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Crash Hotels

Here's a list of local relief agencies.

    The efforts of these relief organizations no doubt help many of the intended beneficiaries. But these same helping hands also raise some disturbing questions: How is the surrounding community affected by what one motel's neighbor derisively calls "bum dumping by the county"? What is the hidden cost of these short-term placement programs? And, since they are allegedly watching out for society's sickest, weakest and most defenseless, who is keeping watch on the innkeepers?

    Some motels have managed to make this tenuous relationship with the transient, the damaged and the ill work. But at least one motel may have found that taking in the most vulnerable segment of society provides fresh prey for treatment that former tenants say ranges from unethical and shoddy to illegal and downright bizarre.

    Used Condoms and Syringes Under the Bed

    Rick Gagnon and his companion Clint didn't plan very well when they loaded up their car in Florida and headed out to the West Coast for a fresh start. But with their combined track record of physical and mental problems, planning well had never been much help anyway. Gagnon has a severe form of epilepsy as well as manic-depression, while Clint's schizophrenia and more than 60 suicide attempts have kept him in close company with the mental health system. So it wasn't much of a surprise that they found themselves living in their car by the time they hit Santa Cruz.

    When Clint started sinking into his private hell again, Gagnon started combing the social service agencies, hoping to find some shelter that didn't include a view of the steering wheel and dashboard every morning. The Santa Cruz Community Action Board's Shelter Project came through with a motel voucher and a list of participating motels. Gagnon and Clint chose the Salt Air Motel, a place with 20-some units on Liebrandt Street that straddles the border of the Beach Flats and Beach Hill neighborhoods.

    One week's stay turned into two months, and by the time the pair left, both men had begun to wonder if living on the streets was any worse. "It took us three hours to clean the room they put us in," Gagnon recounts. "When we moved in, we found used condoms and--we counted them--18 syringes under the bed."

    Unsanitary conditions, however, appear to be the least of Salt Air's transgressions. By the time the two men left, they had compiled a list of damning charges against Salt Air owners Dilip and Eelya Patel, as well as their in-laws and motel managers, Mike and Sheila Patel, ranging from dangerous conditions to racial discrimination, charges that have since been corroborated by other witnesses and documents.

    The two men quickly discovered that they had little in the way of privacy or rights while living at the Salt Air. As he talks in his cramped motel room, Rick Gagnon often jumps up to glance nervously out the window. "He walks in without knocking," he says, referring to Salt Air manager Mike Patel or his brother-in-law, owner Dilip Patel. Gagnon says that locking the door does no good--the Patels will use their master key. Every tenant interviewed for this article was fairly certain the Patels eavesdropped on their phone calls. As Gagnon explains, "You can hear them pick it up and the two short beeps." He says he has seen the Patels kick people out before their paid-for stay was complete and then fail to refund them for the remainder of their contracted time.

    Gagnon says he was told by Mike Patel that his voucher was only worth $160 a week, and a room with a kitchenette would cost $220. However, when Patel learned that Gagnon and Clint worked as motel managers in Florida, he told them they could make up the difference by pitching in to help around the property. But Patel would not tell them what their time was worth in exchange, Gagnon says.

    Instead, Gagnon and his companion were expected to be on call for whatever came up. This included plumbing plugged toilets, replacing lighting in all the units, and trimming back the bushes and hedges around the property. Gagnon's companion was expected to clean rooms when the regular maid did not show. For this, alleges Gagnon, Clint was paid $1 a room.

    Why didn't Gagnon just refuse or complain to the Community Action Board? "I was terrified they would put us and our stuff in the street," he replies. "We just couldn't take another night living in the car."

    The law may have been on their side, but Gagnon doubted the wheels of justice would move fast enough to come between him and homelessness again.

    A Dollar a Bar, A Dollar a Roll

    Rick Gagnon is not the only tenant to complain about problems with the Patels. Another former resident, Virginia López, got rent assistance from AFDC and Families in Transition, which she supplemented with savings to pay $204 per week for a Salt Air Motel room. She recalls the sheets, bedding and towels hadn't been changed before she, her two children and two grandchildren arrived. "But we were so shell-shocked the first few days, we didn't notice," she says.

    The family was allotted one roll of toilet paper and one bar of soap per week. Each additional roll or one-ounce hotel-size sliver of soap would cost another dollar. Another former guest, Jacob Ikeokwu, had his difficulties with the Patels, but unlike the rest, he did something about it. After living with his two children at the Salt Air for a year in 1993, Ikeokwu found another place. "Dilip agreed to hold my stuff until I could pick it up at noon the next day," Ikeokwu recalls.

