One Week Inside Three Motels at the Edge of Homelessness

These shabby inns on Portland’s commercial strips have become a refuge: the last places people cling to before falling out of housing, or the first lifeline they cling to as they climb back in.

Limbo Inn Cover One week inside three motels on the edge of homelessness. (Sam Gehrke)

On a queen-size bed in a Ramada Inn deep in Southeast Portland, Juli Cornett is reading A Wrinkle in Time with her 11-year-old son.

A tie-dye lampshade glows by the bedside, and the boy’s teddy bear sits at the foot of the bed. Cornett and her son stretch their legs into the downy white bedspread.

This is her home for four more days.

For the past three years, Cornett, 47, has bounced on the fringes of homelessness. In June, she contracted a case of COVID-19 that lingered nearly seven months. In October, she lost her job at an Amazon shipping dock. The unemployment checks stopped in May. She could no longer afford to pay $120 a month to stay in a camper van in a Portland backyard.

For the past two weeks, her home has been this Ramada, a red-painted cube between a nail salon and the northbound on-ramp to Interstate 205.

“In the nick of time, this saved me from being in a tent on the side of the freeway,” Cornett says.

Limbo Inn REST: Juli Cornett sits on her queen-size bed at the Ramada Inn. (Sam Gehrke)

Her son visits her on Saturdays. (The other nights he’s with his dad, also in Southeast Portland.) She buys him bacon and waffles at the Elmer’s across Stark Street from the motel. Their possessions—blankets, chairs and toys—sit in a storage locker 3 miles away.

“[He] said to me, ‘Mom, no wonder relatives think you’re homeless. You bounce around so much,’” Cornett tells WW. “I need to show my son I can stand on my own two feet. And I’m going to figure it out.”

Cornett hopes she can soon unpack. She’s apartment hunting, looking for something under $900 a month, which is what a Portland nonprofit has agreed to subsidize.

In the meantime, JOIN, a nonprofit that has a contract with Multnomah County, paid for her stay at the Ramada.

For Cornett, who has experienced housing insecurity across Oregon for three years, the motel room is a way to hit the pause button on an escalating personal crisis. The room offers her what she needs most: time and a secure space to steady herself and find housing.

Cornett may not stay in a tent downtown or in the few tent shelters the county has established across Portland since COVID descended. But she has nowhere to live—just like the 4,000 people Multnomah County considers homeless.

That official tally captures only a portion of the people in the Portland area who are uncertain where they’ll sleep next. In its expanded definition of homelessness, which includes those teetering on its edge, the county estimates the number is over 16,000. Many of those on the streets have drug addictions or mental illnesses, are fleeing abusive relationships, or are working part-time or minimum-wage jobs.

For about 328 of them, perhaps the lucky ones, the county is paying for long-term rooms at seven motels, at a cost of $1.4 million a month. Other government and private funds pay for shorter stays at the Ramada and a handful of other motels.

Related: Putting up homeless people in motels is a clever solution. It’s also expensive.

When the pandemic hit, Multnomah County needed somewhere to send people most vulnerable to contracting the virus in group shelters. County officials chose seven motels across the city: three in Southeast Portland, one in Gresham, one each in North and Northeast Portland, and one in Southwest Portland.

With tourism all but vanished, the operators—including for this Ramada Inn—are happy to have the county government rent rooms or, in some cases, entire motels.

One year later, the operations are still going. It’s become one of the tourniquets local officials apply to a problem they’re nowhere near solving.

“It’s not cheap. There are other ways of providing shelter that cost less,” says a spokesman for the Joint Office of Homeless Services, Denis Theriault. “But they don’t provide the same safety to the folks who are sheltering. I don’t think anyone is surprised what it means for someone to have a room of their own.”

These shabby inns on Portland’s commercial strips have become a refuge: the last places people cling to before falling out of housing, or the first lifeline they cling to as they climb back in.

For the past two weeks, this reporter has visited three motels—two perched side by side above I-205 traffic, another behind a Chinese restaurant in the Southwest Hills—to understand more about the Portlanders who found themselves in motel rooms across the city this year.

They are anxious, afraid, healing, resilient and hopeful. And for stretches as long as a year or as short as two weeks, they are neighbors.

Three flags whip in the wind outside the Ramada Inn, just a stone’s throw from Mall 205: for the United States, Oregon and Ramada.

The inn has few amenities. Cereal in the lobby, microwave dinners for sale at the front desk. But it does offer something more important to Portland’s homeless: a door between them and the world.

“That’s the thing that keeps coming up for people: It gives me that space to breathe, I can relax, and I feel safe,” says Jess Gibly, a director at Do Good Multnomah, a nonprofit that operates three motels under contracts with the county.

