When the Colonial Village Motel at 1530 S. Main in Salt Lake City opened its doors in 1938, the chalets along its L-shaped tree-lined avenue led to a swimming pool shaped like a boat. Much as the days of motor vacations along America's highways and back roads have been eclipsed by air travel and the Interstate highway system, the Colonial has succumbed to the brutal ravages of time. The pool was long-ago filled in, the trees in front of the chalets cut down, and while most of the buildings remain as they were when the Colonial opened, vacationing families have been replaced by people surviving on society's margins. While many who stay there may have no criminal record, others pursue prostitution, drug dealing and other criminal activity, if only to keep a roof over their heads one night at a time.
David Pope owns both the Colonial and the Alta Motel Lodge on State Street, next door to the Salt Lake County Complex. Every white front door of the Alta motel's 31 rooms bears boot or shoe marks from being kicked in by guests or visitors in search of money, drugs or an individual. Cops rarely kick the doors in, Pope says.
The Alta and the Colonial, the latter recently renamed Main Street Motel, are but two examples of 152 Salt Lake County-permitted public lodgings. They are also part of a smaller group of budget motels and hotels on State Street, Main Street and North Temple in Salt Lake City, and to a lesser degree in other parts of the valley, that are used by homeless individuals and families seeking to avoid the Road Home shelter or living on the streets.
Pope says that motels such as his, frequented not only by ordinary people but also by criminals and those forced into criminal activities to survive, need to be seen from two perspectives: their guests and those who own and manage the properties. "These people come in and bring all their problems through drug use, their prostitution, fighting, relationship problems—they're bringing that whole bag to the one spot, and somehow, we have to kind of manage," he says. "It's tough."
Such motels provide shelter for people who, in many cases, are one-day's payment away from homelessness. "We know that one of the things the motels do [is] make up for a lack of affordable housing," says Rob Wesemann, Volunteer of America's homeless services director. While it's often easy to rent a room—you can pay in cash and in some cases, advocates say, you don't need ID—that lack of barriers for homeless people who've lost or had their ID stolen is sometimes accompanied by "illegal drug trade, illegal sex work, so folks can make ends meet," Wesemann says. "It keeps people isolated from service providers who can potentially offer assistance. We know the motels can be helpful on a temporary basis, but we also know some folks get stuck in that cycle." A significant part of the motel clientele are chronically homeless women who rely on sex work and drug dealing to pay for the daily rate of approximately $55.
City Weekly made a records request to the Salt Lake City Police and Fire departments regarding 11 motels that have been identified as homeless lodging by advocates, law enforcement, sex workers and veteran criminals. In total, those motels generated in just one year 1,782 calls to the police, 303 calls to the fire department, and 34 calls for help on overdoses, three of them fatal.
The budget motels render invisible hundreds of the county's homeless community, skewing to some degree the annual federal tally of the state's homeless called the Point-in-Time C0unt. In May 2015, Utah's then-head of housing, Gordon Walker, crowned his retirement by announcing that the state's 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness had succeeded, with the number down 91 percent to 178 chronically homeless individuals. Other states and even Jon Stewart's The Daily Show duly held up Utah as pursuing a highly successful progressive housing model with its much-lauded Housing First initiative. But Walker's numbers relied on the Point-in-Time Count, an annual 4 a.m. head count over three nights in the depths of the January winter of people at the shelter or living on the street. That count does not include those who rely on motels to provide shelter if they can hustle up the night's rent. "Someone staying in a motel temporarily is not considered homeless," by the federal government, VOA's Wesemann says.
