'The Florida Project' portrays the underbelly of Kissimmee’s famous tourist strip

We talk to some of the real people living the low-rent motel life

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'The Florida Project' portrays the underbelly of Kissimmee’s famous tourist strip

Imagine you are 6. You're old enough to know you're poor but too young to understand what your mom does to pay for your $38-a-night home at the Magic Castle motel. You don't know when or what you'll eat next – it could be a waffle with extra maple syrup, a slice of plain pizza (pepperoni costs money) or a loaf of bread out of a charity van. You flip the bird at tourists who swarm Kissimmee's garish strip of dilapidated attractions along Highway 192, and you know more about the chaos of adulthood than you should. Still, between the poverty and the uncertainty, there are simple moments of wonder. Every night around 9 p.m. outside your window, glittering bursts of color explode and melt into the stars. The Disney fireworks aren't meant for you ­– they're for the people who paid hundreds of dollars to goggle at them with a giant turkey drumstick in hand. The joy you gain from gazing at fireworks miles away is borrowed, just like everything else on 192 – from the kitschy Orange World and discounted souvenir stores to the budget hotels meant for bargain vacations that actually house hundreds of low-income families. This borrowed place isn't intended for childhood, but 6-year-old Moonee, protagonist of The Florida Project, doesn't know that and is probably too busy getting into spitting contests to care.

The Florida Project, directed by independent filmmaker Sean Baker, follows the antics of Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), an unruly, teal-haired ex-stripper who struggles to scramble together enough cash for rent each week at the Magic Castle. Bobby (Willem Dafoe) is the goodhearted but overwhelmed manager who watches out for the kids and even some of the adults in this misleadingly named purple motel, often confused by foreigners for the actual Magic Kingdom. While the adults seem to exist in clouds of forlorn cigarette smoke, cute Moonee and her motel-living cohorts, Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), beg spare change off tourists, drop dead fish in the motel pool and prowl through abandoned condo developments. Most Central Floridians would recognize Moonee's milieu: Orange World, the wizard souvenir shop, the Twistee Treat cone and the omnipresent little plush Orange Bird toys. To survive, Halley and Moonee sell wholesale perfumes to tourists at fancier hotels – until that doesn't work, forcing Halley to turn to other schemes. Suddenly, the film that moved idly through golden puffy sunsets and endless rainbows takes a turn to a darker reality.

click to enlarge Halley, Moonee and Jancey hitch a ride (The Florida Project)
Halley, Moonee and Jancey hitch a ride (The Florida Project)

The Florida Project doesn't exist in a vacuum – for Dawn Spencer, an extra in the movie, it's a bitter truth she lives every day.

Spencer and her 9-year-old twins have made their home in the Palm Motel off 192, just six minutes away from where the film was made. She and her daughter got paid to appear in a scene at the Community Hope Center, a place on 192 she actually frequents for help. The family has lived in motels for more than three years now. Even though she makes money working a full-time job at a department store, it's hard for Spencer to apply for apartments because of previous evictions on her record. Saving up for a security deposit and first month's rent when she's paying more than $800 a month for a motel room also hampers any chance Spencer and her children have of finding a stable dwelling. In the quintessential American vacation destination, mere miles away from the "happiest place on Earth," it's jarring to know that families like Spencer's can be trapped in cycles of poverty for years and even generations, according to homeless advocates.

"I wish I could say that you're not always stuck, that there's a way out – I haven't found one yet," Spencer says. "I'm the most optimistic person, I always look at the bright side, but it's been really hard – it sucks. I hope the people who see this movie know that they're not alone. There's a community here. You will get help if you keep fighting for it."

Sean Baker was not the first person to walk into the Community Hope Center looking to tell the story of motel families.

The Rev. Mary Lee Downey, founder and executive director of the organization, says in the five years they've been open, documentary filmmakers and others have sat inside the small conference room decorated with a dove mural to ask her about the homeless problem in the heart of Central Florida's tourism district. Some never made it past the financing stage, while Downey felt others sensationalized the problem. So when Baker and producer Chris Bergoch stopped by three years ago, Downey had no idea what would come of their meeting.

The eventual result was The Florida Project, Baker's first Cannes selection and his first film since his groundbreaking 2015 iPhone-shot film, Tangerine. The Community Hope Center hosted casting calls for the movie and is featured in The Florida Project, as well as Downey's staff and some of her clients, like Dawn Spencer.

