On a sun-splashed afternoon, a yellow Independence school bus rumbles into the parking lot of the motel at Noland Road and Interstate 70.
The doors fling open, and a handful of schoolchildren scamper to the waiting arms of parents and relatives.
The children laugh and squeal, anticipating what the evening’s activities may hold.
For these and scores of schoolchildren across the area, home is not a street address or an apartment number, but a motel room number. The kitchen, living room and bedroom are all the same.
They are not technically homeless. Yet they have no home beyond a week-to-week existence.
Though comprehensive statistics are hard to come by, it’s clear that this lifestyle is becoming more common.
In Missouri, the number of students known to be living in motels or hotels jumped 140 percent from 2007 to 2012. In Kansas, it was up by half.
Typically, these families can’t afford the upfront costs of an apartment, so it’s either a motel or a shelter or the street.
“I went from a two-story, five-bedroom home with an attached garage to this,” said Lorie Lytle, 38, whose marriage collapsed.
She now shares a two-bed motel room in Independence with her 22-year-old boyfriend and her 4-year-old daughter.
“It is hard, and it is depressing, very depressing at times.”
Their room is small but tidy. Dry foods such as instant pasta, macaroni and cheese, and chips are stacked atop a small microwave, which sits on a small refrigerator.
Books, toys, learning games, as well as packages of hamburger buns and spaghetti, are scattered on a bed. A slow cooker of leftover cheese-and-salsa dip rests on the table near the front window.
“It is a cumulative effect, and once it happens, you just don’t see a way out,” said Tim Lee, 52, who has lived with his 74-year-old mother at the American Inn on Noland Road the past two Christmases.
Lee said his mother’s chronic illnesses — which include osteoporosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, arthritis and a heart ailment — make it difficult for him to find a job. He wants to work but needs to be close in case his mother needs immediate help.
She sleeps in a hospital bed and takes breathing treatments several times a day.
“I couldn’t afford to pay for health care, so I became health care,” Lee said.
Stuck in transition
Long-term-stay motels don’t attract wide public attention until authorities are forced to intervene, as happened last month at the Extended Stay Inn at Interstate 35 and Antioch Road in Kansas City, North.
Police, animal-control officers, health department workers, fire inspectors and codes officers converged to close the motel, which had been a focus of crime complaints for years.
About 50 units were occupied, and everyone was evicted, even those who were not causing problems.
Not all long-term-stay motels are troubled. But these are places where the management often accepts payment on a daily or weekly basis, forgoes credit and background checks, and does not require a credit card as a security deposit.
Many people live there after losing their homes. They are often working poor who struggle to keep their children fed and clothed.
The rent may be $800 to $900 a month. Though a larger apartment might be a better value, emergency expenses often prevent families from putting enough money aside for rent and utility deposits.
They become trapped.
Some families move from motel to motel, often for years, trying to be closer to jobs or to escape the harsh culture that sometimes develops.
A study for the Census Bureau dubbed these families “perpetual sojourners” who “subjectively believe their hotel-living is temporary until their lives change.”
Some are victims of the economy, but others find themselves in this situation because of bad choices.
“It’s almost like drinking from a fire hose. They’ve got a bunch of problems,” said Cotton Sivils, director of Hillcrest of Eastern Jackson County, a nonprofit program that helps people move from homelessness to self-sufficiency.
A broken taillight may lead to traffic tickets that, if unpaid, may lead to missed court dates and warrants.
“Things snowball,” Sivils said. “They don’t know where to solve problems or how to prioritize.”
John Wiley, founder of the local nonprofit River of Refuge, said these are basically good people for whom “life gets in their face” as it does for everybody. But for people trapped in motels, ordinary setbacks can be catastrophic.
“They may manage to save $300 to $400, and if a kid gets sick or if the car breaks down, that money gets eaten up,” Wiley said. “Things you and I recover from easily, it takes them years.”
Long-term-stay motels can be found all over the Kansas City area. They tend to be concentrated on highways and on the area’s perimeter because that’s where their travel business was in better days.
