KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Rose Jusino was waking up after working the graveyard shift at Taco Bell when a friend knocked on her door at the Star Motel. The electric company trucks were back. The workers were about to shut off the power again.
The 17-year-old slammed her door and cranked the air conditioning as high as it would go, hoping that a final blast of cold air might make the 95-degree day more bearable. She then headed outside to the motel’s overgrown courtyard, a route that took her past piles of maggot-infested food that had been handed out by do-gooders and tossed aside by the motel’s residents. Several dozen of them were gathered by a swimming pool full of fetid brown water, trying to figure out their next move.
The motel’s owner had abandoned the property to its residents back in December, and now the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic was turning an already desperate strip of America — just down the road from Disney World — into something ever more dystopian. The motel’s residents needed to pay the power company $1,500.
“This is the third time they’re back here!” one man fumed as the power company workers, protected by sheriff’s deputies, pulled the meters from the electrical boxes. “The third!”
“We a bunch of sorry ass men!” shouted a former felon who had served prison time on cocaine and battery convictions. “If our kids go without light, it’s because of our sorry asses.” He castigated his neighbors for spending their stimulus checks on drugs and alcohol, and then peeled a $20 from a three-inch stack of cash.
“Who else? Who else?” he called out as he dropped the bill on the sidewalk. “We need money!”
Soon the pile was growing, and the Star residents who gave were angrily accusing those who hadn’t of freeloading. “Nobody trusts nobody,” yelled a woman in a tank top and red pajama pants who tossed a $50 bill onto the sidewalk.
“I paid my rent,” shouted someone, who tossed in a $10 bill.
An elderly woman covered in bedbug bites threw $1.88 into the pot. “It’s all I got,” she said.
They were still $525.12 short.
Rose hung on the edge of the crowd, thinking about the $40 she had stashed in her bedside table. The motel she called “hell on earth” and “this malnourished place” had been her home for the past nine months.
She worried about her 65-year-old grandmother, who had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and needed power for her daily oxygen treatments. She worried about her mother, who suffered from bipolar disorder and was forgoing her medicine to save money. She worried about her neighbors, whose tempers were already frayed by the stress of the pandemic, joblessness and boredom. Gunshots at the motel were becoming a regular occurrence. The power company had cut off the motel two times earlier in the summer. Rose knew that no electricity made everything worse.
She walked back to her room for the $40, threw it on the pile and headed to another shift at Taco Bell.
When she returned home in the evening, the power was back on, but she knew it wouldn’t last long. The next bill, which included unpaid charges going back to March, was for $9,000 and it was due in five days.
The aging motels along Florida’s Highway 192 have long been barometers of a fragile economy. In good times they drew budget-conscious tourists from China, South America and elsewhere, whose dollars helped to pay the salaries of legions of low-wage service workers; the people who made one of the world’s largest tourism destinations — “the most magical place on earth” — run.
In tough times, the motels degenerated into shelters of last resort in a city where low-income housing shortages were among the most severe in the nation and the social safety net was collapsing. Now they were fast becoming places where it was possible to glimpse what a complete social and economic collapse might look like in America.
The pandemic had heaped crisis on top of crisis. The 2008 housing collapse and recession had caused the tourist market to tank at the exact moment the foreclosure crisis was forcing thousands of homeowners and overburdened renters from their homes. Struggling motel owners began renting rooms to the only customers they could find, those who had no place else to go.
In the decade that followed, the tourists returned to Orlando by the millions. Executive salaries at companies such as Disney and Universal soared. So did local real estate prices, buoyed by a booming market for gated, luxury vacation homes.
But almost nothing was done to address the reality that many service workers had emerged from the recession saddled with stagnant wages, bad credit or eviction records that made it nearly impossible for them to rent an apartment and return to a normal life. Many spent much of the past decade stuck in motels with restful names — the Paradise, the Palm, the Shining Light, the Star, the Magic Castle — that belied an increasingly grim reality for both the owners and tenants who found themselves trapped together.
At the Palm, scars of the past recession and the current collapse were evident in the motel’s cramped lobby, which was full of broken air-conditioning units and mattresses stacked to the ceiling. A dozen loaves of donated, day-old bread sat on a table by the front door.
Next door at the Paradise, a leak in the roof had caused black mold to bloom across the walls of one of the rooms. Cockroaches scurried across the floors of others. At the motel’s front desk, a sign warned guests that “due to shortages” there was a charge for toilet paper: $1 a roll.
