Hurricane Ida brought new neighbors to Samantha Dees and her two children.
A week after the storm, the parking lot of the Motel 6 just north of Ocean Springs was still full of cars carrying Louisiana license plates. Dees, who lived there since April, had never seen it so busy.
Her kids zigzagged across the hot asphalt on their scooters, dodging fathers and grandmothers unpacking cars stuffed with everything theyâd carried when they fled Idaâs path: a rice cooker, Lysol and Clorox wipes, bags full of bread.
One man, walking his pit bull puppy in the lot, offered Dees a job in his New Orleans barber shop, if she could just figure out a way to get down there.
Her 4-year-old daughter, wearing denim overalls and a pink T-shirt, paused for a while to examine a small tree planted in the median.
The girl and her 7-year-old brother ducked around a corner and then came rushing back, excited.
âHeâs scared of lizards!â she reported.
Dees, who just turned 30, had been in their motel room when she first heard about the storm headed for Louisiana and Mississippi. Sitting on one of the roomâs two double beds, she scrolled through Facebook on her phone. It seemed like everyone thought the world was ending.
Normally, she avoids the news, because it upsets her, but she turned on WLOX at 5 p.m. to confirm the storm was coming. Dees figured it wouldnât be that bad: Heavy rain for Mississippi, a little worse for Louisiana.
On Aug. 29, as the storm was bearing down, she heard a knock on the door. The general manager told her she needed to gather her things and leave, because evacuees from Louisiana were coming, and they would want her room.
In an interview, the general manager, Harshil, who declined to give his last name, said no one at the motel had told Dees she would have to leave. âSheâs still here,â he said in early .
Dees said she told him: âI have nowhere to go. I have nowhere to go.â
Affordable hotels âa lifesaver for many peopleâ
In the United States and on the Gulf Coast, affordable hotels and motels have long played a role in providing housing, whether for a night or much longer, for people who have experienced homelessness and who have limited means.
âI guess I would call them economy hotels,â said the Rev. James Pennington, the executive director of Back Bay Mission, a Biloxi nonprofit that serves poor and marginalized people.
âTheyâre a lifesaver for many people, rather than sleeping in their car, living on the street.â
The sudden influx of evacuees to the Coast complicated access to the âlifesaverâ of economy hotels, at least temporarily. To find a room for one woman the week after the storm, David Lion, executive director of the Gulfport nonprofit Feed My Sheep, made 40 calls. Prices at some hotels surged from $60 or $70 a night to hundreds of dollars. Occupancy rates reached 100%, and already strained hotel staffs struggled to keep rooms ready.
Long-term hotel residents and evacuating families with limited means were vulnerable to the same market forces. Hotels wanted to sell rooms to people who could pay more, or pay more upfront.
Some evacuees fled the storm only to find there was no room for them on the Coast.
Keyonia Carter, emergency assistance case manager and food pantry manager at Back Bay Mission, got a call from a Louisiana family with a 13-year-old boy who had recently left the ICU with COVID-19. His bout with the virus had left him with diabetes.
They left home trying to keep him safe, but they couldnât find a hotel room they could afford.
âThe family, they didnât have the funds to pay $150 a night,â Carter said. âThey were literally living in their cars. They had these big coolers full of ice to keep his insulin. It was just sad.â
If Dees had had to leave the hotel, she would have been homeless. Eventually, she says, she was told she could stay.
Carter and Mary Simons, executive director of Open Doors Homeless Coalition, said they were not aware of anyone staying long-term in a hotel who lost that housing after Ida.
Harshil, the general manager at the Motel 6, said a week after the storm that he had 25 rooms paid for through FEMA. The hotel was at basically 100% occupancy, and he had no way of knowing for sure how many people were Ida evacuees paying their own way.
When someone needs a room, he tries to help them if he can. Some veterans (he wonât say how many) have stayed in the hotel through a Veterans Administration program.
He said he doesnât know how many people are staying in the hotel long-term.
The hotelâs usual clientele includes people in town to party, visit casinos, have a good time. It can get chaotic. The Ida evacuees are different.
âThese people are just trying to find a place to live,â he said.
Seeking a job, a car, and childcare
Before she started staying in hotels, Dees had been living in a house in Gulfport. But a rat infestation terrified her and her children, and after Hurricane Zeta, she said, the landlord told her she had to pay to repair a busted window.
In 2020, she worked as a cashier at a gas station in Gulfport, but then her son got suspended from school. And suspended again. He had been diagnosed with ADHD, but it took months to get him on medication.
Whenever he wasnât allowed at school, she had to stay home from work. And her schedule would change unpredictably, making it hard to spend time with her kids. Not long after school started, she left the job.
(A general manager at the gas station, who started working there after Dees said she left, said he had no knowledge of her. He declined to make longer-standing employees available for comment.)
Around January, she moved out of the Gulfport house and started moving from hotel to hotel.
She arrived at the Motel 6 in April. It was fine, but she didnât want to stay too long.
Then she started having car problems she couldnât afford to fix, so she sold the SUV.
That made it harder to look for other housing in an already tight housing market. Since the start of the year, home sale prices on the Coast have surged as much as 20%. In local Facebook groups, renters have posted about their landlords asking them to leave because they want to sell the house instead.
Pennington, of Back Bay Mission, said finding affordable housing has become âreally difficultâ in recent months.
In any case, the Motel 6 had some benefits.
