One week remains before the city plans to take over the Aloha Motel and prep it for demolition.
Drive by at night and the “budget” motel’s once bright neon palm tree no longer lights up the north end of Samish Way. More than a third of its 28 rooms have been vacant since they were deemed unsafe to live in due to methamphetamine contamination late last year.
But at least a handful of people were still living at the motel as of Tuesday, Aug. 18, largely because, they said, they have nowhere else to go.
The Aloha has gained a reputation for housing criminal and unsafe activity — drug deals, fatal overdoses, violence — but it is also one of the few easy-to-get living situations available for people with little income and unclean background checks.
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Following a short legal battle over the city’s decision to condemn the property as a blight on the neighborhood, the owners Sang and Mi Yi settled with the city, which agreed to pay $1.58 million and take the property Sept. 1. (State law requires just compensation when the government condemns and takes property.)
“We’re told we have ’til Aug. 31 to get out, but where else am I supposed to go?” asked Davy Alvarez, who has called the Aloha home since March 2014.
Alvarez, who described himself as a “short fat guy with no hair,” turned 60 this weekend, and like some of the motel’s other residents, has a criminal history that has made it difficult to find a place willing to rent to him.
“I’m not an angel. I’ve gotten into a lot of troubles,” Alvarez said. “Most of them I was high, selling drugs.”
Alvarez, originally from Brooklyn, has convictions locally for domestic violence, harassment and brandishing a weapon.
He’s lived on the streets before, and said he stayed for about a year at the Lighthouse Mission. He’s been placed in transitional housing through the Opportunity Council before, too, but after two years had to move out.
Similar to some of the other people who live at the Aloha, Alvarez has a small source of monthly income — his comes from Supplemental Security Income, a federal program that provides stipends to some low-income people.
He wants to find another place to rent and doesn’t want to stay in a shelter again.
“I just want a roof over my head and a refrigerator where I can put my insulin,” Alvarez said. “I would rather be in the street than go to the mission. … That’s why I paid $800 for this dump, so I didn’t have to stay at the mission.”
Alvarez is diabetic and needs to refrigerate his insulin to stay alive. When asked how he would manage that without housing, he threw his hands in the air.
“I don’t know. I have no clue.”
The most frustrating thing, he said, is that he agrees with the need to address drug problems, but he doesn’t think the city’s taking the motel will change anything.
“If they think they’re helping the drug problem, they’re not helping the drug problem whatsoever,” Alvarez said. “They just relocated it. They’ll move somewhere else.”
Alvarez’s next door neighbor at the motel is 53-year-old Tom Mckinnon.
Last Tuesday, the two walked up and down a row of planters they keep in front of their rooms, checking on their marigolds and peppers, and explaining that they care for their small space at the motel.
We live here, they said. This is our home.
Mckinnon said he had checked with the other budget motels in the area, but no one could be sure they’d have an empty room at the end of the month.
“I’ve been here seven or eight months,” Mckinnon said. “I’ll try to get a room somewhere else, but this is the cheapest.”
He would like to get a room at the Villa Inn, another motel on Samish Way, which also had several rooms closed for a time due to meth contamination.
“My plan is to get a room over there, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
Mckinnon said he has lived with his daughter for short periods while looking for places to rent, but he doesn’t want to burden her.
“I’ve got plenty of money, I just can’t pass a background check,” he said.
His history of violent crime precludes him from passing most background checks, and makes finding housing difficult.
“What do we do?” he asked. “You tell me. We don’t know.”
Further down the row of still-occupied rooms was Jessica Hinshaw.
The 33-year-old said she has been blind most of her life, and it takes time for her to figure out her surroundings.
She’s been living at the Aloha for a few months, and has bounced back and forth between Seattle and Bellingham since November.
“It’s hard for me to acclimate (to) places, and my sight leaves probably quicker than I’d like,” she said.
“Being outside and moving around and having your surroundings be different is frightening.”
Hinshaw said she’d just started getting used to moving around the Aloha, and finding a new place will mean starting from scratch.
