Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014

In Disney World's shadow, homeless families struggle; tourists don't have a clue

By Mike Schneider, Associated Press

Published: Thu, April 24 9:25 a.m. MDT

 In this Tuesday, April 8, 2014 photo, Theresa Muller prepares to move out of her motel room she shares with her boyfriend, father and three children in Kissimmee, Fla.   Muller and her family have been homeless but plan to move to a home in a neighboring county.

In this Tuesday, April 8, 2014 photo, Theresa Muller prepares to move out of her motel room she shares with her boyfriend, father and three children in Kissimmee, Fla. Muller and her family have been homeless but plan to move to a home in a neighboring county.

(John Raoux, Associated Press)

KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) — When they moved from Georgia to the theme park playground of central Florida four years ago, Anthony and Candice Johnson found work at a barbecue restaurant and a 7-Eleven. Their combined salaries nevertheless fell short of what they needed to rent an apartment, so the couple and their two children have instead been hopping among cheap motel rooms along U.S. 192.

"What's hard for us isn't paying the bills," Candice Johnson, 24, said. "It's just trying to get our feet in the door" with the combined expense of application fees, security deposits and first month's rent needed for a place of their own.

The Johnsons are among a growing number of families living in hotels in this Florida tourist corridor because they can't afford anything else and because their county has no shelters for the estimated 1,216 homeless households with children.

The problem has created a backlash among the mostly mom-and-pop businesses, with some owners suing the county sheriff to force his deputies to evict guests who haven't paid or who have turned their rooms into semipermanent residences. It also shines a light on the gap among those who work and live in this county that sits in the shadow of Walt Disney World, and the big-spending tourists who flock here.

On any given day, tourists pay nearly $100 per person to get into Orlando's theme parks. There, they may be waited on by homeless parents. From their hotels, they jog past bus stops where homeless children wait to head to school. They buy coffee at Starbucks next to the motels that have become families' homes.

Starting minimum pay at Walt Disney World — the area's largest employer, just a few miles from the motels — is $8.03 an hour, though that could increase to $10 under a contract being negotiated with the resort's largest union group.

"Tourists that come here ... I don't think they have a clue," said James Ortiz, 31, a fast-food worker who recently moved out of a motel room and into an RV park with his parents and 5-year-old son.

Homeless advocates blame the housing problem on the low-paying wages of the service economy and the rents in Osceola County, with 300,000 people. While inexpensive compared with larger cities, Osceola rents often exceed what a worker earning near minimum wage can afford, said Catherine Jackson, a consultant who recently wrote a report for the county about the homeless.

Median earnings for workers in Osceola County are $24,128 a year, according to U.S. Census figures, and median rent is $800 a month. Motel rooms can go for just $39 a night.

"The fact that we're the happiest place on Earth and No. 1 travel destination is good news, but this service-based economy is actually creating a dynamic of homelessness," Jackson said.

Many of the county's homeless moved here to find jobs in the tourism industry, so they lack the social networks of family or churches, Jackson said.

"Paying weekly is all we can do to survive," Ortiz, 31, said. "I can't find a house that is suitable in a decent neighborhood for me and my child to be able to pay rent, pay the utilities, pay car insurance, pay gas and buy food."

For two years, Theresa Muller has lived in motel room after motel room with her three young children, her father and her boyfriend. The owner of HomeSuiteHome has wanted her out for months.

Dianna Chane says Muller's family is violating the hotel's policy of only four people per room, and clothes, furniture, toys, garbage and boxes are piled chest-high.

Chane is among those suing Osceola County Sheriff Bob Hansell to force his deputies to evict such guests. Under Florida's lodging law, it's a second-degree misdemeanor to stay in a room after being asked to leave. Yet each time Chane has asked the sheriff's office to intervene, she says deputies have refused even though they follow the law for brand-name hotels. Chane says the office calls the issue a landlord-tenant dispute that should be handled in civil court.

"I can't afford it," said Chane, who figures she has swallowed more than $200,000 in unpaid rooms since 2012.

A sheriff's spokeswoman and an attorney for the sheriff said they wouldn't comment on pending litigation. In court papers, an attorney for the sheriff said there is a presumption that occupants are not transient if they say the hotel room is their sole residence.

"Hotel owners simply cannot engage long-term guests ... then turn on a dime when they stop paying and pretend they are tourists," the sheriff's attorney said in a court filing.

Muller said she's unemployed but hopeful about a dollar-store retail job. Until then, her father's disability payments help the family try to get by. She said she found a house she can afford in a neighboring county and was in the process of moving out of Chane's motel.

"It's not a place for kids," Muller said.

Recommended
1. Hutterite
American Fork, UT,
April 24, 2014

There are few redeeming qualities of the greater Disney/192 strip. It all exists to support the illusion, and it's almost all tacky. I just drove by all the theme parks; the redeeming quality of the place being the weather and cheap beer.

2. Downtime
Saint George, UT,
April 24, 2014

I see this article making the rounds on most of the news sites. The reporter is trying to make Disney and tourists feel guilty for a families bad decisions. They moved across states to work in a 7-Eleven and a BBQ place??? The responsibility for that family's current circumstances lies squarely on the shoulders of that family. Do not begrudge those who through education and hard work can afford to go to an amusement park. Bleeding hearts of the world, UNITE!

3. MrsH
Altamont, UT,
April 24, 2014

So how come they cannot afford a 'median rent of $800.00", yet they can afford a motel room?
Even at $39.00 per night, a rate which I have not seen in a long time, that is at least $1170.00 per month. Is it because they are not paying? Then change the locks...I don't get it.

And, I have been to Disney World a grand total of ONE time. And I saved my own money, (that I WORKED for) a loooong time to be able to do that, so the guilt trip does not fly with me.

4. Airy Rain
Salt Lake City, UT,
April 24, 2014

My husband and I have saved for 2 years to be able to take our children (we have 2) to Disneyworld this year. We had a goal, we made a budget and we stuck to it. Did I want to stray from it, heck yes, I would have really liked to purchased tickets to concerts, comic-con, ski passes, etc. but this was important to us as a family. It sad that this reporter is attempting to make Disney out to be the "bad guy" and that they are just sitting back and watching them suffer. (Homeless people living in the shadow of the Happiest Place on Earth.....that's attention grabing and a bit misleading). People are responsbile for their own decisions. I am sorry that people make poor decisions with their lives, finances, careers, etc., but that is what they are, their decisions.

5. AFCoug
Colorado Springs, CO,
April 24, 2014

I am so sick of people with entitled beliefs in this country. Pay your rent or get out. You're umeployed, take some freakin time to clean your filthy nasty hotel room. Even if they did pay their $39 a day I'd kick them out if they trashed the room like that. Nasty.