HAMPTON ROADS, Va. (WAVY) — Every night in Hampton Roads, 852 children enrolled in public school go to bed in a hotel or motel because that’s where they live. They are part of a larger, more troubling statistic.
10 On Your Side learned there are just under 3,000 homeless children who attend public school in the seven cities, and while ordinances on the Peninsula are designed to crack down on crime, they’re also impacting law-abiding families, who have nowhere else to go.
The Pennington Family rented a home until it was condemned. They have bad credit and no money, so they’ve been living in a motel room since March 15.
“I can put chicken in it, I can boil stuff. I got my skillet the other day,” said Lisa Pennington, as she showed WAVY.com her appliances plugged in around the small, cramped motel room along Jefferson Avenue.
Her son, 8-year-old Kristofer Crews, is a third-grader in Newport News. WAVY.com asked him if he likes living in a motel. After a long pause he said, “Well, it’s better than living on the street.”
And Kristofer is not alone. 10 On Your Side called around the seven cities and found 852 children who are enrolled in public schools are living in hotels and motels:
- Virginia Beach: 182
- Chesapeake: 173
- Newport News: 164
- Norfolk: 127
- Hampton: 121
- Portsmouth: 55
- Suffolk: 30
Those students are included in a much larger number of children in the public schools in the seven cities who are considered homeless — 2,832.
Hampton and Newport News do not want the Penningtons or anyone else living for extended periods in hotels or motels that don’t have kitchens, so they enacted similar length-of-stay laws that say “It shall be unlawful for any person … to stay … longer than (30) days in a (60) day period.”
The Penningtons don’t like that at all.
“It’s just a bunch of red tape. If you are at a motel, and you are doing everything you can, and you have to move after 30 days, I think that is just ridiculous,” Lisa Pennington said.
“You are taking a hotel room not meant as an extended stay, it was not meant for people to plug in microwaves, burners, that become real hazards,” said Newport News City Manager Jim Bourey.
And that is exactly what Pennington is doing: “I have my skillet where I cook my fish. You can do bacon and eggs. You can put anything in there, so it’s like having a stove,” she said, as she showed WAVY.com round the room.
“We’ve seen a lot of drugs in these establishments, but that is not why we did this,” Bourey said. “We are doing it for a better, more economical place for people to live that is safe and secure, and that is why we are doing it.”
That is the disconnect our investigation uncovered: the difference between well-intentioned city law and the reality check of day-to-day survival.
“If I had better living conditions [that they want me to move to] then why would I go to a motel in the first place? I don’t even have enough time to save up. Thirty days is not enough time,” Pennington said.
“We also learned there were people living in hotels, and sometimes those permanent residents are the reasons you have the criminal activity,” said Hampton Assistant City Manager Jimmy Gray.
Here’s the problem — children and innocent families get caught in the cross hairs.
A city school bus drops 6-year-old Anthony Barbour off at a Hampton Hotel after school. 10 On Your Side asked him where he tells people he lives: “I tell them I live in a hotel … I tell them that because we don’t have a house.”
WAVY.com met a man with his daughter on his shoulders who had just gotten off the bus. He didn’t want to be identified because he’s lived in a hotel for over a year, which is in violation of the new ordinance: “It’s rough going from being laid off for five years to trying to support your kids. The city of Hampton is trying to knock you down when you are already down.”
The ordinances have exemptions to keep people from becoming homeless: if you get an approval, Hampton has a 30-day extension, and Newport News a 90-day extension.
“We won’t create homeless folks with this ordinance, and we won’t create homeless people in this process,” Bourey said.
10 On Your Side asked Pennington if she believes what Bourey said: “No … because they are not living in my shoes,” she said.
Just to make sure no one is thrown to the streets, Hampton and Newport News go even further. The hotel-motel stay becomes open-ended it reads, “may be extended in writing by the zoning administrator.” No time period is noted.
Those WAVY.com interviewed say the ordinance puts undue pressure on families already under pressure just to survive: “It’s making it harder on us,” said Kevin Pennington. “It puts more pressure on us to find something, and then a rule kicks in … gotta be gone in 30 days, bye.”
It is clear neither Hampton nor Newport News would ever throw a family out of the hotel or motel, so it raises the question we took to Hampton Assistant City Manager Jimmy Gray — if you’re not going to throw anyone out, why even have the policy?
“We are not going to throw people out, but we are going to force the operators to comply with the policy,” Gray said.
Jammie Abbott operates www.Hotelkids.org. She and her mother buy food, clothing, other supplies, and deliver them to people like the Pennington family. Abbott wept as she said, “You see a little person, and they are living in a hotel. He’s a blessed person. He has a bed. We got parents who are putting their kids in the back seat of cars … to sleep … because of the ordinance.”
Newport News wants the hotel-motel families to work with Human Services to get help. 10 On Your Side asked Bourey whether he is actually reaching out to provide services.
“Yes, every single person that has any issue, we will provide them services,” he said.
That is apparently easier said than done. The Penningtons laughed at that: “I would like to see that. Show me, show me … I don’t see it at all,” Lisa Pennington said.
At WAVY.com’s urging the Penningtons went to Newport News Human Services. They say they were told at this time there are no services available. They were given some phone numbers to call, but they could find no help at any of those organizations either.
Back at their motel room the Penningtons had this reality check: “We’ve asked. We wait in lines. They tell us they are not accepting clients. We fill in applications. We just get turned down … over and over,” Kevin Pennington said.
If you would like to learn more about kids in hotels and motels go to www.hotelkids.org. You can also go to that website to contribute specifically to the Pennington family.