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Covid Contributes to the Unhappiest Place on Earth

Poor Disney is regrouping after being battered by coronavirus. The company, with assets in the area of $193 billion, recently announced a massive layoff — 28,000 workers. Bloomberg reported that Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), “…criticized Walt Disney Co. for laying off thousands of workers as a result of the pandemic, saying its spending on share buybacks and executive pay enriched bosses and investors but eroded its ability to weather a downturn.”

I’ll take it a notch further: What will happen to those who kept the parks functioning at high level for the entertainment giant? What about the even lowlier service workers who pour the coffee, wash dishes, and clean motel rooms in the shadows of Mickey’s haunts?

sign for disney area motel
sign for disney area motel
One of the many Disney area motels. Photo Diane Nilan

To get in the mood to write this post, I rewatched The Florida Project the other night. Would my reaction to this strangely acclaimed movie be any better than when I saw it during opening week in New York City back in 2017? I fumed up a storm during and after that screening, lamenting the distorted depiction of families staying in motels in the shadow of Disney World.

You see, I’ve got skin in the game of telling stories of families stuck in Disney area motels. The teeming homelessness hidden in these resort area motels is a particularly galling reality. In 2012, I lived in my little camper in the motel parking lot which bears many similarities with the one in the Academy Award nominee movie.

my old camper in the disney area motel lot
my old camper in the disney area motel lot
“Tillie 1” my first camper, parked in the motel lot. Photo Diane Nilan

Calling attention to families languishing in homelessness is what I’ve done for the past 15 years for my one-woman nonprofit, HEAR US Inc.

I interviewed Ayele and her family in this 4-min. video, a glimpse of this family’s survival side-by-side with tourists in this Disney area hotel.

Seeing scores of families “living” in motels along the highway to the Happiest Place on Earth, I held an impromptu film screening with my award-winning documentary, My Own Four Walls. I wanted to hear firsthand from families staying in these motels what it was like to not have a place to call home. This event caught the interest of a HuffPo reporter, Saki Knafo, who came down from NYC to check it out. His story validated my findings and created a stir.

huffpo headline Tragic Kingdom
huffpo headline Tragic Kingdom
Huffington Post headline 2012 Photo Diane Nilan

Back to my issues with The Florida Story.

At no point do viewers get any sense that this is anything but a portrayal of rambunctious kids doing what kids, left on their own, do with too much spare time.

You never get the backstory of Moonee’s mom, Halley, who by all accounts painfully struggles with her role as mother. Was she impaired because of her experience of trauma as a child? Or traumatic brain injury? Or just lacking in parental skills, maybe because of growing up as a foster child with no real role models? Oh yeah, abject poverty, what role did that play on her mental state?

Whatever the cause of her dysfunction, her actions win her no friends, on the screen or with viewers. The prize goes to the mischievous kids, Moonee and her pals, as they romp around Disney World’s outlying environs. The kids are cute, until they’re not. The ending scene leaves us all disturbed (I hope).

Most don’t realize that these motels surrounding Disney parks contain literally thousands of kids with their families who are homeless. They’ve lost housing and have nowhere to go. That was pre-coronavirus. Orlando Sentinel reporter @ksantich, who has covered this beat for years, reported in 2015, when times were “good”:

“Nearly one-fifth of all homeless public-school students across the state now live in Orange, Osceola or Seminole counties — a fact some blame on the combination of cheap, rent-by-the-week motels and high turnover at low-paying tourism-industry jobs, local leaders said Friday.

“With only a tenth of the state’s total population, the tri-county area identified more than 13,700 homeless students last year — including families doubled up with relatives, living in motels, staying in shelters, sleeping in cars and camping in the woods. The actual number may be twice as high, officials said, because parents are sometimes wary of revealing their living situation.”

Now the hotels and motels, lacking tourists because area attractions were shuttered completely or partially to prevent spread of the virus, seem to be serving more families. And local leaders are pounding on FL Governor Santis’ door for CARES funding. Good luck with that.

Since the counties around Disney World don’t have homeless shelters, families have turned to these 21st century homeless shelters — motels. And it’s ugly.

In addition to accommodating the service workers, the laid-off Disney workforce are now turning to these no-tell-motels, despite their desperately dysfunctional environments. Motel “guests” pay hundreds a week. Nice church people drop off food on occasion. Police make their rounds. Tourists now trickle through. Kids raucously romp. Parents stare out from their rooms wondering how they’ll escape this hell.

Let me remind you that these families, who’ve lost housing due to hardship, are not considered “homeless enough” by HUD, thus they are ineligible for what little help the federal agency charged with housing our nation’s homeless population might offer.

If you’d like to do something to change this injustice, here’s our website that has a quick “take action” link.

I’ve been working hard on my new book, Dismazed and Driven: My Look at Family Homelessness in America. If you’re interested in a reader-friendly book on family homelessness with some RV travel adventures thrown in, this will give you enough of a glimpse of my observation in the past 15 years to make you dismazed, too. (Available early November.)

We need to revamp our nation’s approach to family homelessness. In addition to suggestions in my new book, my colleagues and I have a college textbook, Changing the Paradigm of Homelessness, to expound on the concept. And my friend, Pat LaMarche, just released her best-selling book, Still Left Out in America, which will give you even more of a picture.

Why do I think you should care? For the same reason those 28,000 Disney workers should care. Homelessness can happen to any of us.

Founder/pres. HEAR US Inc., gives voice & visibility to homeless families & youth, ran shelters, advocate, filmmaker, author, 15 yrs. on US backroads.

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