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Come right in, experience motel living

Not everyone in Newport Beach lives in luxury.

A temporary art installation at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in the city shows how far from it some people live, crammed inside small motel rooms throughout Orange County.

The exhibit, which ends Thursday, replicates a 214-square-foot motel room as if it were occupied long-term.

Visitors begin at a welcome mat printed with phrasing that proves far from welcoming.

"This motel is prohibited by local law," it begins, "from renting or otherwise providing any room to any persons for thirty (30) or more days."

Brushing off one's feet and walking through the open teal door, the viewer immediately faces cramped conditions. To the right, in the corner on the floor, is a mattress where several kids might sleep. It is just one or two feet away from the bed, presumably reserved for the parents.

No walls divide the space. If a boy cries or a father snores, one imagines, all must learn to bare it.

"You get no privacy," reads phrasing printed on the bathroom wallpaper.

Such sentences embellish other fixtures in the room, and voice recordings of homeless children play on the exhibit speakers.

Both techniques add to an overwhelming sense of how difficult it would be to survive — much less succeed — in such an environment. Students don't have a place to study, and parents have little space to cook and rest.

"You know how the economy is going down?" The words are written on a pillow propped against the wall.

"We're not feeling it because we're already there," says another message.

Nonetheless, a family could find a creative way to use the space. Plastic bins of clothes have been stacked in the corner, one per family member. Cans of food are likewise stacked one on top of another along a counter, green beans by chicken broth by beef ravioli.

Efforts to make the room — however temporary — feel like a home could also be found. Childrens' sports trophies line the dresser. A school project showing a diagram of the solar system hangs from a wall.

"You never know what a child is facing," said Jennifer Friend, the executive director of Project Hope Alliance, which serves to help students living in such environments by supporting their educations. "We're trying to get across the fact that children who are homeless face a myriad of obstacles in their daily life."

Friend, who helped to launch and execute the exhibit, lived in motels in Orange County with her family off and on throughout junior high and high school, she said.

Only within the past two years did she begin to speak publicly about this part of her past. She said she is learning to feel comfortably vulnerable.

Friend finds strength in thinking of her personal message as one larger than she. A Christian, Friend believes God uses it to help improve the lives of children living as she once did.

"My story isn't really about me," she said. "I was just the person telling it."

Two of Friend's brothers donated the funding to build the movie set-like room. Luke and Christine Hegel-Cantarella, of UC Irvine, brought the idea to life.

The exhibit, which usually can be seen at the Second Harvest Foodbank in Irvine, will be open from 9 a.m. through 8 p.m. Thursday at the church. Those interested in viewing it should call Lexi Larson at (949) 574-2246.

By The Numbers

Nationwide, 87% of homeless youths are enrolled in school; 77% attend regularly.

Homeless children are 9 times more likely to repeat a grade than their peers who live in houses. They are 4 times more likely to drop out of school.

In Orange County, 1 out of 6 children lives in poverty.

Source: Project Hope Alliance

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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