“The hidden homeless are right in the middle of suburbia,” Wiley said. “Their children go to the same school districts. They’re in the same grocery stores, and they attend the same churches. But they’re hidden before our nose.”
The Olathe School District identified 12 students last school year who lived in motels or hotels. Shawnee Mission has 21 this year.
Nicole Sequeira, homeless case manager for the Independence School District, said that district has seen a steady increase.
So far this year, the district has identified 515 students as homeless, including 85 who live in motels.
The district has employees who assist those students with referrals for housing, food and clothing. Students also receive tutoring as well as social and academic enrichment. Transportation allows them to participate in extracurricular activities.
“We have families where there are six to seven people in one hotel room,” Sequeira said. “Going into some of those rooms, it is amazing how kids are able to get their homework done. That is why we try to get them to stay after school ... so they have time to study.”
A mother of two teenage daughters said she is grateful that the school bus drivers make their motel the first stop on the morning routes. This saves those students embarrassment and ridicule from their peers.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development counts as homeless only people in emergency shelters or living on the street.
But school districts keep track of others to qualify for federal grants.
Buses in the Hickman Mills district stop at two inns to pick up some of the 29 district students who are living in motels this year.
That’s down from 49 students last year, but the school term has just begun and students’ home status can change at any time, said Jennifer Bickford, the district’s liaison for the homeless.
The overall homeless population in Hickman Mills is greater than last year at this point.
The National Center on Family Homelessness reported that 1.6 million children — one in every 45 in the U.S. — were living on the street, in homeless shelters or in motels in 2010. That was up 33 percent since the pre-recession year of 2007.
Another way to gauge “motel families” is to look at poor households that spend half or more of their income on housing, a category that would include most people living in motels.
Twenty-two percent of households in Kansas and 24 percent of Missouri households spent that much on housing in 2010, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness.
Nationwide, the number of such households increased 6 percent from 2009 to 2010, said a report this year from the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
The phenomenon of “motel families” did not arise solely because of the recession. A 2006 study by an anthropologist for the U.S. Department of the Census found that motels and hotels catering to long-term customers had been a growth industry since the 1990s.
A place of their own
River of Refuge purchased the shuttered Park Lane Hospital on Raytown Road and is trying to convert it into an apartment-style haven where homeless families can live rent-free until they can be self-sufficient.
That program is still developing, and for now, the charity works directly with families still living in motels. River of Refuge tries to rescue those families that want out bad enough to work at it — and stay out once they’re free.
Wiley acknowledges that’s only about one in 10 of the families his agency meets.
But for those who are truly motivated, River of Refuge will help with money and supplies while they save enough to move into a real apartment. But they must have jobs and make weekly deposits in a savings account.
One such family is that of Elizabeth Williams and LeRoy Tolston. Over the weekend, they, their four children and a beloved cat escaped the motel room they had been crammed into for eight months.
After an eviction and credit problems — and wearing out their welcome with relatives — the family ended up at the Crown Lodge at 8500 E. Missouri 350.
“We had stuff in every inch, every corner,” Williams said of their motel life. “We try to keep it homey for the kids, like it’s home, but it isn’t.”
Three of the kids, ages 4 through 7, slept in one bed, and the baby was in a crib. A microwave and toaster oven sat on the desk next to the TV. On the other side was a refrigerator.
When they fried dinner, they put the griddle on the floor between the beds. With six people, there was no privacy and little room to turn around.
“It’s very stressful,” Tolston said of motel life.
He drives a trash truck, and she works full-time in the motel office. With her job discount, the couple paid $640 a month instead of the regular $920 for a room with two beds.
They managed to pay down debts but were still motel-bound until River of Refuge chipped in with $200 toward a two-bedroom apartment in Raytown and offered to help them move so they could avoid the cost of a U-Haul.
Their new rent will be less than they were paying at the motel.
Williams was looking forward to cooking for her family in a real kitchen.
“We won’t have to brush our teeth where we wash our dishes,” she said.