Suzanne Andrews (not her real name), her husband and two young kids live in one small room.
It’s roughly a 12 by 15-foot space, assuming you include the large corner of the room that is the family’s modest-sized bathroom. There is a tiny round laminated table and two wooden chairs, a full-sized refrigerator, microwave and two burners. A 19-inch television and two queen-sized beds that seem to have been made during the Eisenhower Administration fill up the remainder of the space. It’s clean and functional. But it’s not exactly what most people would describe as a home.
But that is precisely what this room has become since the family moved into this extended-stay Burnsville, MN hotel four months ago.
At first glance, the InTown Suites in Burnsville, MN seems like the typical extended stay hotel. Located on County Road 42 just west of the Burnsville Mall, its late Soviet-era architectural style fits right in with the nearby warehouses and business parks.
But as you enter the parking lot, you’ll notice that mixed in with the construction workers and salesmen are an unusual number of children. On the day I visited, one group was playing in the back parking lot, kicking a ball as they dodged the parked cars and stone retaining wall that marks the back of the property.
The halls inside the hotel are filled with the sounds of kids playing in their rooms, and several groups of what look to be teenage kids are scattered across the floor of the hallways, frantically texting to some unseen group of friends.
There is no play area, no recreational facilities. This hotel doesn’t even have an icemaker. But for Suzanne, it’s the only place she and her husband could find that would rent to someone in their financial situation.
“My husband was an engineer, and he lost his job more than two years ago,” she explained to me as we sat at her table, sharing a slightly stale Danish and some instant coffee. “I work at Wal-Mart, but even while he (her husband) had a job, it was a struggle paying the bills.”
After he was laid off in 2008, her husband collected unemployment and searched for work. And as the months passed, his family’s financial situation deteriorated. “We couldn’t pay the COBRA payments, so we didn’t have insurance,” Andrews explained. “Sean (her 11-year-old son) got sick.” She pauses, dips her head slightly and stares at the tabletop. “Our car needed work…it was just one thing after another. Then we got behind on our rent and lost our apartment.”
She pauses, and sits silently for several minutes.
“My husband eventually found a new job, but it pays a lot less than he used to make. And we just owe so much money. We had to borrow from our families, from the church…..” She stands, brushes off the bottom of her blouse and walks to the room’s lone window, which overlooks a nearby warehouse.
“No one would rent to us after we were evicted. I understand why, but that didn’t give us many options.” She turns back slowly in my direction and slumps carefully on the side of the bed. “I thought we could stay here for a month or so and then rent a new place. But it’s hard to save the money and even harder to find someone who will take a chance on us.”
Andrews and her family pay by the month, which saves them about 20 percent off the cost of the room. But that still works out to about $900 a month, which is nearly the cost of a townhouse that is for rent nearby. But the landlord of that townhouse, like many others she has talked to, isn’t willing to rent to a family that has recently been evicted from their previous residence.
It’s not clear just how many families in the South Suburbs are living in a similar situation. No one tracks the phenomena officially, since these people technically are not homeless. But a quick search of Burnsville and the surrounding towns uncovered more than dozen hotels that offer weekly and/or monthly rates. After visiting several of them, the trend of families living in what should be temporary housing appears to be a growing trend.
The current social services infrastructure in Minnesota is extended to the point of shattering. Agencies such as CAP and the Salvation Army have run out of money for housing assistance, leaving many families scrambling to find a friend or relative with a spare room they can share.
Andrews says she knows that even with the problems they’re facing, her family is still better off than many in the area. “We’re not living in our car,” she explained. “It could be worse.” But she worries about the long-term effect that living in a hotel room has had on her children.
“My six-year-old goes to a church day camp until school starts,” she said. “She’s doing okay, although she has trouble sleeping. But Sean is so angry all of the time. He doesn’t talk to anyone and he just hits things. Randomly, as if it all just boils over in him.” A tear slowly makes its way down her cheek and within seconds, she lowers her head to the table and begins crying.
If this were television, this story would end with some uplifting twist. The Andrews family would have finally found a home or some kind Samaritan would have stepped in to ease the family’s struggles. But real life isn’t television and it’s likely that many of the Minnesota families now struggling with unemployment and near homelessness are facing years of financial hardship.
Sometimes, stories just don’t have a happy ending.
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