America’s hidden homeless: Life in the Starlight Motel

A motel in Massachusetts reveals the extent of the US’ hidden homelessness problem. Residents share their stories.

Tiffany Drew is 13 weeks pregnant and lives with her partner and daughter at the Starlight Motel in Wareham [Carolyn Bick/Al Jazeera]

By: Carolyn Bick/Al Jazzera

Massachusetts, United States – It is the fourth time that Tiffany Drew has lived in the Starlight Motel, and the third time she has been pregnant here.Today, like every time she is pregnant, she has a migraine.

“I’m hoping if I take some Tylenol it will feel better,” she says.

She is almost translucently pale.  

The motel room five-year-old Sofiya shares with her mother and father is cramped and strewn with toys, but it is home and Sofiya and her half brother Colby do not seem to see their lives as any different from those of their peers at school [Carolyn Bick/Al Jazeera]

Tiffany and her fiancee Mark Maraccini have been living in the Starlight Motel in Wareham, Massachusetts, on and off since 2009. Their current stint started in the summer of 2015. Their daughter, Sofiya, who was born in 2011, lives with them.

Like many considered homeless by the government, the family lives in a motel because – at $200 a week – it is cheaper than a normal apartment, and they have bad credit.

The rooms are an average of about 13sq ft by 13sq ft, with one bathroom and no kitchen. Some residents, such as Tiffany, make do with microwaves.

Like most motels, the Starlight wasn’t built for long­-term stays.? But all the rooms at the Starlight, and the other motels in Wareham, are filled by homeless occupants. Most consider this preferable to the other options available to them: “tent cities” in the woods or homeless shelters.

No one knows exactly how many homeless people there are in Wareham because the state doesn’t have any accurate data for the town. They rely on the information homeless shelters and charitable organisations are able to gather. But Thomas Fitzpatrick of Turning Point, a homeless outreach organisation based in Wareham, says: “We always have the rule of thumb that if there are 25 people [we know about], there are always 25 you don’t know about.”

The stigma attached to homelessness leaves many feeling uncomfortable asking for help and means their homelessness is often hidden from the official statistics.

Although cramped, the motel is home to Tiffany and her family. And while she’d rather be living in a real apartment, she says she knows that isn’t an option considering their “horrible credit”. .

Tiffany picks Sofiya up from the side of the busy highway that runs alongside the motel. She takes the bus to and from school [Carolyn Bick/Al Jazeera]

The school bus drops Sofiya at the side of the busy highway that runs past the Starlight. Tiffany meets her there and leads her back to the relative safety of the motel as cars rush by.

Then she watches as five-year-old Sofiya rides the scooter she shares with her half brother Colby, Mark’s son from another relationship who stays with them at the weekends, around the small motel parking lot.

She looks down at her stomach. She is 13 weeks pregnant and anxious about bringing the child to term.


Tiffany lost her unborn baby, Mya, in July 2015 at 38 weeks, due to a detached placenta. ?”She basically suffocated,” she says. “When the placenta came out, half of it was black and shrivelled.

“I was all prepared for Mya. I had everything I needed, and things went bad at the last second, and now … could be anything,” Tiffany says.?

She couldn’t bring herself to get rid of everything she’d bought for Mya. Now, she is glad she didn’t sell the crib. “If I had done that, now where would I be?” she asks with a laugh.

Sofiya, who is watching, chimes in. “We had Mya, and now we have another baby,” she says.

“And where is Mya?” Tiffany asks her.?

“In Heaveeeen,” she says, drawing out the word and rolling her eyes at her mother’s question before scooting across the parking lot to her grandparents’ motel room.

Tiffany shows the necklace that reminds her of her late daughter. The bee holds her daughter’s ashes, while the other charm has small designs of her daughter’s footprints [Carolyn Bick/Al Jazeera]

Mark’s parents are also living at the Starlight.

Before their most recent stay at the motel started, Tiffany, Sofiya and Mark used to share a small apartment with Mark’s parents. Tiffany says she couldn’t stand it.

“Mark’s dad doesn’t know how to mind his own business,” she says. “They have a frickin’ police scanner to frickin’ listen to people.”

