07/24/2011 03:03 am ET | Updated Sep 23, 2011

Using Motels as Homeless Respite Centers

Summer is a time for family vacations. For those of us who can't afford a first class voyage to Europe, we might resort to a road trip in good old America. You pack up the hyper-active kids, the family dog that howls if you leave him, and a boat-load of suitcases into the SUV and you hit the road stopping at motels each night.

Sometimes motels get a bad wrap. Lumpy mattresses, thin walls, no privacy. You can't order room service, and you're afraid to find some discarded item under the bed from the occupant the night before. But even a swimming pool full of leaves is still a nice excursion from the routine of home.

But only if you have a home.

Otherwise, if your family is homeless, an excursion to an off-the-road motel becomes a shelter from the harsh conditions of street life.

During this difficult economic environment, more and more families are losing their homes and apartments and turning to motels, according to the New York Times, not as vacation spots, but as last resort shelters to keep the family together.

It makes sense. Who wants to check into a traditional 60-bed congregate living facility, also known as a homeless shelter, when you have an eight-year-old son and a ten-year-old daughter? I would be up all night worrying about their safety, even if the center had around the clock security.

I would rather check into a cheap motel room. The popular television show Glee highlighted this growing trend of homeless families moving into motels.

Of course, providing an affordable apartment unit is the ideal for family homelessness. An apartment is where a homeless family came from. But to build a new housing development takes millions of dollars and years to gather the funding, gain entitlements, and build the building.

But what if a family is homeless today? We can't simply say to a mother clutching two children in her arms, "Wait until we build your home".

In the past few months, my agency's street outreach teams encountered four large homeless families living in vehicles on the Westside of Los Angeles. One family numbered six. For months, they were driving from one hidden place to another in hopes of keeping their children safe.

They were homeless until they were taken to a motel that was converted into a family emergency housing center. There, they were on the road back to permanent housing.

The model of using motels as emergency housing seems backward, given the national trend to build permanent supportive housing or to provide rental assistance through homeless prevention programs. But building takes years, and rental assistance lasts only months.

For a family that wants to stay together and needs a place tonight, the last resort is a safe room for all to sleep. Converting a motel to a safe transitional housing program for homeless families is cheaper and quicker than erecting a permanent apartment building.

Until this country has enough permanent housing for every American family, street outreach teams need a place to take homeless families tonight -- like a renovated motel with supportive services.

By providing safe places for homeless families, we can all say, "We'll leave the light on for you."