“It’s just difficult to take the bus everywhere, and deal with all the other day-to-day issues, eating and feeding yourself and getting from point A to point B.”
Hinshaw said she has a son whom she left behind to live with his father. She and his dad didn’t get along.
“Somebody had to make the decision for the health of the child and the household to separate,” Hinshaw said. “You know most of the time it isn’t the mother. Everybody says, ‘Oh you could have brought your son.’ I couldn’t bring my son into the unknown.”
Yeah, bringing her son could have helped her find housing more quickly, she said, and yes, it could have opened doors for her.
“But you know what? It would have closed a door to my son that I couldn’t reopen to him without a lot of work or effort,” Hinshaw said. “He would know the uncertainty of poverty, and he doesn’t know that, so that I’m grateful for.”
Gaps in services
Agencies in Bellingham and Whatcom County offer a slew of services for people like Davy, Tom and Jessica.
Many services philosophically embrace a “Housing First” model, which basically boils down to this: housing is the key to stabilizing people.
“Because without a safe place to lay your head, without a place to feel secure, it’s very difficult to deal with other issues and move forward in your life,” said Kate Robertson, a social worker with the city’s Homeless Outreach Team.
Having a criminal record doesn’t mean someone can’t get into a program, Robertson said, but it can make it more difficult to find housing for them.
It’s challenging to find a landlord willing to rent to somebody who seems like a risk and has a poor rental history, she said. The Opportunity Council is always trying to connect with landlords who are willing to try to understand those challenges and work with clients.
“The tricky piece is sort of threefold,” Robertson said. “First, the vacancy rate is less than 2 percent.”
Last fall the vacancy rate for apartment units in Whatcom County was 1.3 percent, according to a University of Washington survey. A vacancy rate that low means most people who want to rent have fewer options that may be more expensive than in areas with more housing.
“Second, we have one of the highest rates for rent per income of any town in the state,” Robertson said. “Third, there is not enough funding to house everyone who is currently homeless.”
Having even a small source of income that enables people to pay their own way to stay at a motel can make them ineligible for some federally funded services that are preserved only for people who are “literally homeless,” that is, those who live on the streets, in parks, in their cars, even in a motel as long as someone else is paying for it.
A huge gap exists for people who need just a little bit of help finding housing, Robertson said.
“Unless they have access to case management or support outside of the Opportunity Council, there is really nobody to help people with their housing search,” Robertson said.
The outreach team works to connect individuals with any services they are eligible for, both in and outside the Opportunity Council, but “the reality is that sometimes these resources just don’t exist,” Robertson said. “There is a huge gap for people who are looking for other alternatives.”
Volunteers, perhaps Americorps members, are needed to help people who could probably find housing on their own if they just had some help walking through the process, Robertson said.
“With the city’s and county’s help we have made significant progress in getting people housed, but between the lack of available housing units and case managers we still have people living outside.”
What’s next for Aloha residents
The outreach team left letters at occupied Aloha rooms on Aug. 17, reminding residents of some of their options.
“We understand that being displaced is traumatic and we want to provide some information that may be helpful for you in this transition,” the letter reads. “The unfortunate reality is that there are not immediate solutions.”
The team recommends calling other motels in the area to check for vacancies, seeing if they can stay with friends or family, and checking for housing on Craigslist or through other sources, which may be done with the help of a case manager.
Aside from that, if they are homeless on Sept. 1, they can go to the Opportunity Council to sign up for housing programs, then make their way to the Lighthouse Mission, the only shelter available right away.
“It is important to know that the only immediate shelter option is the Lighthouse Mission and there is a waitlist for eligible applicants through the Homeless Service Center,” the letter states.
How to help
Are you a landlord willing to work with special cases?
Contact the Opportunity Council to see how you can get involved in renting to people who can’t find housing elsewhere.
Opportunity Council: Call 360-734-5121 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Want to help with emergency shelter for those who need housing immediately?
You can find more information about helping the Lighthouse Mission at TheLighthouseMission.org/how-you-can-help.