A joint commission by Salt Lake County and Salt Lake City is seeking $27 million in funding from the Utah Legislature this session to expand shelter and housing for the homeless. Yet the people who rely on Salt Lake City's budget motels, particularly chronically homeless single women trapped in sex work, have not been included in that conversation. That's something Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall, whose District 5 includes motels on State Street, would like to see changed. She has looked at both the motels and the plight of women ensnared in cycles of poverty, addiction and sex work who stay there. Civil enforcement and nuisance laws are both possible tools, she says, to bring to bear on motels that negatively impact the surrounding community and, to some degree, enable sex workers trapped in a vicious cycle. "The issues facing these women are tragic enough that we should be moved to act in the most significant ways we are able to as a society," she says.
A Refuge But At What Price?
"I've lived in motels all my life," says a 46-year-old veteran of street-sex work. "It's all I've ever done." Ask why and she replies, "I use; I've been in and out of prison."
Just several days prior to this recent conversation with a reporter, she had been locked out of her motel room by the owner at 11:30 p.m., she alleges, because she couldn't come up with the $20 she'd promised to raise to cover the rest of that day's charges.
Her partner used his Social Security check to rent a U-Haul to sleep in, rather than staying in a motel. "Some people can't help the situation they're in," he says about his girlfriend's eviction. "You don't have to kick them when they're down. You really don't."
Fourth Street Clinic's medical outreach team, nurse practitioner Phil Taylor and medical assistant Leticia Vasquez, visit the motels on a regular basis to provide emergency care and follow-up for homeless clients and sex workers. Vasquez says she's counted 250 women who do sex work in the valley since 2012, and only four have gotten out of prostitution and are substance free. Taylor says the sex workers are the most vulnerable population in the homeless spectrum. He becomes emotional as he recounts how each time he hears "the most horrific story of physical and sexual abuse," he's ever encountered, only to hear worse the next day. "It's so horribly wrong; it partially explains why substance abuse would be a tolerable option," he says.
Taylor says the motels are "definitely an integral part of housing—and yet the conditions are deplorable, and the circumstances are often shady and the rent is more than my mortgage." Without the money for first- and last-month's rent for an apartment, chronically homeless women can end up being forced on a daily basis to earn through traumatizing sex work or drug dealing between $1,400 to $2,000 a month, on top of which they have to earn money for drugs and food.
Taylor has been part of conversations with many community partners where all agree that the sex-worker population has specialized challenges. But, he says, "It feels like [stakeholders] still don't perceive it as a big-enough problem."
At times, he finds himself wondering if the cycle of tragedy he witnesses daily will ever end. For women who've lost children to the state because of their behavior, addiction issues, or their inability to care for them, "The guilt and shame only worsens," he says. He recalls an elderly woman who still works on the streets. "I can see that she can't let it go—the shame and the guilt drag her back in," he says.
But even such a discouraging reality should not stop advocates and state agencies, he says, from working to get these women out of the motels and into housing to improve their quality of life. "Who doesn't deserve a place of safety where you can feel safe?" Taylor asks.
Volunteer of America's veteran-outreach specialist Ed Snoddy says women living in some of the motels struggle hour-to-hour to survive. "It takes a village to help this population," he says. But in order to take somebody out of that situation, he says, they need access to safe housing, medical care, vocational and substance-abuse rehabilitation and trauma-specialized therapy, none of which is currently available in any kind of wrap-around services.
It's a population that in some cases can literally cost Utah millions. Several advocates express concern about a number of women who practice sex work without condoms, become pregnant and give birth to addicted babies. Snoddy mentions one woman in her early 30s who has had 11 children, all taken away by the state. Then he found out that she was pregnant again. An adoption program was housing her in a hotel room and would give her cash when the baby was born. "She's kind of selling babies," he says, that, because she uses through the pregnancy, the babies will be born with addiction issues. "How can you even think of doing this?"
Whatever the long-term implications for the child's health, the initial health-care costs post-birth are "astronomical," he says. He's heard estimates that each child, born premature and addicted, can cost the state $250,000 in medical care. In many cases, the jail will not take a pregnant woman in her third trimester because they are considered too high risk, so instead, Snoddy says, they stay at a motel or on the street, where drugs are in ready supply. "It's a huge gap in the system."