The scanner, a radio set that picks up emergency broadcasts, would go off “all the time”, she says.

Even in the motel, she says they are “nosy”.

“Any time they hear a knock out here, or a car, or anything like that, they go sticking their head out the window.”

But they may soon have to move in with them again.

Sofiya plays in the parking lot of the motel as her mother, Tiffany, keeps watch. She wants to play with her eight-year-old half brother Colby, but he has homework to do [Carolyn B/Al Jazeera]

In November 2015, the town’s Board of Health announced that it would start imposing a three-week limit on stays in hotels and motels in the area. The Board hopes this will force hotel and motel owners to upgrade their rooms so that they can once again host long-term residents.

While the Board has not said that it will actively kick out hotel and motel residents, the chairman of the town’s Board of Selectmen, which is essentially the executive branch of the town, Patrick Tropeano, said in an email that it may impose daily fines on hotel and motel owners, “usually $100 per day per offence”.

The Board has said it will help place residents elsewhere, but Tiffany isn’t convinced.  

“No one is getting placed … But people with bad credit, they can’t even get a place.”

She crinkles her brow in frustration. “This is all I can afford. Unless you want to find a place and pay my rent for me – that’s what I pretty much told them, too.”?

Although Tiffany and a few other motel residents are under the impression that the Board will pay their first month’s rent, last month’s rent and security deposit elsewhere, Tropeano said that from what he understands, the Board of Health “has no money to give anyone”.

The chair of the Board of Health, Amy Weigandt, did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but Robert Ethier, a health agent at the Board of Health, confirmed that the Board does not have the funding to help the residents. They are working with a local pastor, David Shaw, and the Wareham Housing Authority to place them elsewhere, he said.

Tiffany checks Colby’s homework, telling him to “write it so I can read it, because if I can’t read it, she [the teacher] can’t either” [Carolyn Bick/Al Jazeera]

At the moment, Tiffany and Mark barely manage to scrape together their motel rent each week. It isn’t easy as, until a couple of weeks ago, Tiffany was the family’s sole breadwinner. Since they have been together, Mark has lost his job more than once.

The first time, he was fired from the KFC where Tiffany works for taking small amounts of money, she says, so that he could save the money he made for his family instead of spending it. But the sums were noticeable, she says, and the manager caught him doing it on camera.

“I understand he was trying to help and feed the family, because we couldn’t pay the bills. We couldn’t pay the electric or the gas. The gas got shut off, and the electric got shut off,” Tiffany says.?

Then, he got a job at Walmart, but he lost that too. Soon after, the couple lost Mya, and then moved back into the motel, where they celebrated Sofiya’s fifth birthday.

“He lost his job at KFC. He lost his job at Walmart. We lost our apartment. We lost Mya,” Tiffany says. “What else could go wrong?

“I’ve always asked that, every time bad things have happened. I’m like, ‘Isn’t it supposed to be threes? Why am I getting, like, four, five things, before I get something good?'”

Mark has now found some work with a local company whose owner was desperate for help. 

He works “whenever they need him”, Tiffany says, which means she sometimes doesn’t see him until late at night. “It gets a little lonely,” she admits.

Sofiya and Colby play in the motel parking lot [Carolyn Bick/Al Jazeera]

Scott Richert has been living at the Starlight Motel for two years but insists it’s just temporary, while he saves enough for a place of his own [Carolyn Bick/Al Jazeera]

Scott Richert: ‘There aren’t the best class of people in this place.’

When we first meet, 52-year-old Scott Richert assures me he is only a temporary resident at the Starlight Motel.

He’s been telling himself that for the past two years – but he still keeps the walls of his room completely bare, because he plans to leave “soon”.

“I lived here years and years and years ago, for a couple months, and it was enough for me then,” Scott says of his comparatively brief stay at the motel in the 1990s.

Although the bathroom is messy, the bedroom area is immaculate. The floor is spotless. There are no clothes anywhere. The bed is tidy. And, yet, Scott still apologises for the mess.

