Homeless Children Living On The Highway To Disney World

Melissa was always on the move, wandering in and out of people's rooms, going from pool to basketball court and back to pool, climbing up the big trees by the parking lot. Even before she came to the hotel her life was a blur of movement -- six houses in four years and never more than a year at the same school. But soon the moving around would be over. That's what her parents said anyway. Her mom was expecting a check from the government and when it came they'd finally have the funds to move into a real house where Melissa would have her own room.

Melissa is 12. She moved into the hotel two years ago with her dad and brother and probably knew the place better than anyone. When the kids played man hunt she'd crawl into a hidden hole in the hedge along the highway. When she wanted to shock her friends she'd show them the dirty drawings on the back of the shed. When she got mad, which happened more and more often these days now that her mom was trying to be part of the family again, she disappeared into the woods for hours at a time, scrambling over the vines and branches like an explorer. She'd make her way down a narrow path along the swamp, past the clearing where the hobos tossed their empty bottles, to a secret spot where she'd hide out until she felt calm enough to venture back into Room 413.

The room is one of thousands on Highway 192, one of the main arteries leading to the throbbing heart of the Central Florida economy that is Disney World. Hotels and motels line the road on both sides, places with names like the Xanadu Motel, the Paradise Inn. A few years ago they were filled with tourists, and a traveler can still glimpse remnants of those days, like the roadside establishments that charge 20 bucks for a helicopter ride and the drugstores where the toys and T-shirts capitalize on the irresistible appeal of cartoon princesses. But after the economy collapsed and the flow of tourists slowed, a new type of visitor began showing up at the registration desks: People like Melissa's dad, who lost their jobs and couldn't spare $1,200 to put down the security and last month's rent on an apartment.

"At first I thought it was kind of nice," Melissa said as she sunned herself by the pool one day this spring. "But after a while you get kind of tired of it."

Two years is a long time for an adventure.

* * * * *

According to the U.S. Department of Education, at least 2,000 children live in the hotels of Central Florida, and that's not counting the untold numbers who are too young to go to school, or who have dropped out, or who have otherwise escaped notice, as many undoubtedly have. Families make up the fast-growing segment of America's homeless population. Thousands live in hotels. The Department of Education has identified 47,000 hotel kids in schools around the country, and says that the number of homeless kids in public schools has increased by 38 percent since 2007. In Central Florida, it isn't uncommon to hear of 19 or 20 hotel kids in a class of 22 at the local schools.

People who advocate for hotel families speak of them as the new face of poverty in America. They say that the hotel is to the modern American family what the city shelter was to the homeless adult of the 1980s and the migrant camp was to the refugees of the Oklahoma dust storms. Every state in the country has hotels with families in them, but it's hard to think of a place more emblematic of the disillusionment at the heart of the American economy than the row of $149-per-week accommodations pointing the way to the fairytale opulence of Cinderella's Castle.

Like many of those on Highway 192, Melissa's dad first came to the area to get away from another life somewhere else. Cesar* grew up on Long Island, where he was a prominent member of a violent Puerto Rican street gang. In 1996, a friend told him that the men from the narcotics squad were looking for him, so he headed down to the land of perfect weather and plentiful paychecks. After a backslide into the drug trade he found work at a fancy tourist restaurant called the Wine Cellar.

He worked seven days a week -- five in the kitchen, two as a waiter -- and earned a promotion to manager in just two months. But then the mass layoffs of the great recession began and he lost the job. He says he moved into the hotel thinking it would just be a "quick fix," which is how a long-term stay at a hotel usually begins. He applied for work at 167 restaurants and only heard back from one. "A Long John Silver's," he said contemptuously. At the Wine Cellar he had served filet mignon. A fast-food fish chain would have been a long way down, had he gotten the job.

The hotel is L-shaped, four stories tall, with all of the vacationing people sequestered in one section in the front. An advocate for homeless families who passed through recently called it a "homeless shelter with a for-profit wing." Compared with other hotels on the strip it has a decent reputation, mostly because of its unusual manager, Jim. To the Puerto Rican New Yorkers who make up a good percentage of the clientele, Jim is something else, a character from a mythic white America they'd never quite believed existed outside of daytime television. Stringy and gaunt, with a thin dark beard and intense blue eyes, Jim is "as country as they get," as he likes to say. He believes in Jesus, family, America, and boar hunting.

