Nicholas Knox just wants to find a home for himself and his 7-year-old daughter before Christmas. If they manage to move out of the cramped Sandy Springs motel room where they’ve spent the last five months by then, he said, “that will be my holiday gift for me and my family.”

But it’s not easy transitioning from life in an extended-stay hotel room largely because affordable housing is so scarce in metro Atlanta; many people are as likely to wind up sleeping on the streets as set up in stable housing. So for Knox, the pressure is on to work hard and be strong for his second-grader.

”She’s been strong, too,” he said in an interview. “She believes in her dad, loves her dad and family, and knows I’m working to get us a better situation.”

Knox lost his marketing job in a layoff during the pandemic, fell behind on rent, and was kicked out of his home. He’s been able to find another job, but he’s had trouble saving up enough money to rent another apartment.

He was able to get help from a local motel-to-home program to cover the security deposit, first and last month’s rent, and other fees required to sign leases at many rental complexes.

But the Single Parent Alliance and Resource Center’s motel-to-home program, like most in metro Atlanta, simply foots the bill for people to get into apartments. It’s up to them to find one. 

Knox has found himself scrambling for the increasingly elusive apartment that he can afford and where a landlord is willing to take him in.

Knox said he’s paying $500 a week to stay in the motel, which has made it especially difficult to save up money—even though $2,000 a month for rent is more than a nice apartment might run him. “It’s really discouraging,” he said. “It feels like you’re stuck in quicksand, like you’re stuck in a vacuum.”

Knox’s story is not unique. The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that 25,000 metro Atlantans—many with children—have made extended-stay motels their permanent or semi-permanent residences. Meanwhile, the handful of local organizations that run motel-to-home programs can only afford to help a few hundred families a year.

United Way of Greater Atlanta, which runs one of the largest motel-to-home programs,  recently celebrated assisting more than 365 families in the last 365 days—a laudable accomplishment, but also one that underscores the severe shortage of resources for people trying to get out of motel rooms.

Protip Biswas, United Way’s head of homeless outreach, said the organization fields thousands of calls each year from people seeking help getting out of motels. There are three reasons they can’t serve everyone: not enough funding, not enough affordable housing, and too many landlords unwilling to accept tenants with poor credit scores, prior evictions, or low incomes.

If, say, Gov. Brian Kemp threw some political muscle—and state dollars—behind the issue, the problem could be solved, Biswas said. “Private and philanthropic sources can only go so far,” he said.

Sue Sullivan, a realtor who helps people living in motels connect with supportive services ans get food, clothing, toiletries, and other necessities, said when one family manages to escape what she considers a hotel-to-homeless pipeline, another usually moves into the room right after them.

Even if people are able to connect with groups that can cover their deposits and application fees, Sullivan said, finding affordable units can be like combing for a needle in a haystack, especially for extremely low-income people, who can’t afford to spend time apartment hunting or don’t have a car.

Some residents, she added, wind up moving to cheaper, crummier motel rooms to keep from becoming homeless. Knox, for instance, said he opted to move himself and his daughter into the motel to avoid living out of his car.

Sometimes Sullivan feels like she’s pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to have it roll back down. “It’s just a matter of helping as many people as possible,” she said—even if motel-to-home programs are like applying a bandaid when what’s needed is major surgery.

Mariel Risner Sivley, who oversees St. Vincent de Paul Georgia’s motel-to-home program—supported by United Way—said one of the main reasons that thousands of Atlantans find themselves trapped in motels is because government agencies, which often don’t recognize hotel residents as homeless, don’t provide enough funding for programs like theirs. 

Some communities, Risner Sivley said, have been able to house all of their homeless veterans because local public agencies got involved and funded the rehousing effort. 

People in need shouldn’t have to search high and low for help, she said. “There needs to be a [public] resource at every level, with an easy entry point.”

Though Knox is facing one of the most daunting challenges a father could imagine, he’s learned some about himself as he’s tested: “How to be diligent, how to be strong, and to be humble,” he said. “This can happen to anybody. I never thought it would happen to me.”

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