At the height of the pandemic, countless communities across the country turned to hotels and motels to shelter the housing insecure. Three years later, many communities are looking for funding to buy or lease motels to permanently turn them into homeless shelters.
It's an idea that Theresa Nicholson believes could change the trajectory of those experiencing chronic homelessness.
"We are a hand up, we aren't a handout," she said.
Nicholson serves as the director of homelessness services for the Center for Human Development. A few years ago, the organization started partnering with the city of Holyoke, Massachusetts, to lease a Motel 6 just off Interstate 91.
"It almost couldn't be a better spot. Everything you need is here," Nicholson said as she walked around the property on a recent Thursday morning.
Now, those experiencing homelessness can find safety from the streets. And not only do the housing insecure have a warm place to stay, they also have their own rooms. The hotel-based shelter can house 38 people. All of them have their own private bathrooms, beds and even microwaves.
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"We have folks who came in here that were on the street for 30 years. Because they can have their own space and get wrap-around support, they're willing to come in," Nicholson said.
This motel first started housing the homeless during COVID. Those who come to the motel can receive everything from social services to hot meals and access to weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
"You come here and you can close your door, but when you want to have support it's right down the hallway," Nicholson said.
Jason Noles, 29, has spent the last few years on the streets after falling out with family members. He's been in and out of plenty of shelters.
"It's that alone feeling — I have nobody, I have no home. What am I?" Noles said about being homeless.
Unlike traditional group shelters that Noles has stayed in, though, he says having his own room has changed his trajectory.
"It's given me that break into independence that I need," he added.
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At the height of the pandemic, dozens of cities talked about buying hotels to turn into homeless shelters. California alone placed 6,000 people in 4,000 rooms across 37 hotels.
"The services come to them, which for vulnerable and disabled people makes the difference," said Gerry McCafferty, who oversees Continuing Care for Hampden County, Massachusetts, where Holyoke is located.
McCafferty says that when the nationwide COVID emergency ended, many communities lost funding for hotel-based homeless shelters. They're now looking for alternative ways to keep the programs running, especially seeing how successful the model has been for the chronically homeless.
"Some of the people who went into the hotel have been on our list for years. This cracked the nut of how to reach those folks," she added.
As for Jason Nole, he is one of the program's success stories. After living in the Motel 6 shelter for a year, social workers helped him secure his own apartment that he moved into at the end of May.
"I can work on being independent while having the support I need," Nole said.
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