    But when Ikeokwu arrived shortly before noon, he found his life's belongings sitting on the sidewalk, where they had been since nine that morning. Passersby had rummaged through the family's clothing, the children's toys, his stereo, photographs and irreplaceable mementos from his family in Nigeria. By noon, almost everything had been taken.

    Ikeokwu filed a police report and then sued, eventually settling out of court with Dilip Patel for about $3,500. Ikeokwu also vouches for many of Gagnon's allegations, including the Patels' propensity to walk in on tenants without knocking.

    But perhaps Gagnon's most damning charge, which has been verified by documents obtained by Metro Santa Cruz, is the Patels' racial discrimination policy when renting to Hispanics. Gagnon, who was asked by the Patels to watch the office on several occasions, says that he was given a rate sheet, but told to "charge what you can get." He was also told to charge at least $10 more for Hispanics. Gagnon recalls being told by Mike Patel, "Mexicans are dirtier, so it takes more time to clean up after them."

    Another former resident, who asked to remain anonymous, also was asked to watch the front office one night. He was told by Sheila Patel to collect more for Hispanic guests. But her reasoning, he recalls, was different. "They always sneak more people in," this man says he was told.

    Although her room has an attached kitchenette, Mary Kezel, who receives government assistance, has her meals delivered by Meals on Wheels, a meal service provided to the elderly and shut-ins by the county's Food and Nutrition Services. She points to a battered gas stove, whose oven door is held loosely on with a coat hanger. "If I use that, the place fills up with gas," she says.

    Repeated attempts to reach either Dilip Patel or Mike Patel for their response to these allegations were unsuccessful. A man with an Indian accent that answered the phone for the Salt Air said that both owner Dilip Patel and manager Mike Patel were on vacation for "a couple of months." When asked for his name, the man hung up. When a reporter called back and again requested the man's name, he told her to "Go to hell" and hung up again.

    Unchecked, Uncounted And Unaware

    The motel industry appears to prosper under, at best, a haphazard patchwork of regulations. Unlike restaurants, which must abide by a stringent health and safety code, the lodging industry has no one watchdog agency to oversee it. Jim Abrams, executive vice president of the California Hotel and Motel Association, the industry's lobbying organization in Sacramento, insists that the industry is heavily regulated through the California Department of Housing and Community Development. Yet enforcement, if any, is left to the city.

    Abrams adds that there is no regulation of what a motel can charge and, furthermore, an innkeeper is entitled to keep the balance of the payment when a guest is asked to leave. In Santa Cruz, both the fire department and city code enforcement will inspect motels for code violations on a regular basis. However, according to Ray Toshitsune, program manager of the county's Environmental Health Department, no city or county official has been charged with the inspection of the county's motels and hotels for sanitation except on a complaint basis.

    Effectively, it leaves issues like clean bathrooms, laundered sheets, towels and sanitized glasses more a suggestion than regulation. Although by law an inn must have its rates posted, there is again no regulatory agency to check. "No one inspects [motels] on a regular basis. We respond only on a complaint basis," Toshitsune says. While this may seem odd for a town that depends on tourism, by contrast, San Mateo has its motels and hotels inspected on an annual basis by the county's Environmental Health Department.

    If visitors think they are safer in hooking up with well-known motels, they may want to think again. As of this writing, the Salt Air was alleged to have been accepted into the Villager franchise, a subsidiary of HFS Inc., the conglomerate that also owns Howard Johnson's, among other chains. When contacted for verification, Neal Allen, manager of public relations for HFS Inc., said it was not his company's policy to comment upon motels that have been accepted into the franchise until they actually open.

    A typical out-of-town visitor may vow never to return to a rundown motel or even go so far as to lodge a complaint with Toshitsune's county health office. But those who are largely dependent on government handouts, those coping with crises or suffering from low self-esteem, are unlikely to leave or complain.

    Christina Sipple works for the Homeless Person's Health Project, a federally funded program that helps get homeless people access to health care. "I know our clients tend to be rough on the places [that take motel vouchers]. But when there's no clean sheets, no toilet paper--they're hellholes by anyone's standard," she says. "The clients are very vulnerable at that time."

    However, the Shelter Project's program manager, Paul Rachuy Brindel, finds situations like Rick Gagnon and Clint's unusual. "We have day-to-day contact with the motels and the people," he says. "If someone is having difficulty with a motel owner, we generally hear about it. We don't want [the motels] to be a dumping ground."

