When the homeless aren’t “homeless”

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Written by Samantha Emerine

Everyone has heard the saying, “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound?” While this saying makes a good point about things going unseen but I’d like to present this question in another manner: if someone has a roof over his or her head, but it isn’t a home, is he or she still homeless?

Growing up, my best friend lived in a rundown hotel by the interstate behind my house. I remember thinking it was strange her family lived there, and it was odd she was ashamed to tell me. I found out where she lived by pure chance and only after I figured it out did she admit to me this was her home. I thought living in a hotel would be like being on a permanent vacation. The reality is vastly different.

The hotel, from what I’m told, used to be a marvel; a grand stop right off the last Interstate exit heading out of Council Bluffs. As time took its toll on the once great structure, a makeshift apartment complex soon sprung up, turning the decaying hotel into cheap accommodations.

The room where my friend’s family stayed was like most inexpensive hotel rooms one might stay on vacation. It was an outside-facing room housed in the expansion part of the hotel that never had as much class as the original. The hotel had two rooms: a living room/bedroom/kitchen/storeroom and a bathroom. The living room contained two queen-sized beds, two bedside tables, a set of lamps, a TV and all of the family’s possessions.

The floor of the hotel room was always filthy. The only way to cross the small room without stepping on some remnant of the past was through a narrow path that had been cleared from the door to the bathroom.

While the room was small, the family wasn’t. Living in that hotel room were two adults and five children all under the age of 10. They lived there for two years before the hotel closed down and they were forced to move.

We were in elementary school during those two years, and I remember not spending much time in the actual hotel room. Housing seven people in one room was hard enough without adding an extra person. I realize now embarrassment also played a role in us not being there very often. My friend was ashamed of where she lived and was afraid of the stigma that came with being a “hotel kid.”

When we would hang out at the hotel, we would often spend our time outside, in the decaying brown yard of the hotel or in the lush green grass of the church next door. While other families lived in the hotel, the kids never really joined us on our adventures and it seemed like these other families were never there as long as my friend’s. Looking back, I wonder what happened to those other kids and their families. Did they finally find a home or were they pushed from being “hotel homeless” to just homeless?

Homelessness is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as “having no home or permanent place of residence.” The people who live in hotels fit this definition but are often overlooked because they aren’t taking up room in shelters or living on the street. Society doesn’t view them as homeless because the problem isn’t staring them in the face.

It is hard to know just how many families fall into the “hotel homeless” category because these people aren’t counted as homeless. If they aren’t in a shelter or on the street, than they aren’t homeless in the eyes of the government. Most of these families don’t ask for help, either, due to the strong stigma in the United States against the homeless.

These families are often on their own, invisible to the outside world. The problem has only increased in recent years due to a declining economy and the crash of the housing market. More and more families are forced out of their homes and into hotel rooms where society forgets about them.

My friend may not have been homeless by societal definitions during the hotel years because she had a roof over her head and a bed to sleep in, but it wasn’t a home. She was homeless and no one noticed.

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