The only signs of his personality come from his collection of videos and DVDs – movies such as Braveheart, Goodfellas, and The Betsy (his favourite, he says).

“Talk about actors and actresses, huh?” Scott says of The Betsy, grinning. “It’s got a whole slew of ’em.”

Scott’s collection of videos and DVDs are the only way in which he has personalised his motel room [Carolyn Bick/Al Jazeera]

The state of the room is a strange contrast to Scott himself. An old, paint-covered T-shirt that might once have been a dark blue hangs on his burly 6ft 3in frame. He wears sweatpants of the same colour, and no shoes, as he lowers his bulk onto the bed, and begins to explain how he was forced to move into the motel in 2014.

As a shellfisherman, Scott must live in the town in which he works. But ever-increasing rents mean he can’t afford a place of his own.

He believes some residents, and some motel owners, will find a way around the new law banning people from staying in motels for more than three weeks.

“From what I understand, the motel managers are gonna just start swapping names around, see if they can get away with it,” he says, shrugging his shoulders.

He says they might also ask people to move out for three days, and then move back in.

It’s not that Scott doesn’t make enough money. He pulls out a crumpled receipt that shows earnings of $137 for a few hours of work, and says that this is small compared with the prime shellfish season, which is coming up soon.

“Right now, I am making about $55 an hour. During the winter, I can average about $25-$30 an hour,” he says. “So, I make about $500, $600 in a week in the winter, but about $1,200, $1,300 now.”

Scott makes good money as a shellfisherman, but it can be an expensive business to be involved in [Carolyn Bick/Al Jazeera]

But Scott doesn’t have a bank account. He gets paid for his work in cash.

Scott contends that between the cost of renewing his shellfishing licence, and the excise taxes he has to pay for his boat and car, he hasn’t been able to save any money, until recently.

He says he can’t move towns, either, because, under the laws of the various towns in which he has thought about living, he has to have a year’s residency before he may begin shellfishing. Wareham is the only town he has found that doesn’t require that. “That’s why I am still here,” he says.

“Like I said, I don’t have $3,000 for first, last and security [rent payments]. But I am working on it,” he says.

Scott suffered a heart attack almost two years ago, when he was helping the daughter of the Starlight Motel manager, Sam Smith, move.

As Scott remembers it, it was the middle of summer. He was helping her move from one third-floor apartment to another third-floor one in a different building – neither had an elevator. Then suddenly, “[I] felt like my fricking heart was going to blow out of my chest,” he says.

Not that he went to the doctor immediately.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Scott says, laughing and giving one of his thighs a jovial slap. “When I was done with what I had to do, and I had time, then I went. Because of that heart attack, I got behind on all sorts of [things]. I am finally catching up … I will be … all free and clear of anything I owe anybody.”

Currently, he says he has $1,300 in savings, but he must choose between an apartment and a new truck. Before the truck he drives now, which was new in 1998, he had a ’67 pickup, and then a ’73 pickup. He drove both until they almost fell apart, he says. He needs the truck to pull his boat, which he needs for work.

When asked what is wrong with his current truck, he dryly replies: “Jesus, you want a list?”

But the choice between an apartment and a car isn’t as simple as just saving up money for them. He also needs to get his gall bladder removed, as it’s creating painful gallstones. That will leave him unable to work for at least a month or two.

“I’ve got to save up enough money for wherever I’m at for … two months, so I can get the gall bladder out. That’ll take a month, and then, when I get the gastric bypass done, it’ll take another month to heal up,” Scott says, folding his arms in front of his stomach.

Scott’s drawer is full of medicines for his various medical complaints [Carolyn Bick/Al Jazeera]

Financial and medical troubles haven’t been the only thing keeping Scott a step away from an apartment. He was cheated out of his rightful inheritance – a house on Depot Street, less than a 15-minute drive from the motel, he says.

Scott was born in Connecticut, but moved to Wareham with his parents and three brothers when he was in high school. His father had been in a car accident, he explains.

“The doctors told my mother, ‘Well, go take the settlement money and buy a house, or whatever, and make sure you get a fixer-upper for him. Well, she did, and he didn’t get to fix it up – I did,” Scott says, referring to his father’s death about a year after the family moved into the house.

