From the second-story porch of the Palm Harbor Inn, Jennifer Spencer leaned back in a folding chair and watched as her 5-year-old granddaughter plunged a wood chip into a sun-dried cockroach.
“Ellie!” Jennifer gasped. “Really?”
Crouched low on two bare, dirt-covered feet, Ellie dipped her nose toward the concrete.
Her brown curls hung loose in her face, but the kindergartner kept the focus of a surgeon. Here on the walkway outside Room 218, there were plenty of pesty patients to practice on.
Ellie prodded the shriveled bug and squealed. Jennifer took a long drag from a cigarette and released the smoke with a sigh.
It was amazing, really, imagining this life through the eyes of a child.
For Ellie, the motel — home to her mom, her grandparents and her baby sister for more than a year — remained largely a place of wonder. For Jennifer, it was more like purgatory.
Each night, Jennifer said a prayer.
“Please, God, I’m begging you,” she’d whisper, pressed tight against her sleeping husband. Her daughter and granddaughters lay snug on a second bed, 2 feet away.
“Please don’t let the girls remember this.”
The Palm Harbor Inn, with its 100 blue doors and central swimming pool, sits off U.S. 19 North, amid the car dealerships and fast-food chains that line the busy thoroughfare.
For Jennifer’s family, this place was meant to be a stopover.
Once a rough-around-the-edges crash pad for drifters, the motel offers shelter of a different sort these days. Now it’s working families who seek refuge.
All are casualties of a punishing Tampa Bay housing market, one of the hottest in the nation, where rent has spiked more than 35% in five years. Across the region, a one-bedroom can range from $1,300 to $2,000 a month, while the median home value hovers just under $400,000.
Some occupants are trapped by a cycle of evictions and poor credit. Others ended up here after a crisis, buying time to find an affordable apartment that hasn’t materialized.
For many, shrinking possibilities have turned this motel into a home, even if, technically, its residents are considered homeless.
And in a state that’s second-worst in the nation for low-income people seeking housing, according to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, getting out has begun to feel like a fantasy.
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Sitting outside her room with its too-thin walls and rattling air conditioner, Jennifer, 47, does her best to wear a smile for the kids — for the neighbors who have found themselves in this position, too.
Evenings after work, her husband, William, 48, scrolls Redfin listings, hoping, despite months of nonstarters, to find an apartment in the county he was born in.
Jennifer, though, calls family back north. She’s waiting on a tax return that might just carry them far away to someplace easier. Someplace better.
Still, as days pass, and Jennifer looks out at the same view of the motel pool, she feels the life she knew, the marriage she adored, slip further and further away.
A fall from comfort
She had been nervous to meet him.
“Just so you know, I am overweight,” Jennifer wrote to William at the end of 2013.
“I don’t care about that stuff,” he messaged back through an online dating site. “I care about who you are.”
They met at a Largo Dunkin Donuts. She knew before she could finish her iced mocha that he was something special.
Jennifer was drawn to William’s gruff voice, his calming presence. He was charmed by her New England accent and sugary sweetness.
For weeks, they’d sit and talk in a hard plastic booth, bonding over a love of ‘80s music. They’d chat about her idyllic childhood spent between Massachusetts and Maine, his in Florida with a father who drank too much.
Both had been married before. He urged her not to get her hopes up. Failing once had been painful enough.
But soon, Jennifer was waking at 4:30 a.m. just to meet him at RaceTrac for a good-morning kiss. Nine months later, he proposed.
William shared custody of his two young boys, who would come over for weekend cookouts. Abby Warren, Jennifer’s daughter, was a teenager then, and skeptical. But after William passed all of her tests, she started calling him Dad.
In 2018, Jennifer took on the role she’d always wanted: homemaker. Her parents used to find her asleep on the edge of her bed, an army of baby dolls tucked in beside her, each propped on the pillow.
William’s job with an airplane parts manufacturer afforded them a two-bedroom in Clearwater — about $1,000 then. Though they weren’t saving much, there was enough for family trips to Disney. He took pride in giving his kids a kind of childhood he’d never had.
Then in 2021, the walls began closing in.
William had lost hours during COVID. Abby, now a mom of two, had been wrestling with a bad relationship and moved in with her parents. The family took on debt to afford their weekly grocery run for baby formula and diapers, to keep up with the climbing cost of utilities. Their car was repossessed, making it harder for William to get to work. Their credit tanked.