In 2004, Jim left the hotel business to start his own construction company, but after the crash the owners asked him back as manager. "I guess they figured I had a no-nonsense attitude, that I wasn't going to tolerate drug dealers and gang members and stuff like that," he said. He'd been around on the streets; he'd seen things. And yet when he showed up to the hotel in the early months of 2009 he couldn’t believe his eyes. "I picked up 48 syringes off this property in the two days I walked in," he recalled.

Four years later, the place was still "pretty rough around the edges," he said. He was especially vexed about the infestation of drug dealers on the fourth floor, a problem that he blamed on a strange Florida law that restricts the sheriff's office from evicting people on criminal grounds. Still, his popularity owed less to his toughness than to his soft touch with the families. He often looked the other way when a family couldn't pay the bill, a perpetual source of tension between him and his bosses. The word on the strip was that he had a "big heart," and it was no secret that some families took advantage of this. They'd run up a big bill and move to another hotel down the road. They called it "hotelin'."

There were about 100 permanent residents in the hotel, and they weren’t all attached to children. Marshall, for example, was a scruffy alcoholic who sat on the periphery of the boisterous crowd that gathered on the patio at night. He had an edgy sense of humor. "Women," he remarked one evening. "You can't live with them and you ain't allowed to shoot 'em."

"'Bama," as he was known, was an extremely laconic and chilled out dude who spent all day smoking blunts packed with "Spice," a legal marijuana substitute popular with parolees despite its widespread reputation for inducing psychosis.

He needed only eleven words to tell his whole life story. "Been to prison. Work in landscaping. Got a girl. No kids."

These solitary types mingled freely with the families, who represented a cross-section of the American underclass -- they were black and white, young and old, cohesive and fractured. They'd ended up at the hotel for a variety of reasons. Bad decisions. Bad luck. In the case of one family, bad weather.

That particular family had started out in New Orleans, lost its home in Katrina, moved to Nashville and lost that home in the floods. At that point the parents figured they might as well leave the next choice of destination to their 7-year-old daughter. And so they’d arrived on the steps of Disney, where they were now renting one of the two beds in their room to a Vietnam vet for a few extra dollars.

At the top of the social order was Big Al, a 44-year-old Puerto Rican from the Bronx with the broad shoulders and flamboyant confidence of a man who'd once swung a bat for a minor-league ball team. He'd first brought his family to Disney in 2006 for a vacation and they'd fallen so in love with the place that they decided to come back for good. They rented an apartment near Orlando and Big Al's wife got a job cleaning rooms at a Disney resort.

Convinced that his years of experience in maintenance and construction would land him work as well, Big Al bought a truck and filled the back of it with tools. But after the fifth or sixth company neglected to call him it occurred to him that they had perhaps not overlooked the decades-old drug felonies on his record, as employers in a different state and a better economy had done. Within months his family had gone through all but the last of the $10,000 they'd saved up for the move, so they packed the truck and moved again, this time to the hotel where they'd stayed on vacation.

* * * * *

Whatever their reasons for coming to the hotel, the families were all struggling in some way not only to pay the rent from week to week but also to find some stability amid the confusion and disorder. For homeless families the lack of stability is arguably the biggest obstacle on the path to a better life. A homeless child might move three or four times in a year, and studies show that every time he changes schools he falls behind by about six months. Many other studies suggest that children who can generally depend on a certain level of predictability in their lives perform much better in school than their counterparts, and go on to hold down higher-paying jobs.

Common sense would tell you as much, but over the past decade researchers have unearthed a neurological explanation. One experiment after another has demonstrated that children who live in poverty often have higher-than-normal levels of stress hormones, which can actually warp the architecture of the brain in ways that make these children more vulnerable to anxiety and depression and more prone to poor decision-making, and thus more likely to remain poor and to raise kids who will themselves remain poor. Bringing up a child in the chaotic conditions of poverty must be something like building a skyscraper on quicksand. Instability begets instability begets instability.

Many of the families who end up in hotels have lived turbulent lives for a long time. It's rare that their problems started at the hotel. But there are poor kids who can count on going to the same school each year and coming home to the same place every night, and those who can't. And if there was one family at the hotel that could appreciate the difference it was probably Melissa's.

Sitting by the pool one day, Melissa said she and her brother had spent most of the last five years staying with their dad and a changing cast of characters, mostly friends of his who they referred to as "aunt" and "uncle." Since taking over from their mother as the primary caretaker, Cesar had fathered two children with two different women. He also had two older children from other relationships. They were grown-ups now, living grown-up lives somewhere else.

