Motel living: Extended stay
New London – It was supposed to be the last resort.
Jessica Varas and her fiancé Mark Beaudrot arrived at the Red Roof Inn on Colman Street with their two young daughters a year and a half ago.
The 106-room motel, which has long had a reputation as a destination for those with nowhere else to go, is largely hidden from view amid a perimeter of trees separating it from two residential areas and the convoluted sprawl of Interstate 95’s access roads. Notorious for drug activity and general disturbances, needles on the ground outside point to overdoses within: Police dispatch logs reveal 13 of them in a 12-month span starting last June. One was fatal.
Varas and Beaudrot had just been evicted from their second-story apartment a mile down the street. In a pandemic-altered rental market that put more demand than ever on too little supply, door after door closed in front of the couple before they could get an application in.
Varas, 32, recalled walking into their motel room for the first time. She said she sank down on the edge of the bed where nothing felt right.
They had two month’s rental assistance from the Mystic-based homelessness prevention agency Always Home and guidance on how to seek out more pandemic-related funding from the state. What they didn’t have was a landlord who would rent them a safe, affordable place for a family of four.
The motel’s willingness to provide rooms for any paying guests was well known, and she said she’d already handed over the money at the front desk. So they stayed.
“I don’t like it here,” she thought at the time. “I don’t like the feel here. I just don’t feel good here.”
Now that door is closing on them, too. Savinder Hospitality, the limited liability corporation behind the Red Roof Inn franchise headed by Amita Verma of New Jersey and operated locally by vice president Gulshan Soni, initiated eviction proceedings against Varas and Beaudrot in July for nonpayment of rent. They owe more than $5,000.
The family is among 18 cases brought to New London’s housing court by the Red Roof Inn over the past two years, according to court documents. Soni in a phone interview earlier this month told The Day about eight to 10 long-term tenants need to go.
They owe more than $200,000 in total, according to the landlord.
“In one sense, they need a shelter,” he said of the clientele. “But they need to respect the property. They’re not respecting.”
Needles and crack pipes
The dispatch logs for the year spanning June 1, 2021 through May 31 render the dark reality of New London’s Red Roof Inn in numbers: Three dead bodies, not including the fatal overdoses; 29 calls for suspected domestic violence; and 59 reports of general disturbances.
During the same time period, officers stopped in to check on the buildings 372 times. According to Records Division Sgt. Matthew Cassiere, those kind of patrols are intended to deter crime and create a police presence at certain businesses and bars.
Varas and Beaudrot said it’s no place to raise children.
The girls – Logan, 3, and Gianna, 2 – are spending their young lives largely confined to the motel room or the narrow industrial terrace that runs the length of the second story. Sometimes they have lunch on a kid-sized table set up outside the door, or make chalk drawings on the balcony, or use their tiny feet to propel them from one end to the other on a scooter.
“Last summer we were out playing and I found needles on the ground, crack pipes,” Varas said. “That’s why we stay up here. I mean, it gets boring for the kids, but at least they’re safe.”
The story goes like this, they said: Beaudrot, 36, got sick with endocarditis, a life-threatening inflammation of the heart resulting from an infection, about two years ago. It was the same time Varas gave birth to their youngest daughter. With Varas subsequently working just eight hours a week because there weren’t enough shifts to go around the Dollar Tree where she worked, the couple got behind in rent payments, first at their apartment and now at the motel. Now she’s working full time at the Dollar General store on Colman Street while her fiancé cares for the kids.
What they need is a chance, they said. They need a landlord willing to look past previous evictions, what their credit looks like and how much they make.
“Some places want you to make three times the rent, and how can I do that? I’m one person,” Varas said, citing a weekly paycheck of about $500 per week. Beaudrot gets $700 per month in temporary state assistance. They pay $1,100 a month for the room.
She said experience has shown she would have more financial and relocation assistance available to her if it was just her and the girls.
“Seems like there’s no help for whole families,” she said. “If I was a single mother or domestic violence (case), I would have help. Which doesn't seem fair. You should want whole families to be together.”
‘Not a way to live’
Soni blamed social service agencies and governmental entities in New London and Norwich for setting up clients at the motel without the ability to pay rent in the long term.
“Now it’s hurting us,” he said. “We are a business. We still have to pay taxes. We have to pay the employees. They put these people here, and now they’ve washed their hands.”
