Laurie Hathaway spun around in her long flowery dress, looking out of place in the motel's dingy courtyard.
She was searching for her 4-year-old son, Andre, a boy with a thicket of golden brown hair that stuck up like a pencil eraser.
Laurie and her mother had checked into Room 88 at the Mosley Motel a few hours before. Andre had immediately dragged his toy box outside onto the scarred pavement. Soon an 8-year-old boy knelt down beside him. Then a 6-year-old girl showed up, cradling a black rabbit. Before long, Andre was tearing through the breezeways with his new friends, yelling and squealing.
Laurie saw him dart beneath a stairwell.
"Andre come over here," she said, more worried than angry.
Laurie, a waiter and a cab driver, had checked in here for a week once before. This was not the kind of place where you let your son roam free.
She remembered the prostitutes hanging by the stairs and the drug deals behind closed doors. A man convicted years ago of molesting boys still lived in a room closest to bustling U.S. 19. Laurie had found dried blood on the bedspread in her room.
For two years, she had cobbled together an existence of living two days here, two weeks there. She had stayed in shelters, and on the couches of friends and relatives, even in her car. But most of the time she had bobbed between low-rent motels, which more and more are the refuge of families on the cusp of losing it all.
In October, when she ran out of money for a room in Clearwater, Laurie, 29, turned to a police officer who doled out a few thousand dollars of government money every month to help the homeless. He had paid $199 plus tax for a week at the Mosley.
As Laurie rounded up Andre that day, leading him by the hand back to their room, she wanted to get out of there fast. But she knew that the only thing worse than having to stay at the Mosley was having nowhere to stay at all.
In August, 495 families, including 1,000 children, were turned away from family shelters in Pinellas County. Many ended up with relatives and friends, others in cars or the woods. But many turned to motels like the Mosley.
Up and down U.S. 19 — scattered among the strip malls and fast-food restaurants — aging motels speckle the urban landscape like beater cars, worn but usable.
For years, they have catered to people in between here and there: divorced men, transient workers, the mentally ill, sex offenders. Three years ago, with the souring economy, a new group began to check in. Families with kids.
The Express Inn and the InTown Suites in Clearwater. The La Mark Charles in Pinellas Park. The Crystal Inn in St. Petersburg. All now had bus stops for kids who stayed at the motels. None had more children than the Mosley Motel, where half a dozen school buses picked up and dropped off 22 children, give or take, every day.
Nestled between an abandoned Social Security office and another motel known for drugs and prostitution, the Mosley is a 110-room motel with a swimming pool, a bikini bar, and a sign out front that reads "Where class meets economy."
But what you find here is the economy's injured — single parents without jobs, families crammed six to a room, couples trying to keep a roof over their kids' heads with one minimum wage job between them.
Twenty-seven families lived there on the day Laurie moved in. Two moms were expecting. One woman had a 3-month-old baby and a pit bull in her room.
The Mosley is a melting pot of hope and desperation and survival — and it isn't doing too well itself.
This past year, the city began proceedings to shut down the motel for the fifth time since 1996. In 2010, police were called 657 times. And earlier this year, undercover officers bought crack, cocaine, Oxycodone and Xanax 41 times.
The city wanted to close about 40 rooms and the bikini bar. Two months ago, one of the Mosley's owners, Julius Mosley, brought in his sister, Rena Mosley Burgess, who had worked at the Mosley in 2006 after her brother first bought and renovated the property.
A former elementary teacher, Rena, 48, was a thin woman with a proud air who dressed as if she worked in a bank. Rena worried that losing 40 rooms would kill the motel. If the motel failed, a lot of families would have one fewer place to go.
"This was like a wake up call for me," she said. "I had no idea."
It made sense to turn the motel into a better place for them. So she started to plan a party on Halloween with a bounce house, a balloon man and candy apples. She wanted to give them a Thanksgiving and Christmas spread, too.
She had thrown out three people she thought were selling drugs. She hired guests who were struggling to pay for their rooms to do jobs around the motel.
A single father raising a 10-year-old son after years in prison was painting the pool fence. Another man who had planted pots of philodendron outside his motel door did landscaping. A woman with four kids cleaned rooms.
