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‘This is not a home’: What life in a motel is like for this Richmond family

Amy Gillespie prepares a meal of chicken wings and macaroni and cheese in a motel room.
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VPM News Focal Point
It takes Amy Gillespie twice as long to cook basic meals in her motel room, using a hot plate and other small appliances one at a time to avoid tripping the power.

On a night in early October, Amy Gillespie plucked a bag of frozen chicken wings from the freezer and headed to her bathroom to start preparing dinner.

This is how most of her family’s meals begin: in a makeshift kitchen she cobbled together inside the Motel 6 room in Henrico where they have lived since 2019.

What began as a temporary motel stay for the family after an eviction has stretched for years, prolonged, in part, by the COVID-19 pandemic and a major setback. Gillespie quit her job as a certified nursing assistant treating hospice patients — the family’s sole source of income — after her daughter was diagnosed with stage 3 B-cell lymphoma cancer in January 2021.

“I did not expect to be in this hotel this long, but life has happened,” Gillespie said. “Nobody wants to be here. Nobody wants to be in a hotel living with their kids.”

Gillespie shares the room with her son, Daekwon, 20, and daughter, Arianna, 17, as well as the family’s two dogs, Zuess and Sugar. The motel’s pet-friendly policy is one of the main reasons they stay there, Gillespie said.  

Far from an isolated instance, the family’s ordeal is a part of a larger trend unfolding across the Richmond region. 

Rents have risen 22% since the start of the pandemic, according to data provided by CoStar, a real estate analytics firm. The spike has exacerbated an affordable housing crisis that the region’s local governments were struggling to address even before three successive years of rent increases.

As housing has grown more costly, people who earn less than the region’s median income, $101,000 in the Richmond MSA, or who have barriers to renting, like poor credit or a prior eviction, have fewer and fewer options. Unable to afford or qualify to rent an apartment, some are turning to motels as a last resort.

Like others on the strip across from Richmond International Airport, the Motel 6 has become de facto housing for people who have nowhere else to go and few agencies to which they can turn for help.

“People in hotels are not homeless enough,” said Kristin Riddick, the community housing programs manager for Housing Families First, a nonprofit that works directly with families with school-aged children living in hotels in Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield.

The population that Riddick calls “invisible” is not technically considered homeless under the definition set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the primary source of funding for the region’s network of homeless service providers. Only people who are sleeping in shelters, outside or in other places unfit for human habitation are deemed homeless under HUD’s criteria. 

For that reason, families who pay for motels are not counted among the roughly 450 people experiencing homelessness in the greater Richmond region as of the last official count in mid July, Riddick said. 

Often, families who live in motels or hotels are transient, bouncing from a room to a relative’s or friend’s house and back again — until their money runs out. Others rely on relatives, churches or charitable groups to pay for their rooms.

“They don't have access to traditional homeless services,” Riddick said. “[Families living in hotels] are completely blocked out from accessing anything like emergency shelter, rapid rehousing, permanent supportive housing, if [they] are in need of those kinds of services. So, you're stuck. You are kind of forced to figure out your own way out, and a lot of families just aren't able to do that without some kind of help.”

Gillespie’s mother helps the family pay for their room: between $350 and $400 per week on average. Without that financial support, Gillespie said, the family could not afford it. Meanwhile, inflation has driven up the cost of food, hygiene products and other necessities, making it harder for them to get by each day, let alone save. 

“The prices out here are ridiculous,” Gillespie said. “And it's like, we can't afford the type of rent prices that are out here. Now, I don't even know how the people that have them are affording the prices that they're paying, because food is going up. Gas went up. Everything has gone up.”

Living long-term in the cramped confines has forced Gillespie’s family to adapt. 

Even the most basic tasks require a sort of gymnastics. Gillespie cooks with an air fryer she found at Goodwill, electric burners, an Instant Pot, a hot plate and a microwave. But she can’t use too many of the appliances simultaneously or she will trip the breaker for their room. Making basic meals takes twice as long as it would with a proper kitchen, but eating out daily is not an option on their budget.

With limited space for storage, their possessions are crammed under the two beds, and stacked up to the ceiling in plastic bins and tote bags. 

There is no privacy in the room.

“You live in here, you eat here, you sleep here, you do everything here. You can go to work, and you come back home to here. This is not no home,” Daekwon said. “This is not a home.”

Without a permanent address, Daekwon has struggled to get an ID. That has, in turn, kept him from securing a job to make money and build his employment experience. Instead, he does odd jobs — like changing oil and pitching in with a moving company — to make extra cash to help his mother. 

All the while, Arianna’s ongoing battle with cancer has taken a toll on the family. 

She spent half of 2021 in and out of the hospital undergoing chemotherapy. Even after she was released, frequent medical appointments and the daily care she required made resuming a set work schedule impossible for Gillespie, she said. 

The junior at Henrico High School said she is grateful for her mother’s sacrifices, big and small. The pair sleeps in the same bed, piled high with stuffed animals Arianna has collected over the years.

“My mother is the best mother. I wouldn’t trade her for the world,” Arianna said. “Pretty much she sacrificed everything … . That’s why, every chance I get — every chance I will get — I will always find a way to do something for her.”

What the family hopes will be Arianna’s final round of chemotherapy began this week.

Once her daughter is cancer free, Gillespie said she plans to resume work as a CNA and restart her search for a new home. Then, Gillespie said, she hopes she can give her children something she’s longed for them to have: stability.

“This is not what I'm settling for,” Gillespie said. “I'm settling for now. But this is not what I want. I want my own place back.”

This story was produced with support from the journalism nonprofit Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

This is part one in a two-part series about families living in hotels in the Richmond region. Part 2 is scheduled to air on VPM News Focal Point at 8 p.m. Nov. 10.

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