“We can’t afford to fix anything right now,” the clerk confided.
The owner, who had emigrated from Bangladesh, complained that more than three-quarters of his 40 guests were weeks or months behind on their room bills. Many had jobs or were collecting unemployment insurance, he said, but were refusing to pay because they were protected by the state’s eviction moratorium.
“This kind of business never brings good people,” the owner said, “only bad people.”
Up and down the highway, motel owners told the same story of mounting bills, customers who couldn’t or wouldn’t pay for their rooms and buildings that were slowly falling apart because there was no money to fix them.
The worst of them all was the Star. A six-foot-high wall of trash bisected the parking lot, and children rode their bicycles through big puddles of raw sewage that spilled from a broken pipe. When Rose’s family landed at the motel earlier this year, after a few years in a house followed by a string of increasingly dilapidated motels, she felt as if she had hit “rock bottom.” The hot water didn’t work, and the toilet was clogged with hypodermic needles and crack pipes, she said. Rose’s grandmother and her 12-year-old brother, J.J., shared one bed. Her mother and stepfather took a second bed. Rose had a mattress to herself.
Rose’s grades suffered, she got into a fight at school and was suspended from her high school’s JROTC program, which had been a source of stability and pride in her life.
In April she started a gofundme account, hoping it might help her escape the Star. “Moving from hotel to hotel just want to be stable with my family,” she wrote in her pitch. But it drew no donations.
A few weeks later, she moved into an abandoned room near the front of the property that cost her $100 a week. Her brother, who had grown weary of sharing a bed with his grandmother, upgraded to a mattress of his own.
Rose cleaned the dog feces off the room’s floor and scrubbed her new room’s soiled mattress with bleach and Pine-Sol. Then she bombed the place with bug spray to get rid of the roaches and tracked down a working air conditioner from another room.
By early August, it was clear that it was just a matter of time before the motel was permanently shuttered. The power company had its demands, and the water company wanted $57,000 by January.
Some residents bought gas-powered generators. Some searched nearby trailer parks for a place that might take them. Others tried to blot out their anxiety with drugs and liquor. Rose waited and tried not to worry.
“Just gotta survive,” she said.
For much of the past year she had watched a gated community, consisting of 1,000 vacation homes, take shape just across the six-lane highway from the Star. All the while, her family sank deeper into poverty. The lesson for Rose was inescapable.
“The economy just keeps going up, up, up, and the minimum wage is staying the same. So how do they expect people to be able to pay their rent and pay for their car? That’s why more people are ending up in these hotels. There’s not enough resources out there to help us be able to help ourselves.”
A few miles west of the Star Motel on Highway 192, the Rev. Mary Lee Downey was reaching the same conclusion. The pandemic, she worried, was pushing the Orlando area to the brink of a collapse far more serious than the 2008 recession.
That recession had led her to start the Community Hope Center, which had helped hundreds of families escape the motels. Still, the total number of motel families never really shrank despite the decade long run of economic growth.
What was happening at the Star drove home the problem. Many families had filled out forms seeking help from a program administered by Downey’s organization that would pay two months rent and their security deposit if they could find an apartment they could afford. “Trying to find rental or anything to get us out of here,” wrote Maykayla Harper, who was 20, pregnant and earning about $9 an hour at Burger King.
Rose’s family had filled out the same form.
The problem: There were almost no apartments for people earning less than $25 an hour. To Downey it often seemed as if everyone — local government officials, residents at the Star, congregants at her church — expected her 19-person charity to fix a problem that had festered for more than a decade.
Before the pandemic, Downey had planned to build a 200-unit apartment complex on 5.5 acres that the Methodist Church gave her in 2018. All of the apartments would be reserved for the area’s lowest wage earners.
Downey estimated that she would need to raise about $15 million to make it work. But this summer, just as the economy was sinking, a consulting company that she had hired to study the feasibility of a fundraising effort told her that she wouldn’t be able to pull in more than $3.5 million.
“Maybe we should consider buying the Star,” one of her board members suggested.
Downey quickly concluded it would cost far too much to buy and renovate the decrepit motel. Instead she suggested they consider buying the Magic Castle, a shabby, purple 107-room motel where Rose’s family had stayed off and on over the years.