Over the last four years, in major cities across the country, hundreds of motels and hotels have been converted into motel shelters for people experiencing homelessness, with thousands more being planned. Rather than making a positive impact on addressing the ever-growing homelessness crisis, these expensive projects are ill-conceived, poorly designed, minimally maintained, poorly managed, worn down, and crime infested. Instead of restoring, they’re adding blight to local neighborhoods.
Sadly, we’ve already seen the death rate within the homeless community double during the last three years due to the increase in drug overdoses, and it’s likely to quadruple within motel projects. In short, if these efforts aren’t immediately re-conceptualized, with the management operations completely restructured, the United States will have thousands of developments mirroring the notorious Chicago Cabrini-Green housing project, whose crime, neglect, and harsh living conditions for many residents became a symbol of problems associated with government-funded housing.
Motels Aren’t Designed for Sheltering People Experiencing Homelessness
To start with, architects design motel rooms for part-time light use in mind rather than for near full-time heavy use. Most motel rooms are designed for an average use of eight to nine hours per day, with a daily average occupancy rate of 65 percent to 80 percent—equating to 37 to 51 hours of a 168-hour week. In contrast, hotel rooms used by people experiencing homelessness are occupied nearly full-time. This means that the wear-and-tear rate of a motel homeless shelter project will be four to five times faster than the intended design and use, which translates to an extremely high deterioration rate and reduction of the building’s lifespan.
The rate of deterioration would be a problem even if one started with a hotel in good condition. However, the reality is that most of the motels being converted to homeless motel shelters are already in disrepair and past their operating half-life. Many motel owners are dumping their worn-out properties for quick cash—often at prices above market value, and all to be financed by taxpayers.
The initial poor condition and accelerated deterioration rate of these hotels means that substantial funds will be needed in as little as three to five years for future remodeling or for demolition, since the lifespan of the physical plant will be substantially reduced. Unfortunately, I have yet to see a single motel shelter conversion project take long-term financial sustainability into account.
The Lack of Embedded Clinical Services Has Contributed to the Doubling of the Death Rate
In many parts of the United States, most prominently in California, the death rate of people experiencing homelessness has doubled in less than three years. A well-documented fact in hundreds of communities across the United States is that almost all the increases in deaths can be linked to drug overdoses of those living in isolated rooms.
The spike in overdose deaths in these converted motel shelters isn’t a surprise to the clinicians who provide homelessness services assistance. It’s entirely predictable that if you put active drug users in isolated rooms with no treatment and no supervision, you will experience an increase in addiction and overdose deaths.
What people dealing with addictions need is active and structured treatment, not isolation. But as currently implemented, people experiencing homelessness, most of whom have active addictions, are being given motel keys and not provided treatment for the root cause of their condition. In most cases, homeless motel shelters don’t have on-site case managers, security, and substance-use treatment staff.
Let’s Do This Right
There’s a way to do motel conversions right by transforming them into well-managed homelessness assistance centers.
First, before anyone moves into a converted motel, the facility needs to be remodeled with the anticipated heavy, long-term use levels in mind. We need to take the time and devote sufficient resources to constructing the physical plant to the appropriate, sustainable level of functionality in order to avoid creating another dilapidated Cabrini-Green project.
Second, the property needs to be sufficiently staffed. Robust, on-site treatment services need to be provided, especially for untreated mental illness with co-presenting substance abuse disorders and addiction. Treatment must be an integral part of all these efforts; therefore, we should require and fully fund embedded treatment programming. In short, in a converted motel, we should make it easy to get treatment, and hard to get high. Our end goal should be helping individuals to exit the condition of homelessness forever.
The Cost of Inaction
If we don’t change our approach immediately, most of the motel conversions for people experiencing homelessness will become centers of plight, crime, and drug overdose deaths. The wishful thinking of proponents has yet to address the impending financial crisis of these projects. This is truly a ticking time bomb. Chicago was forced to finally do something about Cabrini-Green—alas, they literally blew it up. Let’s address this looming problem before we have to deal with thousands of ill-conceived Cabrini-Green-like homeless motels in neighborhoods across the United States.