people away."

Robey approved $45,500 for the program this year, enough to hire a part-time case worker and provide up to $2,000 per family.

Despite his 32 years on the county police force, Robey said the problem was new to him.

"I wasn't aware that the problem existed before. I decided it was something we could not afford not to fund," he said.

Some of that money could be a great help for a couple like Bowen and Darnell, who are barely scraping by, despite Bowen's two jobs.

Darnell helps at the laundromat most afternoons, making change and giving directions as fans whir in the heavy July heat and Faith sleeps on a blanket in a worn laundry basket. At the Pin-Del, Faith sleeps in her car seat, Bowen in a chair, and Darnell on the sofa. The other children share the one bed, they said.

A few miles north on U.S. 1, Dan and Lisa Critzman are also struggling.

Married for 10 years, with Lisa Critzman's two teen-age daughters from an earlier marriage, a 10-year-old girl and a baby due in two weeks, they're living in two dark, cluttered rooms at Scooters Restaurant and Motor Inn on U.S. 1 north of Route 175.

They're paying a bargain rate of $174 a week, which comes to about $700 a month, plus storage fees for their belongings. Each morning at 4:30 a.m., Dan Critzman rides his bicycle several miles south to a supervisor's job in a manufacturing plant. They have no car and haven't been able to save enough to escape the motel.

Dan, 43, had knee surgery last year and Lisa, 34, broke her arm. They got behind on the rent and lost their apartment in Elkridge. Now they can't seem to get out of the week-to-week motel rut.

They have a refrigerator, a hot plate and a small microwave oven, one bathroom and a wall-mounted television. The girls play video games. The motel has no pool or recreational facilities for children.

"They're really good-spirited," Lisa said about her girls. But they'd like to live in a real apartment, she said, and they don't want their school friends to know they live in a motel.

The motel manager let the family have two rooms with a full-size refrigerator for a reduced price, but said that his place isn't really designed for children or long-term living.

"I don't try to gouge anybody. I don't want any long-term stays here," said Edward F. Sprouse, the motel's general manager.

Cynthia Marshall and her three children - ages 10, 9 and 7 - recently left an extended-stay business motel in east Columbia to move back with her parents in Prince George's County. She has a Section 8 subsidized housing voucher but hasn't been able to find a place, she said.

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