The Ramada Inn is one of the motels that allows nonprofits to house people for short stays as a stopgap to keep them off the streets. That’s where Jessi Hart, 41, has been living for 14 days with her 12-year-old son, Caleb, who’s on the other queen bed, in their second-floor room at the Ramada Inn. The room is strewn with backpacks. It smells faintly of cat litter—their cat Loki jumps from bed to bed, eager for affection.

Hart has been housing unstable, in various ways, since 2016. She says her housing insecurity started when she began to transition from male to female.

“I never cross-dressed or anything; for all intents and purposes I was the man’s man. But I led two lives. I knew since I was 8,” Hart says. “Being in the wrong body is sickening. It’s like you’re caught in a diseased coat that you just can’t get out of.”

When she announced her transition, she says, she lost everything: her construction company, her family, and her house.

The story of how she lost her business could not be independently verified, although state records show she was the registered agent of a Hillsboro construction firm until it was dissolved in 2017.

She lived at Bradley Angle, a women’s shelter, for eight months. Then in an apartment, at a friend’s house and in motels. She says Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare placed her in another room at the Ramada for 15 days, which is being funded through her medical insurance.

Limbo Inn LAST CHANCE: Jessi and Caleb Hart stand outside the motel, the place they’ve called home for the past 14 days. (Sam Gehrke)

In those two weeks, she’s searched for jobs online, helped Caleb with virtual school, and tried to figure out where to go next. She keeps the motel feeling like home by cooking what she can—mostly microwaveable meals like tamales and corn dogs.

“I’m hopeful that Caleb will make it through this. I don’t have much hope for myself,” Hart says. “It’s been four years and I’m exhausted. I went from not having anything to worry about, taking him to Disneyland every year for his birthday, to nothing.”

Tomorrow, they have to leave. Hart is in the process of carting all their belongings to a nearby storage unit. Anything that’s left must fit in her small black Saab.

The motel isn’t ideal, but Jessi says it’s the only thing keeping her from sleeping in her car.

“It’s not bad,” she says. “It’s better than a car.”

Not far from Juli Cornett’s room is where Memphis has been living for the past week, often in the company of a Labradoodle named Franklin.

Memphis is 5-foot-10, with piercing blue eyes and a smile that reveals his yearslong meth addiction. Memphis, whose real name is Jason Jaudon, is 38 but looks much younger, despite the ravages of drug use.

“It destroyed me, it rewired my brain. I used to be a thug and now I’m a softie,” Memphis says. “I have PTSD, epilepsy, diabetes, anxiety and severe depression.”

A number of studies indicate that most homeless people either have a mental illness, an addiction to drugs or alcohol, or both. Memphis fits the pattern. He says he started using meth, heroin and cocaine heavily after he lost his father to suicide, his brother to an overdose, and his mother to cancer—all within a month in Memphis, Tenn. He moved to Portland to stay with a friend that same year, 2016. That fell apart.

He’s been homeless for the past four years, crashing for short stints on couches and in shelters. Three months ago, Memphis was assaulted on the street. He had surgery on his eyes at Oregon Health & Science University last month and then stayed in Central City Concern housing for a month.

He was approved to stay at the motel for two weeks in preparation for two other eye surgeries. “I’m diabetic and epileptic, so having a room means a lot,” Memphis says. “I feel blessed to have it.”

Memphis has no plans to find an apartment, and no money to afford one. He expects when his stay ends in eight days he’ll sleep on the street again.

“I watch South Park, that’s what’s up,” Memphis says. “But I know that the discharge day is coming up, so what am I going to do then?”

One block west from the Ramada, tucked between Stark Street and a parkour studio, the Chestnut Tree Inn has no vacancy. The county has been buying up the entire motel, every night, for homeless women struggling with various health issues.

For a lot of the people living in these longer-stay motels, it is the first time in a long time they’ve felt safe.

That’s true for both Shannon Brandt, 49, and Tangi Deffendal, 46.

The two women met at Chestnut Tree Inn after both were transferred from group shelters earlier this year.

The county-funded motel, operated by Human Solutions, houses 58 women. Residents can stay until they find permanent housing.

Brandt’s favorite part of her room is the two giant mirrors. For most of her life, she says, she avoided mirrors. “I didn’t like to look at me,” she says. “I felt ugly and small.” But now she says she’s learning to be her own friend again.

Brandt, who grew up in Portland, started using intravenous drugs at age 11. At 18, her 1-year-old daughter swallowed too many iron pills and died—she’s buried at a cemetery nearby, and she and Deffendal drive there every week to plant flowers. Brandt says she is now drug free.

At age 44, Deffendal got hooked on meth. Last November, she got clean. But she relapsed in January, lost her job after surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome in her hands, and started sleeping in churches and spending days in her daughter’s car. This spring, she asked for help at a women’s shelter and was sent to Chestnut Tree.