Salt Lake City Police Department public information officer Gregory Wilking spent seven years working what his department calls the "south and north tracks" (State Street and North Temple) and came to know the motels well. When asked if motel owners/managers are in any way responsible for illegal activities taking place on the premises, Wilking says it's "tricky." First, if the Health Department or the Police find drugs in a motel room, they can order the room shut down, forcing the owner to conduct costly decontamination. But there is still ambiguity—not only in expecting a manager or owner to know what is going on in guest rooms—but also in being able to prove in a court of law he or she knew criminal activity was taking place in a particular room.
Wilking stresses that motels can't be lumped together in one category of facilitating criminal activity. Each motel is unique, he says. Some actively work with law enforcement to inform them of problems, while others may turn a blind eye until it directly impacts them. Medical outreach agencies use a number of the North Temple motels for 3- to 7-day temporary respite care for some clients.
Nevertheless, he sums up the motels where law enforcement is routinely called to for everything from trespass and fights to drugs and domestic violence, as "places of misery. They're places where the light doesn't shine. Maybe they are harbors for troubled people, but they're not safe harbors. Troubled people find their way there and trouble follows them. Nothing really good comes from these places," Wilking says.
Closed for Repairs
One veteran drug dealer, who spoke about his former criminal activities on condition of anonymity, claims that some of the sketchier motels in the area don't require ID, a license plate, a deposit or a credit card and ignore the human traffic that accompanies the guests. They are "a city within a city," he says. "Gang-bangers, hookers, dope dealers, check-fraud rings, parole violators," he continues, then adds ID-forgers, muggers, burglars and murderers for good measure.
If you are a fugitive on the run, or simply looking to deal drugs, unless you pull in with a "G-ride"—meaning a stolen car—or brandish a firearm then, chances are, you can lie low and not be bothered. Except, that is, by someone high on drugs or angry or desperate enough to kick down your door in search of someone else who's long gone.
The condition of some of the budget motels he patrolled on State and North Temple is "deplorable," SLCPD's Wilking says. "Really, when we go into these places," he says, "we glove up, we don't touch anything." People who die in a room, he said, are taken away by the medical examiner; the room is straightened up and rented out again. "There is very little housekeeping and maintenance that is done in these places," he says. "A long-term stay, the housekeeping is up to them, so it is maybe a little cleaner. There are cockroaches, mice, bedbug infestations, and it's pretty unsavory."
A City Weekly records request to the Salt Lake County Health Department seeking two years of routine annual inspection reports and investigations of complaints of 10 public lodging motels on State, Main, and North Temple, revealed that the motels with the biggest problems from the Environmental Health Division's perspective were two on North Temple, one of which currently has closed up to 10 rooms until the motel's owner brings them up to code. "They were informed that if they did not correct the deficiencies within 90 days of that inspection, their permit may not be renewed," according to an October 2015 Environmental Health Division report.
The second motel in the division's crosshairs had multiple rooms in August 2015 closed for several months until they were renovated. One room description in a report requiring corrective actions listed numerous areas of concern: "Room 8: exterior lights, air conditioner, lightwoods, holes in walls, heater, smoke detector, mold in fridge, mold in microwave, dead bugs, face cover for switches, toilet not seated, floor is damaged, sheer in closet, closed."
While inactive smoke detectors and bed bugs were common complaints, one motel came in for criticism because guests threw their trash onto the lot or the sidewalk. A Health Department investigator walked the lot with the manager and "confirmed, condoms, needles, debris, litter on the on the outskirts of the motel and also the motel property." The manager committed to clean up within seven days.
"The workload that these facilities [City Weekly has] looked at are considerably higher for the department than the more mainstream" hotels, says Environmental Health Division's Dale Keller. The biggest problem the records request highlighted was bedbugs, something that in the past four to five years, Keller says, has become a problem nationwide. While complaints about motels are taken seriously, Keller points out that many are anonymous complaints with no working phone number belonging to the motel guest. Often, they appear to be linked to an eviction, an inability to pay room charges or similar issues.
