"Show hospitality to one another without grumbling." Peter 4:9
If you’re homeless with children in the Bay Area, living in hotels is another option to consider. It depends on your situation; perhaps you’re not able to afford your own house or apartment (or the huge security deposit, or pass the credit check), but you’re not able to double up with a friend or family member either. Or perhaps you’ve been lucky enough to stay for an extended period at a shelter- which gave you an opportunity to save money- but you haven’t yet secured permanent housing. Regardless of the reason, living in hotels can be a temporary option when you’re between solutions. The section below offers a few tips for making the most out of hotel living.
Things to Consider:
a) What is most important for the needs of my family? There is a lot to consider when choosing a hotel room for yourself & your children. In my experience, cost was the most important factor, followed by cleanliness, safety, proximity to fast food & grocery stores, closeness to transportation (for the times we didn’t have a car) & free parking (for the times we did have a car). Sometimes a hotel can be really inexpensive, but it's in a terrible neighborhood or an inaccessible location. Sometimes a hotel will offer a great price & it's in a nice neighborhood, but there are no low-priced options nearby to feed your kids. Only you can decide which issues are most important for you.
b) Whereshould I look for hotels? From my personal experience & opinion, the best hotels for a homeless family are outside of San Francisco. SF is great for homeless shelters & resources, but the hotels are either super pricy or very seedy, with few in-between. There are some gems, but since travelers are always looking for great deals, they tend to fill up quickly. Not only that, but due to the popularity of the city, SF charges ridiculously high deposits for even the worst hotel rooms. And even if you find the perfect family friendly affordable SF hotel, it definitely won’t be anywhere near reasonably priced food.
For affordable hotels that allow you to be near the city (SF) & the Town (Oakland)- but remain at a distance from the majority of dangerous and/or undesirable people, places & things to which you don’t want to expose your kids- I’ve had the best experiences sticking to renting rooms in Alameda, South San Francisco, San Bruno, San Leandro & Oakland (but only near the airport & only as a last resort).
Here are a few of my personal recommendations:
Green Flag Hotels (Go, Do it!)
Coral Reef Inn & Condo Suites (Alameda, CA): Low deposit required; near the beach; quiet area with big box stores (Safeway, Trader Joe’s, Panera, Chipotle, McDonalds, Old Navy, etc.); hotel serves breakfast; outdated but clean, roomy suites; each room comes with a full kitchen; laundry on site; pool; near major bus lines.
Rodeway Inn (Alameda, CA):Clean, modern; Low or no deposit required; near Peet’s Coffee, Walgreens, Jack-in-the-Box; short distance from Target & other big box stores; near major bus lines; not far from downtown Oakland
Ramada Limited (South San Francisco, CA): Clean rooms; polite desk service; low or no deposit required; short distance from gas stations, Peet’s coffee, Taco Bell / KFC; close to the airport; close downtown South San Francisco with library, post office & shops (including a thrift store!) & green spaces; near a family neighborhood; near several small grocery stores with fresh fruit & vegetables; close to the highway; near major bus lines
Yellow Flag Hotel (Think About It!)
Travelodge by Wyndham San Francisco Airport North (South San Francisco, CA):Pros: Cheap; always has vacancies; accepts cash deposits; near gas station, IHOP, highway, McDonalds; five minute drive from downtown South San Francisco; maintenance staff responsive to problems; Cons: Old & shabby; ugly; most of the buildings face a brick wall or parking lot; roaches (especially in the back buildings!); nowhere for kids to play
Red Flag Hotel (Don’t Bring Your Family Here!)
America’s Best Value Inn (Oakland, CA): Cheap, sketchy & dangerous; lots of illegal activity/ drugs; requires at least $100 deposit; shabby; roaches; horrible wi-fi
Of course there are other wonderful, family friendly, inexpensive hotels in & around the Bay Area; as well as other hotels families with kids should absolutely stay away from. This is only the list of hotels I’ve stayed in personally with my children. Are there hotels you’d add to this list? Please send your recommendations regarding hotels at which you’ve personally stayed to email@example.com, thank you!
c) What will it cost? In my experience, a decent room in the Bay Area for me & my kids cost between $90 - $110 per night. This was back in 2021 (& during the pandemic), so prices might have gone up since then. There were some hotels that were cheaper - & only you can decide what your family needs for the night- but the difference in price definitely reflected a difference in quality & comfort.
Another thing to consider is that the Bay Area is well known for advertising one price & then requiring you to pay another price, in the form of deposits. Most hotels here require a $50 - $100 deposit per night. However if you stay multiple nights in a row, your deposit can be moved over to the next night (you don’t have to pay it again).
Some hotels require you to pay the deposit via debit or credit card; when you check out, sometimes the deposit is returned to your account immediately but in many instances it can take up to 7 business days to get your money back. You can see how this can get really, really expensive, especially if you’re moving around to different hotels daily.