A year ago, Cesar went to jail for a month (Melissa wasn't sure what happened but was sure he didn’t do it) and Big Al took in Melissa and her brother, Bobby. He found space for them, somehow, in a room that he and his wife of 23 years already shared with their son, their son's pregnant girlfriend, their daughter, and the daughter's 2-year-old. A few nights later Melissa's mom showed up to claim her kids.

Melissa's mom had been out of the picture for years, and Bobby didn't want to have anything to do with her. Bobby was 15, slim and athletic. He possessed that quality of cool self-sufficiency that people call street smarts, but he was also a kid, with a kid’s temperament, and when his mom showed up there was a scene. "It was bad," Melissa said. Someone called the cops. Eventually the kids were made to accompany their mom to the nearby apartment where the mom lived with a boyfriend. For too many reasons that arrangement fell apart, and before long the mom and kids had moved back into the hotel with Cesar, who was home from jail on parole. Melissa and her mom slept in the bed; father and son on the pull-out couch. Melissa summed up the parents' relationship with a polite cliche: "They're still friends."

Melissa dresses in clean sporty clothes and hates makeup -- "I think it's stupid, there's no point" -- and that day by the pool she had on sparkly flip-flops and a T-shirt with a certain famous mouse on it. She said she'll never try drugs, not even cigarettes, and she'll never date anyone who does. She has her whole life planned out. She wants to go to college "really bad," and then she wants to live on a farm with her dad and lots of animals. And she thinks it would be great if she could meet a boy when she's still really young and stay with him her whole life. "Wouldn't that be awesome?" she said.

She hasn't heard of many relationships like that, but since moving to Orlando she's been to Disney World twice and she's seen "Beauty and the Beast" more than 20 times. In the Disney version of the classic fairytale Belle is a motherless young girl who loves books and longs to live beyond the walls of her boring little town. She falls in love with a monster who turns into a prince and they live happily ever after in his enormous book-filled castle.

* * * * *

One day this spring Melissa's father went up to New York. He told Melissa that he was going to see friends. Melissa and Bobby stayed behind with their mom.

Angela is 35. She speaks in a low fast voice and her fingers flit nervously over her face. She met the kids' father on Long Island, back when he was a glamorous young gangster and she was the kind of 19-year-old girl who could hold a room in rapt attention. "She was beautiful, smart, funny, a hustler --- just what I needed," said Cesar. But after they moved down to Florida and fell back into their old habits they lost respect for themselves and for each other. "When you're together for so long and you've been through so much shit, after a while you really start to despise each other," Cesar said.

Sometimes Angela spoke of Cesar as if they'd made a formal agreement to forge ahead as platonic partners in the noble enterprise of doing what was best for their kids. But there were also times when she mused that the only thing he wanted was her money. She expected a disability check to arrive any day now. She said she'd done so much heroin it had gnawed a hole in her spinal cord, and if she walked or sat in place for too long she'd get "stuck" -- trapped in her own body as though she'd glimpsed the face of Medusa. When that happened the kids would take care of her. They'd break off half a seizure pill and put it in her mouth.

Angela said the fear of death had straightened her out. At her last home, in the town where she'd taken the kids after retrieving them from Big Al's room, her boyfriend had begun talking about using the needle again. "Every day he was chasing, chasing," Angela said wearily. She'd gone along with the crack and the "Roxies" -- the Oxycontin that had spread up and down the strip like bedbugs -- but she knew that if she started shooting up again it would be the end of her. She also owed a lot of money to the local dealers and was beginning to sense that her "gift of gab" wouldn't keep them at bay much longer.

Since moving back with the kids she'd been going out of her way to show them how much she loved them, and one evening this spring while Cesar was in New York she cooked a big spaghetti dinner for the kids and their friends. As they poured into the room and flopped on the couch, dizzy and silly from another day of sun and boredom, she announced in the chipper voice of a camp counselor that she'd borrowed some board games from the downstairs office. She put out up some bottles of soda and a stack of Styrofoam cups and instructed the kids to write their names on the cups.

In some ways the room looked like any hotel room. A painting of palm trees hung over the bed, and a sliding glass door led to a balcony overlooking the pool and the dark shape of the tangled woods beyond. A picture of paradise --except for the hotplates on the dresser and the cans of food from a church pantry stacked atop the TV cabinet. While Angela busied herself with the cooking, Melissa took out a special binder where she kept the letters her dad had written from jail. "You are my light my joy my happiness," she read out loud. "Never forget that baby. Remember you can be anything you want to be in life."

