REPORT FROM THE U.S.—With a growing number of displaced and homeless people around the country, hotels have emerged as one potential alternative for emergency and transitional housing.
And many hoteliers are happy to help.
Four years ago, Ron Teji, assistant manager at The Quality Inn in West Springfield, Massachusetts, went to the Department of Transitional Assistance and signed up for the program. “We just got a call from the agency, and they started sending us clients,” he said.
Teji’s Quality Inn was fully committed to the program by 2011, offering all of its 114 rooms to people in the transitional housing program, which gave the hotel 70% to 80% occupancy. It was his decision to offer the hotel to only homeless families. “We didn’t want to mix two different kinds of clients,” he said
“We didn’t want to have other guests come in and see 10 kids or five kids and social workers with them,” he said. “They’d feel uncomfortable. This was a personal decision. It turned out in our favor.”
Though Teji was once a major player in Massachusetts’ housing program, he no longer participates since the state is moving away from using hotels in its emergency shelter program.* Funding for emergency housing programs comes from state and federal governments. For instance, Massachusetts spent $45 million during the fiscal year ending June 2012 on the program, according to The Boston Globe.
"The state isn’t closing down the emergency shelter system. We have the strongest safety net of emergency shelter in the country," Matthew Sheaff, director of communications for the Department of Housing and Community Development. "A family living with children in a one-room hotel is not ideal. We’re just moving away from hotels."
The New England state plans to remove homeless families from hotels and into permanent housing by June 2014.
Teji initially got involved to supplement lagging demand at his property. “It was more about the economy,” he said. “You sell all your rooms out; it’s fixed revenue and higher occupancy.”
Sandeep Desai, GM of a 105-room Quality Inn University in Lansing, Michigan, became involved in the program in 2008, working with the Red Cross to help disaster victims. The program was cut, but the Michigan branch of Volunteers of America picked it up three years ago. Guests who qualify sign a contract with the VOA and are granted a discounted voucher of $60 per night opposed to a normal rate of $100 or $120 for a four- or five-day stay at the Quality Inn.
The business has “been steady,” with winter slower than summer, Desai said. Although the program does help a little with occupancy, Desai said, he participates because “it gives back to the community.”
For Darin Estep, VOA’s director of community engagement, Lansing, “the payoff and outcome is absolutely worth it.” Working with four area hotels including Desai’s Quality Inn, the VOA relies upon federal funding, funding from the United Way and other programs to place qualified families for a short-term stay until more secure housing can be found. Last year, the program served more than 800 individuals.
In Summit County, which is an hour outside of Denver in Colorado, the program has evolved from helping stranded motorists to housing the homeless, partly because the closest emergency shelter program to the rural community is an hour away, explained Robert Murphy, community support manager at the Family and Intercultural Resource Center in Dillon, Colorado.
When the program started, law enforcement and churches were managing it. But four years ago, the housing demand increased for people who were homeless for a variety of reasons and the program transferred hands to FIRC, which has since seen a 35% increase of people using the program compared with 2011.
“The consensus was the hotel program itself was not a solution for homeless and housing issues,” Murphy said. “In most cases, the assistance is limited to one night, so what we try to do is couple that with transportation assistance to get someone to a community that has more shelter services.”
Tom Gleason, manager/operator at 38-room The Wayside Inn in Breckenridge, Colorado, described his participation in the program as a way give back to the community. The voucher program “is very simple,” he said, adding “we just do it to help out more than anything.”
Tom Gleason, manager/operator at 38-room The Wayside Inn in Breckenridge, Colorado, described his participation in the program as a way to give back to the community.
The room rate for homeless families is discounted from $80 per night to $35 in the summer and from $120 to $50 during the winter. Gleason said guests are allowed to stay only two nights, but FIRC does have the ability to extend the stay in special circumstances, Murphy said.
“Over two nights people tend to put roots in the ground,” Gleason said.
While Teji and Desai said the increased occupancy was an added benefit, Gleason said that with 38 rooms, being involved in the program is “absolutely not about occupancy. We do it for one reason and one reason only, just to help out the people who are busting their hump, donating their hard-earned money,” he said.
Desai has hit some bumps in the four years since his hotel started participating in the program. Some guests take too much food or too many blankets, but those problems are minuscule, he said, adding his staff is properly trained on what to do.
“The challenges are, frankly speaking, not really challenges,” he said. The VOA requires guests to sign a contract, which notes the number of people allowed in each room, who can use the pool and specifies to guests that they can’t invite local people or family members to their room.
Chad Callaghan, principal at Premises Liability Consultants, said hoteliers need to be concerned about fire safety, unattended children, the number of people in a room and the pool area, as well as other issues that go along with housing homeless families.
“Hotels are subject to liabilities in court and get slammed if someone gets hurt; if they don’t provide the proper security, it’s a tenuous situation,” he said. Hoteliers don’t have to tell guests they’re involved in the program, but from a liability standpoint, Callaghan said he would inform all guests while also highlighting the hotel’s security measures.
Teji has faced greater obstacles. Potential customers using TripAdvisor to find his hotel in the Boston area have stumbled across reviews that “had a negative impact,” he said. “It will take us a while to build that business for us; we’re working toward it.”
Callaghan agreed, noting, “People perceive that as a negative to have homeless people. You have to be careful from that standpoint.”
Murphy from FIRC said his organization is working to prevent improper behavior with a contract guests have to sign. Although he does admit “there is only so much screening we can do and so much we can do to prevent that.”
No matter how guests behave, however, demand for temporary housing continues to increase in Summit County, and Murphy said the program has little chance of going away.
“If we had other shelter or transitional housing to divert some of the folks through the hotel program, then the hotel program would revert to what it originally was—specific to stranded motorists,” he said. “With the need being so high, we can’t strip down the hotel program too much before these services are in place.”
Correction, 21 March 2013: An earlier version of the story incorrectly stated Massachusetts was shutting down its emergency shelter program. It is moving away from using hotels in the emergency shelter program.