Her sonâs school bus stops nearby. She can walk with her kids to the gas station a block away, where she does her grocery shopping. She buys things she can prepare for them in the microwave in their room: ramen noodles, Hot Pockets and pizza rolls.
âI donât really eat,â she said. âIâm going through too much.â
They can also go to the Waffle House, where the kids eat bacon and sausage, and Dees might have eggs. For exercise, theyâll walk 20 or 30 minutes north to the Dollar General.
When she gets a moment to herself, Dees reads her Bible or writes in her journal.
âIâll write my goals down, stuff that Iâm trying to manifest,â she said.
Every morning, the bus for her son arrives at 7 a.m. Every day, Dees prays she wonât get a call asking her to pick him up. She doesnât have a way to get there anyway.
Sports and after-school activities would be good for him, she thinks. He told her a teacher at school said that if his mommy could get a job, maybe she could pay for those things.
âWell if he can stay at school, maybe I can,â she said.
Evacuees from Louisiana face uncertainty at hotels
On a Sunday afternoon in early September, while Dees and her kids were napping in their room, Susan Gilbert was unpacking a pickup truck. Hurricane Ida had sent her on an odyssey, which had just brought her to this Motel 6 parking lot.
Almost 30 family members had left New Orleans the day before the storm. With all her relatives living in the city, there was no free place to stay out of Idaâs path.
Gilbert would rather forget most of what they experienced next.
The traffic to Lake Charles was bumper to bumper, so they were relieved just to be able to stop driving.
âThe hotel was filthy,â she said. âI slept with a mask on.â
Next up was Galveston. But after the second day, the hotel told them they had to leave.
âThe people that paid four or five days at a time, they let them stay,â she said. âBut I couldnât afford to pay for five days, because this is an emergency.â
They also stayed at a hotel in Gulfport before finding the room at the Motel 6. Gilbert drove over as fast as she could.
âThis is nice,â she said as her grandsons lugged bags of clothes from the truck. âThis is like being home. This is pleasant.â
At the other end of the parking lot, Elroy Allridge was unpacking the last few items from the family car. Since leaving his apartment in LaPlace with his girlfriend, Niayonda Taylor, and two daughters, ages 6 and 11, they had stayed in four hotels.
âThey be telling me I got a certain amount of time to stay âcause they got rooms booked up for longer,â he said.
He estimated he had spent about $2,000 out of pocket. That was basically all the money he had. They had applied for help from FEMA, but hadnât yet been approved.
His girlfriendâs mom was using FEMA assistance to pay for the room at the Motel 6, and the couple planned to sleep on the floor. It was better than their car.
One hotel room would quickly feel crowded with five people, but Allridge didnât know where they could go next. Their apartment had flooded, so they couldnât go home.
âThatâs the scary part,â he said. âI donât know after this.â
âMy life ainât always been like thisâ
After playing outside for a while, the 4-year-old girl and 7-year-old boy were both hot, and their bottle of water was empty. The family went in the side door and into the elevator. Dees reminded the kids not to ride their scooters down the hallway.
Almost everything she owns is in a storage unit in Biloxi. She hasnât been able to pay the monthly fee for a few months, because sheâs spent every dime on the hotel room. She doesnât want to call to ask about her stuff.
âI donât need no more bad news,â she said.
The room contains the contents of their daily lives. Their clothes are tucked into the drawers under the television. Their food and treats, like a plastic baggy full of silver Hersheyâs kisses, is stacked on a small round table. A handwriting worksheet brought home from school sits next to the bananas and grits.
Her sonâs lower-case iâs are carefully dotted. His sâs curve like seahorses.
âBoc back back
Kiss kiss kiss
Cap cap cap.â
On top of the microwave sit two photographs of Samantha Dees, taken two or three years ago. She looks at them every morning when she wakes up.
âI need something to just remind me â my life ainât always been like this,â she said. âEven though it looks and feels… it ainât always been like this. That reminds me that I can do it. Iâve been there before, where life was alright.â
Every day, she gathers the money to pay for one more night. Sometimes she does odd jobs, like cleaning houses. Or her daughterâs dad will help out, or her own dad, whoâs in Virginia with her two older children.
When her temporary neighbors return home to Louisiana, Dees hopes sheâll be finding something new for herself. Sheâd like to get a job and a car and a place to live.
She wanted to tell her story because she knows sheâs not alone in struggling. And she wants people to know what itâs like.
âThe world is closing in on us, and nobody really sees it,â she said.
She tries to make sure her kids donât feel that anything is wrong. She tries to keep them happy.
The girl showed off a pair of new sneakers, rainbow with blue laces, that her dad bought for her.
âI know all the colors,â she said. âBlack, purple and pink.â
She claimed the strip of floor between the bed and the television to show off a backbend, a split and a cartwheel.
Her mother said, âI want to put her in gymnastics, âcause she sure feels like she can do it.â
Editorâs note: On Saturday, one week and six days after Hurricane Ida made landfall, Harshil told Dees she would have to leave the next day, because she kept getting into shouting arguments with hotel staff. He said he was careful to make their last day a Sunday, because he knew on a Saturday it would be hard to find another room.
âIt gets to a point where my staff canât handle it,â he told the Sun Herald. âWe give you the opportunity. If you canât seize that opportunity, we canât do much about it.â
Two weeks after Ida, Dees and her children left the Motel 6 for the last time. Dees found another hotel room. Normally, check-in is at 2 or 3 p.m. But this time, they were allowed into their room as soon as she paid. She felt like God was telling her: âKeep yourself together, Samantha, itâs gonna be alright.