As motels shut down across the Jersey Shore, where will homeless residents go?
SEASIDE HEIGHTS - The Aquarius Motel is gone, soon to be replaced by eight new homes. Right down the street, the Mark III motel is for sale, while a short distance away, the Belmont Motel is scheduled to meet the wrecking ball, with 14 homes planned for its site.
A hot real estate market has led owners of small motels to cash in and sell their properties, not just in Seaside, but all over the Jersey Shore. While towns welcome the new residential development, its created issues for those seeking shelter for residents experiencing homelessness.
Finding motels to house people is getting tougher; many motels in the area have shut down or have been purchased by developers in the last several years, meaning far fewer rooms are available, said Ashlee Pense, client services coordinator for Toms River's HOPE Center.
Pense said in the past she had dozens of motels available for homeless residents, but now there are only about five left that can temporarily house clients.
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"There has obviously been a big housing need, and a lack of availability," she said. "There are a lot of clients staying at motels. Consider that their rent might be $300 a week, just to stay at a motel. That doesn't include anything else."
Paul Hulse, president and chief executive officer of Just Believe Inc., a Toms River-based charity that advocates for and assists those experiencing homelessness, said the dearth of motel rooms also means prices have risen.
"We are paying $1,000 a week for one person to stay in a motel," Hulse said. "I expect it to be even higher in the summer."
Hulse said prices have risen steadily, putting a strain on the budgets of nonprofits like Just Believe.
"A year or two ago, we were paying $350 a week, then it went up to $500 a week in the summer," Hulse said. "Last year it was $1,000 and I said holy moly."
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Part of the problem is a steady drop in the number of available motel rooms.
Seaside Heights has lost 200 motel and hotel rooms – about 15% of the borough's total number – as motels continue to be purchased for redevelopment, said Mike Loundy, owner of Seaside Realty in Seaside Heights and the borough's community development director.
The former Travelodge, also known as the Travel Inn, was one of the first larger motels to be redeveloped. The Bay Boulevard property is now home to an age- and income-restricted community for those 55 and older.
Motels aren't just disappearing from the barrier island. They are being redeveloped on the mainland as well.
Toms River's troubled Pine Rest Motel, on Route 37, was torn down, and a new hotel is expected to be built there. The Red Carpet Inn, located at Main and Water streets in Toms River's downtown, was purchased by the township and demolished.
It's going to be replaced by two, 10-story apartment towers. And the Americana Motel on Route 166, later known as the Parkway Motel, was shut down by the township and is expected to be demolished and replaced by a four-story Avid Hotel.
In many cases, the motels that have been demolished or sold were considered nuisances by town leaders, drawing unwelcome police activity. Toms River declared the Red Carpet Inn a public nuisance; police responded to 750 incidents at the 50-room Red Carpet from 2016 to 2018.
That did not stop a group of homeless advocates from asking the township to consider turning the Red Carpet into a shelter after Toms River purchased it.
"It provides a ready-made opportunity for Toms River to provide an example of an enlightened community," said Connie Pascale, a local lawyer who has been long pushed for the county to open a homeless shelter. "Instead of creating an empty lot, we need to use that facility to address an existing problem."
While township council members expressed sympathy to homeless advocates, they said the Red Carpet was not the spot for a homeless shelter.
Meanwhile, in Seaside Heights, the borough targeted nine rental properties – including three motels – last summer, moving to revoke their mercantile licenses after citing the property owners for code violations and repeated police calls.
Mayor Anthony Vaz said Seaside Heights is not "anti-motel."
"We want the daily trade. We want the weekly trade," the mayor said. "But we also want to attract full-time residents to live here."
Just Believe's Hulse said the lack of available motels has forced Ocean County Social Services and some nonprofits to place homeless residents in shelters outside the county.
"Someone who is in a homeless situation, 9 times out of 10 they don't have a vehicle, they don't have a cell phone," Hulse said. If they are placed in an Atlantic County motel, for example, it's difficult if not impossible for a homeless resident to access the social services they need in Ocean County.
Hulse said the dwindling number of motels highlights the necessity for a transitional housing facility in Ocean County.
Ocean County is the only county in New Jersey that does not have such a facility for those experiencing homelessness. County commissioners Gary Quinn, Barbara "Bobbi Jo" Crea and Virginia E. "Ginny" Haines have all indicated a willingness to speak to advocates about creating such a facility, although they have made it clear the county does not want to operate it.
"I think we have to look at the real reality," Hulse said. "Finding motels is becoming harder and harder for the nonprofits that use motels. You don't really have any cheap motels anymore."
Jean Mikle covers Toms River and several other Ocean County towns, and has been writing about local government and politics at the Jersey Shore for nearly 37 years. She's also passionate about the Shore's storied music scene. Contact her: @jeanmikle, firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: NJ shore motels are being torn down, leaving homeless with few options