KISSIMMEE — When they moved from Georgia to the theme park playground of central Florida four years ago, Anthony and Candice Johnson found work at a barbecue restaurant and a 7-Eleven. Their combined salaries nevertheless fell short of what they needed to rent an apartment, so the couple and their two children have instead been hopping among cheap motel rooms along U.S. 192.
"What's hard for us isn't paying the bills," Candice Johnson, 24, said. "It's just trying to get our feet in the door" with the combined expense of application fees, security deposits and first month's rent needed for a place of their own.
The Johnsons are among a growing number of families living in hotels in this Florida tourist corridor because they can't afford anything else and because their county has no shelters for the estimated 1,216 homeless households with children.
The problem has created a backlash among the mostly mom-and-pop businesses, with some owners suing the county sheriff to force his deputies to evict guests who haven't paid or who have turned their rooms into semipermanent residences. It also shines a light on the gap among those who work and live in this county that sits in the shadow of Walt Disney World and the big-spending tourists who flock here.
On any given day, tourists pay nearly $100 per person to get into Orlando's theme parks. There, they may be waited on by homeless parents. From their hotels, they jog past bus stops where homeless children wait to head to school. They buy coffee at Starbucks next to the motels that have become families' homes.
Starting minimum pay at Walt Disney World — the area's largest employer, just a few miles from the motels — is $8.03 an hour, though that could increase to $10 under a contract being negotiated with the resort's largest union group.
"Tourists that come here . . . I don't think they have a clue," said James Ortiz, 31, a fast-food worker who recently moved out of a motel room and into an RV park with his parents and 5-year-old son.
Homeless advocates blame the housing problem on the low-paying wages of the service economy and the rents in Osceola County, with 300,000 people. While inexpensive compared with larger cities, Osceola rents often exceed what a worker earning near minimum wage can afford, said Catherine Jackson, a consultant who recently wrote a report for the county about the homeless.
Median earnings for workers in Osceola County are $24,128 a year, according to U.S. Census figures and median rent is $800 a month. Motel rooms can go for just $39 a night.
"The fact that we're the happiest place on Earth and No. 1 travel destination is good news, but this service-based economy is actually creating a dynamic of homelessness," Jackson said.
Many of the county's homeless moved here to find jobs in the tourism industry, so they lack the social networks of family or churches, Jackson said.
"Paying weekly is all we can do to survive," Ortiz, 31, said. "I can't find a house that is suitable in a decent neighborhood for me and my child to be able to pay rent, pay the utilities, pay car insurance, pay gas and buy food."
For two years, Theresa Muller has lived in motel room after motel room with her three young children, her father and her boyfriend. The owner of HomeSuiteHome has wanted her out for months.
Dianna Chane says Muller's family is violating the hotel's policy of only four people per room, and clothes, furniture, toys, garbage and boxes are piled chest-high.
Chane is among those suing Osceola County Sheriff Bob Hansell to force his deputies to evict such guests. Under Florida's lodging law, it's a second-degree misdemeanor to stay in a room after being asked to leave. Yet each time Chane has asked the Sheriff's Office to intervene, she says deputies have refused even though they follow the law for brand-name hotels. Chane says the office calls the issue a landlord-tenant dispute that should be handled in civil court.
"I can't afford it," said Chane, who figures she has swallowed more than $200,000 in unpaid rooms since 2012.
A sheriff's spokeswoman and an attorney for the sheriff said they wouldn't comment on pending litigation. In court papers, an attorney for the sheriff said there is a presumption that occupants are not transient if they say the hotel room is their sole residence.
"Hotel owners simply cannot engage long-term guests . . . then turn on a dime when they stop paying and pretend they are tourists," the sheriff's attorney said in a court filing.
Muller said she's unemployed but hopeful about a dollar-store retail job. Until then, her father's disability payments help the family try to get by. She said she found a house she can afford in a neighboring county and was in the process of moving out of Chane's motel.
"It's not a place for kids," Muller said.