The two women have become fast friends.

Both say the motel gave them the space they needed to heal from abusive past relationships. They attend church together. Last week, Brandt plopped her favorite book on Deffendal’s lap while she was smoking outside under a white tent: It’s The Body Keeps the Score, about how trauma lodges itself in the body.

The relief they feel here makes the two women giddy.

Limbo Inn SPACE TO HEAL: Shannon Brandt and Tangi Deffendal visit Brandt’s baby daughter’s grave once a week. (Sam Gehrke)

Two days ago, Brandt saw a rainbow above Division Street. So they hopped in Deffendal’s Honda Civic, which she uses to make DoorDash deliveries, and went looking for the best view. It’s the third time this week they’ve chased a rainbow.

“If people don’t know trauma, they’d think we were whacked out on drugs, but sometimes we have to make light of it,” Brandt says. Deffendal adds: “We’re out there laughing, and when we’re doing that, we’re not even thinking about our trauma. We’re out there just being young little girls.”

The hopeful feeling is even stronger at a motel on the opposite edge of the city. Here, a temporary place to stay has turned into an improvised neighborhood.

Every morning, Larry Young hops on a used stationary bike in his motel room at the Portland Value Inn and cycles for over an hour. The beige building where he’s lived along Southwest Barbur Boulevard for the past seven months is quiet.

“Man, I love this room,” Young says as he opens the curtains to a view from the top of a staircase. “Look at my scenery. I can hear the birds squeaking in the morning. It’s just beautiful.”

Since December, the county has housed 48 homeless people at the Value Inn who have medical conditions that place them at higher risk from COVID-19. The contract is set to expire in December, and it’s one of the motels at risk of closing if the county doesn’t buy it outright.

On a June afternoon, the 70-year-old Young—who moves like he’s much younger, with a buoyancy in his step—plays his favorite jazz song through his speaker. It’s “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise” by George Benson.

Limbo Inn (Sam Gehrke)

Young was a Marine and then spent decades doing construction work. In California, he developed a cocaine habit but has been clean for years now. He’s proud of that. He lost his job at the beginning of the pandemic, unable to find contracts doing housing construction. At his age, the physicality of manual labor wears on him.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, he has been homeless, living mostly in California before relocating to Portland. But in December, after living at Do Good Multnomah’s Wy’East shelter for two months, he was offered a motel room here. He felt something unfamiliar: joy.

“I am joyous, for the first time,” Young says. “I was living life foolishly. I gave it to God, and now I’m as peaceful as can be.”

Much of that comes from having his own space, which he’s decorated with knickknacks: a bear statue, a clock with birds on it, a mini foosball table.

Limbo Inn (Sam Gehrke)

But it’s also that he has developed a community with the others living here.

Earlier this month, two residents got married at Young’s motel, in front of 15 other guests. An ordained motel resident officiated.

A motel resident picked flowers along Barbur for bouquets. Young drove to Winco to get five different kinds of soda pop and ice. A resident named Mary sang gospel.

“She was in a white dress and he was in a suit,” Young remembers. “I said, ‘Man, in this place?’”

Andy Goebel, who works at Do Good Multnomah, which runs three of the shelters, says the motels worked far better than anyone expected in stabilizing people. “The community becomes incredibly important,” he says, “a survival line.”

A motel is a bed for the night. It’s temporary. That’s part of why these inns have proven such a valuable tool for Multnomah County—a quick fix.

But it also means every person we meet at each motel can sense the clock ticking on their stay.

On a warm June evening, just as it’s getting dark, Juli Cornett and Jessi Hart stand outside the Ramada and talk about what they hope will happen next.

“As soon as I’m in stable housing, I’m champing at the bit to go back to work,” Cornett says. “I’ll go back to the ship dock. It was hard work, it was very physical, and I loved it.”

Hart just wants stability for Caleb. “I’ve been excommunicated from society,” she says. “I don’t want him to be on the struggling side because of a stupid decision I made.”

The next day, Hart has to leave the motel. She drops Caleb off at a friend’s house, where he’ll stay for a few days, and she sleeps in her car.

Cornett fares better. Ten days after WW first spoke with her, Cornett was relocated to another motel. On June 15, she leaves that hotel—the Roadway Inn—for an apartment. Her new place is subsidized by JOIN, but she’ll need to find a job soon to keep it.

“I feel safer here than I have for a couple years, and I don’t have to figure out how to pay tomorrow’s room rate,” Cornett says.

She’s ready to move into her new place: “I need to move so I can have a place for my son. I need to have a home again. I need to get stuff out of storage and put our pictures on the wall.”

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