After two of his brothers left for Florida, he helped to maintain the house.

But Scott claims that didn’t stop his older brother from writing him out of the will in 2000, when their mother was on her deathbed. If his brother hadn’t done that, he says, he would “have had the house, free and clear,” since it was paid off. What’s more, he says, he and his youngest brother would have received $20,000 each, if the house was ever sold.

“He [his oldest brother] heard that, went right down to the lawyer’s office,” he says with a sharp clap of his hands. “He took all the equity out of the house. At 100 percent equity, it was all paid off. Got $195,000 out of the house.”

Scott also claims that his brother made at least $70,000 more selling his grandparents’ property, and “blew it”.

“He p***** through it like it was f****** free,” Scott says, shaking his head. “[The house] got foreclosed on. Bank took it. That’s where it is now. Bank’s got it.”

And his brother?

“Had a tree take him out. It’s a good thing the tree did it. Leave it at that,” Scott says, and laughs. “I would say that was four or five years ago.”

He believes his second youngest brother is somewhere in Florida, but doesn’t expect to hear from him again. Scott only keeps in touch sporadically with the rest of his family, he says.

“Got an aunt and her two kids. And that’s it. My whole family,” he says, drawing out the word, ‘whole’. “Other than them? Nothing. Just me. And I don’t rely on nobody.”

The bright spot in the family saga? It helped teach the then-20-something his following trades as a mechanic and an electrician.

And it’s because of his various stints in manual labour that some motel residents and its manager ask him for help around the place. Scott is known as the motel’s unofficial handyman.

Today, he helps Sam’s wife Michelle start her grill. After jiggling a knob or two, Scott gets it going.

“See?” he says to her, as she watches. “Easy.”

But with his heart attack still fresh in his mind, he tries to minimise his contact with many of the motel residents, so that he doesn’t get too stressed. They are his biggest headache, he says. Not only does he find them “nosy” but he doesn’t exactly trust them.

“They were going to send up flatscreen TVs for the place, but Sammy [Sam Smith] told them not to,” he says of the motel’s conversion into a rooming house, which means there will be a communal kitchen and new furniture. “These a******* will break them or steal them. There aren’t the best class of people in this place. And this is one of the better places. A lot of these places are bad.”

Scott’s motel bathroom may be a little messy but his room is clean and tidy [Carolyn Bick/Al Jazeera]

Becca Weiss recalls the circumstances that led to her living in the motel [Carolyn Bick/Al Jazeera]

Becca Weiss: ‘How can all that happen to a person?’

Soft jazz floats through Becca Weiss’ darkened room at the Starlight Motel.

This is home for the 38-year-old former legal assistant and her boyfriend, Mike, with whom she splits the weekly $200 room fee.

But not that long ago, Becca would have been unable to imagine that she’d end up living in a motel.

“It’s like a bad Lifetime movie,” she snickers. “It’s like, how can all of that happen to one person, without that person doing something … really wrong? It just happened.”

Becca has been living at the motel since just before Thanksgiving 2014, and has made the room feel cosy and safe. She burns incense and cooks in the makeshift kitchen she has set up. There is a rug in the centre of the spotless floor. On the wall above her bed, decorative lights are strung over pictures; iconic depictions of Jesus and crosses hang next to a picture of a blue door and trees.

“For me, it’s just one,” Weiss says. “I follow more of the religion of spiritualism. It’s really just a balance of Father Sky and Mother Earth – or God.”

She pauses, struggling to keep back the tears that are filling her large, brown eyes.

“For some people, it’s so hard to find a balance,” she continues, after a moment. “But once you find it, you know – it’s a beautiful place to be. But it takes a bunch of different influences. Treating people how you want to be treated, basically.”

But Weiss hasn’t always been treated the way she treats others.

Becca puts out some incense she has been burning [Carolyn Bick/Al Jazeera]

She was born into a family that she says placed an emphasis on outward appearances, taking care to project an image of affluence and stability. It was easy to maintain during the booming 1980s, she explains, as her father ran a few stores and a deli and her mother made a name for herself in real estate.

