The night before state marshals evicted them from their Bristol home, Justin and Misty Bidwell called the state’s 2-1-1 hotline one last time to beg for help. The response was the same as it had been the last few times they called.
The family would have to separate — not only from their home, but each other. Misty and her 12-year-old son could move to one homeless shelter, they were told, Justin to another. The family’s German Shepherd-Lab mix, Draven, would have to be left behind.
Misty cried that night after she and Justin made their decision. Everyone but Matthew would move to a motel. Unwilling to put their 12-year-old in either a homeless shelter or a motel, Misty arranged for him to go live full-time with his biological father.
Seventeen months later, the Bidwells are still living in a 350-square-foot motel room with their dog. Matthew has visited only a handful of times.
“I don’t want him in this environment. I don’t feel it is right for him. I don’t want him to see me like this,” Misty said of the motel, where she witnessed paramedics carrying out a body bag a few weeks ago, presumably another drug overdose. “I also didn’t know that it was gonna be hell to get out of here.”
The Bidwells, the eight other families living in this 120-room motel, and the untold others who have taken up residence in similar dwellings across the state, are not considered homeless and are therefore not prioritized for the state’s vastly oversubscribed housing assistance programs.
They are Connecticut’s hidden homeless.
A lot of the people who have complaints or feel like the 2-1-1 system hasn’t been responsive to them are people who are in that boat where they’re not quite homeless enough, but are facing some sort of housing crisis. People who are in hotels on self pay have always been in the gray area.”
No one knows just how many people call motels and hotels home, though the federal government does require school districts to track homeless students. That data makes clear the number of children living in these dwellings – presumably with their parents or guardians – has steadily increased over the last 10 years. For the purposes of this story, the words “motel” and “hotel” are used interchangeably.
During the 2019-2020 school year, there were 568 Connecticut children in motels, compared to 234 a decade ago. That means one out of every 950 students last school year were living in a motel. Add in the students living in shelters, on the streets, or staying with another family temporarily, and one-in-126 students in the state are homeless, up from one-in-231 a decade earlier.
As the numbers make clear, the Bidwells’ story is not uncommon.
The same month they were forced to leave their home, nearly 2,700 other tenants across the state were also evicted. Struggling with housing insecurity, thousands of people call the state’s 2-1-1 hotline every month seeking help finding housing within their budget. Some are connected to the Coordinated Access Network.
Since the pandemic shut down the state’s economy, those calls for help with affordable housing have doubled.
But there isn’t enough money to help everyone on the verge of homelessness with rent or a security deposit. In an effort to preserve the limited aid to help the neediest residents, the state has tight qualifications for help – and those living in motels don’t make the cut. Instead, callers are at times directed to find a motel they can afford.
“2-1-1 sucks and it failed us,” Justin said. “You have to be considered homeless to get any help.”
But Richard Cho, the executive director of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, said the Coordinated Access Network through the 2-1-1 system was only intended to help people with nowhere to go.
“The challenge is that kind of took care of the homeless, but we didn’t create a broader housing crisis response system at the same time,” Cho said. “A lot of the people who have complaints or feel like the 2-1-1 system hasn’t been responsive to them are people who are in that boat where they’re not quite homeless enough, but are facing some sort of housing crisis. People who are in hotels on self pay have always been in the gray area.”
Homeless shelters and other services are “oversubscribed,” Cho added.
“There has to be some limits on what we consider homeless versus in need of housing assistance,” he said. “If you’re not homeless, there isn’t a coordinated crisis response system for you, or to deal with the broader housing crisis. Frankly, there’s a lot more people who are in that boat than are literally homeless.”
‘Not quite homeless enough’
For 10 years, the Bidwells had overlooked their Bristol rental’s leaking pipes, unstable porches, asbestos, and ceiling holes. But that was no longer an option after the bank foreclosed on the owner. The new owner fixed the place up, to be sure, but the rent now exceeded their $600 monthly budget.
“It was a dump, but it was our dump,” said Justin.
When the new owner started eviction proceedings in court, the Bidwells stopped paying the full rent. They knew their home was now his and they needed to start saving for their next place. But the $1,000 they managed to save was not enough to get them another rental before they were evicted.
Help isn’t coming. We’re stuck.”
The couple stagnated after their move to the motel. They’ve used the bulk of their security deposit and any income they have coming in to pay their motel bill, but even if they had the money it would be difficult to find a landlord willing to rent to them now that they have an eviction on their record.
The Bidwells pay a weekly “rent” that ranges between $240 and $385 a week, depending on the time of year. The couple has shelled out $18,000 so far to live in this one room, which contains two beds, a mini-fridge, a microwave, and as many belongings as they could fit. The CT Mirror is not disclosing the name of the motel the Bidwells live in because they are fearful it will further exacerbate their living situation.