Not Always Welcome at the Inn
A City Weekly reporter visited 11 budget hotels and motels identified by law enforcement and advocates as places where homeless are known to stay. While a number of managers agreed to speak to the reporter, all requested their names be withheld. The managers advocated for either more shelters or increased low-income housing. "They're trying to get on their feet, but they can't find a place to rent," said one motel staffer.
One establishment charges Utah residents a $100 deposit on their rooms, but only charges the regular room rate for those from out of state. That becomes a challenge when a homeless person can't afford the deposit and has to be escorted from the property, staff say. The homeless sleep in the laundry room, vending areas, on the stairway, and sometimes in guests' cars to stay warm. "Unfortunately, we have to kick them out," the woman says.
Prostitution, she says, is evident, not so much in the rooms, but with pimps who stay at the motel and send women to work at other cheaper lodging. "Most of them don't bring clients here," she says. Because of concerns about violence, she doesn't work graveyard shifts, and her husband won't let her walk home after dark. "We just need this area [to be] safer," she says.
At a neighboring budget motel, the day-manager says, "We've done a lot of work to get rid of the harsher elements." Drug paraphernalia is an automatic debarment from future lodging. "We don't want to have a reputation for being a bad place to come; we want to make sure that the guests are safe," she says.
A man at the front desk of a 1930s-constructed State Street motel expresses concern about the foot traffic that comes from two nearby motels. He says the motel "has to be picky in terms of who we rent to. We try not to offend them, [so] we say we don't have any rooms." While they rent to a few homeless individuals, their strict adherence to "No ID, no room," bars some from their property. "We try not to rent to prostitutes. It's not legal for them to do it; it's not illegal for me to rent to them." Part of the reasoning is to "protect ourselves ... they bring a lot of narco people."
Mike Sayssan owns both the Wasatch Inn and Zions Motel on State Street. He expresses frustration that "walk-ins don't respect people," they cause trouble, his managers call the police, and the next day, the "troubled people" are released from jail and back looking for a room.
His managers, he says, can't ask their guests if they're drug addicts or prostitutes any more than they can ask their race. He says he feels sorry for some of his guests. "They just need help. If there's not a motel room, where do they go?"
"Welcome To Hell, Bitch"
Veteran street sex workers like Donna Steele and Melissa (last name withheld by request) have both spent extended periods of time at budget motels. While staying there, Steele says she was "constantly watching people going back and forth to buy drugs all day and all night long." For women funding shelter and drug use through sex work, a number of budget motels along State, Main and North Temple "are close to the strip, it's close to where they prostitute," Steele says. "It's easier just to walk out of the motel, catch a date, walk right back to the motel ... know what I mean?"
VOA's Wesemann says that because the women tend to be more functional and independent than other sub-populations in the homeless community, "they can stay off the radar longer." At the motels, "there's a huge social aspect to this, a camaraderie, a connection and familiarity; these people are peers; they are connected with one another and, as difficult as it is for us to see it or understand it, this is their social circle. This is really their way of life," he says.
While some advocates and sex workers argue that several motels are little more than brothels, Steele doesn't agree. "They are a motel, not a brothel. The worst shape it's in, it's still a motel," she says. But several motels, she adds, could not have stayed in business without sex workers willing to tolerate the conditions.
For someone who is stuck living there, a life of sorts can be fashioned, says 46-year-old Melissa, even if at a high price. "I made a home out of [a motel] for 16 months," she says. "It almost killed me, seriously. And, for sure, it took a piece of my spirit."
Claiming to have stayed in every motel in Salt Lake City, Melissa says, "It's very, very sad, especially on Christmas or Thanksgiving." She went away last Christmas to stay with friends, but when they dropped her off back at the motel, "it was heartbreaking," she says. "It's kind of like jail, it's always the same, it doesn't change."
