Hard Times On Pacific Highway South -- Motels A `Last Refuge' For Those Without Rent Deposits

In the year Rebecca Moody has managed the Ridge Crest Motel in Federal Way, a man has barricaded himself in a room, a drunken driver has smashed into the building, and her husband has been chased by a guest with a hatchet.

One couple who were staying there claimed to be millionaires, yet bounced a number of checks. And U.S. marshals have come looking for fugitives.

Despite these experiences, Moody said most people who stay at the eight-unit motel, in a shady spot just off Pacific Highway South, are good people who have just fallen on hard times.

The motels of Pacific Highway South, distinguished by their flickering neon lights and advertised weekly rates, originally provided a night's stay for travelers on the main West Coast highway, before Interstate 5 was built in the 1960s.

The motor inns - including seven in Federal Way - are scattered along the entire Seattle-area stretch of Highway 99 (some parts of which are also known as International Boulevard and Aurora Avenue North).

As they fell into disrepair and the surrounding areas became more urban, some of the motels became known as convenient hideouts for drug dealers, prostitutes and car thieves.

Today, they mostly provide temporary shelter for poor families - some working, some unemployed.

Of the circa-1950 Ridge Crest, Moody said, "Our customers are basically homeless people - mostly families who can't get the first and last months' rent plus a deposit together."

The New Horizon Motel is usually at least 80 percent full. Most of the customers are homeless people referred by social-service agencies in Seattle, said manager Randy Ericson.

Offering rooms for as little as $25 a night, the highway motels have little in common with the tonier accommodations now under construction in Federal Way to cater to airport travelers or business executives.

Of three Ridge Crest guests interviewed recently, all were staying for several months because bad credit prevented them from renting a house or apartment.

"If you have a few credit problems, our society makes it so you can't afford to live indoors anymore," Moody said.

`It's comfortable as a home for now'

Janet and Dennis Foshay and their 13-year-old son landed at the Ridge Crest four months ago when Dennis Foshay lost his job and it got too crowded at his wife's parents' house. Janet Foshay spends the majority of her disability check on the $610 monthly rent, but she's glad not to have to worry about utility bills. The crowded, one-bedroom unit has become their home as they try to scrape together enough money for a deposit on a three-bedroom mobile home in Hoquiam, Grays Harbor County.

"Everything I own is here. It's comfortable as a home for now. I know everybody here," Janet Foshay said.

On a recent afternoon at the New Horizon Motel, a homeless family sat next to the bus stop after spending three nights in the motel. They had no idea where they would sleep that night.

Neither Cynthia McCarthy nor Duane Lyons had a job, and they and their two children had been living in their car until it was impounded.

"This was a last resort," Lyons said.

Ironically, the region's strong economy is creating more homeless people, said Dini Duclos, executive director of the South King County Multi-Service Center, which occasionally pays for a night or two at the motels until a family can find more stable housing.

"We're finding that more and more people are working who can't afford housing," Duclos said. "Landlords can ask for the higher rents and it's pushing people out."

Fewer problems reported

While the motels are still considered trouble spots for Federal Way police, they have improved in the past year since the city instituted a new trespassing ordinance, said Brett Hatfield, a public-information officer.

Motel managers say they are diligent about screening customers and loiterers. Ericson said keeping the motel free of drug dealing requires constant vigilance.

The highway-motel clientele wasn't always so down and out, said John Karl, who owned and managed the Siesta Motel for 26 years with his wife, Dolly. They retired a year ago to Winlock, Lewis County, after selling the motel, which he believes was built in the 1930s. Over the years, Karl said, the motel catered to what appeared to be illicit love affairs, budget-minded travelers and truckers.

"We met a lot of nice people and a lot of people who I'd never want to run into again. It was a whole cross-section of society," he said.

Karl would turn away people who he suspected were involved in prostitution or other nefarious activity. This instinct resulted in an impressive record of no holdups or other violence for nearly three decades.

But looking back on it now, he wonders if a few fugitives didn't quietly pass through his doors.

He tells of one day in the 1970s when two young women arrived in a Volkswagen van and stayed in a room with the blinds closed for three days.

"I always wonder if that wasn't Patty Hearst staying there," he said.

Christy True's phone message number is 253-946-3981.