Elevate Difference

Homeless: The Motel Kids of Orange County

Orange County, California is known for both wealth and political conservatism. In fact, the most recent American Community Survey reports that the largely Caucasian locale boasts a median household income of $81,260.

But as filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi’s latest documentary, Homeless: The Motel Kids of Orange County, demonstrates, more than ten percent of OC residents live below the poverty line. Some sleep on the streets while others find shelter in rundown hotels, where single rooms rent for between $800 and $900 a month. Ironically, Disneyland is a short distance from the county’s seediest areas, but for impoverished motel residents, Disney is no more accessible than Saturn.

Pelosi’s camera gives viewers an inside peak into the desperation of those living in cramped and often bedbug-infested quarters, places rife with drug dealing, prostitution, and police surveillance. That kids grow up in this environment—sharing one tiny room with siblings, parents, and pets—is sobering and should be an indictment of U.S. housing policies. Sadly, it falls short.

One of the problems is that Pelosi interviews too many people, and it’s hard to remember who’s who. In addition, she never moves beyond the personal, and fails to inject needed political analysis into the discussion. For example, why is housing so expensive? Do motel residents have access to social service programs, job training, or counseling? And most importantly, why has the government refused to build new public housing for those unable to pay market rates?

Despite these flaws, the film is not without its poignant moments. One woman, a married mom of two, proudly touts her family’s survival. Although she admits that she hated living on the streets, she champions the things she learned there. “We know how to bathe in eight ounces of water,” she begins. “We know how to do pooh-pooh in a bag.”

Like all of the “motel kids,” her daughters attend Perfect Hope School, a public program exclusively for those without permanent housing. The sixty-seven pupils stay at Hope as long as they remain in the OC, meaning their education is not interrupted if they leave the motel. Teacher Judy explains one of the school’s advantages: “No one makes fun of you if you wear the same clothes for thirty days.” Plus, she continues, two meals a day—albeit heavy on sugar and fat—are provided.

Predictably, many of the kids have deep problems. One boy, eleven-year-old Zack, is already on probation for robbery. “Some of us kids want what other people have,” he says, “so we just take it.” He later expresses surprising self-awareness. “Sometimes I do it for attention,” he admits. “My mom is too busy.”

Profiling Zack’s family in greater depth would have made the film more insightful and would have given viewers a better understanding of how easily life can fray for the working poor. After all, Zack’s mother and twenty-one-year-old sister both work full-time, but simply don’t earn enough to save the thousands of dollars they’d need to get into an apartment.

Despite these faults, Pelosi deserves recognition for bringing attention to a population that too-often falls through the cracks. What’s more, Homeless: The Motel Kids of Orange County prods lawmakers to do something about the country’s worsening affordable housing crisis. Since approximately two percent of U.S. children are presently undomiciled, the film is a stark, if understated, wake-up call. Let’s hope Pelosi’s mom—yes, Alexandra is Nancy’s daughter—and her colleagues will watch it and once-and-for-all do something about this shameful reality.

Premieres on HBO tonight at 9p.m. EST

Written by: Eleanor J. Bader, July 26th 2010

Laura, thanks for the comment. The problem is that relocation is also expensive. It costs a lot to move to another city, let alone across the country. And as Mandy pointed out, you're then faced with the task of finding even more money for a downpayment, furniture, etc. It isn't as easy as just picking up and moving somewhere else. Otherwise, many people would.

One of the motel residents stated the cheapest rent around there was around $1,350 per month... I don't understand why they don't try to leave Orange County, even California. There are plenty of places around the country with alot lower cost of living- for instance in rural Georgia a nice 3 BR home can be rented for $800-900 a month. It seems like if they ever want to get ahead they need to get out of the OC.

Anon: Yes, there probably are. But you need capital upfront (and good credit) to get an apartment: first and last month's rent and a security deposit; deposit to give to the electric, gas and water companies; furniture; etc. And many poor people do not have this kind of cash-in-hand. I suggest you read Nickled and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. It does an excellent job of explaining these kinds of Catch-22 situations of the working poor.

A motel room for between $800 and $900 a month? There are apartments that are cheaper than that.

Man I love how people who wouldn't know a hard day if it jumped up and bit them on the arse rank on other like people who also wouldn't know a hard day if it jumped up and bit them on THEIR ass.

Well, actually the city of Anahiem isn't that white. A lot of the homesles are white. OC is about 34 percent hispanic and 17 percent asian. Whites unllke Hispanics or asians immirgants are unable to live with another family to afford the rent in Anahiem. So, OC is not largely white but few blacks this is true. Go to onoline dictory to find the real stats on OC. Ps, its also 30 percnet foreing botn but the native born are more likely to live in the motels.