Travelers Motel and U-Haul, in Warren, was not designed to operate in sub-freezing temperatures.
Inside its nonwinterized rooms on especially bitter mornings, it’s sometimes cold enough to see one’s breath. The building’s plumbing is packed in hay for insulation; when temperatures drop particularly low, owners Carrie and Mike Johnson keep a faucet in the last room running through the night to keep the pipes from bursting.
Historically, the motel, which the Johnsons purchased in November 2021, has ended its season on Nov. 1. This year, though, the couple is going to extreme lengths to put off closing their doors for as long as possible in order to keep rooms available for local families – many of whom, they say, have nowhere else to go.
The work required to keep the motel open and provide shelter for people experiencing homelessness “can be difficult at times,” Carrie Johnson said from behind the front desk on Jan. 11. But on any given night, it’s not uncommon for several families to be sheltering at the 4082motel, she said, making closing for the season an unpleasant prospect.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she added, “to see kids who don’t know where they’re going to go next.”
Among the families who rely on the motel are numerous RSU 40 students, said Nancy Stover, the district’s homeless and mental health coordinator. By keeping the motel open for nearly three months past its typical closing date already, Travelers has provided an invaluable resource for families during what can be the most challenging and dangerous time of year to be without shelter, she said.
Stover noted that, not only within the RSU 40 towns of Waldoboro, Warren, Washington, Union, and Friendship but also in neighboring school districts and across Maine, homelessness among young people and families is more common than many residents know.
“Every district has more (unhoused students) than they realize,” she said.
Homelessness can be less visible in rural areas – and many people are “so busy that they can’t see or hear it,” said Jess Berry, assistant superintendent and special education director at the St. George School. For that reason, homelessness coordinators must work with staff and pay close attention to students in order to identify those who may need support, Stover said.
“We really rely on staff and principals to let us know,” she said.
Furthermore, the incidence of homelessness among local students seems to be on the rise, said Christina Wotton, RSU 40 assistant superintendent.
According to Wotton, who also serves as RSU 40’s McKinney-Vento homeless liaison and foster care liaison, the district “has had a significant increase over the past three years in the number of students who are experiencing homelessness or who are unaccompanied.”
Federal provisions under the McKinney-Vento Act fund school districts’ attempts to keep homeless students in class, whether by providing assistance to repair substandard housing or by providing special transportation to and from school for students sheltering outside of their home district.
During the 2022-2023 school year, RSU 40 administrators who support unhoused students knew of about 70 children and teens in the district who lacked “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” and therefore qualify as homeless under McKinney-Vento.
As of this month, or the approximate halfway mark in the 2023-2024 school year, this year’s count is already approaching 60 — and administrators learn of more homeless students nearly every day, Wotton said.
The district has worked to access a range of resources, Wotton said, including a $20,000 homelessness prevention grant from the Maine Department of Education that is used to provide one-time, emergency disbursements of $750 to families at risk of losing their housing.
But despite the district’s efforts, families continue to become unhoused – and when this happens, they have limited local options for shelter, Carrie Johnson noted.
“There’s not a lot that’s affordable or reasonable in the area,” she said.
This means that the search for housing may take families far afield, sometimes removing students from the service area of the school district they previously attended. This is a concern for educators, said Stover, because staying in school – and, particularly, staying at one school, with familiar friends and teachers – can help preserve a sense of stability and routine for a child or teen, even when other parts of their life may be filled with unknowns.
What administrators want to avoid, said Berry, is the possibility that the stress of homelessness on students and parents alike results in students being pulled from school.
“We don’t want children to be uprooted from the comfort of school, the security of school,” Stover said.
With housing scarce, however, more and more students are winding up considerably far from their original school, creating a challenge for the administrators who seek to keep them in attendance.
That is another reason why the convenient location of Travelers, which sits right on Route 1, “is such a bonus” for RSU 40, Wotton noted.
Collaboration between Travelers and neighboring school districts is an example of the kind of partnerships between schools, agencies, and community resources that will be necessary if youth homelessness is to be seriously addressed, Stover said.
Stover, Wotton, and Berry all voiced hopes that similar collaborations could further help to alleviate Midcoast youth homelessness in the future.
“We have to rebuild community – what better way to do it than around a shared vision for taking care of our kids?” Berry asked.
For now, some of the team’s energy is focused on Travelers.
Despite the Johnsons’ best efforts to keep the ice at bay, on Jan. 22, the couple said they weren’t sure how much longer they would be able to keep the motel open.
“Ultimately, our goal is to work with the Johnsons and winterize a couple of these rooms to keep our families housed,” said Wotton on Jan. 11. “But the longer it takes this winter, I feel like they’re probably going to have to close.”
The educators said that they hope community members will consider donating much-needed supplies to help make the goal of winterizing a few of Travelers’ rooms a reality.
While the total cost to winterize a room is about $25,000, a smaller donation of one weather-proof window or door, a heat pump, warm bedding, or even some time spent on labor to help complete the rooms would go a long way towards improving conditions for local unhoused youth and families, Berry said.
For now, the Johnsons and their guests will continue to brave the cold – with the owners risking, as Stover noted, significant costs and damage to the motel as frigid temperatures persist.
“We’re just taking it day by day,” Carrie Johnson said. “We would hate to close down when there are still people who need somewhere to go.”
For more information or to inquire about donating, email Berry at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 832-1218.