"They were adamant about wanting to give opportunity for employment," she says. "They were truly invested in this community and wanted to tell a story that was compelling. There's probably people who think this shouldn't have been made because we don't want tourists from Iowa knowing we have homeless people. But I think this is an opportunity for us to face what's been in front of us for a very long time and have an honest discussion about it. Let's do something to help the homeless people instead of trying to hide them."

click to enlarge Christopher Rivera, Brooklynn Prince and Valeria Cotto star in - 'The Florida Project'
Christopher Rivera, Brooklynn Prince and Valeria Cotto star in 'The Florida Project'

The Hope Center is located smack dab in the middle of the 192 corridor, between hotels and attractions. It was created as a one-stop shop for motel families and the chronically homeless to get services, health care and access to supplies. In Osceola County, about 5,000 children are considered homeless by the county, which includes families living with relatives, staying in motels, or finding places to sleep in shelters, cars or the woods, says Angie Etman, program director for the center. Downey says since the Hope Center has been open, they've seen 19,000 people facing homelessness and given out 15,000 monthly bags filled with food and hygiene products. The organization has helped 600 people gain some form of employment and found housing for about 300 families.

Osceola County has a shortage of affordable housing, which, compounded with low wages throughout Central Florida, has led to thousands of families living in motels and hotels across 192. A 2014 version of United Way's ALICE Report (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) shows that the gap in affordable housing rental stock for Orange, Osceola and Seminole Counties is 95,618 units. Osceola County does not have an emergency homeless shelter for men.

"We have an affordable housing crisis here in Osceola County and Central Florida," Downey says. "The reason why we have so many families in the motels and hotels is because first, there's not enough affordable housing. Second, when affordable housing becomes available, there are large barriers put in place so that people who are in the motels are not able to obtain that housing – they may have double evictions or very poor credit. So even though they may be paying $900 to $1,300 a month at a motel, they're not able to [get housing] because of their poor history."

Downey says she's started to see generational poverty among motel families.

click to enlarge The Magic Castle - Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
The Magic Castle

"I have seen families that we provided services to over the last 11 years come back and their children come back with children," she says. "I call it an epidemic, a catastrophe for our community because we should not be seeing generational poverty of children growing up in a hotel and seeing no other options for them but also being in a hotel."

Debbie Buxton, who co-owns with her husband the purple Magic Castle, where The Florida Project was made, says the motel has been purple since they bought it 12 years ago, though they gave it a fresh coat before filming. Homelessness is the No. 1 issue on 192, Buxton says.

"We don't do extended-stay type things," she says. "We tend to stick with tourists and families that just moved here and are staying for a week or two and they're trying to find a place to live. The county really wants 192 to come back to what it was 30 years ago, but nobody has a solution to how to get these families out of hotel rooms. Filming it here was very exciting and maybe it opens up some people's eyes to what's happening."

Orlando Weekly reached out to Osceola County staff but did not get a response by press time.

Down the street from the Magic Castle, Kenny Gautney, 72, was hanging out with his shopping cart in the shade of the Visitors Flea Market, near Machine Gun America. He used to stay at the Magic Castle for a week at a time back when he had money, but he hasn't been there in a long time because he says he's "broke as a joke." Gautney can't stay in the woods anymore, so he's taken to sleeping in a secret spot he won't disclose.

"I've been here in Kissimmee on and off for about 10 years," he says. "I used to hitchhike, but I'm getting so old, I can't go anymore. I go in and out of Celebration hospital, then they kick me out the doors and I'm right back where I started from."

click to enlarge Juanita and Jaymaris Roman, two generations of motel life
Juanita and Jaymaris Roman, two generations of motel life

Last week, he was trying to get to Melbourne because it's hard to be visibly homeless so close to tourists and Disney on 192.

"You got people around here that frown and look down their noses at homeless people," he says. "They don't give a rat's ass about the homeless. Sure ain't no shelter, as far as I know of. They don't give a flying damn about you out here."

The common area of the Great Value Suites is still dominated by giant puddles two weeks after Hurricane Irma. There's white tape in the shape of an "X" over windows, and FEMA evacuees whose homes have been destroyed now live among the motel families. It's quiet here until Gus Martinez comes walking through.

"Is anybody hungry? We have food," he yells as he sidesteps the standing water.