    Nor do the neighbors of Salt Air. Although Gagnon was unfamiliar with the Salt Air when he chose it from a list, the property is well-known to the Santa Cruz Police Department, Fire Department and paramedics. Over a 12-month period beginning in September 1994, the police department was summoned to the property 162 times, and emergency service calls logged by the fire department numbered 20.

    The almost nightly parade of sirens has been a constant source of aggravation for Salt Air's surrounding community. During the past two months, police were called to the motel 24 times for assistance ranging from "civil standbys"--being present for the eviction of motel guests--to domestic disputes and attempted suicides.

    When questioned, city officials said they were not aware of any studies done that would indicate the cost to taxpayers of an average police summons.

    Although it would be ludicrous to assume that all the problems at Salt Air stem from county and charity-subsidized guests, there clearly is a correlation between the motel's heavy taxation of police and emergency services and its dependence on emergency housing vouchers. And there is a reason why the majority of motels refuse to accept motel vouchers.

    On the day that manager Richie Di Lauro was interviewed, his Best Western Torch-Lite Inn, located about two blocks from Salt Air, had only one of its 38 rooms rented out. Yet Di Lauro is adamant in his refusal to take vouchers. "I don't like to say it, but you get a different clientele [with motel vouchers]. Chances are much more likely of damage in the room," he says. "That doesn't go for everybody with a voucher, but that's what seems to happen."

    Although Di Lauro's inn, like the Salt Air Motel, rubs elbows with the crime-ridden Beach Flats area, police have been summoned to the Torch-Lite less than 20 times in the last 12 months.

    Yet Fran Raymes, manager of the Hitching Post Motel, is quick to defend her motel guests whose tab has been picked up by the county and charity organizations. "Once in a while you get some bad ones," she admits. "But we keep a list of individuals who are no longer welcome."

    And the Band-Aid Played On--and On

    Bill Watt is executive director of Families in Transition, a highly regarded community program funded by HUD, FEMA and private donations that helps homeless families get back on their feet. Of the 110 participating families, says Watt, only five have returned to homelessness. Watt terms the idea of short-term housing in motels like the Salt Air a "sticky issue."

    "Although it does fill a need for some stability, it really doesn't move people out of a crisis mode," Watt says. "It's a Band-Aid and not a solution. It's not cost-effective and it sucks up money really fast." The idea of his program, Watt says, is to get people in a stable situation. "I try to bite the bullet and find the money for first, last and deposit on a long-term rental."

    Watt pauses, searching for a delicate way to phrase his thoughts. "For a lot of people, though, Families in Transition is too invasive. We talk to them about drug and alcohol use, about abusive relationships. We ask them, 'Why aren't you in a parenting class?' "

    Some folks have made what Watt calls a "lifestyle-by-choice decision."

    For these people, living from crisis to crisis goes along with the suicide attempts, the drug use, the battering boyfriend and another visit to one of the social service tentacles that will get them a night or two off the street. It's a situation where nobody wins--not the client, not the neighbors who must endure another night of sirens, not the beleaguered police and paramedics. Only the motels like Salt Air that cash the vouchers come out ahead.

    López, Gagnon and Clint were lucky. López moved to the Hitching Post Motel to await her opening for a low-income apartment that had been arranged with the assistance of Families in Transition. Although the Hitching Post also takes motel vouchers, López compares her experiences between the two as the difference between night and day. While Salt Air charged her 50 cents for each phone call, Hitching Post hooked up a phone for her at no charge. "We get clean towels every day and they treat us with respect," she marvels.

    Working closely with CAB's Brindel, Gagnon and Clint were able to secure a room in the newly renovated St. George Hotel, which caters to low-income and disabled residents. Of his time at the Salt Air, Gagnon counts his blessings. "At one time there were only two people paying for rooms out of their own pockets. Most were worse off than we were."

    For those who are "worse off," it appears there is no easy solution, only more questions. Most motels and hotels choose not to house these individuals, leaving a cloud of doubt around those motels that will. Neighbors wonder why they must be subjected to the ongoing problems of troubled and troubling guests. And, the Santa Cruz community may question if its tax and charity dollars are being used to the best advantage, whether it be for the motel voucher programs or for the excessive use of city police and emergency services that seem to follow them.

    Perhaps Watt is correct in perceiving short-term emergency housing as merely a Band-Aid. But that's not how Gagnon, Clint and López see it. Their time at Salt Air was bad news, they'll tell you, but those motel vouchers were a bridge--not a Band-Aid--and offered each of them a way out of a seemingly hopeless situation. And for them, that's all that matters.

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From the Jan. 4-10, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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