Digging Deeper: Life in limbo for hundreds of Madison area kids - WKOW 27: Madison, WI Breaking News, Weather and Sports

Digging Deeper: Life in limbo for hundreds of Madison area kids living in motels

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MADISON (WKOW) -- Unlocking his motel room door, a bright-eyed eight-year-old grins before dashing to the bolted-down bed, showing every possession his family owns.

(Watch the full report HERE or at the bottom of the page.)

"Doritos, Mike n' Ikes, pills, a phone," R'mani says before turning his attention past the blaring TV to the room's desk.  Next to a portable burner, the second grader picks up a 'Cup of Noodles' box and puts it back down.

"I ain't got no place to live, nothing to do," he says. The little boy knows all too well what the word 'homeless' means.  His family fears hunger and eviction; some nights making Ramen in their room is all they can do.  

R'mani's mom and grandma work full-time jobs, but $1,000 a month in motel rent is tough to come by.  Still, there are plenty of other families facing the same problems.

It's a bone-chilling day, but you'd never know it inside a Southwest-side motel room.  Grandma Roxanne Abeyta comforts her six-year-old granddaughter Lili, opening up a special treat, a Lunchables snack.  The family-of-five lives in a room that's maybe 250 square feet. It's dark and overwhelmingly warm, stuffed with everything they own.  Special Indian blankets and figurines adorn the tiny space; they're special items the family scraped together from St. Vinny's to help make the room resemble a real home. 

"We looked for apartments, but the landlords, they just judge you," Roxanne said sitting on the twin bed.  It's $850 a month to stay, but it's a lifestyle both families can't escape.  With no credit or bad credit, they say it's impossible to find an apartment with a two percent vacancy rental rate in the city.

Walking with a cane, Lili's father Jeremy wants out, but he can't afford to do any better for his daughter.  He worries for her, even though she lives with her mom sometimes.

"I seen a couple of prostitution things happen here," Jeremy says holding his daughter's hand fiercely as they walk along the cracked cement motel parking lot.

Without construction jobs limited and the Craigslist jobs few and far between, Jeremy wonders how long any of this can last.  The last thing his family wants is to be torn apart.  That's a running theme with motel families we interviewed.  The families don't want to separate.

"I think it does get worse, going back to 2004, you can see it pretty clear," Madison school teacher David Dyson said about the motel family problem.  He works with the District's Transition Education Program (TEP)  to help homeless kids stay above the fray.

National data consistent with Dane County's numbers show seven percent of the county's youth lived in a motel at sometime during the 2014-2015 year.  But TEP social worker Amy Noble worries because the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) doesn't classify motel families as homeless, so the seven percent is likely inaccurate, and there's another concern.

"They are staying in a hotel and not eligible for the housing programs that we have in the community," Noble said.

But the Madison Metropolitan School District is trying to help these kids succeed.  The McKinney Vento Homeless Assistance Act uses taxpayer dollars to ensure every kid, even those without a permanent address, make it to class.  Sometimes instead of a yellow school bus, a yellow Union Taxi Cab pulls up.

"We will use taxi cabs, that's our last resort, but we do," TEP teacher Jani Koester said.  She says they will get creative and offer their family vouchers, gift cards, anything they can to get the kids to school.

Union Cab's Paul Bitorf knows his drivers are helping hundreds each year.

"It's well over 250, we have all sorts of accounts with the school districts," he said.

Once the kids make it to class, the social workers and classroom teachers keep a watchful eye on the kids living in motels. 

For R'mani, there's a special bond with his guidance counselor 'Mr. K' and his 2nd grade teacher Mr. Stovall.  The duo strive to make sure he's happy and healthy through the day.

"They help me whenever I need help or need something,"  R'mani said about the relationship he has with his school 'family.' 

Back at the motel, the sun is starting to set and the eight-year-old will do his homework in the bathroom for better lighting.  Bed time presents the real challenge with so many sleeping in the beds, oftentimes R'mani stretches out on the floor.  Lili does the same thing because she says her daddy kicks.

"Daddy push my feet off," she said about the awkward sleeping arrangement. 

Jeremy just wishes he had more to offer his daughter.

"It's just the space and the worry, the worry about what's gonna happen next," he said.

If you'd like to help R'mani's and Lili's family, here's how you can help. Donations for R'Mani's family "The Wright Family" are going through the Boys & Girls Club here. There's a GoFundMe page for Lili's family at this link.

The Madison Metropolitan School District is holding a special Spring Seminar on understanding Mobility and Homelessness.  You can call 608-204-2063 for more information.

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