No Room at the Inn?

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As I write this, the temperature outside has dipped to the single digits. B-r-r-r-r! As the song has it, Baby, it’s cold outside! But I am inside where a fire is raging in the fireplace, where it is warm and cozy, and where I do not feel the bitter cold.

But not everyone is as fortunate as I.

Mickie “Red” Roquemore, a fifty-eight year old Pontiac, Michigan man was a charming, “great guy” who was well liked and did not cause problems at a homeless shelter where he often stayed in the past. Last year, he even secured housing with the help of an agency. But Roquemore was found dead on New Year’s Day on a porch where he had recently been sleeping apparently due to temperatures dipping down to 15 degrees overnight.

Around 10 am on the morning of New Year’s Eve, the body of a homeless transgender woman was found on the bench in front of the Castro’s Peet’s Coffee & Tea on San Francisco’s Market Street. According to neighbors, the woman identified herself as “Anastasia.” Anastasia had been a neighborhood fixture over the past year in the Castro. People who knew her said that she frequently was seen with a scarf over her head, wore high heels, and had been known to sport a fur coat. She could often be seen outside of Peet’s in the early mornings and would move on after receiving a cup of coffee from willing cafe-goers.  She had also regularly been seen outside the nearby Cafe Flore and the Harvest grocery store, or walking around the neighborhood. She was usually talking to herself.

Anastasia and Roquemore are just some of those homeless individuals who have perished simply because they had nowhere to take shelter when temperatures dropped.

Homeless Korean War veteran, Thomas Moore, 79, speaks with Boston Health Care for the Homeless outreach coordinator, Romeena Lee on a Boston sidewalk. Moore, who describes himself as having a “nervous breakdown” when as a 17-year-old serving on the front lines in Korea, he accidentally killed his best friend with a phosphorous grenade during a firefight and spent months afterward at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. He also said he has no interest in getting a government-subsidized apartment. He said he was willing to accept a blanket from the social workers who visit him, but when they broach the idea of housing, “I try in a kind way to back off.”

Homeless Korean War veteran, Thomas Moore, 79, speaks with Boston Health Care for the Homeless outreach coordinator, Romeena Lee on a Boston sidewalk. Moore, who describes himself as having a “nervous breakdown” when as a 17-year-old serving on the front lines in Korea, he accidentally killed his best friend with a phosphorous grenade during a firefight and spent months afterward at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. He also said he has no interest in getting a government-subsidized apartment. He said he was willing to accept a blanket from the social workers who visit him, but when they broach the idea of housing, “I try in a kind way to back off.”

It is estimated that more than 154,000 Americans, many of them veterans, have no shelter on any given night and will sleep under a bridge, or in an alley, or on a doorstep, or in a box. With extreme cold hitting the Northeast and Midwest this winter, even more homeless people will be at risk. An estimated 2,000 homeless people died on the streets last year, and this year will not be any different.

Hypothermia sets in when the body temperature drops below 95 degrees, something that can occur even in 50-degree weather. Yet many cities do not declare a hypothermia alert, triggering additional shelter options, until it hits 40 degrees or lower. Baltimore, for example, waits to issue a Code Blue hypothermia alert until temperatures, including wind chill, are expected to be 13˚F or below. This threshold can be reached by having a temperature at or below 20˚F with 5 mph sustained winds or a temperature at or below 25˚F with 15 mph sustained winds.

And even those who may have opened up emergency shelter across the country are reporting that it is already filling up. For instance, in Pontiac, where Roquemore died, there are not enough shelters to house the city’s homeless population. One was shut down over ordinance and code issues in April of last year, while another where Roquemore had previously stayed is often at capacity this time of the year. Shelters and homeless services were hit hard by automatic budget cuts in 2014.

And if the country does not spend enough on shelters, it certainly is falling down on spending enough to get people into actual housing. There was a 300,000 surplus of affordable housing units in 1970, but after federal assistance fell by 50 percent between 1976 and 2002, there was a 5.5 million shortage come 2009. But spending enough to put the homeless into housing, as has been done in three cities so far, is more cost effective than leaving them on the streets.

