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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Homelessiness in an American Town - Last of a Three Part Series


Visitors at the facilities for homeless families often are restricted as to where and when they may visit residents. In some cases, visitors may not go beyond a visitors’ room near the entrance; at other facilities, residents are forbidden to have overnight visitors; and at some, visitors have been excluded entirely. For example, at one facility, the entrance to the driveway resembles a military installation. One must wait for the resident to come down the hill to the gatehouse; then the visit is limited to meeting with the resident in a public room adjacent to the gatehouse.

There was a motel, actually a former summer resort, where the management prohibited residents from having visitors after 10 p.m. and required that residents submit to searches of their cottages at any time of the day or night. Defendants advised residents of the motel that "...all visitors must leave the property by 10 PM. Anyone discovered on motel property after 10 PM will be turned over to the police...."

In order to enforce the visitor policy, the motel security guards would search the living quarters of residents after 10:00 p.m. and turn “illegal” visitors over to state police agents for criminal prosecution. The searches were conducted from shortly after 10 p.m. to as late as 2:30 a.m. When the security guards come to the door they announce that they are present to conduct a "bedcheck," an "occupancy check" or a "census check." There are usually two guards, one of whom makes a search of the premises, which often includes the closets, cabinets, drawers and refrigerator as well as the bathroom and bedrooms. The other guard remains outside with an attack dog, with the front door open. Oftentimes, children are awakened in the middle of the night by the beam of in their faces. Occasionally, a guard dog has entered a room and jumped up on a child’s bed.


The call came in to the Hopeless Motel reception desk at 2:45 p.m., a bomb would go off at precisely 3:30 - “Get them homeless out of there,” was the only further statement of the caller; there was no bomb, but because the caller had first asked for room 308, a family found itself summarily dispossessed the next morning. It didn’t matter to the management that Barbara Rackman was a victim of spouse abuse, nor that it was almost certainly her husband who had made the call, deliberately to make trouble for her. He had been sued by DSS for failing to support his child and had beaten Barbara and had threatened their child when she had told DSS his whereabouts and signed affidavits against him for DSS to use in Family Court. The management was concerned only that trouble was brewing, and there was enough of that already in the letters to the management and the local newspaper. Ms. Rackman was ordered out the following morning.

So now, for Barbara Rackman and her seven year old daughter Debra, it was back to DSS and on to another motel in another town, on another highway, in another non-neighborhood, amidst fast food restaurants, automobile sales rooms, automobile fumes, bags of clothing and more bags. Again, as in the case of the Roberts family, the families at the Red Apple Motel, hike along a busy corridor to shop for food, pushing baby carriages and trailing youngsters for whom there is no playground other than a shopping center. A single motel room often functions as a permanent home for a family of four. Is it any wonder that one official who inspected this motel’s numerous rooms devoted to homeless families, "the rooms look like refugee tents."

With only a parking lot for a playground, Barbara and Debra faced a summer of heat and boredom. Barbara’s search for a place to live produced nothing but responses of “No welfare” and an occasional offer of an apartment at a rent far beyond what DSS allows. Barbara counted the days until school would start and give Debra a break from the boredom and chaos of the homeless section of the Red Apple. Registration Day finally arrived. Barbara and Debra arrived a little before 8:30 a.m. at the front door of the Benton McIntyre Elementary School on Monday September 4th. Barbara expected no difficulty, after all, there had been no problem when she registered Debra in school in Hopeless Corners. Debra had had a pretty good year there, so why shouldn’t she be able to adjust and do just as well in this new school district.

Mother and child were not prepared for the cold reception and rejection she received from the staff and then the principal at McIntyre. She was told that the school district did not accept motel children, that she was not a resident of the district and so, her child could not attend without payment of the tuition. Debra and her mother returned to their room only with the suggestion that they ask DSS to transport Debra back to her previous school district. DSS agreed to provide transportation, but despite the pleading of Barbara and her DSS caseworker, the previous school district also refused to accept Debra, saying that she was no longer a resident of the district and could not attend without payment of tuition.

Barbara appealed to the state commissioner of education, who issued a temporary emergency order directing the McIntyre school district to admit the child. The following summer, the commissioner issued a regulation which he hoped would solve the homeless problem, directing that homeless children have a choice of continuing in the school where they became homeless or attending school near in the district where the motel or shelter is located. For Debra, this worked out well, but for many children living in motels far distant from their old schools and friends, it has meant a ride of an hour or even two hours by taxi or special bus each way, thus excluding all after-school activities.
NB: All names used in this series of fiction are fictitious and any resemblance to the names of living persons is not intended.

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