Melissa was off from school that week and had spent nearly every waking hour with J.J. and Alice. Alice was a lanky 12-year-old who walked with a slouch and for some reason loved the sound of the name "Bob" and repeated it constantly. J.J. was 13 and chipmunk-cheeked and a bit of a prankster but very polite. Before dissing someone he would ask their permission: "You don't find stuff offensive, do you?"

Earlier that day he'd asked Angela for permission to kiss Melissa. Angela was flattered. “They know they can talk to me,” she said proudly. Now J.J. lay stretched out on the couch with his head in Melissa's lap, and every so often he would twist awkwardly onto his side and give her a quick tight hug around the waist. He liked teasing her, declaring his love for her one minute and gently mocking her the next. His family was new to the hotel. He said they didn't really live there: They were just staying there until they saved enough money to finish building a home in a nearby subdivision. He didn’t know when they'd move out but was sure it wouldn’t be long.

Angela filled a big pot in the bathroom and carried it over to one of the hotplates on the dresser. "When I cook I like to feed the whole community," she said. She used a pair of scissors to cut a few squares of cloth from a hotel towel. "Washcloths."

She had spent most of the week hanging out with Carmen, a middle-aged woman with plucked eyebrows who kept repeating that she wasn't used to the hotel lifestyle. She'd lived in Hollywood; she knew people who knew people. Life had not gone according to plan, however, and now she and her two kids were stuck in a room down the hall. She and Angela were inseparable.

"That's my best friend," Angela said beaming at her.

"I thought I was your best friend," said Melissa from the couch.

"You are!" said Angela, brightly. "You're my other best friend!"

"Unfair," said Melissa. She flashed a smile; she was just playing.

But Angela took her seriously. "You're the love of my life," she said.

Melissa didn’t have anything to say to that.

* * * * *

Angela said she didn't worry about Melissa. Melissa was a good student; she had a good head on her shoulders. Unfortunately Angela could not say the same about Bobby. A year ago, before Angela came back into the picture, Melissa's brother had won a full scholarship to a prestigious wrestling camp. But over the summer he got into a fight with another boy and went to jail for a month. He missed the camp, and when he got back he started failing all his classes.

He didn’t care. He figured there'd be plenty of time for studying when he got to college. "All my friends will be like, 'Bobby, let's party,' and I'll be like, 'Nah, I been done that. Now I'm all about the books.' For now, the plan was to have as much fun as possible. He knew his carefree days were numbered. Earlier that week, he found out he's going to be a father.

Bobby missed the spaghetti feast, but the next day he had a chance to bond with mom when they went with Carmen and a bunch of other party people to a theme park down the highway. Old Town was like Disney World, with some differences. You didn't have to pay for admission, and you could walk around with those brightly colored tubes of booze that they sell in those places. And it was much smaller.

On the drive there, Angela and Carmen were like giddy teenagers. A local entrepreneur who reportedly supplied some of the hotel hustlers with product had recently discovered a talented young rapper and signed him to a record contract. The rapper was due to perform that evening, and Angela and Carmen were looking forward to a late night of dancing and drinking. Angela said it had been ages since she'd gone out and had some fun. She had on a black T-shirt emblazoned with a neon-green Superman logo. "Supermom!" she said. She and Carmen looked as though they'd taken a roll in a pile of glitter.

Bobby looked handsome and neat in a clean white T-shirt that he picked up from a WalMart on the way over. He always had pocket money these days, a development that he dryly attributed to the universal popularity of lemonade. "People come to the hotel from all over the world," he said, "and they all want lemonade." He kept a fresh roll of twenties in his pocket at all times, and when his mom needed money for cigarettes or groceries he'd crack a joke -- "What am I, an ATM?" -- and peel off a bill.

The evening started off well enough. First the label owner managed to get Bobby past the bouncers, and then Bobby made his mom shriek with delight by joining the rapper on stage, where he showed off his mastery of the '80s breakdance moves he'd learned from his dad. "Look at my baby!" Angela cried over the pounding beat. "I'm so proud of him!" But later, as a woman writhed on the bar in her underwear, Angela said she knew that dancing wasn't the only thing he'd learned from his dad. She knew where the twenties in his pocket came from. "There's a lower class and a middle class and an upper class," she said. "We're in the lower class, and he's trying to get to the top of his class."