The money they’d saved for a security deposit before they moved here is nearly gone.
While Justin and Misty like their jobs as a school bus monitor and driver, they are paid just above minimum wage. Living in a motel is all they can afford in a state with exceptionally high housing costs, too few rental homes available for extremely low-income families – and a safety net accessible only to those the state considers homeless.
Misty – now in her ninth year as a school bus driver in Southington – said this is the first year she is picking up children from motels. A family with three school-aged children moved in a few doors down.
“This is new to me. I am sure it’s because of COVID and the shutdowns and people becoming homeless,” she said. “It’s sad. Motels are not where these children should be living.”
Some of these long-term dwellers are down on their luck and trying to carve a path out, while others seem to have no interest in moving, said Justin. When the couple walks their dog, they regularly witness some of their neighbors’ struggles with drug and alcohol abuse.
Misty finds it hard at times to overcome the waves of depression that come with being stuck in a motel away from her son.
“We aren’t even living paycheck to paycheck. My check is gone before it even gets to the account. The only thing to do is to work your ass off just to live. You can’t enjoy life,” she said. “Matthew is rooting for me. It’s hard on him because he just wants to be back with me.”
Homeless? Wait your turn.
Being homeless doesn’t guarantee help, either – especially not this year, when the demand for services has spiked.
Connecticut’s safety net for the homeless is available on a first-come, first-served basis and shelters currently have a months-long waiting list. The state is also running short of funding to help people pay security deposits on new rentals. Landing a housing voucher or an apartment in public housing can take years. Housing crises also disproportionately impact Black and Hispanic residents, a recent survey of a representative sample of state residents from DataHaven shows.
Over the last month, the CT Mirror has listened in on calls made to 2-1-1 by those experiencing housing problems. Some of those callers were turned away, while others were “homeless enough” to get an appointment with a housing counselor through the Coordinated Access Network.
During one of these calls in September, a single mother of three explains that she has to move out of her sister’s rental house in New Haven because the landlord found out she and her children were living there even though they weren’t on the lease. The CT Mirror agreed not to name the people seeking help from the state.
“I will let you know that there is no shelter available right now. To enter shelter, we do have to verify that, in fact, you will be homeless,” said Lisa Limone, a family coordinator who answered the call. “Have you ever been homeless before?”
“I feel like I am right now,” the woman responds.
Limone gets this response often, and pivots to telling the caller the state’s definition of homelessness.
“I understand that you don’t have your own space to call home, but it’s technically not homeless according to the [Connecticut] Department of Housing,” Limone says. “So you’re technically doubled-up and safe right now. Homeless would be you’re in a place that has no heat or hot water or running electricity. You’re sleeping in a car. You’re sleeping in a park. You have no place to go. You have no shelter to go to for the night.”
To self-pay in a hotel is pretty expensive, so we tell clients, ‘Do that for as long as you can. When you can’t do it anymore, you’re not having any luck finding an apartment, give us a call, and you know, maybe something will open up by that time.”
The woman tells Limone she has been homeless six times in the last three years. She’s also lived in motels with her children. While she has a full-time job as a home aid for the elderly, she makes just above minimum wage, and a 2016 eviction serves as a Scarlet E that keeps her from landing a new place.
An eviction can haunt people for years. While the Judicial Branch scrubs its online eviction records after 6 years, credit-rating agencies used by many landlords to check out potential tenants get this information monthly from the Judicial branch for their indefinite use.
Limone gives the woman the name and number of a landlord she knows will rent to people with an eviction on their record, but his properties are in Waterbury. She also tells the woman she can apply for help with first month’s rent or a security deposit, but isn’t very encouraging that any money will be available.
“It is on a first-come, first-served basis. The funding is running low, so I will let you know that,” Limone shares. “We can’t offer you shelter because we don’t have anything. However, if you know your situation changes and you’re not able to stay with your sister, we’ll tell you just to self pay in a hotel until you could find a place.”
Later, Limone said she regularly directs clients to motels until a spot in a shelter opens or they can find an apartment on their own.
“To self-pay in a hotel is pretty expensive, so we tell clients, ‘Do that for as long as you can. When you can’t do it anymore, you’re not having any luck finding an apartment, give us a call, and you know, maybe something will open up by that time.’”
Justin and Misty Bidwell have lost all confidence that something will open up. They have called 2-1-1 a half dozen times since facing eviction and moving into the motel 17 months ago.
“Help isn’t coming,” Misty concludes. “We’re stuck.”