Also remember: if there are any damages to the room, your deposit will not be returned at all. If the damages are too bad, they might refuse to allow you to book the hotel again. That’s why it's important to be on your best behavior & remind your children to always do the same.
In my experience, it's best to stay at hotels that allow you to pay the deposit in cash, that way you get your money back as soon as you check out. If you’re considering staying somewhere & you can’t afford to have your money tied up in a deposit cycle, find their number online & call ahead to ask whether they accept cash deposits.
d) What is the best way to book the room? Book your hotel online. The site I recommend is booking.com, because they allow you to use a credit or debit card to hold the room, but they don’t charge you anything until you check in. Even if you’re planning on staying in a hotel for more than one night, you’ll want to book each day separately. This means, select the room & rate for one night; book it; look for the confirmation email; then go back to site & select the room for the next night (but still for only one night); book it; look for the confirmation email. Repeat these steps for as many nights as you want to stay at the hotel (as long as you can afford the rate!).
Do it this way (one day at a time) because otherwise, however many consecutive days you book the room for, you’ll be expected to pay the full amount when you check in. If you don’t have unlimited funds, it's better to pay for the room one day at a time. e) Should I consider Extended Stay Hotels? If you look online, you’ll see there are a few Extended-Stay hotels in the Bay Area. The facilities are typically for traveling workers who require the comforts of home (including a small kitchen) for longer trips. However, in my opinion, these hotels are not suitable for homeless families. The rooms are sterile & un-cozy; they’re also typically located in business park locations, away from nature or anything that might make a kid feel at home. Not only that, but they are usually the most expensive option. There are better, cheaper options with more amenities. If you want an inexpensive hotel room with a kitchen & home vibes, I highly recommend the Coral Reef Inn & Condo Suites (Alameda, CA).
f) How long can I live in a hotel? If you can afford it, living in hotels is very convenient for unhoused families. Think about it- It's basically a furnished studio apartment with same-day move-in, requiring no credit check, with maid service, cable, utilities & wi-fi included. We lived in hotels (with a few Air Bnb’s thrown in) exclusively from August 2019 until July 2021. At first we moved every couple days or so, then we moved up to staying at certain hotels weeks, & eventually months at a time. It's closed now, but our longest consecutive hotel stay was at the Ramada on El Camino Road in San Bruno. We lived there for six months, without checking out once. I paid for the room separately every single day too, to make sure I always got the best rate. I probably could have paid the room up a few days in advance once or twice, but I was paranoid about making sure I always had enough money to feed my kids, or enough money to leave the hotel in case of an emergency & book a room somewhere else.
In other words, you can live in a hotel as long as you want or need. There are a few things you need to understand, though-
Some hotels will make you check out for at least 24 hours, every 21 to 28 days (3 to 4 weeks). This is because of a law in California that says that when someone pays to live in a hotel for more than 30 days in a row, the hotel is technically an apartment building & the guest is technically a tenant. Which means if the hotel wants you to leave after 30 days, legally they’d have to go through the expensive & time consuming process of evicting you. Since hotels don’t want to be put in that position, they often defeat the loophole by forcing guests to check out before they make it until 30 days in a row. They will tell you that you have to stay elsewhere for the night, & you can check back in the next day. However not every hotel does this. There is no way of knowing beforehand whether this will be an issue, either. You’ll just have to wait & see what are the policies of the hotel you’re in. If you’ve been there long enough, they will certainly tell you. In the meantime, make sure to pay on time, be pleasant, watch your kids closely & make sure your family doesn’t damage the room or disturb other guests. In other words, don’t give the hotel anything to complain about.
If you do stay in a hotel for more than 30 days in a row, they aren’t allowed to charge you the TOT (Transient Occupancy Tax) after 30 days. This is a little complicated but I’ll explain it as best as I can. When you pay for your hotel room, you have to pay for the cost of the room, plus an additional $7 - $20 for a “hotel tax.” This tax is charged to “travelers” or “transients” who are staying in hotels. But after 30 days in a hotel, you are no longer a “traveler,” or a “transient.” You are someone who lives in a hotel. Therefore you shouldn’t have to keep paying the tax. However, hotels automatically charge this tax. If you stay somewhere for longer than 30 days, remind them that after the 30th day, you shouldn’t have to pay the tax. They will have to manually deduct the cost in the system. It's likely the worker behind the desk might not know what you’re talking about. The manager might try to blow you off as well. If that happens, don’t make a fuss. Keep paying the tax. Simply contact the treasury office for whatever city you’re staying in, & ask them how you go about getting your TOT tax refunded. It's a complicated process, but you will get your money back. I personally got my money back after overpaying my TOT tax for 5 months. The hotel owner didn’t understand how I knew these rules (that he himself didn’t know), but he wound up having to write me a refund check for over $700. The law is the law. Always advocate for yourself.
