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.
Mark Neumann is a journalism professor at Northern Arizona University.
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