Clothes and blankets are piled up in a corner. The small kitchenette, consisting of a sink and a mini fridge with some cabinets, is overflowing with dried and canned goods and prepackaged meals. What would be a coat closet is housing an entire wardrobe.
Four little girls build forts by hanging blankets on doors and furniture, taking up the majority of the room. Their parents sit on the nearby bed and remind the sisters they need to keep the noise level down.
This is the reality for James and Kristina Fitzpatrick. After being evicted from their home in February, they stayed with family for a time, lived out of their truck and have since made a home in this motel bedroom. James, who works in construction, brings home just enough money to pay for their $320 a week room. Using food stamps and what little money they have left over, they pay for the additional food, diapers and necessities they cannot get at the local food banks and churches.
Their eviction came when their previous landlords, whom they had rented from for more than 10 years, retired and the new landlords gave them keys to a rental that was not yet HUD approved. During the lengthy process of obtaining HUD approval, the family fell behind on rent payments. When they went to court to try to rectify the situation, a follow-up court date was set. A notification was mailed, according to court records, but the Fitzpatricks said they didn’t receive it. Shortly after failing to appear in court, they were given eight days notice to leave their home. Since then, they have not been able to get in touch with the landlords to fix the eviction on their record, which is preventing the approval of their rental applications for a new home.
“Anyone we’ve talked to about our situation said our best bet was to not even try through a company because we’d get denied, and to try and find a private (landlord),” Kristina said.
To keep their children fed and safe, the Fitzpatricks have accepted help from churches and made use of the resources offered through Community Connection of Northeast Oregon. Though they wish they did not have to take the charity, they are grateful for the generosity and hope to pay it back once their situation has changed. For now they are trying to make the best out of their situation.
“Crafting is one of my things to do,” Kristina said about what helps her stay positive, adding that it is important to her to know that her “kids are happy.”
The family has faced criticism on Facebook classifieds pages in their search for private housing, with people commenting that they are lazy or drug addicts.
Kristina said those claims are not true, and the reality of their situation is far more complex than many people realize.
“It hurts, because that’s not the case at all,” she said. “We are just reaching out, because that’s what those pages are made for. It’s getting harder to reach out for help.”
And there is fear in accepting help that is offered. With too many uncertainties, the Fitzpatricks worry about taking opportunities that could cost them the assistance they currently receive and need to feed and care for their children. In order to receive certain types of assistance, such as food stamps or health insurance, the family must remain low income, meaning Kristina getting a job could actually worsen their situation. Unless it was a high-paying job that offered benefits — jobs that are few and far between in Union County — the extra income could cause them to lose assistance such as food stamps but not provide enough to pay for food as well as child care and housing.
The option to move to another city has come up, but without the guarantee of a job and home, they could end up in the same situation in the new place, possibly without the support and assistance they receive here.
According to the Fitzpatricks, they are not the only people calling a motel room home. One of their neighbors, Kristina said, has been homeless for the last 20 years.
Those who are homeless, or close to being homeless, like the Fitzpatricks, can reach out to Community Connection of Northeast Oregon. Serving Union, Wallowa, Grant and Baker counties, CCNO helps people, not just in homelessness, but in many other areas of life through its assistance programs. Those interested in utilizing these services go through a pre-screening process where case managers can learn about an individual’s situation and needs, and see what types of assistance they qualify for.
The Fitzpatricks utilized the State Homeless Assistance Program through CCNO, which gave them vouchers for their first few nights in their motel, after which a majority of the James’ paycheck has gone toward the price of the room. SHAP partners with only two motels in La Grande, leaving options limited. However, this brief reprieve from living out of a car or on the street has proven helpful in bettering people’s situation.
“During that period, what we see is it’s less stressful when a household is in a room with a roof. They have access to a phone, (and) they’re able to start making that footwork toward finding some housing,” CCNO Assistant Community Manager Amanda Myers said.
What prevents people from finding housing varies from case to case. Lack of money for a deposit, a red flag on their rental history, or a criminal record can make it difficult to find a place to rent. In many of these cases, CCNO offers additional assistance in writing explanation letters, providing funds for deposits and speaking directly with the landlords, both past and potential.
Myers said the key to a case’s success is communication and follow-through. When clients are diligent and check-in frequently with case managers, Myers said she sees more success in helping them move past their situations. The case remains open until a client fails to follow up, at which time CCNO will close the file. A person can reapply, but the process must then start again from the beginning.
Currently, CCNO’s ability to help with the financial side of housing is limited. Because it is a federally funded organization at the end of its fiscal year, most of its money has already been allocated. Myers said when funds are low, CCNO tries not to turn people away when they need housing assistance, and instead offers them referrals for other types of assistance, such as food banks and help with utility bills.
The rise in the cost of housing in the area only makes matters worse when funds are low and CCNO is struggling to help people who need housing they can afford.
Even when funds are not limited, a reality for people who are struggling with homelessness is that most of the assistance available is short term, even if their difficulties require a long-term solution. The programs at CCNO focus on becoming self-sufficient and moving on from needing assistance, so solutions rarely last more than six months.
CCNO Homeless Services Manager Rochelle Hamilton recommends that people facing a housing crisis be proactive and reach out for assistance before their situation becomes unmanageable. This may prevent people from spending more time homeless than they have to.
Hamilton noted that many in the community are willing to help the homeless, but, as elsewhere, they don’t want the homeless in their backyard, so to speak. Part of this attitude comes from misconceptions about homelessness, according to Hamilton.
“There is a fear of what the homeless population looks like, and what these people are,” Hamilton said. “They’re assuming that most of the people are drug addicts and criminals, but that is not the case.”
People who are secure in their housing situation don’t understand, she said, that “a huge part of the (community) is one paycheck away from being homeless.”