It’s nearly impossible to say how many homeless people there are in New Hampshire. And the biggest reason is that most people without a home in this state aren’t on the street or in shelters—they actually have a roof over their heads.
Some stay on friends' or families' couches; some rent rooms by the week at a place like the PK Motel in Effingham.
A woman named Ami lets us into her room up on the second floor of the PK Motel. Her long brown hair is pinned up high. She holds an unlit cigarette in her hand. "Like I said I don’t have sitting room. You can sit on the edge of the bed."
Ami, who asked us not to use her last name, has packed her whole life into this room: plastic bins of clothes, boxes of canned food she gets from the food pantry and heats up in her microwave.
The object that she says is most important to her: a photo of her holding her daughter in the hospital just after she was born. "I’ve never been without that picture. That picture’s always been beside my bed," she says.
Ami says her life really fell apart after her partner assaulted her so badly that in order to heal, she had to have metal rods and screws put in to hold her spine together.
"Sleeping is very difficult. I have days where I can get up and I can move around pretty good and it’s an OK day. And I have days where I can’t. So since I don’t know what days are gonna be good, how do you really hold down any kind of job?"
Because of her injury, Ami collects social security each month. Nearly all of that, $550 a month, goes to paying for this room.
"It’s not that it’s an awful place to be, but it’s not where I want to be," she says.
The PK Motel rises up over a big, dusty parking lot, part way down a rural road in Effingham, close to the Maine Border and wedged between the lakes and the White Mountains.
The place looks more like a warehouse than a motel.
It's not a place families stop on vacation. It's where local town welfare offices send people when they're out of options. And behind each of these doors are stories of people stranded by poverty - stories about addiction, violence, rural isolation, bad luck, and bad choices.
Ovi Charast lives two doors down from Ami. He's 31, and says he’s stuck because he can’t get a job. "Jobs around here are tough," he says. "The rates aren’t that good. They’re awful."
And he says even if he had a job, he couldn’t get to it because - like a lot of folks at this motel - he doesn’t have a car. We meet him just as he's about to walk to the nearest grocery store--it's three-hours, round trip--with his friend Francesca Wright. She says when most jobs are low-wage and part-time, it’s hard to get a leg up and out of a place like this.
"I work at McDonalds. I’m 30 years old. I’ve got 15, 16 years experience, and they were paying me $7.75 an hour."
Over on the other side of the building, Stephanie Agiton stands outside her room. She has a car and a job. But on the day we meet her she tells us she can’t get to work because she didn’t have money for gas.
"I don’t like living here but I do it because, at least it’s a roof over our head."
She lives here with her fiance and two babies. She’s 20 years old. "I mean I have food stamps but it doesn’t last the whole month," she says, "because I have to buy formula – my son, my youngest one’s three months and my oldest is a year and half."
Her boys are the third generation in her family to have lived out of motels, homeless. Like other folks we talk to, she wants to find an apartment, but can’t scrape together first month’s rent and a security deposit, which around here adds up to about $2,000.
A lot of people got here because they were running away from something. Agiton’s fiance says he became homeless as a teenager. He ran away from home after his father put a gun to his head.
Sitting on the stone step outside her room, Vicky Leathers says this motel is a refuge for her and her husband. Next to her is a bed of flowers they put in as soon as they arrived. The flowers are plastic but she says next year they’ll plant real ones. The Leathers moved here from Maine a couple months ago. They’re vague about why they left, but Vicky says there were surrounded by drugs and drug addicts.
"It’s time that my husband and I had a life of our own, because we’ve always been raising our grandkids. And between us we have 22."
Mark Leathers roll up on his electric wheelchair he got from the VA. He wears camouflage pajama pants and in his lap there’s a tiny red dog sprawled out on its back. It’s a miniature Pomeranian, Mark’s service dog. "He likes to be held like a baby," he says.
Back up in Ami’s room, she says she’s been homeless for months. But before the PK Motel, it was worse. "For a couple nights, I have to laugh about this, I actually slept in a laundromat for a couple nights because it was warm," she says.
Ami says she’s been on the waitlist for subsidized housing for eight years. In the meantime, she lived in substandard apartments - one place had no heat. After ending up at the laundromat, she met a social worker who told her about the PK Motel. Ami lives here on her own. Her daughter is 19-years-old and in Philadelphia. And Ami says of all the times in her life to be stuck in this motel, she says at least it wasn’t when her daughter was still little and living with her.
"But then they say all things happen for a reason," she says, as she starts to cry. "Because I could not imagine being a mother and being in this situation. To have children and be in this situation? That is what would horrify me. That’s what would scare me. That’s petrifying to me and thank God I was never there when I had my child with me."
Most of the time, though, Ami says she’s working on an exit plan--on the phone with insurance, family court, the housing authority. She says she actually has a deadline for herself to get out of here.
"This January coming up I’ll be 50. Wow…it happens fast. And I hope not to be homeless, or staying at the PK, at 50. I’m gonna keep my fingers crossed."
That’s one thing a lot of people who live in these rooms have in common--they're thinking about leaving, they just don’t know where they’re going yet.