The final blow came in the form of a lease renewal contract. The rental company was increasing rent by more than $500 a month — from $1,100 to $1,675.
With two months’ notice, they were told to find the money or leave.
Their apartment search amounted to little, bound as they were by their credit score and the roughly $4,000 landlords wanted upfront.
Jennifer found a listing for the Palm Harbor Inn on Facebook Marketplace days before they had to turn in their keys.
“Shit,” she said, when she saw the room.
She paid in cash on the spot.
Displacement and desperation
On a Tuesday in October, Rob Avis pulled his pickup around back and unloaded a bucket of paint. There were rooms to get ready.
Shaded by the flat brim of a Miami Heat hat, Rob sipped a Mountain Dew, his lanyard of keys clanging.
The 42-year-old has been the motel manager for two years. He’d come as a guest in 2020, after an electrical fire left his family without a home.
The building was in dire shape: drug deals in the parking lot, dirty needles by the pool. Rob, who runs a contracting company, offered to fix it up. The owners at the time made him manager.
“One condition,” Rob had told them. “You give me the freedom to turn this place around.”
Soon, desperate families were reaching out in droves. Other motels along U.S. 19 had begun advertising long-term stays, too, to match demand.
Tallying the true number of people living in places like the Palm Harbor Inn is challenging, said Stephanie Gonzalez Guittar, a sociology professor at Rollins College whose research has focused on families living in Florida motels.
“They’re in this liminal stage where they’re not permanently housed or counted in official residential counts,” Guittar said.
They’re often overlooked in official homeless counts, too, she said. The best data comes from the schools, which are required to track students in transitional housing.
Five years ago, there were 470 children in the Pinellas County School District living in motels and hotels. Last year, that number jumped to 757, with an additional 3,500 tallied as homeless. In Hillsborough, students living in motels and hotels exceed 900.
Life at a motel doesn’t come cheap.
At the Palm Harbor Inn, a roughly 300-square-foot room with a kitchenette goes for $500 a week or $1,300 a month in a lump sum. Families like Jennifer’s, who don’t have a kitchenette, pay $450 a week or $1,200 for the month.
That includes Wi-Fi, water and electricity. No deposit requirements, no major move-in expenses.
But there are other costs. Food, for example, becomes more expensive when there’s nowhere to cook. Laundry becomes prohibitively pricey by the load. Then add the burden of Ubers or Lyfts to work, or the gas burned on a long commute. And the invisible toll: on sleep, on focus, on intimacy.
Rob sees this burden up close.
There’s Toni Noriega and Richard Rodriguez, who share a room with their kids, ages 10, 12, 16 and 17, casualties of rising rents. There’s Arianne Ney, who lives with her husband and their 11-year-old daughter. They fell behind on rent after their truck died and they were evicted.
There’s Cindy Murphy, raising a teenager in a room shared with single-mom Mandy Castleberry and Jaxon, Mandy’s 7-year-old son. Four months ago, the women were near-strangers at the inn. But this fall, when Mandy couldn’t come up with enough cash, Cindy took her in.
There are young couples, like 21-year-olds Skylar Dutcher and Peter Lischalk, high school sweethearts raising two toddlers. They’re expecting another this spring.
There’s the 4-month-old baby whose first home was the Palm Harbor Inn.
Rob walks the property at night — sometimes after waking at 3 in the morning — to make sure nothing funny’s going on.
If families fall behind, he tries to scrape up odd jobs. One occupant he pays to do landscaping. Another, he’s hired as the maintenance man. There’s an elderly tenant whom he throws a couple bucks at just to walk around and pick up trash.
“Rob is a blessing to all of us,” Jennifer said.
The calls for rooms come every day. Earlier this year, Rob had a family knock in the middle of the night.
“Give me an hour,” he told them, then got to work changing sheets.
This afternoon, he’s preparing a room for a single mother and her child, fleeing their previous home.
“It’s rough out here for people,” Rob said. “This place isn’t perfect, but I try to make it as comfortable as it can be, especially for the kids.”
Life without pleasure
As dusk turned to dark on a fall Saturday, Jennifer dragged her folding chair along the balcony and set up beside her neighbor, Heidi.
Heidi Meyer, 55, is an optimist. At least she tries to be.