But all the family-friendly initiatives didn't change the fact that the children of the Mosley waited for their school buses steps away from a sign that read "live dancers."
• • •
Laurie and her mother peered out cautiously at a courtyard where residents congregated.
There, amid the tables and chairs and the barrel-shaped grill and the oleanders that hadn't bloomed, residents sat and drank and played dominoes and grilled hot dogs and made phone calls and worried about where they were going to go next and yelled and cuddled and laughed and cursed and slurred their words and tripped and fell.
Soon a woman with gold teeth appeared. She lived at the Mosley with her two kids and called herself a minister. She invited Laurie to a Bible study group. In the courtyard, as four women read from Psalm 106, the woman offered Laurie a deep-fried chicken wing. The motel's management had set out some pizza for the residents and Laurie had a piece of that too. A man wanted to know Andre's size; he thought he might have some clothes.
Laurie had never seen Andre so happy. He spent every moment he could with an 8-year-old boy named Justin.
The Mosley's softer side caught Laurie by surprise. She saw children everywhere. Two young girls toting backpacks strolled by with their father. A teen girl was selling chocolate bars for $1 to benefit her school choir.
"I wasn't expecting this," she said.
• • •
But as dusk arrived, the darker side of the Mosley emerged.
A man named Andre McCants, the father of Andre's new friend, Justin, was looking for his nephew. The 15-year-old had come for a visit with his mother and disappeared. Someone had seen him go next door to the Economy Inn Stadium Motel, another motel the city was trying to shut down.
McCants and several others ran to the fence that separated the two motels, calling to the boy.
The boy's mother was getting worried.
"Momma's calling, m-----f-----!," she screeched.
Soon C.J.'s mother ducked behind the fence into the Economy. McCants stayed behind. He had lost his hands after his stepfather placed them in battery acid when he was 3.
"I'm not going over there," he said. "It's not safe."
Minutes passed. Then, from the other side of the fence. "I found him."
But as C.J.'s mother tried to reenter the Mosley, the clerk at the front desk stopped her. She had seen her on a security camera slipping into the Economy. She thought it was a drug deal.
McCants was not willing to vouch for his sister-in-law either. His family had become homeless after their apartment caught fire. A St. Petersburg homeless outreach police officer had paid the Mosley to house McCants' family for a week.
"I don't want them to kick me out," McCants said, heading back to the courtyard. "I'm not going to jeopardize my kids."
As he spoke, his son ran by with Laurie's son. They had just declared themselves best friends.
• • •
Laurie sat slumped in a wheelchair in the emergency room at St. Anthony's Hospital.
Her lower lip quivered and she mopped her hip-length brown hair out of her face. With her round cheeks and her down-turned mouth, she looked like a broken doll.
Six days had passed since she had checked into the Mosley. She had worked a lot, sometimes driving the cab at night, sometimes waiting tables on a dinner cruise.
When she had started to feel sick, she kept going. They needed the money. But for the past two days, Laurie had been stuck in bed, barfing into a trash can.
Why was it that every time she seemed close to getting it together, everything fell apart?
For 10 years, Laurie had worked on and off on the dinner cruise boat. Then two years ago, she had to have a back operation to fuse her spine with rods and bolts. A month after the surgery, she lost her home and moved into a homeless shelter with Andre.
She took Percocets for her back pain, but the stress of being on her feet and carrying heavy trays so soon after her surgery was too much. Six months later, she collapsed at the end of her shift.
Her boss wanted a note from her doctor; her doctor would only give her a note for three shifts a week.
Her mother, Karen Dall, 53, had come from Utah four months before to help take care of Andre while she worked. They had used up the $800 Karen had come with and hocked all Karen's jewelry.
Laurie struggled to push the wheelchair to the bathroom. She was going to be sick again.
Andre rushed over.
"I got you, Mom," he said, straining to push the wheelchair. "Don't cry, Momma. I got you."
• • •
The next morning, Laurie was back at the Mosley, lying in bed beneath a gold metal-framed print of empty beach chairs on a sandy beach.