A Few Tips to Make Living in a Hotel Easier:
Keep your shoes near the door, so that you don’t track dirt in your room. Hang up your jackets instead of tossing them on the bed / floor. Unpack your clothes right away; use the drawers / closets. Designate an area for toys / backpacks / books. Making sure everything has a place will make cleaning up easier.
Let the maid come in 2x a week.
If you’re living in a hotel room full time, you could get comfortable in your own routines that you don’t want to interrupt. You also might not feel like having strangers touching your things. And of course, you’re quite capable of cleaning the room yourself. Still, it's very important that you let the maid come in, at least 2x a week. You & the kids should schedule to be out of the room during these times. This way you have help keeping the room up to hospitality standards during your long stay. When you leave, there will be less long-term dirt or damages that comes with the wear & tear of a family with kids in a small space. If you can afford it, leave tips.
You’ll need to buy a few things so that you can function in your hotel like a home. It’s true you’ll have to spend a little money (less than $30!) but the investment will save you money in the long run. However you’ll want to buy the cheapest version of the items below, so that in case you need to leave the hotel, downsize & go back into a shelter, your supplies are disposable / portable. Find yourself a Dollar Tree or a similar dollar store, & buy the following items:
A plastic plate & bowl for each person in your hotel room
A cheap fork / spoon / butter knife for each person in your hotel room
One long plastic or wooden serving / stirring spoon
One plastic or metal spatula
One plastic or metal chopping knife
A can opener
Salt / pepper / spices
One medium-sized sealable / microwaveable tupperware container & lid
One set of oven mitts
Bathroom / kitchen cleanser (powder or spray)
Big black garbage bags
Rags / sponges
Cook! (Invest in a Hot Pot / Instant Pot / Hot Plate).
Save money, maintain a sense of home & coziness, & keep your family healthy by cooking your own food in your hotel room (especially if you plan on staying long term). If you’re in a hotel that doesn’t have a kitchen, you’ll need to bring your own tools. Cooking appliances can run you between $60 - $100 - & they aren’t necessarily portable so you will have to store them in storage or at a friend’s place when you need to live in a shelter- but they will save you so much money in the long run. I remember when we lived at the Ramada Limited in South San Francisco for about four months. We ate mostly sandwiches, chips, fruit, cereal with milk, nachos, baked potatoes- anything I could make in the microwave. For dinner, we usually had fast food. The routine got old fast, plus it was super expensive. I could use EBT for groceries & a few household items (when you frequent neighborhood grocery stores, sometimes they let you slide on a few non-food items with EBT), but whenever we wanted a full hot meal, I had to spend cash money.
One day a gentleman who also lived in the hotel with his wife & two small children (he’d transferred to California for work & they were living at the hotel until they found a house) asked me what we’d eaten for dinner. I pointed to the Taco Bell bag in my hand. I asked him back, what did y’all have?- thinking he’d mention a different fast food. Alfredo with chicken & broccoli, he said. My mouth immediately watered. Where’d you get that? I asked, thinking he’d recommend a restaurant nearby. But he gestured his head up toward his room. My wife made it in the Hot Pot, he said. She cooks every day. We buy groceries, not fast food.
I was very intimidated by the idea, but at the same time, I really wanted to cook for my family. I missed real food & so did my kids. It took me a few months to work up the nerve but one day, I went to Target & bought an Instant Pot. That night, instead of buying Wendy’s for dinner, I bought ground turkey, pasta & red sauce & made a pot of spaghetti! After that, we ate tacos, chili, soup, grilled cheese, pancakes, french toast, eggs, potatoes, alfredo with broccoli, mustard greens, hot dogs- you name it! There are also hella Instant Pot / Hot Pot / Slow Cooker recipes online, if you need some ideas.
If a hot pot isn’t an option, make the microwave work! You can cook lots of dishes- especially steamed vegetables / potatoes / rice / oatmeal/ noodles- with a microwave. You won’t be able to help eating processed foods if you’re living in a hotel, but you must do what you can to supplement your diet with fresh fruits & vegetables whenever possible. Cook as much as you can.
A Few Grocery Shopping Tips:
Use the mom & pop grocery stores near your hotel as much as possible, especially if they take EBT. Put money into your neighborhood even if you’re only there for a little while. Let people see your face so they’ll look out for you. If you’re near Mexican grocery stores or bakeries, look for “bolillos,” a cheap, delicious bread that you can make sandwiches with, or simply top with cheese or butter for a snack.
Plan your meals & snacks two or three days at a time.