She works more than 40 hours a week as a security guard. Still, she shares a room with her husband and adult son. And still, there are days when she doesn’t eat, just sips a Diet Coke. Her bank account empty, she fights off the question — is this really it?
“This is not what I pictured for my life,” Heidi said to Jennifer, gazing out at the vacant pool — the backdrop to every memory here. A reggae track boomed from four doors over. “Not in my 50s. Never.”
“It’s taking a toll on my marriage, too,” Jennifer said. “We can’t even have a healthy fight anymore because there’s nowhere to have it.”
“We’re roommates. That’s it.”
Down the porch, Ellie sat splayed on the concrete, drawing in crayon. From a phone, Paw Patrol singalong videos played on a loop. William, back from work, drank coffee from a pink plastic cup. Inside, Abby brushed her 2-year-old’s hair. Lilli was screaming.
Dwelling is dangerous, the women agreed. Behind them, a sign in Heidi’s window reads: “God grant me the serenity to accept what I can’t change …”
For Jennifer, the hardest part is knowing she’s been here before.
William had been laid off in 2016, a too-frequent reality for workers in his tumultuous industry. They moved into the Rodeway Inn, not too far from here.
Back then it was William, Jennifer and 18-year-old Abby. For Jennifer, the Rodeway felt temporary, like a blip — even a sort of vacation.
But this time feels different, like a problem bigger than one family, one job. Her neighbors are evidence something is broken, Jennifer thinks. There are so many of them. All stuck.
Down the porch, Lilli wandered outside, and William scooped her into his lap. Ellie had given her sister tattoos with a pen, so her bare legs were covered in ink.
“I feel almost guilty, like I should be grateful because at least I have a roof over my head. But I’m not,” Jennifer said to Heidi. “I know how that sounds. I just … I want to be allowed to want things.”
Outsiders might judge her for not saving every penny, she worried. But what was a life with no pleasure?
A few days earlier, Jennifer’s family had taken in a tiny black puppy posted for free on a local Facebook group.
It was another mouth to feed in a space already too small, but Christmas was around the corner, and the girls had been asking so nicely.
“It’s something happy,” Jennifer had told William. “Something to love.”
They needed that, Jennifer thought. Every morning, as Abby propped the electric griddle over the sink, the steam mixing with their toothbrushes, Jennifer would fight the depression that kept her in bed. But with a puppy pressing his nose to her temple and thumping his tiny tail, getting up was made a little easier.
“I just don’t know who I am anymore,” Jennifer said to Heidi.
“I don’t either,” Heidi agreed.
Skipping, Ellie made her way toward the women, and like the flip of a switch, both sat up and smiled.
“Hi, perfect girl!” Heidi said. “Where’s my hug?”
A better future
Maine. Jennifer says the name like it’s a promise.
As Thanksgiving approaches, her second at the Palm Harbor Inn, she’s decided she won’t stay another year. It’s not that the holiday is without its sweetness: Rob cooks turkeys, everyone chips in for a potluck. But it reminds her of how she used to host — in her own home.
Now, Jennifer longs for a life in the rural town where her family is, where there’s more government help for single mothers, like her daughter.
She swore she’d never shovel a driveway again, but now, she spends her mornings in bed plotting their future.
In Maine, Abby, who gets paid $13 an hour to work the night shift at a Pinellas McDonald’s, will make $21 for the same job.
In Maine, Jennifer and William will move into a three-bedroom house, where rent will be $1,200.
There’s an $800-a-month trailer nearby, ready for Abby and the girls.
These are the kinds of finds that come up in a place where everybody knows everyone, Jennifer thinks, where out-of-state corporations aren’t hiking everything up.
There will be woods to walk through, creeks to play in, reprieve from the stifling heat.
A new urgency has been eating at her: the kids.
Ellie was in the top tier of students in the county when assessed during pre-K, but this year she’s falling behind.
She’s woken up by Lilli’s cries multiple times a night, by William when he quietly brews his coffee.
There’s no space for her crafts, no quiet to focus on her vocab flashcards.
The other day, Jennifer found Ellie in the bathroom. She had fallen asleep on the toilet after arriving home from school.
Another time, she had lain down in the shower and passed out with the water running.
The sight brought Jennifer to tears.
“They deserve better,” she thought.
Her visions hinge on Abby’s tax return this spring, which they expect will bring close to $2,000 in child tax credits. Once it clears, they’ll be out. Finally able to breathe, Jennifer thinks.
