02/11/2013 10:06 am ET Updated Apr 13, 2013

Vanishing Human Habitat

The Salton Sea is California's largest lake. It covers 360 square miles and is 227 feet below sea level. That elevation's just a little bit higher than Death Valley, but if you measure to the bottom of the sea, it wins. At one time the Salton Sea was part of the Gulf of California, but it got landlocked and got saltier. In fact it's about 30 percent saltier than the Pacific, and that makes it difficult for many species to live in it. Only the heartiest of fish -- tilapia -- continue to thrive there.

Vanishing habitat is quite a problem in California. The animals and birds of SoCal struggle to survive. So do the people. Drive up and down the Golden State's many rural highways littered with small hotels and motels and you'll see the "new" housing for humans who have lost their habitat. The U.S. Census Bureau produced a white paper detailing the phenomena of extended-stay motel use and described it as a new marketing strategy used by savvy hoteliers who see a need and are filling it at a rapid rate.

There really isn't an accurate count of the number of people in California -- or in the U.S. in general -- that live in accommodations designed to provide minimal accoutrement for pre-planned brief stays.

Princeton University published a report by the "Center for the Future of Children" which states that the feds don't have any idea how many folks live in hotels. They say the government's unaware of the number of homeless in general:

"Other than making administrative counts of the homeless in some jurisdictions, no agency is charged with keeping track of the size of the homeless population. The McKinney programs [mandated by Congress] are largely designed to address emergency housing needs and have no mandate to monitor the size of the homeless population. Therefore, many groups, each with its own political and social agenda, have attempted to fill this measurement gap."

The Census Bureau's description of folks living in short-term arrangements for the long-term, cautions that it is especially easy to ignore the number of people who pay their own way while living in the hotels. These are people who have a roof over their heads that neither a government housing plan nor a church provided. They are people who earn enough money to pay the weekly fees at hotels, but not enough to save a security deposit while paying these nightly costs.

It's likely that there are many thousands of people in this situation, but one such family is located about 15 miles outside of Los Angeles in a hotel that had once housed crack deals and prostitution. The place has come under new ownership and has availed itself of that modern day marketing technique highlighted by the Census Bureau's and they've recently begun catering to the newly homeless.

JoAnne and her significant other, Peter -- no, those aren't their real names - are very afraid that they will be stigmatized by living in a hotel. They cited recent local newspaper articles ridiculing the type of person that lived in a hotel. Peter said, "People don't live here because we're losers or because we sell drugs." JoAnne added, "I'm here because it puts a roof over my children's heads."

JoAnne has five children. One is grown and out on her own. She also has a grown son who lives with them in the hotel room -- not as a mooch -- but because JoAnne needs the third income to pay the $460 per week that it costs to live there. She also has a ten year old, an eight year old, and a toddler.

The apartment JoAnne and Peter shared with the three younger children had been condemned when some of the tenants in their building complained that there was water leaking into some of the electrical connections. The city codes officer deemed the plumbing and electrical wiring dangerous and the tenants were given three days to vacate the building. The owner lived in India and was unavailable to return deposits.

JoAnne is a chambermaid in a four-star hotel and was allowed to stay there for three weeks. But at minimum wage, she and Peter were unable to save a new security deposit in that time. They moved to an extended stay hotel that JoAnne and Peter say is populated almost entirely by families like hers. Her son moved in to help with the rent.

Living in two rooms with one bath and a kitchenette is a challenge. But the size of the space is not the biggest challenge for JoAnne, "I walk out the door and onto the street. I take my kids to school and people can tell we are living in here. And people look like, 'Damn people live there...'" JoAnne continues, "People live here to transition over. My income tax is coming and we'll be able to get out of this place. I thank God that we all have a bed to sleep in. I am blessed to have a roof. But this is not my home."

JoAnne has family but could not live with them, "I don't want them to lose their place because we move in with them. My mom works at Target and doesn't make very much. And my sister has breast cancer; we can't bring out troubles to her. She has enough troubles."

JoAnne receives no public assistance of any kind. She works two jobs -- at two different hotels -- and her man and her son both work part-time, spending the rest of their time with the kids. Like the hearty tilapia living in the Salton Sea, they are able to survive in the forbidding climate of their vanishing habitat. But only survive, they cannot thrive. And as the problem exacerbates -- like the salinity of the sea -- their energy is sapped. JoAnne sighed, "I wish I could lock myself in all day one day and sleep." And with a tear rolling down her face, "I just wish I wouldn't wake up."