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Old Aurora motels, Seattle’s unofficial homeless shelters

The motels on Aurora Avenue are a throwback to a Seattle of days gone by, with their weather-beaten signs and green vacancy lights flashing.

The drivers zipping past might assume that prostitution and drugs rule this stretch of Aurora. And illegal activity is still a factor at some of the places along the road. But inside a few of these motels are temporary havens for some of the city’s homeless.

When those living on the streets can scrape together enough money, the motels provide refuge for a short time. And some families receive vouchers from service organizations so they can live in a heated room while they wait for housing or other services.

Stephanie Macklin Jones lives at the Everspring Inn on Aurora with her husband and 10-year-old twins. The YWCA is putting them up in the motel while they look for housing in Tacoma.

Plastic bags filled with clothes line the wall as you enter their room. There are two beds and not a lot of space to move around. It beats being on the street, but Macklin Jones said it's still a struggle.

"When you're so used to having your own for so long, and then you have to be in a place like this, it's hard," she said.

Her kids don’t like it much either.

Ja’Shay said she can’t wait to move to Tacoma. She’s sick of having nothing to do, and she said people wake them up at night banging on doors.

The kids can’t go outside and play on Aurora, so Ja’Shay entertains herself by doing gymnastics on one of the beds, flipping and balancing.

But Macklin Jones said she's still grateful.

"I mean, don't get me wrong — I'm happy because we've got a roof over our head," she said.

Chloe Gale is the head of REACH, another organization that places some of their clients in motels. She estimates that her organization puts several dozen people in motels each year, mostly along Aurora.

For them, it’s a stop-gap measure. The motels are a last resort when they have no other options that will work for a client.

"People are outside, and their lives are really chaotic," she said. "We want to connect them to housing or to treatment or a bed date, and it’s so difficult to find someone day after day or get them to follow a clock or show up on time. So a motel gives them a place to land, and we know where they’re going to be."

REACH also uses motel rooms if someone needs to deal with a medical issue — something they couldn't handle in a shelter. Or if there's an emergency.

"We’ve had a lot of women who may get violently assaulted on a street, and there’s not really a safe place for them that night, immediately," Gale said. "And we need a place for them to recuperate and feel safe and have a lock on the door."

How long people stay depends on the situation. But Gale says they always try to have an exit strategy.

Lisa Etter Carlson co-founded the Aurora Commons, a community space that serves the homeless. She spends a lot of time with women involved in sex work along Aurora, many of whom have been abused.

When she thinks of the motels, she thinks of opportunity.

“I think of the only place right now that I can actually send someone, because there are no other places in the city for me to send specifically women that are involved in sex work and that are also drug dependent,” she said. “I think of a safe place of transition. I think of our only option.”

But some criticize the use of Aurora’s motels.

"I don't even understand why some of the social service agencies are renting these places," said Sharon Lee, head of the Low Income Housing Institute. "They're just filthy, and they're not safe.”

Her organization also puts people in hotels or motels, but she said they avoid Aurora.

But Gale of REACH said they're careful about which motels they use, and avoid those with health and safety concerns or high risks of violence or exploitation.

“We move people into motels with some oversight," she said. So we’re there — we’re supervising what’s happening to them. We’re not going to set people up in a situation where they’re moving into a harmful environment. And it really is a big deal to have a lock on your door and your own bathroom and have that sort of sense of safety and security."

Gale said she knows it’s not a perfect solution. But it all comes back to what options they have.

Motels on Aurora are close to services and transportation, and the managers are willing to take the clients they serve, she said.

KUOW's Region of Boom team is spending Spring on Highway 99. Hear more from our series, "Along the Mother Road."

There are other places to put people; the city has opened more 24-hour spaces in recent years. There are places where people can bring pets, partners and even addiction issues.

But, with nearly 4,000 people sleeping on Seattle’s streets at last count, those spaces fill up quickly. And they're not always the right fit.

Motels are the backup REACH has used for years to fill that gap so they can get some people inside while they wait to be connected to housing or treatment.

Still, the motels are not immune to the impacts of growth. They’re getting more expensive.

Julia Andrade is the manager of the Sun Hill Motel on Aurora. She said many of the people who rent rooms there are using vouchers from service organizations.

She said her boss gives a discount to organizations like REACH, but a room still costs roughly $500 for a week.

“For a month, it’s very expensive, Andrade said. "It’s more than $2,000."

Higher prices aren't the only change coming to the Aurora stretch. As more development booms, Gale worries motels may not always be there as a backup.

The beleaguered Georgian motel near the corner of 88th and Aurora is already fenced off and gutted.

Peter Drogomiretskiy recently bought the motel with the attention of turning it into small, affordable apartments.

"Honestly, that's a great location — very close to Greenlake, a beautiful view of the city — and we want to remodel it,” he said.

Drogomiretskiy would like to see the whole Aurora stretch redeveloped, and some neighbors want to see the same thing. They hope it will help make the stretch feel more like a neighborhood and drive out crime and prostitution.

But if that happens, and the motels go away, Gale worries where people would go while waiting for other services.

“I think it’ll be a loss of a really important resource, a critical resource," she said.

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