Homeless find a place to love in Wentzville motels

Associated Press Modified: November 29, 2009 at 8:27 pm •  Published: November 29, 2009


By Jessica Bock

St. Louis Post-Dispatch


Nov. 29--WENTZVILLE -- The power to the lights and TV blinked off and on, probably a warning from the front desk that it was time to go.

The motel room, cramped with toys and boxes of items from the food pantry, was stuffy -- the air conditioner barely churning out cool air. The counter next to the sink was filled with clean sippy cups and other dishes. Underneath, a stack of dirty clothes awaited a day when Joe and Cherri Trantham would have enough money to go to a laundromat.

It's a typical sight these days at two Wentzville motels that have become home to the homeless. Because of a shortage of shelters in the county, charities and churches pay for homeless people to stay in motels until they can find work or other housing. But the groups can't support all those who need help.

In her room at the Budget Inn earlier this month, Cherri Trantham crumpled the torn-out yellow phonebook pages and threw them on the bed. All of the area churches she called turned down her pleas for help. Her babies were fussy and crying. Drew, 2, had a bad cough. If they couldn't come up with $80, her family would be out of the Wentzville motel and on the street that night.

''My family is very desperate right now," Trantham said into the phone. "I'm at my wits' end."

She listened for a moment before murmuring a thank you and ending the call. "They said 'No funds,'" Trantham told her husband, Joe, who was reading her numbers while Mary, 10 months old, stood in the crib behind him.

The motel owners had let them stay last night, but they were already two hours past check-out time and not any closer to coming up with the money to keep a roof over their heads.

They had been here before, about to lose the only place they call home.


The intersection of Interstate 70 and Highway 40, dubbed the "crossroads of the nation" by Wentzville officials, is also where suburbia meets a national problem. To some, the Budget Inn and Economy Inn are a place to grab a no-frills $36 room on a road trip. But for those with no place left to turn, these two motels have become a hub.

For several years, they have housed St. Charles County's chronically struggling, homeless and fragile families. The recession exacerbated the homelessness problem in a county where just one small shelter exists for families and single parents. And donations to organizations that help are dwindling.

A one-day count earlier this year found 98 homeless people staying in hotels in St. Charles, Lincoln and Warren counties -- but Dottie Kastigar of the Community Council of St. Charles County suspects the number is much higher.

''I don't think we've hit the worst of it," she said. "I think it's going to be a really bad winter. Those (motels) are basically our homeless shelters in our community."

In otherwise affluent St. Charles County, the median household income is estimated at more than $70,000. Near the motels, newly built subdivisions have made Wentzville one of the fastest growing cities in the nation.

''You just don't think of St. Charles County when you think of homeless," said Patty Strunk, who began bringing hot meals to families at the motels about a year ago with co-workers and friends. "People don't realize there is that much of a need."

In St. Charles, Lincoln and Warren counties, the Salvation Army in O'Fallon, Mo., is the only shelter available to families and single parents and their children. It has just seven rooms, most of which have four beds, and frequently must turn families away.


The parking lot at the Budget Inn has some older-model, beat-up cars belonging to the homeless, and a few newer models, usually belonging to travelers on I-70 stopping over for the night.

Those passing through might not realize that the motel houses the homeless unless they see the bulletin board in the lobby with a schedule of "Motel Meals for the Homeless" that volunteers bring a few times a month. They could also catch sight of a school bus stopping in the morning to pick up students. Or they might smell microwaved food (usually pasta, a food pantry staple) wafting through the hallways.

The Tranthams had checked into the Budget Inn about three months earlier. After Joe, 26, lost his job at McDonald's in Wright City, they were forced to move out of the mobile home they were renting.

They lived in another motel for a little while, then at Joe's mother's house, before someone connected them to Paul Kruse. His organization, First Step Back Home, pays for homeless people in the St. Charles County area to stay in motels until they can find work or other housing.

The Tranthams' room, with a double bed, holds all of the belongings they can fit. Two wooden cribs are pushed up against one wall for the children, Drew and Mary.

''When you go on vacation and stay in a motel, you know it's like, 'Ahhh, relaxation,'" Cherri Trantham, 32, said. "But when you live in a motel, you're like, 'When is this vacation gonna end?'"

The Tranthams got married in a courthouse wedding last month, partly so they would be eligible to stay at the Salvation Army family shelter in O'Fallon. But the shelter was full.

In October, Joe Trantham was looking for a job at a fast-food restaurant but hadn't found one. The minutes Kruse paid for on a cell phone for Joe as he applied for jobs ran out. At that point, so did Kruse's help.

Kruse, who established First Step Back Home about four years ago, has helped about 250 people so far this year get shelter in motels. He says he gets twice as many calls these days as he did before the foreclosure crisis. He averages 10 to 40 calls a day for help in getting shelter, gas or food.