Whenever the weather is nice, Tina Cisneros leaves the door ajar at the Anaheim motel room she and her husband and three children have called home since moving three months ago from New Mexico.
Otherwise, said Cisneros, 24, the room at the Anaheim Village Inn is too much like "a cell." Still, she volunteered, "I guess we're lucky, compared to some people . . . we're working."
She spends her days taking care of the children and her nights working at a fast-food restaurant in Fullerton. Her husband, Richard, 28, works weekdays as a mechanic and weekends as a maintenance man in the motel.
Marooned in their motel room on what amounts to a permanent basis, the Cisneroses are among an expanding group of "motel people," which housing experts are beginning to classify as the "borderline" or "hidden" homeless.
Unable to find affordable housing or accumulate the cash deposits required by landlords and utility companies, they are scattered around California in increasingly visible concentrations: along Katella Avenue near Disneyland in Anaheim; on Sepulveda Boulevard as it parallels the San Diego Freeway in the San Fernando Valley; along the Bayshore Freeway south of San Francisco, and in downtown Sacramento.
Motel life is a way station, where people on their way up the economic ladder--moving into the middle class--meet people who have fallen on hard times and are on their way down the same ladder.
The phenomenon is not confined to California. Gary Blasi, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, said motels with a high percentage of long-term residents are becoming "fairly common throughout the Western states." He characterizes such complexes as "the suburban equivalent of Skid Row hotels."
Louisa Stark, of the Phoenix Consortium for the Homeless, estimated that there are 3,000 people in that city living in motels, many of whom have been forced out of "gentrified" neighborhoods. Outside of Albuquerque and Tucson, people unable to afford to move into rental housing congregate in dilapidated motels on roads like Route 66, which have been bypassed by interstate highways.
Hard to Keep Statistics
It is hard to determine just how many people in California and the Southwest are living in this economic limbo.
"I don't believe anyone knows how many there are," said Art Luna, chairman of the Orange County Housing Commission. A survey conducted by the county's Community Development Council indicated a minimum figure of 3,500 to 5,000 people, but interviews with public and private agencies dealing with the homeless suggest that the real number may be at least double or triple that figure.
One problem with keeping track of motel people, observed Michael Elias, director of the Christian Temporary Housing Center of Santa Ana, is that "we don't count them as homeless if they have a roof over their heads."
Brad Paul, a housing activist in San Francisco and board member of the National Coalition for the Homeless, estimated that between 250,000 and 1 million Californians are living in motel rooms. They are better off than people living on the street, in cars or in shelters, Paul said, but often just barely.
"They become prisoners, in a sense, in these motels," he said. "They are the next group at risk to become homeless in this country."
The Bureau of the Census has no national figures on motel living, but the growth of the situation is becoming evident. "We don't know how widespread it is," said Peter Centenari, a spokesman for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, "although we suspect that it is."
Despite their concerted efforts and frugal living, the Cisneros family's vision of moving into housing where they can pay less and get more is as elusive as a mirage on the horizon.
The motel room costs $140 a week. Together they bring home $319 weekly, and from what is left they have to pay for food and clothes, gas for their one car, storage for the family's furniture, doctor bills for the children and medicine for Richard, who is an epileptic. What is left, they try to save.
Tina Cisneros estimated that to escape to an apartment, they would need about $1,500 cash--first and last month's rent of perhaps $600, plus deposits for security and utilities.
In similar straits these days is the Wilkinson family, for whom home is a two-room unit in a modest corner motel on Sepulveda Boulevard in Sherman Oaks.
It was not always that way.
"We came out here as an upper-middle-class family," said Sandy Wilkinson, who asked that her family's real name not be used. Now, she said, the family of four is "caught in a trap."
In Upstate New York, the Wilkinsons had a good life. Sandy, who has a master's degree, taught school; her husband, Ed, had a job in financial services. The couple also had a small sideline business. They lived in a three-bedroom house with a pool and sent their oldest child to a Montessori school.