* * * * *

I spent five days in the hotel -- in the "for-profit wing" -- too short a time to really get to know anyone but long enough for my perceptions of some of the people there to change. When I first met Angela, I didn't want to talk to her. Her displays of affection for her children made me uncomfortable. But I began to feel differently about her that night at the club, as I sat with her in the VIP section, where she told me over the pulse of the music that her oldest memory was of kneeling on a floor somewhere with her wrists tied together in front of her. She wasn't sure where she was; maybe foster care, maybe somewhere else. In any case it was just the first of a lot of bad things that she remembered happening to her.

That night I went back to Angela's room with Angela and her entourage -- Carmen and Bobby and a teenage girl from another hotel and one of Bobby’s friends, a wild-eyed boy dressed head to toe in red. Melissa and Alice and J.J. were asleep in the bed, J.J.’s head at the girls’ feet, a model of virtue.

Angela put on a video, and the boys stepped out onto the balcony and got high. Carmen warmed up a plate of last night’s spaghetti. The boys came back and I noticed that Bobby’s friend would not meet my eyes. He seemed on edge, and I remembered hearing about some of his exploits in the local lemonade business. Bobby had earlier described him as "crazy," and he’d made it clear that he wasn't using the word lightly.

The friend went back outside, this time with Angela, and when they returned Angela asked me to unbutton my shirt. She said, "He thinks you're with the cops or the ACF" -- the Administration for Children and Families. She wanted me to prove that I wasn't wearing a wire.

For people who advocate for hotel families, parents like Angela present a dilemma. How can you argue that society should give them more help -- more rent-stabilized housing, more services, more money -- when their problems stem not just from some isolated set of circumstances or the recent economic nosedive but a pattern of abuse and neglect that stretches back to before they were born, to the childhoods of their parents and their parents' parents? If Melissa and Bobby don't turn out alright, it won't just be because they spent some of their early years in a hotel. When I told one activist about Melissa she said she worried that Melissa might not make for the most “compelling” case. She gently encouraged me to find a different family, one that might be easier for more people to "relate to."

There were at least a few families like that at the hotel, and the first that came to mind was Ayele's. Ayele was an upbeat African woman who led a weekly prayer group in the conference room and took great pride in her ability to care for her kids, which eloquently expressed itself in the hearty meals she prepared on her hot plate. Despite the difficulty of providing for the two children that she had brought into the world herself, she had also taken in a teenage girl from the streets and the girl's 2-year-old daughter. To make room for them, Ayele's 18-year-old daughter had vacated the bottom berth of a bunk-bed and moved to the top to sleep with her 5-year-old sister.

Ayele had landed in the hotel in part because she and her husband had handed over thousands of dollars to a fraudulent preacher, a silky-voiced con-man who told them that God would reward them for their generosity. Ayele swore she'd never make the same mistake again. Now all she wanted from God was a home. Her husband worked long hours at a restaurant and her oldest daughter was finishing beauty school. They weren't earning enough to move out just yet, but maybe with a little help they could move out for good.

A new bill before Congress may provide that help. In the past year, a number of advocacy groups and politicians on both sides of the aisle have lobbied for a law called the Homeless Children and Youth Act of 2011, which would expand the housing department's definition of homelessness to include people who live in hotels and in "doubled-up" arrangements in houses and apartments. As of now, the only homeless people eligible for help from the Department of Housing and Urban Development are those who live in shelters or on the streets, with narrow exceptions. The law would add around 700,000 kids to the thousands who already meet the department’s definition of homelessness.

But the housing department is fighting it, arguing that the scarce resources available to homeless families should go to those deemed worst off, meaning those who can't even afford motel rooms, and several advocacy groups agree. Other advocates see this argument as cynical, a political move designed to boost the bureaucrats' careers by making the problem of homelessness look less dire than it is. For families like Ayele's, they say, a stable home could be the first step to a middle-class future.

Whether such a law would help a family like Melissa’s is harder to say, but harsh as this may seem, many activists would dismiss that question as irrelevant. They say that before the government can hope to solve the problem of hotel homelessness it must recognize that the problem exists, that it's not going away. And for Melissa's family, certainly, things aren't looking to get easier anytime soon. Two weeks after the big night at the club, Angela called me to say that she and the kids had moved -- not to their own apartment, but to the floor of Carmen's room down the hall. It seemed that Jim, the big-hearted manager, had finally reached the limits of his compassion. "Now we're really homeless," said Angela. Her disability check still hasn't arrived.

*Most of the names in this story have been changed to protect the identities of the subjects.

Correction: An earlier version of the article stated that a local record-label owner supplied people in the hotel with "product." The owner denies this.

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