'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

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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.

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