The emergency room doctor had told her she likely had a stomach virus. She was dehydrated. They had given her fluids. She felt a little better, but she couldn't summon the energy to get up.
Andre was planted in front of the TV watching a Bubble Guppies cartoon. Karen fidgeted nervously in the other bed.
They had run out of time at the Mosley. Checkout was 11 a.m. They had no money. None of the four family shelters they called had space for them.
Karen looked anxiously at the time on her phone. It was 12:14 p.m.
She had come to Florida to help her daughter. But Karen was an alcoholic. She had gotten sober a year ago in Utah. And the uncertainty of their existence was eating away at her.
Laurie had grown accustomed to the stress of not knowing where they were going to stay.
"In the end, something always comes through," she told her mother.
But what if it didn't?
Laurie rolled over and pulled herself up.
She thought about calling her father in Zephyrhills. She had borrowed money from him before. But she hated asking him again.
She punched in his number on her phone.
• • •
With a $100 from her father, a night behind the wheel and another waiting tables, Laurie scraped together a week's rent. Then her mother started drinking again and had a breakdown, and there went her child care. She had to return the cab.
As she stood in the doorway of her room, Laurie's chin quivered and a tear fell to her chest. She had come to this point many times over the previous two years, but now she had to worry about her son and her mother.
"It could have been different," she said. "There are choices I could have made. I should have finished high school. I should have gone to college. I should have had a career."
Laurie had grown up in Utah, dropped out of high school in 10th grade. She had moved to Florida, waited tables, hung out at times with the kind of people who went to prison and stayed there.
She had worked hard though and after Andre was born when she was 25, she had paid the rent on a small house with a picket fence in Zephyrhills. She had proved that she could handle things even without the help of Andre's father. But where was the picket fence now?
And where was Andre?
Suddenly she realized he wasn't playing in the courtyard anymore. She ran across the parking lot, scanning the breezeways, the stairwells.
He appeared next to a man holding a set of dominoes.
"I told you I have to be able to see you," she said. "You scared me to death."
Laurie smiled warmly at the man. There were a lot of odd characters at the Mosley. But Laurie realized she had grown to like the place.
Laurie grabbed Andre's hand and headed to the Mosley's front desk to ask for more time. Andre flitted around, playing with the fall leaves taped to the counter.
"Do you work?" asked the clerk.
"I have two jobs," Laurie responded. "I can't drive at night because I don't have child care."
"Well there are resources out there," the clerk said, handing her a small black binder filled with names and numbers. "Don't worry about tonight. See what you can do."
• • •
On a warm day in early November, Laurie and her mother stuffed their clothes into black trash bags.
Laurie had called some of the numbers in the binder and gotten nowhere. She ended up calling her father again, who wired another $100 to a nearby Walmart, giving her three more days.
She had tried to arrange a job at the Mosley, but that fell through. Now she had no choice but to leave.
Laurie's aunt was coming to get her. She lived in Zephyrhills and she had said they could stay for the weekend. Laurie had a lot of her belongings stored at her aunt's house. Andre's toddler bed. Some music equipment from when she dabbled as a DJ. Two evening gowns from when she helped her aunt run a dress shop. She was going to try to sell it all on eBay.
"How much weight have you lost?" her aunt asked.
"Like 17 pounds," Laurie said.
Laurie tucked away a bottle of Febreze and a broom in the truck bed and called for Andre. His face fell. He was playing with his buddy Allan.
"Don't cry," Laurie said. "Give him a hug and tell him you'll be back Monday."
She had no way of guaranteeing this, but she wanted it to be true just as much as Andre did.
"I don't want to leave," he said.
Andre sat there on the stripped bed, staring at the TV. Then he got up, turned the TV off and walked out of the room with his mother.
After they left, Andre told Laurie over and over he wanted to go back home — to the Mosley. So a few days later, after Laurie sold some of her belongings, they returned and Andre reunited with his friend Allan.
This past week, she learned they got into one of the emergency family shelters, Grace House, in Clearwater. She has 60 days to save enough money to get into her own place.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at email@example.com or 727-893-8640.