Hard as I tried to shake her, the woman with the rudely removed pinky toe would not depart my thoughts.
Anybody who wears open-toe sandals after losing an appendage like that has to be a teller of critical truths.
The lady’s name is Stephanie, and on the second morning of July I met her in the parking lot of a chain motel in downtown Vancouver, Washington, or “The Couve,” the state’s fourth-largest municipality.
Around lots like that one you’ll find everything you need to know — maybe not anything you want to know — about those who are reduced to living in rooms with doors that open to car exhaust. Bedbug bites are far from the worst outcome in this, one of the lowest rungs of housing insecurity, just steps away from homelessness.
Watch the parking lots and you will see, first, that the numbers infrequently add up. A front desk worker might tell you that room 219 — top floor, dead center — sleeps two. But as many as eight members of an evicted family or eight homeless friends who've pooled funds could pop out, uncorked as though sprung from a broke-down clown car.
Interspersed among the sleep-deprived "normal" guests whose trek to grandma's house turned into an overnight trip, is that pacing cam girl, her hair dyed four colors so as to attract more page views on ExtraLunchMoney.com. The seasonal cannabis field workers are registered as well, and on the right night you might find that single dad with his severely autistic teen son.
Don't just watch the guests — keep an eye on their cars, too. Between parking pull ups and disheveled check-out time exits, all is told. Reality is that they “leave the light on for you,” as the motel chain’s corporate advertising promises, mostly to keep the open drug abuse and surreptitious fellatio to a minimum.
"It's monotonous, it's scary. It's really drama — it's like Peyton Place," says Stephanie, who tells me that she is 50.
On the morning I met Stephanie, she was hauling three coffees through the motel office door, highlights of a pitiable continental breakfast. Three months earlier, she said, she lost the Vancouver home left to her by her mother, who passed away in 2009. She tells me that the toe truncation — jagged and just this side of gooey — happened when she was living on the street, after an infection went unattended.
Two days a month Stephanie and her husband treat themselves to nights here, a respite from 28 or so days vulnerable to the elements. After a few minutes collecting woes similar to so many motel regulars — bad breaks and worse decision making — I did that thing I’ve picked up from public radio gigs, the one where you ask the subject to say their name and how they'd best be described.
"My name is Stephanie," she said into my recorder, her voice breaking, "and I'm a lost soul right now.
Stephanie's visceral imagery stuck because of my own just-healed wound.
Across the river in Portland, Oregon, a magical city with a profound housing problem, I spent two months earlier this year on the brink of living on the street.
I’d been through other rough patches in which Southern California motels functioned as life preservers while I was at sea with three children, cranking out copy and subsisting on fast food. The Pasadena inn whose gang activity was so intense I wouldn’t let the kids get a vending machine treat after dark. The West Hollywood hooker motel I hauled the trio off to after a summer spat with my then-partner.
With a financial assist from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, I recently checked into motels in Washington and Oregon for several nights, seeking to put the milieu’s chipped bath fixtures, old-school televisions and suspect bedding into perspective. What I learned was that for many, a motel isn’t just an inn off the freeway that one endures.
Famously dangerous hotbeds of sketchiness — in part because of their highway accessibility — motels harbor the quasi-homeless seemingly as often as they serve as antidotes to driving off the road for the sleep-deprived. Some regulars have vouchers from local governments. Most simply fell behind on rent or, as in Stephanie’s case, a mortgage.
About 10 days before I met Stephanie, I sat down at a coffeehouse in the upscale section of Portland with Bobby Weinstock, a three-decade veteran of housing advocacy, to discuss the structural problems that force so many to turn to motel living. (Nothing animates him more than the disempowerment of Housing and Urban Development that reaches back to the Reagan era.)
Portland is two cities. One is an affluent white municipality, the most rapidly gentrifying city in America, with more than its share of wandering, resented homeless. Then there’s the Eastside, where housing insecurity leaves the vulnerable in motels, then trailers, then the street. Weinstock laid out a chart from 2011, when Portland’s “livability” reputation was spiking. The numbers showed a deficit of 23,245 units in low-income housing. For those making 30 percent above the median family income or higher, a surplus showed.
“Portland’s become a very popular place for young people to move to,” Weinstock says. “For folks in the lowest income group, it’s become impossible to sustain.”
“People probably end up in motels because they need a place that night. You’re not going to get an apartment in a day or even a week or — in this town — even a month. So, you start in motels if you have young children, if you’re at the end of your rope, if you’re totally desperate — even though it’s very expensive. If you multiply the cost of what a motel would be times 30, you could be paying $2,000 a month.”
In motel parking areas, kids at play dodge motorists who “come into the lot like a bat out hell,” as a mother from Idaho told me, describing a scene from Portland’s Goose Hollow section.
While a parking lot as makeshift play place is far from optimal, it’s preferable to being cooped up in front of the cathode ray TV tubes found in most rooms.