Every night that she stayed at the motel, for a year and a half, Melissa said she "paid every night. It was either that or live on the street or go to the shelter." Graffiti dominated the walls. In one room, she recalls, someone had scrawled: "Welcome to hell bitch, the devil has you," over the bed where she slept at night.
In the backroom of the main office of the Alta Motel Lodge on State Street, owner David Pope says he bought the Main Street Motel (formerly the Colonial Village Motel) almost 10 years ago after a career in computers and real estate, and subsequently purchased the Alta Motel Lodge three years ago.
The Main Street Motel's rooms "were horrible ... really bad," he says when he acquired the motel. "Basically nothing had really been done to them since 1938." Pope started renovating the rooms two years ago. "It's just a matter of money," he says, as to why it took so long to renovate the rooms.
He has four basic rules for the people who stay at his motels: "Don't put a bunch of people in your room, don't trash your room, do what you want but don't bother anyone else doing it. But for some reason, a lot of the people have a hard time doing that," he says.
Two incidents, he believes, led to the police targeting his business in 2010. One was the arrest of a woman who had ingested drugs at his motel who later died in jail. The second was when a Mormon bishop visited a guest at the Main Street Motel for a scripture lesson, only to be offered sex by a woman. "He got pissed off and called the police," Pope says.
After a female officer pulled over Pope's wife as she left the Main Street Motel—allegedly remarking that his wife seemed normal, given that the motel was full of "bad people" doing drugs—he went ballistic. He said he marched over to the officer's car and said, "What the fuck are you doing?" vilifying the officer not only for pulling over his wife but also for lumping all his guests into one category. "Not everybody in there is bad, not everybody in there is a drug dealer," he says he told her.
Wilking with the SLCPD, takes a different view, claiming there was no investigation of Pope. Rather, in 2010, Salt Lake City Police Department came to regard Pope as "more of the problem," he says, than the people living at his motel. So, for a few months, Wilking said, a group of officers in their spare time starting paying closer attention to the comings and goings at the Main Street Motel. "He was allowing this stuff to take place, [and the police were] viewing it not so much as he had a business to run, but he was profiting from others' misery," he said.
Word Of Mouth
Pope is not shy about his use of harsh language to bring order to unruly clientele and former guests he has banned that may accompany them. But for some, his methods extend beyond profanity-laced commands. City Weekly interviewed eight members of the city street-sex worker community who claimed Pope was verbally abusive, disrespectful to women and, on occasion, physically abusive.
Sex-worker Melissa thinks the behavior goes with the territory. Pope "needs to be tough to deal with the kind of people he gets there. If he was down there kissing ass, he'd get walked over. Drug dealers and prostitutes, they're living the life of manipulation. If he was a pansy, he'd get picked," she says.
Police reports suggest that Pope gives as good at he gets in fights, even once chasing a male felon off his property. Pope acknowledges that he works in a dangerous environment. "If you don't try to take a strong hand on this, you'll be overwhelmed," he says. He's been beaten twice—once by two men, one of whom, a well-built bouncer, was shot dead two days later at a University of Utah party; the second time, he was attacked at gunpoint by a man who was linked a couple of days later to a triple homicide in Midvale.
Pope says he simply has to deal with issues that the police take too long to get to. "I want to resolve it quickly," he says. While he denies manhandling guests or others on his property and also denies being disrespectful to women, he acknowledges being verbally abusive to both men and women. "I am. Let's just be honest. I am," he says. "But I'm never verbally abusive if they don't pay. I'm only verbally abusive if, after I've given several warnings on something, let's say having banned people in your room, then I say, 'Get the fuck out of here.'"
Not For Kids
Pope shows a reporter a room at the Alta motel. It's musty, the closet has been removed—leaving nothing but stained carpet—and there's some penned graffiti on the walls. The front door comes off its hinges as he enters. "This is one of the better rooms, to be honest," he says, as he tries to get the door back up on its hinges.
