Most of the time when we talk about homelessness, big cities come to mind. But about 7 percent of homeless people live in rural areas, where access to help is much harder to come by. Flagstaff is one of those places. While city officials work to find solutions, one woman has taken an old motel and turned it into transitional housing.
Route 66 runs through Flagstaff. And a lot of old rundown motels from its heyday still stand — empty shells from a more prosperous time. The Mother Road has long been an American emblem of change. People who want to remake their lives: Depression-era Dust Bowl refugees to post-World War II travelers dreaming of leisure and adventure.
That same story of transformation is still being told in the old 66 Motel.
Lori Barlow, a former financial planner, is giving the old motel new life. A spirited blonde who’s starting her own new chapter, Barlow gave up a six-figure salary and a home on the California coast to help people.
But she wasn’t sure how to go about it until one night inspiration struck.
“I think it was 3:36 actually,” Barlow recalled. “I woke up and sat up in my bed and this clear message just came and said, ‘You need to go take over distressed motels and turn them into transitional housing to help the poor.’ I just thought, ‘OK, what do I do with that?’”
Barlow made some calls and leased a motel, and suddenly realized she might be in over her head.
“Now I was coming in going, ‘holy moly,’” Barlow said. “It was pretty bad, the ceiling was caving in and the insulation was hanging out of it. There was a lot of evidence of mice. I just looked at it and thought, ‘OK I’m not going to let my kids come up and see me where I’m living.’”
The floors slope. The walls are uneven. Even the fixtures are crooked in some units.
“The toilet seat is at an angle because it’s too small,” Barlow said. “You couldn’t sit down and close the door.”
“She’s letting me stay here while I was remodeling it for rent,” said William Fulton, a former engineer who lived in a van before he moved into the motel. “The plumbing’s been the worst, so basically it’s getting that fixed up and the flooring. The old wood rotted, leaky plumbing smell, so we dried 'em out, redid some of the floors. It’s like a new building after we get done with it.”
One of the current residents, Julie Bowman, also remembered there were a lot of shady characters when she moved in.
“One lady was selling drugs out her back window,” Bowman said. “These people were literally using this for a drive thru. And they would walk by her window and she would hand it out. This was going on all night.”
Back when she leased the motel, Barlow painted the phrase “ANew Living community” below the old neon sign. A lot of the residents are making a new go of it. She helps them with budgeting, provides a computer room and a list of community resources. They have two years to pull their lives together.
Inside The 66 Motel
Living on the streets is tough enough in a city. But when you’re homeless in rural America, it’s even harder to pull yourself out of poverty.
When Barlow moved to Flagstaff, she volunteered at the emergency shelter. She was overwhelmed by the number of people stuck in poverty.
“I was surprised we had people staying there that had jobs,” Barlow said. “And that just amazed me. What’s happening to these people that are trying?”
Barlow now houses about 50 of those people at the old 66 Motel, now called “ANew Living Community.” Many work seasonal jobs or rely on social security or disability checks to pay the rent — people like Hans Pap, who moved here from Baltimore after he’d been diagnosed with lung cancer.
“It was one of my dreams to come out west,” Pap said. “So I figure before I die I’d at least come out here and see the west.”
Being homeless in Flagstaff was harder than Pap expected. He said there were few places to go to escape the cold. Things are a little better now that he has a key to a room at “ANew Living Community.”
“That’s a propane camping stove I use to cook with … usually hamburger, chicken, cheap stuff,” said Pap, showing us his room. “I usually crack that window open a little bit to kinda get some air circulating.”
A few doors down Fulton worked on one of the old motel rooms. He had more than three decades of experience as an engineer. But then he was injured on the job.
"Just fell into a state of depression not been able to get steady work,” Fulton said.
At 58, Fulton said many think he’s too old.
“Right after the housing bust the economy went down,” Fulton said. “Everybody’s just trying to survive. And so I got into the handyman service. I didn’t really like the title handyman because I’m an engineer, I’ve done so much.”
Out of work and living in a van, Fulton met Barlow, the woman who founded “ANew Living Community.”
“So she asked, ‘You want to come in here and fix these rooms up in exchange for rent to help you get back on your feet?’” Fulton said. “And I said, ‘Yeah!’ So yeah, sorry I’m getting choked up.”
“I broke my back, smashed my face, I flew off a bike at like 80 miles an hour, face first 100 feet,” Bowman said. “It was really cool.”
Bowman, whose friends call her "Red," crashed a motorcycle 20 years ago. She's a self-described biker chick who used to be a bartender. The accident left her broke, partially deaf and no longer able to lift cases of beer. Now she takes community college courses online. Bowman said everybody at the motel looks after each other.
“That older lady she told me a couple days ago she’s usually broke by the end of the month and doesn’t have much food,” Bowman said. “She told me that and I about came unglued and I’ve taken her dinner every single night since she told me that.”
Bowman said she was raised that way. And she’s got a lot of grit.
“All I’ve ever wanted is a house of my own and not to worry about whether I’m gonna pay my electric bill,” Bowman said. “I see myself not giving up until I get it.”
That kind of determination is the spirit that drew people to Route 66. A lot of people still move along the old Mother Road and wind up in small towns, where you can find people who may have lost hope before they found each other.
Mark Neumann is a journalism professor at Northern Arizona University.