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Shelter From the Soaring Costs

For Working Poor Priced Out of Area Housing, Charles County's White House Motel Becomes a Welcome Haven

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 7, 2005; Page B01

There are no rose gardens at the White House Motel.

Not anymore, at least, since Interstate 95 was built and the tourists who used to stop for crab cakes found a more direct route north and south. But the motel still stands, hugging Route 301 near ramshackle vegetable stands in the swampy oak forests of Southern Maryland.

Steven Stinger, 9, shares a rare quiet moment with infant brother Brandon at the White House Motel, where their five-member family shares a one-room unit in Charles County. (Photos Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)

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Near the end of the road, just before the bridge to Virginia, the White House rises up to catch those with nowhere left to go.

Overnight guests occupy just 10 of the 45 rooms. The rest are filled by the working poor, long-term residents who pay $175 a week and stay for months, sometimes years. On weekday mornings, school buses rumble into the parking lot, which is pointed out from the highway by a dented arrow, to pick up nearly two dozen children.

The residents aren't there for luxuries. A maid cleans only the rooms of overnight guests. Some rooms are homey, filled with bookshelves and pets. Others have food stains on the carpet and a haze of cigarette smoke.

Still, there's rarely a vacancy. The manager, Linda Cooper, said she could draw up a long waiting list from all the phone calls that come in. They are from people who work full time -- in restaurants, warehouses, factories -- and yet cannot secure housing in a region where home prices have skyrocketed and apartments are scarce.

"There just wasn't anything else I could afford," said Tina Burke, 29, who, with her three children, has lived at the motel in Charles County for 18 months. "That's the only reason I'm here."

Poverty is not as obvious in Washington's less populated suburbs as it is in the District. But operators of social service agencies said rents have increased so rapidly that people are driven to find shelter in all sorts of places: their cars, unheated trailers, even the woods. In one extreme case, a Charles woman locked her two young daughters inside a commercial storage unit, which she had turned into a makeshift residence, while she went to work. She pleaded guilty to child endangerment Friday and will be sentenced in April.

"The hotels and motels become our shelters," said Sandy Washington, executive director of Lifestyles Inc., a nonprofit group that places about five people a week at motels in Charles. "If there's nowhere else for people to go, we have no other alternatives."

The median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the county is $1,218, too expensive for 54 percent of local renters, according to the Maryland Center for Community Development.

For Burke, weeks of searching produced just one apartment in her price range. It was renting for $750 a month. With an income of less than $21,000 a year, she said, she didn't meet the minimum income requirement. She said other landlords denied her because of bad credit. She owes thousands in medical bills from a cervical cancer operation.

When Burke checked in at the White House Motel in 2003, she said she'd be there a month. She's a hard worker -- six nights a week, she mixes margaritas at a Mexican restaurant. And she's nobody's fool -- she graduated from Leonardtown High School in St. Mary's County. "I got a 4.0," she said of her grade-point average.

She looked into subsidized housing, but Charles, like the rest of the region, is heavily backlogged. A waiting list for the housing voucher program, formerly known as Section 8, has more than 2,500 names on it and takes three to five years to move through.

In Charles, they weren't even taking new applicants for 17 months because a fire gutted the old Department of Community Services building and destroyed most of the records.

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