Hotel, motel stay limits to be imposed on homeless in May 2016

Nov 5, 2015

The Board of Health is taking a stab at cleaning up longstanding problems with many of the town’s motels -- but running head-on into the plight of Wareham’s large homeless population.

In October, the board voted to impose a 21-day limit on the amount of time a guest can remain in a motel or hotel room and a 90-day limit on stays in efficiency units. The limits were to take effect in January of 2016.

On Nov. 4, the board pushed that enforcement date forward to May. With cold weather coming, members didn’t want to begin the New Year by throwing a large number of homeless people out of the only shelter they have.

Most of Wareham’s lodging establishments date back to an era when the Cranberry Highway was the primary route to Cape Cod from the west, commerce on the road meant mini-golf and basket shops, and a Wareham motel unit was a viable family vacation location.

With the passage of time, vacationers are staying elsewhere. Today, the occupants of many motels are the homeless, the down-and-out and – as police reports tell the tale – drug dealers.

Board of Health members say they hope limits on stays will ultimately create better living conditions for the homeless, as well as spur motel and efficiency unit owners to better the quality of the rooms.

Wareham is one of many towns throughout Massachusetts in which the state has placed homeless families at state expense. In Wareham, these state-placed families mostly live in the Atlantic Motel, according to Health Agent Robert Ethier. But, he added, other non-state-placed homeless individuals live in other motels, hotels and efficiency units around town.

Ethier told the board at its Nov. 4 meeting that he has visited the rooms and units in which the homeless are placed by the state. Although the rooms meet the state's minimum standards, he said they are in poor condition and that they sometimes lack basic necessities, such as cooking areas.

“I have seen a lot of the terrible things happening in these hotels,” Ethier said. “Some of these things that are happening to these people are because they live in a room like that. It’s atrocious.”

Selectman Judy Whiteside, liaison to the Board of Health, supported the idea of trying to get motel and hotel owners to upgrade their units. She said the owners are “living off people’s desperation and bad situations.”

“I think it’s awful to take advantage of people that way,” Whiteside said. “I’m appalled that [someone] didn’t have a kitchen – that somebody lived in a place for 17 years – that makes me want to throw up in the hallway.”

But resident Edith Voss, who said she has been homeless herself, expressed concern that there “is no exit plan” – a necessity, regardless of the time of year. Bettering the quality of the rooms and units in question would drive up rental prices, which could place them out of financial reach for most of their current occupants, she said.

“It just dawned on me today, 10 years ago at this time, I was homeless and living in a motel,” Voss said. “I was also pregnant. And I stayed there the whole pregnancy. … It’s not exactly the best place for someone to live, but it’s certainly better than a car, or on the street.”

Pastor David Shaw of the Emmanuel Church of the Nazarene and Chairman of the Wareham Area Committee for the Homeless, supported Voss, saying he and a crew of volunteers delivered meals to 78 people in the Atlantic Motel, the Starlight Motel, Silver Lake Motel and Traveler’s Choice Motel.

“That number fluctuates between 80 and 120 meals that we deliver,” Shaw said.

Moreover, Shaw said, the church’s “Nights of Hospitality’ – certain nights on which the church opens its doors to the homeless to stay for the evening – saw 49 people asking to stay the night last year.

“By booting people out of motels … there are going to be at least 60 – 80 new people in the shelter,” Shaw said.

Ethier proposed the homeless simply go to shelters in Brockton or Hyannis – “that are all full,” Voss interjected. Though neither Noah Shelter in Hyannis nor Father Bill’s & Main Spring in Brockton could be reached for comment, Voss broached another issue facing Wareham: There are no dedicated homeless shelters in Wareham.

Whiteside pledged support in the form of her “unlimited energy and fairly large mouth” to the Wareham Area Committee for the Homeless, and said she would help the committee find “some kind of shelter here in Wareham that is what I would call a ‘safety net shelter,’” but also urged the board to continue “to protect the safety and health … of the people who have had to live in these places.”

“I know that there are people who can’t afford better, and we can’t change that overnight, but we can join forces, and come at the problem from several different points,” Whiteside said. “They become rental units, they are then available to be inspected regularly. If this regulation passes … it gives business owners the notice to fish or cut bait.”

But the board acknowledged there is no guarantee that motel and hotel owners will change the quality of the rooms and units.

“It’s a horrible problem, and I don’t know what the answer is,” Ethier said. “We will do everything we can for these people, before they have to move along.”

No hotel or motel owners could be reached for comment.