He then open up several rooms he's personally renovated at the Main Street Motel. Eight rooms on one side of the chalet-L are being re-done. Because "drug people like to mess with stuff," he keeps the design as simple as possible. A flat-screen TV graces the wall of one finished room, which boasts a sink with a marble counter top and a spacious shower with two heads. He says he's had four TVs stolen already, so will probably revert to "the old tube TVs, so they don't steal them."
The new rooms stand in stark contrast to a corner room Pope opens, its front door kicked in the night before. The carpet is dirty; there's a large pile of bicycle tires in the back room; and cigarette butts, popcorn, and other detritus litter the room.
As Pope walks back to the main office, a middle-age woman he knows approaches him, asking for a room.
"Have I ever called you a 'bitch'?" he asks in reference to a reporter's query that he was verbally abusive. She shakes her head.
"No?" he says, seeming surprised. "I thought I did."
In the back room of the Main Street Motel office, a verdant swath of dog-eared bills of various denominations extend across the table, waiting to be deposited in a bank. "Most of these people, they can't do credit cards," he says. "All they have is cash." He declines to say how much cash the motels generate each week. "They have to have an ID—it's required by law. But if we know you by sight, we'll check you in."
Pope says he makes sure potential guests are aware of the local drug-trade activity. A woman came with a small child recently, and he says he declined to rent her a room because people leave small pieces of drugs on the floor as well as uncapped needles. "We don't recommend this place for kids," he says. "Pay more money, and go to another place."
Nowhere Safe To Go
Councilwoman Mendenhall has been paying attention to the motels and to sex workers in recent months, consulting with law enforcement and others about what tools might be used to improve both the negative impact some motels have on their neighborhoods and the quality-of-life issues bedeviling the chronically homeless women.
Crime statistics, Mendenhall says, "would support the claim that many motels on State Street are nuisances to the community and the city as a whole." She hopes to see civil penalties being brought to bear on the worst offenders. "They would require whoever the owner is to come into compliance with health and safety standards and certainly not have criminal activities there," she says.
While Wilking acknowledges there are always guests not involved in criminal activity, "the majority are using [the rooms] for nefarious purposes," he says. He is confident that the city and other community agencies are looking at ways to combat the negative impacts some motels have on their neighborhoods. "Having some level of compliance, oversight, perhaps through business licensing, even up to shutting them down completely and leveling them—all those options could be on the table."
Razing the most crime-ridden and poorly maintained motels, though, isn't necessarily the answer, advocates say, even if it were feasible. Without the motels, "You're in big trouble: You've got have a place for these girls to go," says Fourth Street's Taylor.
Mendenhall says she has asked Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams to add sex workers as a 10th sub-population to the groups the county and the city seek to address with their joint homeless initiative. McAdams' response, she says, was that "nine is quite a list already."
When asked about it, McAdams' communications director, Alyson Heyrend, says the commission's report is "a consensus document," and so the mayor is unable to alter the plan on his own. Meanwhile, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski's spokesman Matthew Rojas says Mendenhall "raises a valid concern about the inclusion of additional sub-populations, such as sex workers," in the joint-commission's conversations.
Mendenhall admits to frustration. "We are leaving out vulnerable populations whose lives are impacted every day on the streets of Salt Lake City by lack of services," she says. Law enforcement and agencies agree that simply getting the women a room for the night was ineffective, but "we don't have great tools yet to assist these women in leaving this lifestyle," she says.
Despite living in her own apartment thanks to the combined efforts of numerous advocates, Melissa remains grateful that the budget motel where she stayed is still a fallback option. "It's a horrible, horrible place, but it is 100 times better than only having the option of the shelter," she says. "I made that choice every single day. If you came and took my apartment from me, I promise you I'd spend my night [there] because I have no place to go." CW