If county Social Services Commissioner Dennis Packard had his way, the homeless would never spend a night in one of the city’s motels again.
Residents have complained for years about the conditions in the motels, and case workers say motel residents get very few of the services designed to help them out of homelessness. All the motels provide, they say, is a roof.
Packard wants to put every temporarily homeless person in shelters instead, where the conditions are constantly supervised and case workers design assistance programs. The Salvation Army and City Mission run shelters in the city now.
But a request for proposals for new shelters has gone unanswered, and the existing shelters quickly filled up once winter began, forcing Packard to rely on the Econolodge, Twins and Imperial motels yet again.
There, the homeless have run into the same problems that city, county and shelter operators have been trying to counter for years. Residents complain that their bedding and towels are not washed — even if they stay for a week — and that cleaners generally treat them with disrespect, saying they don’t deserve service since they are not paying for their room. (The Department of Social Services pays for each room.)
The conditions are such that Salvation Army shelter director Mary Hausman said she wouldn’t want to stay there if she were homeless.
“I wouldn’t feel comfortable staying there, if it was me,” she said. “But if it was the motel or the street, I don’t know what decision I’d make.”
Shelter supervisors say the worst part of motel living is that residents don’t get the health screenings, job training, counseling and other help offered in the shelters. A county case worker tries to meet with each motel resident once a week, but that can be difficult to accomplish since residents may be elsewhere when the case worker knocks on their door.
“We try our best, but obviously it’s not ideal,” said county spokesman Joseph McQueen. “In the shelter you’re right there, you’re seeing the case worker every day. The shelters are definitely better.”
But some homeless people don’t want to go to a shelter. The curfew and other rules — such as a ban on alcohol — keep many of them away. A new shelter program, called Housing First, addresses that by inviting the homeless in without requiring them to first give up drinking, drugs and other addictions.
In other cities, the program has been embraced by the homeless, and operators report that their residents are far more willing to try Alcoholics Anonymous, get mental health screenings and enroll in other programs once their immediate housing crisis has been solved.
Packard wants to try that here, in hopes of getting help to the homeless who now spend the warmer months in cars, tents, or under park benches.
Bethesda House will begin that program at a new facility to be built this spring. But that won’t have space for all of the homeless who beg for shelter in the winter — it will house just 16 people.
Bethesda House Executive Director Margaret Anderton said her program won’t do enough to solve the problem. She said the county must come up with ways to get all of the homeless out of the motels.
“There’s no case management. There’s no support services. The physical trappings can be lovely but that doesn’t help with their issues and problems and moving forward,” Anderton said. “We should have emergency housing so people aren’t just cycling back through homelessness. I don’t think people should be placed in motels.”
Homeless people say that they hate the motels, too, but not because of the lack of case workers.
“The bed stank like urine. I had a deodorizer and I sprayed and sprayed and sprayed, but it still stunk,” said Gerald Knorr, a disabled man who was sent to the Econolodge when he sought shelter just before Thanksgiving. He had been living in his van with his service dog until the weather turned cold.
Other homeless residents said they routinely spray deodorant to fight odors and pesticides to kill the bugs they suspect might be in the mattresses. Some said their rooms weren’t clean when they first entered them, while others said room service simply did not come to clean during their stay.
Knorr said the final straw for him was when employees refused to give him toilet paper. He ran out after four days and asked an employee for more.
“He said, ‘You’re from DSS. We don’t have to do nothing for you,’ ” Knorr said. “He said, ‘We don’t have to give you nothing, you’re not paying for it.’ ”
Econolodge manager Nitin Patel denied the allegations. He said his office is stocked with towels and toilet paper, which can be handed out at any time of the day or night.
“Whenever a person asks, we always provide them everything,” he said.
DSS said it would inspect the motel in response to Knorr’s complaints. This is the second time in six months that DSS has inspected the Econolodge after complaints from clients staying there. The motel passed the last inspection, in May, as well as its annual inspection in January.
Packard said he has no choice but to continue housing homeless in the motels this winter. But shelter operators have suggested several interim steps that might quickly address the problems at the motels.
Salvation Army’s Hausman said DSS should negotiate for office space in each motel.
“If you got a caseworker in there, change could happen next week,” she said. “At this point we can’t afford to replace the motels. We can make them better.”
Anderton said her drop-in center on Liberty Street could become a warming station in the winter. All she needs, she said, is enough money to staff the building after hours.
A winter shelter could also serve the need, she said.
The trouble with opening a full-time shelter is that the city’s homeless figures fluctuate rapidly. In the winter, the existing shelters fill up fast, forcing Packard to send sometimes dozens of people to motels. But once the winter fades away, the homeless do, too, leaving him with so few residents that the current shelters sometimes struggle to stay in the black.
He sent out a request for proposals for new shelters, but after agencies looked at the county’s fluctuating numbers, his request was roundly ignored.
“There were no takers,” McQueen said. “The numbers fluctuate so much, people found it too difficult to determine whether it was viable.”
That means that Packard will have to continue sending homeless to the motels for now, despite the complaints.
Knorr is among many homeless who aren’t happy about that.
“It’s getting cold. There has to be some reasonable accommodations, clean, safe,” he said.
“Those motels are not reasonable. They’re nasty and nobody’s doing anything about it. I might be handicapped but I’m not stupid. I just want to be treated like a human being.”