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About Amy Umble: Amy Umble writes about religion and social issues affecting the Fredericksburg community. You can email her at

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Motel kids in ‘the happiest place on earth’

One of my key chains is the faded half of a “best friends” charm. It was given to me by a 9-year-old Hannah Montanna fan. Shayla was living in a motel at the time, and a photographer and I followed her family for a story about how federal laws count children in motels as homeless for educational purposes but not for homeless counts.

The story opened my eyes in many ways. First, it was shocking to see just how many kids gathered in the motel parking lot for games or on the front steps for popsicles after school. Second, while I tried not to have any preconceptions, I walked into the story thinking that living in a motel wasn’t really all that bad. Seeing a mom, exhausted from overnight shifts as a waitress, cooking dinner for three kids and two parents on a hot plate changed that perception.

At the time, Lisa von Dohlen, then director of social work for Stafford County Public Schools, told me:

They’re not going to picture a working family with children. And those children are homeless, and they have no choice to control that situation, and if we as citizens of the richest nation in the world aren’t outraged by that, then we need to take a long, hard look at ourselves.

Since then, the situation hasn’t gotten any better. This story was in early 2008, just before more and more families struggled through foreclosures. And the government is still trying to align the two definitions of homelessness.

Last month, HBO started airing a documentary by Alexandra Pelosi on children living in motels in Orange County, Calif., one of the richest areas in America. It looks haunting, from the trailer. The HBO site includes a trailer and an interview with Pelosi about the project.

Shayla and her family, by the way, did leave the area last I heard. The last time I saw Shayla was at a community dinner at Fredericksburg Baptist Church. She ran into my arms for a hug, but seemed suddenly overwhelmed and very sad before she left. I hope things are looking up for her. But statistics are not very good on the fates of homeless children.