IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Was a Motel Kid of Orange County

Seeing the shame and hopelessness in my mother’s eyes is something that will forever haunt me.
Publish date:
January 25, 2016
childhood, homelessness, California

Although homeless children became a hot topic after the recession, I had been living with the dark knowledge that this problem has been prevalent since well before that time. Unfortunately, this knowledge came from first-hand experience.

You might not have heard of a "motel kid" before articles and documentaries brought light to the issue in recent years. I already knew what they are because I was a motel kid of Orange County in 1996.

Although my life was never idyllic, the life I lived before becoming homeless was the closest it would ever be. My father was the owner of a local convenience store. We lived in upper middle-class suburbia in a house with a hot tub in the backyard. My sister and I had our own rooms that were filled with toys. I even had a slumber party once.

The only problem was our physically abusive father, but he was never around. His neglect was a welcome reprieve from the random beatings and hostile environment.

I didn't know that our eviction was on the horizon. We lost our store, and the house soon followed. The old man who was our landlord arrived at the house with a police officer and forced us to pack up our belongings. He stared over us with a cold, disapproving look as we shoved our life into a moving truck.

We transferred all our belongings to a storage unit. We would eventually lose the unit due to non-payment. It contained 99% of the photos of me as a child and the first bike I ever rode.

Sometimes when I watch episodes of Storage Wars, I think about the winners of our storage unit auction wading through my childhood photos and throwing them out after deeming them to be unsellable junk.

The first hotel room we moved into wasn’t all that bad compared to other places. It was a one-bedroom suite in a motel room in Inglewood, California; cramped quarters for a family of five. My mother and father shared the bedroom with my little sister while my older sister and I shared the pull-out couch in the “living room” area.

My father was rarely there; he was busy in the casinos trying to win all of the money he lost back.

This particular hotel offered a continental breakfast of doughnuts and orange juice. This was great in a child’s eye, but probably not the best nutritionally. Sometimes we splurged and bought one order of the big breakfast from McDonald’s.

Lunches and dinners were scarce, but they were usually McDonald’s or Taco Bell. To pass our time, we’d walk to the mall and window shop. My dad’s friend even had access to free Disneyland passes, so we’d go there often.

At first, it seemed like a fun summer vacation. I vividly remember watching the fireworks from the room on the fourth of July. I also remember hearing sirens every few minutes. It was Inglewood, after all.

As the summer wound down, we weren’t able to afford the suite. In a bid to get away from my father, my mom’s friend piled us up in a car one night and drove us to a budget motel in Westminister, California.

Our new “home” was a single room with two double beds, a mini-fridge, and a microwave. My sister and I would walk to a neighborhood a few blocks away to pretend that we lived in houses over there instead.

After a bout of truancy, we were finally enrolled in a nearby school. Often, the school lunch was the only food I’d eat for the day. Sometimes, the motel manager would take pity on us and give us free coupons for a nearby Sizzler. Other times, we’d be forced to eat “ketchup soup,” which was really just ketchup and hot tap water mixed together.

On one particularly terrible night, my mother stole discarded takeout food from the trash to feed us. Seeing the amount of shame and hopelessness in my mother’s eyes that night is something that will forever haunt me.

To pass the time, my sisters and I would wander the adjacent neighborhoods. I used to peer through the windows from the street and imagine what it would be like to live in a comfortable home with a loving family. When we were “home,” we’d play on stacks of unused carpeting that sat in a carport in the parking lot. When you have close to nothing, your imagination becomes invaluable.

By December, my mother had procured emergency government aid that she immediately used to purchase bus tickets to go to my grandma’s house in another state. We escaped the motel lifestyle. Unfortunately, numerous families are not as lucky.

Although it has been 19 years since that time in my life, having been homeless has impacted me well into adulthood. I am currently a graduate student who is married to a college professor. We own a four-bedroom home and enjoy an upper-middle-class lifestyle. Yet that feeling of instability is still so pervasive today. I constantly feel anxious that I’ll lose everything I have again.

My pantry is filled to the brim with food that mostly goes unused because I am terrified of the potential of going hungry. I only recently have been able to stomach ketchup.

I have a low tolerance for people who complain about "first-world problems," such as traffic jams or having their order messed up at a restaurant. When you’ve lived through homelessness, minor inconveniences are so trivial.

Only recently have I begun to share my secret with people. I finally convinced myself that being homeless as a nine-year-old should not be a negative reflection of who I am today.

On the positive end of the spectrum, I have a great capacity to remember that there is good in this world. There are hotel managers who give you food vouchers. There are strangers who give you rides when they see you walking. There are teachers who will let you know that they care about you.

I tend to give as much as I can, whether it is by donating money to a local organization or by offering words of encouragement. My ultimate goal is to work for an agency that helps support and empower youth to continue their education when faced with the bleakest of circumstances.

You can give, too. Consider donating to a local homelessness organization, volunteering at a soup kitchen, or sponsoring a child during the holidays. I can tell you first-hand how much seeing good people in the world can change a child’s life for the better.