My children and I haven’t spent sustained periods in motor hotels. But my sister and her youngest son are not so lucky.
On June 3, my sister Gaye’s birthday, her son Tiarry posted this on Facebook:
Happy Birthday to the strongest most independent woman. I call her my Mom. (off guard pic of her Lmao)
Gaye and Tiarry, my youngest nephew, were newly homeless, but at least they were not on the street.
Tiarry and Gaye had been residing at a dirt-cheap motel in Troutdale, a pastoral joint 20 miles away from Stephanie’s temporary temp digs. Pretty as a picture on its surface, the lodgings’ most memorable feature turned out be a turquoise, antique Lincoln Continental parked in the lot.
The Lincoln ain't there to organize a hiking tour of the Pacific Northwest. The Continental’s driver was selling nasty nose candy.
Having fallen behind on rent while working an $11-per-hour health-care job and studying to become a medical assistant, Gaye lost her apartment at the start of April. Gaye loaded up her uniforms and a few street ensembles, Tiarry’s skateboard, “astronaut food” that would heat up conveniently, and threw the few belongings that she could not sell into storage. Early on, friends and other family were shelter options. (Not me, it must be acknowledged. My crib’s mad tiny and also functions as my place of work.)
When pride got in my sister’s way, she and her then-17-year-old boy got on the highway to Troutdale and a $39 room.
At first, the stay was peaceful.
Then night fell.
The African kids who played in parking spaces went back indoors when the sun went down. Meth heads took their place. Motel guests of every color fought and cursed and visited that vintage Lincoln Continental. Truck drivers and motel guests alike hopped into the car’s front seat, then popped out just as fast.
Throughout the night, screams erupted and fights over who took most of the dope erupted. (“You think you’re slick, motherfucker!”)
Gaye says she punched up 911 on her phone nearly nightly. “If you do not get the police over here to deal with the people next door, someone is going to be dead,” she said. “I don’t know what is going on over there, but someone is getting their ass whupped.”
The white lady a few doors down, the one Gaye describes as “regular-looking,” told her that she had spent $6,700 since the start of the year to stay in places like this. Tiarry hardly complained. Instead, he stayed out late most nights.
To get them out of Troutdale, I offered to pay for a new motel as long as they let me cram a cot into their room.
At $109 a night, the new digs, in outer southeast Portland, would qualify as someone’s definition of nice. A young, Caucasian veteran serenaded me in the motel parking lot one day with an unwanted freestyle rap about having “PSTD from a war that I didn’t ask for,” but our room had air conditioning, which the Troutdale situation had not provided.
After a few nights, I decided to return to my own small apartment across town — that cot was destroying my lower back. I walked into the motel office, purchased Tiarry and his mother more time, then left a couple of keycards on the plywood nightstand between their sleeping bodies. I thought about Tiarry’s birthday post and what constitutes independence and my own children, from whom I was becoming estranged because of my inability to generate funds as a professional writer. Home, it seems, is no fixed, easily defined thing.
As this story goes to press, my sister and her son are surfing couches, on some wave between Portland and Vancouver.
Now back across the river to that parking lot in The Couve and the deafening truth that lives inside a sandal.
“I lost my toe, I needed a break,” Stephanie says. As she delves into her breakfast time explanation of how motels are an oasis, her husband approaches.
He looks like Waylon Jennings with a hardcore meth jones. As I explain why I’m questioning his wife the man sucks the last of his joint right down to his fingertips. My source’s husband shakes his head, then walks away.
Stephanie is so weathered, she appears to have been on the streets of Washington state since the first Bush presidency. It’s easy to buy her perspective that two floors of artless, right-angled shelter is a kind of oasis.
“You can sleep on something soft. You get air conditioning. You don’t have to do any housework. But there’s the monotony of it — you’re living out of suitcases,” Stephanie continues. “So far here though? No big deal. The neighbors above us are… very busy. But that’s cool.”
The motel over in Hazel Dell, the one she no longer goes to for respite, now that’s a problem. Old and decrepit. Junkies everywhere. Used to be a nice place. The cops in Vancouver “really don’t like homeless people,” Stephanie says.
All she really wants is to find the way back home; her great-grandfather built the house that she lost in April.
It’s all I can do to not correct her. Keeping my mouth shut takes more restraint that not peeking at the fiasco happening at the edge of Stephanie’s sandals. But this weary traveler has gotten it all wrong.
The evidence is in plain sight, from the feds who aren’t even close to compelled to send monies to local housing authorities to city developers who opt not to build for those desperate for shelter to the moteliers that charge exorbitant rates for pinnacles of shabbiness. It’s not just the fine fuzz of Washington that despise the homeless — just about none of us are really feeling them. It takes Herculean effort to ensure that their ugliness remains out of our sight lines.
Don’t see ya, sho ’nuff wouldn’t want to be ya.
This story has been supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
Donnell Alexander is a Portland-based creator of cultural content who hopes to soon be disqualified from writing first-person pieces about economic hardship.