Hurricane Ida strains MS Coast hotels, housing & homeless services

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 they’d carried when they fled Ida’s 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.

“He’s scared of lizards!” 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 room’s 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 wouldn’t 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.

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Samantha Dees’ 7-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter play on their scooters in the parking lot of the Motel 6 where they’ve been living since April 2021, on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. Isabelle Taft [email protected]

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. “She’s still here,” he said in early .

Dees said she told him: “I have nowhere to go. I have nowhere to go.”

Affordable hotels ‘a lifesaver for many people’

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.

“I guess I would call them economy hotels,” said the Rev. James Pennington, the executive director of Back Bay Mission, a Biloxi nonprofit that serves poor and marginalized people.

“They’re a lifesaver for many people, rather than sleeping in their car, living on the street.”

The sudden influx of evacuees to the Coast complicated access to the “lifesaver” 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 couldn’t find a hotel room they could afford.

“The family, they didn’t have the funds to pay $150 a night,” Carter said. “They were literally living in their cars. They had these big coolers full of ice to keep his insulin. It was just sad.”

In this Sept. 4 photo, Aiden Locobon, left, and Rogelio Paredes look through the remnants of their family’s home destroyed by Hurricane Ida in Dulac, La. John Locher AP

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 won’t say how many) have stayed in the hotel through a Veterans Administration program.

He said he doesn’t know how many people are staying in the hotel long-term.

The hotel’s usual clientele includes people in town to party, visit casinos, have a good time. It can get chaotic. The Ida evacuees are different.

“These people are just trying to find a place to live,” 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 wasn’t 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 didn’t want to stay too long.

Then she started having car problems she couldn’t 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 “really difficult” in recent months.

In any case, the Motel 6 had some benefits.

Her son’s 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.

“I don’t really eat,” she said. “I’m going through too much.”

They can also go to the Waffle House, where the kids eat bacon and sausage, and Dees might have eggs. For exercise, they’ll 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.

“I’ll write my goals down, stuff that I’m trying to manifest,” she said.

Every morning, the bus for her son arrives at 7 a.m. Every day, Dees prays she won’t get a call asking her to pick him up. She doesn’t 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.

“Well if he can stay at school, maybe I can,” 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 Ida’s 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.

“The hotel was filthy,” she said. “I slept with a mask on.”

Next up was Galveston. But after the second day, the hotel told them they had to leave.

“The people that paid four or five days at a time, they let them stay,” she said. “But I couldn’t afford to pay for five days, because this is an emergency.”

They also stayed at a hotel in Gulfport before finding the room at the Motel 6. Gilbert drove over as fast as she could.

“This is nice,” she said as her grandsons lugged bags of clothes from the truck. “This is like being home. This is pleasant.”

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.

“They be telling me I got a certain amount of time to stay ‘cause they got rooms booked up for longer,” he said.

A week after Hurricane Ida flooded their apartment in LaPlace, Elroy Allridge, his girlfriend Niayonda Taylor, and his two daughters had not been able to get approved for FEMA assistance. They were staying at a Motel 6 with Taylor’s mother. Isabelle Taft [email protected]

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 hadn’t yet been approved.

His girlfriend’s 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 didn’t know where they could go next. Their apartment had flooded, so they couldn’t go home.

“That’s the scary part,” he said. “I don’t know after this.”

‘My life ain’t always been like this’

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 hasn’t been able to pay the monthly fee for a few months, because she’s spent every dime on the hotel room. She doesn’t want to call to ask about her stuff.

“I don’t need no more bad news,” she said.

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Samantha Dees’ 7-year-old son poses for a photograph on Sept 4. He and his mom and sister have been living in a Motel 6 in Biloxi for several months. Isabelle Taft [email protected]

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 Hershey’s kisses, is stacked on a small round table. A handwriting worksheet brought home from school sits next to the bananas and grits.

Her son’s lower-case i’s are carefully dotted. His s’s curve like seahorses.

“Boc back back

Kiss kiss kiss

Cap cap cap.”

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.

“I need something to just remind me — my life ain’t always been like this,” she said. “Even though it looks and feels… it ain’t always been like this. That reminds me that I can do it. I’ve been there before, where life was alright.”

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Samantha Dees holds a spelling and handwriting worksheet completed by her 7-year-old son on Sept. 4. Isabelle Taft [email protected]

Every day, she gathers the money to pay for one more night. Sometimes she does odd jobs, like cleaning houses. Or her daughter’s dad will help out, or her own dad, who’s in Virginia with her two older children.

When her temporary neighbors return home to Louisiana, Dees hopes she’ll be finding something new for herself. She’d like to get a job and a car and a place to live.

She wanted to tell her story because she knows she’s not alone in struggling. And she wants people to know what it’s like.

“The world is closing in on us, and nobody really sees it,” she said.

She tries to make sure her kids don’t 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.

“I know all the colors,” she said. “Black, purple and pink.”

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, “I want to put her in gymnastics, ‘cause she sure feels like she can do it.”

Editor’s 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.

“It gets to a point where my staff can’t handle it,” he told the Sun Herald. “We give you the opportunity. If you can’t seize that opportunity, we can’t do much about it.”

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: “Keep yourself together, Samantha, it’s gonna be alright.

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Isabelle Taft covers communities of color and racial justice issues on the Coast through Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms around the country.

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