The businessman is also a partner in the nearby Clarion Inn and Shaking Crab restaurant.
Cathy Zall, executive director of the New London Homeless Hospitality Center, acknowledged a failed effort to use hotels as permanent housing amid the pandemic. She said it was a promising idea at the start, when hotel bookings were down and affordable housing options were scarce.
“The idea was to convert a hotel room into a unit that qualifies as an efficiency unit by adding some basic cooking capacity – normally some kind of a hot plate. The unit is then treated like a longer term housing option,” she said in an email.
The center provided a security deposit and about three months’ rent for somewhere between five and eight clients who chose to live at the motel, according to Zall. The hope was that the rental assistance would put them in a position to continue paying rent on their own once the subsidy ended.
“Unfortunately, on the whole, this did not work out as we had hoped,” she said. The agency found that giving clients temporary help paying rent is not enough for those living with many day-to-day challenges.
The affordable housing advocacy group Partnership for Strong Communities said those who are chronically homeless — that is, they’ve been homeless for 12 months in a row or a combined total of 12 months over three years — account for about a third of those without a stable roof over their heads at any given time. They often have chronic conditions like mental illness, substance abuse or a physical disability that makes it difficult to maintain a job and remain in their home.
New London Mayor Michael Passero and human services director Jeanne Milstein said the motel is no place for long-term tenants.
“We’ve been aware of the situation; I’ve been working on remedies for awhile,” Passero said. “But it’s difficult. Housing is difficult, especially when it comes to people with the least resources and with other issues in their life.”
Milstein, describing herself as the city’s one-woman human services department, said her goal is to work with area agencies locally and at the state level, as well as landlords, to get people “rapidly rehoused” in places that don’t include motel rooms. She said she hasn’t spoken directly with anyone living at the Red Roof Inn.
Passero cited a recent meeting with Soni and New London Police Chief Brian Wright that was held after officials received numerous complaints from neighbors and area businesses.
“Now we’re at the stage of finding out who's left there and what’s going to happen to the people. They need to be moved; whether they need to be evicted or not, it's complicated,” Passero said. “But it’s not good for them to be there, that’s for sure. There’s no quality of life there.”
In the context of the pandemic, Milstein cited success when the city rented a vacant former nursing home to house and isolate homeless COVID-19-positive patients instead of spreading them out in motel rooms across the region. She credited Zall with spearheading the grant-funded effort to staff the impromptu site on a 24-hour-per-day basis.
“It was a much safer environment than motels because a lot of times, people need help. They need support. They need services, and that isn’t provided by a hotel/motel owner,” Milstein said.
Proponents for supportive housing argue it is less expensive for the state to fund increased rental assistance and more services for people on the edge than it is to pay for the situations that can result from homelessness: incarceration, nursing home care, hospitalization or chronic emergency room visits.
Milstein cited the new “right to counsel” law that went into effect this year as one positive development. The measure makes Connecticut the second state in the country to provide free legal representation for low-income residents being evicted.
Natalie Wagner, executive director of the Connecticut Bar Foundation, said the program was rolled out in New London in March. Since then, 47 tenants in the city were represented by lawyers from legal aid organizations and eight received brief advice and remote counsel.
Varas said her call to the eviction hotline revealed there were no attorneys available at the time to help her. The program’s website encourages tenants to call back early the following week if caseload capacity is reached.
Still, even winning an eviction case is a small consolation at the Red Roof Inn, where Varas said four people in one room at a run-down drug den is “not a way to live.”
“My kids don’t have nap times. They don’t go to bed at the same time every night. They don’t sleep through the night. It’s hard. They need more structure. And it’s not even like I can take them to go run out back because I’m scared they’re going to step on a needle.”
Both Zall and Milstein warned the imbalance between housing supply and demand is tipping even further due to forces of the pandemic.
Milstein acknowledged the crisis means that hotels “may have to be a part of a whole array of what we offer” – but only if there are wraparound support services so the most vulnerable residents aren’t forced to navigate the system alone.
Zall said the agency had more state and federal funding to work with in the depths of the pandemic than it does now, even as they face the worsening effects of the rental market and evictions.
“We need to keep trying to find solutions – which might include hotels with the right design – or we will see an increase in unsheltered homelessness,” she said.