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The sun was emerging over the horizon on a recent weekday morning, and the parking lot outside the Newport Motel 6 was already noisy. Seagulls and sparrows circled overhead, and cars wizzed down JT Connell Highway, just yards away. Next door, a strip mall was getting busy, with shoppers hurrying in and out of the local Wal-Mart.

The spot didn’t feel like a typical bus stop, but soon enough, a Middletown school van pulled up directly in front of the motel. From the lobby entrance, a young sister and brother peeked their heads out, before shuffling silently to the vehicle with their backpacks.

Their mother, Alma, says this has been the morning routine since November, when she, her partner, and five children moved into a small room at the motel.

“For having nothing, it’s fine,” she said in Spanish. “The important thing is the safety of the kids, that they at least have a roof over them, where the rain doesn’t reach them.”

Alma is originally from Puerto Rico, and she doesn’t speak much English. To protect her family from security concerns, we are not using her real name.

Alma and her family moved from Florida to Rhode Island last September. They initially stayed with one of her partner’s relatives, but that set-up quickly fell through. Alma and her partner were both working in local restaurants, but they couldn’t afford anything long-term around Newport, where the fair market rent for a two-bedroom now exceeds $1,700.

Without other relatives or friends with whom she could stay, Alma was connected with the Newport Housing Hotline, a local organization that assists people with emergency shelter. That’s how the family of seven ended up in the motel.

Living in close quarters

Their room has only two beds, so Alma sleeps in one with her partner and their toddler. The other four kids, ages six through eleven, share the other. There’s a small bathroom, but no kitchen. Alma’s throat catches when she describes how the cramped quarters have impacted her children.

It has been very difficult for them,” Alma said. “It's not having your own room. They aren’t adults, but each of them are different ages. They want their space and they can't.”

When Alma’s family first moved in last fall, the motel wasn’t officially a shelter yet. The Newport Housing Hotline covered the cost of their room, but many of their neighbors were still travelers passing through for a night or two. Back in December, however, the local organization Newport Mental Health rented out 65 rooms in the motel for temporary shelter space, using federal funds. The program will continue through the end of March, to give people a warm place to stay during the year’s coldest months. The motel is currently sheltering single adults, couples, and other families with young children.

“It's almost kind of hard to find out at first that they're there,” said Megan Mainzer, bilingual family service coordinator for the Middletown School District, who works closely with parents and students in the district experiencing homelessness. “I think a lot of people are scared to tell you that they're there.”

According to Mainzer, nearly 5% of students in Middletown are identified as lacking permanent housing — and three of those families are living at the Newport Motel 6. Although the motel is technically located outside the Middletown School District, federal law permits students experiencing homelessness to continue attending their previous school.

“There’s no fresh air. You know, you're just kind of in this little dark box. You're surrounded by a lot of other people who you wouldn't necessarily choose to be surrounded by,” said Mainzer. “And you're kind of hearing things that you may not want your young children to be hearing.”

A tough environment for families

Alma says the inside of the motel reminds her of a bar. The fluorescent-lit hallways smell strongly of cigarettes, and she can’t control what her children see or hear through the thin walls.

According to Newport Police, officers have responded to 36 incidents at the Motel 6 since December. In early February, someone died in their room, though police reported that the circumstances did not appear suspicious.

One night recently, some of Alma’s neighbors fought from 9 PM until 4 AM. The wall was shaking, she said, and her children started to cry.

“From then until now, the kids started to change. They weren't sleeping. They didn't want to go to school,” she said. “They didn't sleep before, and now it’s even less.”

Mainzer says the children’s teachers have recently noticed a change in their demeanor, to the point that they wondered if the kids had watched a horror movie.

As the months pass with her family still in the motel, Alma says she has also become “completely disillusioned” with Newport. On top of the uncertainty of their housing situation, she says her family has faced several instances of racism in Newport, including from other residents at the motel shelter.

“A situation arose where my partner was speaking Spanish,” Alma said. “And another person came out and said to him, why was he speaking Spanish? That he was in the United States, [so] why was he speaking Spanish?”

The shelter rooms at the motel are only rented through the end of March, so Alma’s family will need to find other housing before then. She has been applying for apartments, with help from Mainzer and the school district. However, there’s a long waiting list for public housing around Newport, and most other market-rate apartments in the area are too expensive. If they can’t find anything, Alma plans to pack up again for Florida, where her mother and other relatives still live.

Alma never expected to spend five months in a room that was always meant to be temporary, and she hopes other people can be warned before coming to Newport for family or work. The island is beautiful, but it cannot accommodate many of the workers its economy relies on, nor their families.

If they have a better place than here, they should stay where they are,” she said. “Because they’re risking everything.”

Antonia Ayres-Brown is the Newport Reporter for The Public’s Radio and a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at