“Nobody can afford it here,” Jennifer said to a neighbor one evening, gathered once more on the porch. “We’re not even looking for apartments anymore.”
In his folding chair, he looked up from his phone.
“Don’t listen to her,” he said under his breath, so softly that it barely registered. “I’m looking right now.”
Loss of an American dream
4:30 a.m. is the quietest hour at the Palm Harbor Inn.
Out on the walkway, William listened to the faint buzz of cars driving U.S. 19. Finally, he had time to think.
For about 20 minutes he largely sat in silence. Then he leaned forward and brought a palm to his cheek.
“I know Jen and the girls are going to go,” he said. “For me, it’s not so simple.”
William has spent his whole life in Florida. He feels tethered to this place.
He left home two days after his 18th birthday. Ever since, he’s relied upon himself.
What happened to the American dream? William wonders. There was a time, not long ago, when a family could survive on a single income. He’d never wanted much, just a wife and kids who loved him, a TV to watch football, an occasional beer.
Now, more than anything, he wishes for a bedroom with a door.
Sure, Jennifer could go back to work — she used to have a job at Dunkin, once worked a gig at a chiropractor’s office — but he doesn’t want her to have to. She struggles with anxiety, and her diabetes makes it difficult for her to be on her feet all day. How would she get to and from work without a car, anyway? They’d end up shelling out half her paycheck in transportation and child care.
He wants the girls to have a grandma who can focus on them.
“Kids can feel it when you’re stressed,” he said, lighting a cigarette. “When you’re with them, you have to leave everything else behind.”
In the last year, the overtime he’s often worked has been hard on his body, his spirit. His wrinkles have grown more defined. His beard has gone white. The bags under his eyes are a permanent fixture.
But moving can’t be the only answer — can it?
“We’ll get through this,” he assured. “When you love someone, you find a way.”
He filed the question away for another time.
Food delivery days brought with them a rare moment of relief.
Jennifer had taken on a role as something of a motel mother. Through Facebook, she tracked down volunteer groups that could drop off groceries for the families. Many were draining paychecks on their rooms, on storage units holding family heirlooms.
She knew the room numbers: those who had run out of milk and bread for their kids. Those who needed toddler onesies. With a few texts, she’d put out calls for help.
The organization Jennifer had connected with — Good Neighbors — made dropoffs weekly, sometimes more, driving up U.S. 19 to a dozen hotels and motels full of families. Dropoffs varied, so Jennifer sat on call. When the text came, she ran door to door to let people know food was on the way.
On a recent weekend, as Jennifer set up a folding table and volunteers pulled crates from a cargo van, she listened to the sounds around her. The life.
She heard the thumping of a basketball tossed against a support beam, the rattle of a tricycle whirring around the lot. The echoing giggles of two first graders chasing each other, and the piercing shriek that accompanied every scraped knee.
Residents joined under the stairwell, where they began filling bags with produce and premade meals, while kids tore into treats like donated popcorn and chocolate.
Jennifer didn’t say much, didn’t take much, just watched, smiling.
Delivery days didn’t just mean her fridge would be full — although that certainly helped — but reminded her that her existence could count for something, even here.
Recently she’d begun putting together a list of “needs” and “wants” for the children, to hand over to a local charity.
Isn’t it funny, she had thought. A short time ago, she had pulled a “Christmas Wish” tag from a tree at the mall and bought presents for a child in need. Now it was her grandbabies wishing.
“I love you, Mama Jen,” a neighbor called out, after filling a bag with sliced cheese and gummy vitamins.
“I love you, too, baby,” she sang.
Two hours later, when the tables were tucked away, Jennifer climbed the stairs back to Room 218.
Enveloped by the dark and cluttered room, she pressed her fingers into the stress lines above her brow, trying to release the pressure.
She sat on her bed, no longer just a bed, but her office, her kitchen, her living room, too. It was where she ate dinner, read books, scheduled doctor’s appointments, played with her grandkids.
As quickly as it arrived, the light in her eyes flickered out.
This was her world — puny as it had become.
But later that evening, when they lay down to sleep, William did what he always does.
He reached for her hand under the covers and squeezed it.
He whispered that they are going to figure this out.
He promised that everything — even if it wasn’t right now — was going to be OK.
And because no matter how bad things get, she has to keep faith that something better will come, she decided to believe him.