“It was the Ritz-Carlton and the Four Seasons and that was our upbringing,” Becca remembers, brushing a strand of light brown hair from her face. “We were taught how to be ladies, and manners were very important, and setting the table, and making everything look nice. But, at the end of the night, you’re drinking wine by the bottle as you’re cooking.”

These “inconsistencies”, as she calls them, have followed her throughout her life – from her childhood to her current situation and her struggles with anxiety and depression.

Since Becca lost her job in 2012, the motel is the first stable place she has lived. She had been working for her father as a legal assistant, but after she went on maternity leave to have her third child, she says her father gave her job away.

Shortly after, Becca lost the townhouse in which she was living, because, without a job, and without her child’s father around, she couldn’t pay the bills. A judge sent the baby to live with his dad, and the state’s Department of Housing and Urban Development sent Becca to a shelter for women who have suffered domestic abuse. It was one of the least safe places she had ever been, she says.

“It was awful. The door literally looked like it had been either beaten with a bat or kicked in by the cops. You could reach right through and unlock the deadbolt,” she recalls. “You can’t just take someone from a middle-class life and throw her into this.”

Becca’s shelves are full of holistic herbal remedies meant to help her mental and physical wellbeing [Carolyn Bick/Al Jazeera]

There was a woman with a set of keys, some papers to sign, and a lightless hallway, she recalls. She didn’t even last the weekend.

“I never felt safe there,” Becca says. “But because I didn’t want to live there, I became ineligible for any kind of assistance or shelter. So I had to live out of my car.”

Becca met Mike soon after, and the two lived out of her car for seven months.

“Nothing brings you closer than living in a car with someone,” she says wryly. “There’s nowhere to go. You learn everything about each other. And I mean, everything.”

She and Mike eventually came across the motel, and, with Mike’s job, were able to afford the room. But it pained her to have to move in here.

“When I walked to the door, I cried,” she recalls, crying. “There was nothing here. It was just hot cement and a trash bag full of my clothes.”

She used to have more than that, she says, but from the townhouse to the motel, she left a metaphorical trail of possessions behind her. She says some of her things are still in a state storage facility; others were stolen. Still more were tossed out of her car by a police officer, she says, after he stopped her for speeding when she was living out of the vehicle.

These days, Becca’s life is a little less tumultuous, but it still isn’t easy.

She was once involved in theatre and acting – in a life that now seems to have belonged to someone else – and she has decided to take the free acting classes offered by a non-profit theatre venue down the road. But because she doesn’t have a car, she says she has been “approached by a couple people offering me money [for sex],” while walking to the theatre or to the grocery store.

“It’s part of the territory,” Becca says of calling the motel home, and the assumptions men make about women on the side of the road. “But it’s weird, too – like, what about me gave that off?”

She pauses for a moment then adds, with a light laugh: “I came home in a [police] cruiser, like, four times.” She didn’t feel safe walking home alone at night, along the side of the highway.

Becca says she is still waiting for the state to grant her Social Security Disability Insurance, a benefit programme for people who become disabled before retirement age. She says it will take two to three years, at least, for her to get the insurance, because she is suffering from mental traumas, not physical ones. Becca has depression and anxiety, which have been exacerbated by the extreme stress of losing her job and home in 2012, and the subsequent instability of a transient life.

Though she is handling the depression and anxiety as well as she can, Becca says she sometimes finds it hard to leave the motel room, and often prefers to keep the blinds shut. That’s why she tries to keep the room neat and to create a calming environment within it.

The worst part, she says, is not the depression and anxiety; it is trying to live off the little money given to her by the state while she waits to be accepted into the insurance system. What she receives for rent doesn’t cover half the expense of living in the motel, she says – and the Starlight is the cheapest in town.

Although she finally feels comfortable calling the motel home, it isn’t where she wants to be for ever.

“I do want to have my own little house someday, or an apartment, or something,” she says. “But, right now, this is what it is, and I am grateful to have it. It is better than a car.”

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  1. I was just looking at your America’s hidden homeless, its difficult to believe this takes place in America.


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