It is a real problem and one about which a Delaware couple wanted to do something creative and caring.

In early December, Matthew Scott Senge and Deb Bennett decided to give six people currently living underneath the Amtrak bridge – two men, a woman, and her three children – the gift of a night in the city’s finest hotel, the elegant and luxurious, Hotel Du Pont. The group had been living in “deplorable” conditions under a bridge, Senge said, and the couple wanted to provide them with a warm place to stay for the holiday.

An area under a Wilmington, Delaware bridge where a group of homeless people stay.

An area under a Wilmington, Delaware bridge where a group of homeless people stay.

“I used to be one of them,” Bennett said in a recent interview, noting that she had lived under a bridge after losing her house to a fire in 2012.

Senge, too, has had problems in his life.

Before coming to Delaware, he had three felony fraud convictions for crimes including theft by deception and passing bogus checks. He served half of a 46-month prison sentence in Alabama and was also convicted in Florida and Pennsylvania.

After getting out of prison in 2012, “I turned my life around,” Senge said. He largely credits Bennett – whom he calls “my better half” – for his new life.

That new life is reflected in the thoughtful gesture that he and his “better half” had planned for the homeless half-dozen people living under the Amtrak bridge.

Senge spoke with the reservation desk at the Hotel du Pont, one of just two five-star hotels in Wilmington, Delaware to make sure it would be okay to book the room for his guests. “They thought it was a wonderful idea,” said Senge. After talking to hotel management and getting approval, Senge paid $639 to book a two-bedroom suite for Christmas night.

He then gift-wrapped the confirmation letter, put a big red bow on it, and gave it to the six people living beneath the bridge. “They were blown away,” Bennett said. “One woman just cried.”

It was a thoughtful gesture, made in the spirit of the holiday. Unfortunately, the management at the Hotel du Pont had second thoughts.

Three hours before check-in time on Christmas Day, as the couple was assembling gift baskets and food for the intended guests, Senge’s phone rang. It was a staffer at the Hotel du Pont calling to cancel the reservation.

According to Senge, the staffer told him, “What if one of those people rapes or robs one of my guests?”

Hotel du Pont spokesman Brendan McEvoy said, “I think all of us were purely focused on the safety of our hotel guests, and that was why the decision was made.” He elaborated that the issue was that the hotel “wouldn’t allow a guest to check in if they did not have photo ID.”

Even though homeless people in general are less likely to have photo identification than the population at large, it is certainly not the case that no homeless individuals have ID. Indeed, according to Senge, his guests actually did possess photo IDs.

As the story gained attention in the Wilmington area and then nationwide, Hilton’s Christiana Hotel management in Wilmington stepped in.

Brad Wenger, general manager of the Christiana Hilton, chimed in saying that his hotel would offer ten rooms to homeless individuals at no charge. He said that he had “been working with local shelters to identify individuals in need. I will provide dinner and breakfast for them, I will give them a hospitality room where they can relax and not feel like they have to stay in the room all night, and make them as comfortable as possible.”

Indeed, with frigid temperatures in the northeast causing many local shelters to be over capacity, Wenger did not expect to have trouble finding people who could benefit from his offer. Wenger said the Hotel du Pont’s decision not to honor a reservation for the homeless cast a black mark on the hospitality industry that they must rise above.

So as it turned out, there was room at the inn after all!

Hotel Du Pont Wilmington, Delaware

Hotel Du Pont
Wilmington, Delaware

UPDATE:

After the media firestorm over the matter, the Hotel du Pont reversed its course and offered lodging to the homeless individuals, free of charge and issued the following statement: “We apologize for the misunderstanding regarding a hotel reservation under Mr. Senge’s name, which was cancelled on December 25, 2014. Respect for People is a core value of the Hotel. That extends to everyone, including the homeless. Like all major hotels, we have a policy of requiring IDs from guests, and our employees followed that policy. We have invited Mr. Senge’s guests to the Hotel, as early as this weekend. If the guests do not have IDs, we will work with them to address that.”

Senge related that the hotel offered three or four free rooms for the group for the entire weekend.

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