Life in the motel: Homelessness still rising among working class

KANSAS CITY — It's not easy fixing a home-cooked meal in a motel bathroom.

But Erica Davis tries. On a recent evening, Mexican rice simmered in an electric skillet on the sink next to the toothbrushes.

Gets pretty crowded in there, especially if the kids gather around. But ever since the family found itself homeless because of cut-off utilities, she and her husband have tried to keep life as normal as possible for their three daughters, ages 11, 8 and 5.

That means meals in, chores and same bedtime. But one room with two queen-size beds and a view of a parking lot trash bin is hardly home sweet home. Davis does laundry in the bathtub, and a large blue cooler under the sink serves as the family’s refrigerator.

The girls, though, say it’s an adventure staying in the south Kansas City motel. They play in the long hallway outside their room and meet other kids like themselves.

“They don’t need to know everything. Why put it on them?” Davis said recently while sitting on one of the beds. “I just know the family is together, and we have food.”

“And we’re warm,” added her husband, Ed Davis.

The Davis family is among the ranks of the “new homeless” that officials say are growing fast among working-class Americans everywhere, but especially in first-tier suburban neighborhoods.

The lingering recession, job loss and foreclosures have forced many families from their ranch homes and split-levels to seek refuge, usually temporarily, with friends, relatives and by-the-week motels. In small towns and rural areas, they’re living in cars, tents and abandoned buildings.

Johnson County, despite its affluence, is not immune. A Salvation Army family shelter in Olathe has seen its waiting list jump to more than 80. The Shawnee Mission School District, considered one of the wealthiest in Kansas, counted 227 homeless students in January.

The district is considering the adoption of its first enrollment policy on homeless children.

It used to be that when somebody lost a job they might get behind on their mortgage or rent, but then catch up when they found work.

“Now people who are losing jobs are also losing their homes because there are no jobs to find,” said Tim Knapp, a sociology professor at Missouri State University in Springfield.

A fix must include a surge in low-income housing construction, said Knapp, who recently took a sabbatical to study America’s rising homelessness. In recent years the country has added 15 million new homeless people, but only 1 million low-income housing units.

“These are people who never in a million years would think they would ever be homeless,” Katie Cramer Eck said last week. “We’ve had families in here that used to donate to us.”

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