Martinez and volunteers with his organization, Miles of Help Through Christ, have spent their afternoon in his small kitchen cooking a chicken and vegetable rice dinner and packing doughnuts into plastic baggies. Every two weeks for years now, they've delivered meals, bread and bottled water to people who live at the motel off Orange Blossom Trail.

As kids scamper down the stairs, each looking to collect enough food for all the people in their room, Juanita Roman leans on a wall and smokes a cigarette. The 23-year-old has been living in motels up and down Highway 192 in Osceola County since she was 15.

click to enlarge Kenny Gautney - Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
Kenny Gautney

"My mom made a mistake," she says. "She chose a man over me and kicked me out. I lived on the streets for about a week nonstop everywhere, and I finally stayed with a couple of older men in a hotel room. I experienced a lot that I shouldn't have at the age of 15."

To support herself, she started working at Winn-Dixie as a bagger. At 17, she gave birth to her daughter, Jaymaris. Roman says she's not ashamed to admit she shoplifted diapers and bottles from Walmart for her baby and paid the store a fine when she got caught. She can rattle off a list of Kissimmee motels where she's stayed – the Amber Inn & Suites, the Rodeway Inn, Knights Inn – and from which she has been evicted, sometimes for drug use, fights or because motel owners don't want families like hers to establish residency.

"We've slept on the street from time to time. We've slept at bus stops," she says. "It's been hectic, jumping from different hotels because certain hotels don't allow you to stay more than two weeks. It's hard, especially if you want to save money and get an apartment, because weekly you're paying $280 or $380."

Roman says sometimes, hotel owners will give you less than 30 minutes to pack up all your things and leave the property. If you don't have a car, that means leaving behind televisions, game systems and other possessions. Roman and her daughter, who is now 5, currently live out of three suitcases and two bags in the $280-a-week room she pays for at Great Value Suites.

"It's a place for now, but you never know because someone could be knocking on your door and saying 'You've got to go,' because you didn't follow one rule or you know, you didn't pay rent on time," she says. "They will boot you out and don't even care if you have a kid. They'll have you sit right there on the corner with all your stuff and everything. Some of them will give you about an hour to get a ride, but the majority of the time, you have to leave right there and then – they don't give a shit. Some of them will be assholes and literally lock your room so you can't get your stuff until you pay."

After getting kicked out, the first thought in Roman's head is usually, I fucked up. The next thought is how to make money for a room that night for her and Jaymaris.

"It gives me a whole night to figure out what we want to do and gives her a whole night to sleep," she says. "I cry to her and I apologize. 'I'm sorry. Mommy's trying her best.'"

To get away from the drug scene in Kissimmee, Roman moved to Orlando three years ago and finished her college degree. She works as a security guard for $8.50 per hour, which leaves her little cash to save. Roman and her neighbor Elvia Berrios, who is raising two boys on a housekeeping-supervisor hourly wage of $8.50, smoke cigarettes outside often when they're stressed about stretching their earnings into rent, food and car payments. Curfews and rules are strict here, but at least there is a sense of community among the parents.

"Some people that have the luxury to have a home really don't know how hard it is to live in a motel," Roman says. "They think nothing of it until they live it. And it's hard to get help. Like I want to be placed on Section 8, but I couldn't because according to them, I make too much. They just end up referring you to an agency, which refers you to another agency. Now that I see you're giving me the runaround, I'll just do it myself."

Like the children portrayed in The Florida Project, Jaymaris is a sweet kid with bright eyes who likes to explore the motel. Roman says her daughter doesn't beg for much, but when she has extra change, she'll go to the dollar store and buy a bag of toys. Jaymaris has lived in motel rooms all her life and been privy to overdoses and violence – and Roman doesn't want that life for her.

"Even though she was born into a motel, I want her to know that she can do anything," she says. "I'm taking her out of this. I want to make sure I get a house for my daughter where she can be able to come home and be OK. I don't want my daughter following my footsteps at all."

Roman holds her daughter close and smiles. Jaymaris has told her mother she wants to be a dentist when she grows up.

"It's funny – someone asked me recently, 'How are you so positive?'" she says. "And I told them it's because every morning I wake up, the first person I see is my little girl. And when you see somebody that you adore so much, that you love with everything in you, and you want nothing but the best for them, you have to hold on to that hope – because if you lose it, then nothing is going to come. Nothing."

"The Florida Project" opens at Enzian Theater on Thursday, Oct. 12.

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