Create grocery lists based on exactly what you will eat. Don’t stock up with lots of groceries, since hotels don’t really have ideal options for long-term food storage.
Use ready made salads to stuff sandwiches.
You can stuff french bread, bolillos or any kind of hoagie bread with salad, for individual servings of sandwiches. This not only gives you greater variety (cobb salad = ham sandwich; chicken salad = chicken salad sub, etc.), but it also keeps you from having to buy produce for sandwiches that will be hard to keep fresh.
Use Instacart for grocery delivery.
Did you know that Instacart accepts EBT? If you don’t have a car, or gas money, and/or the options nearby your hotel are too limited / expensive, have your groceries delivered to your hotel room. Check the Instacart website / app to see which stores in your delivery area accept EBT. You’ll have to pay the delivery & service fees, but depending on what groceries cost & the variety available, you’ll still be saving money. Also- Walmart doesn’t accept EBT on Instacart but their prices are so cheap! If you’re at the end of your SNAP money & you need to get cheap groceries, definitely try Walmart!
Note: If you use Instacart, ignore the advice about only shopping every two to three days. Since the delivery fees add up, when you have to use Instacart, stock up as much as you can keep fresh.
A Few Housekeeping Tips:
Keep Your Shower Curtain Dry.
Hotel shower curtains often have a cloth liner that can gather mold & mildew over time. Even though its not your fault, it will be your responsibility in terms of getting your deposit back. Combat this issue by pulling the shower curtain out of the tub after each use, so that the excess water can run to the floor & the curtain can dry completely.
Never Use the Trash Cans Without a Trash Bag.
The trash cans in the room will fill up faster than the maid will come & dump them out. At some point you’ll have to dump your own trash. It can be tempting to begin putting trash directly in the plastic can without replacing the bag, but that will make the plastic can gross & disgusting over time. Again, you’ll be held responsible for this. Therefore, always place the bags in the trash. Use grocery bags- they’re free & disposable!
Never Put Food or Diapers In Hotel’s Room’s Trash Bins.
For food, diapers & other nasty items, use your own big black trash bags that you dump yourself. The room's trash cans will smell bad otherwise.
Use a “picnic blanket,” to eat on the beds.
Hotel living can get messy fast, especially when it comes to mealtimes. There’s likely not enough chairs or table space in the room for you to sit conventionally together, so you’ll have to eat on the bed. To keep food stains, crumbs & spills from messing up your beds, always spread a spare sheet or quilt or extra cover (not the cover you sleep under!) to sit on & eat over. Don’t spend a lot of money on this- you can get a cheap sheet from a thrift store.
Do Your Laundry Often.
For your mental health & the ease of day of day life, do your laundry often, at least once per week.
Don’t Let Things Accumulate:
After living in a hotel room for a while, it can be easy to begin to let things accumulate. Empty spaces are always begging to be filled. Try to keep your possessions trimmed to whatever you checked in the hotel with. If you get new clothes, toys, books, etc. give away or throw away what you no longer need. Remember, it's about quality, not quantity. You don’t need much, you just have to use & like what you do have. This is a good time to get a storage space if you don’t already have one.
Keep A Close Eye On Your Little Ones!
This is common sense stuff, but from one mom to another, you can’t be too careful. Keep a close eye on your kids, especially those six & under. Once I wasn’t paying close attention & my toddler followed his father out of the door without either of our knowledge. He took the elevator by himself to the lobby! It scared the crap out of me! Another time, my two year old went in the bathroom, closed the door, turned the little switch to lock the door & then didn’t know how to unlock it. We had to take the lock apart to get him out. They also loved to throw everything in the heat vents- crayons, tiny action figures, coins- you name it. It only takes a second to get in but forever to get out. My pre-teens broke the coffee maker because they kept using it to make ramen noodles. Finally, once my four year old opened a screenless window, & then sat in the frame. We were on the third floor. He didn’t fall but he could have, if didn’t notice & snatch him down. I was lucky in all of these instances, but things could have been worse. Learn from my mistakes & watch out for your babies.
Think about all the mothers coming behind you!
I just want to say again that it is not easy to be homeless with your kids. It can be very stressful living with them in a hotel room. I understand, trust me, I do. Even so, try your best not to yell; to be patient & quiet so as to not disturb others; to go to bed at a decent time so everyone can get a good night's rest; keep a schedule & routine for yourself & your kids so they’ll feel as stable & normal as possible. Homeless mothers need a lot of help, & even though it's not fair, people judge us to determine whether we’re worthy of their help & nice treatment, or not. Lots of times people aren’t even judging us directly, but trying to figure out whether we’re the same as someone else they might have thought poorly of or had a bad experience with. It's up to all of us to leave the best impression possible, so that when we move on from homelessness, the good experience others have had with us will be paid forward. We must plant good seeds for each other.