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Credit card name may not be reason Seattle homeless turned away from motels

Jason Rantz has taken issue with an assertion that a homeless person was turned away from a motel room that been pre-paid for because the credit card it was paid for with said "Facing Homelessness" on it. (AP Photo/File)

Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat’s latest column takes issue with motels over their treatment of the homeless.

He tells the story of a homeless activist Rex Hohlbein who has raised money, in part, to place homeless people in motels or hotels for the night. In a recent case, he was working with a 60-year-old homeless woman named Gloria. But when Hohlbein tried to book her into a local motel, the desk clerk refused to accept his payment because they have a policy that says they won’t rent out to people who aren’t the ones who will occupy the room.

Westneat implies it had more to do with the credit card that Rex was paying with, it apparently said “Facing Homelessness” on it.

He writes, “That probably would have been the end of it. Except they then went to two more motels, which refused her on the same grounds — that Rex was trying to pay with his ‘Facing Homelessness’ credit card.”

Of course, Westneat assumes the motels knew Gloria is homeless because the credit card said “Facing Homelessness.”

Though I’m inclined to believe that a hotel or motel wouldn’t want a homeless person taking up a room, even if they prepay, this is the reason he gives:

There is a law in Seattle requiring ID when you register for a room (which Gloria has), but nothing barring payment by a third party. Businesses do it all the time for their employees. And hotel reservation services encourage it: “Booking on behalf of someone else is just as easy as booking for yourself,” reads the hotels.com website. But that’s for the nonpoor society, apparently.

It’s a pretty weak argument – a giant leap in logic.

Hotels.com’s policy may only be relevant to hotels signed up with their service. It could mean it’s easy to use your boss’ credit card to book her for a hotel room and then she’ll be all set. And I’m not sure of any motels on that system.

Westneat won’t allow any of us to fact check all of this, because he doesn’t list the name of the motel, because Rex won’t tell him. It’s a huge problem, because it appears Westneat based a column on a story he didn’t fact check.

But let’s go to the crux of his issue: Westneat quotes Sharon Lee, director of Seattle’s Low Income Housing Institute. He writes that Lee has booked and paid for rooms on Orbitz and Expedia for homeless families, and still heard of them being turned away at the motel door.

“I think it’s discriminatory,” Lee says. “They say it’s because of this policy or that. But it would never happen to you or me.”

First of all, that’s not discriminatory any more than it’s discriminatory to not allow a non-paying customer to use a bathroom at a store; or allow someone to buy a car who can’t afford the down payment. It’s an understandable business decision, particularly for motels which, to Westneat’s credit, can be in high crime areas where they need strict polices to deal with prostitution or drug deals.

Even if crime isn’t a problem in the area of the motel, why would you want someone homeless in your establishment if you have a reasonable risk of turning off potential customers? A motel filled with homeless people can pose that risk.

Since Westneat doesn’t take issue with hotels in the article, just motels, I’m led to believe he understands hotel policy on not allowing homeless people to stay there.

I guess one can be high-minded about how we shouldn’t poo-poo homeless sleeping in motels or hotels but the fact is, you don’t know who these people are. There’s a huge mental health problem in the homeless community. And yeah, paying with cash is meaningless if they do damage to the room. Don’t forget, some of these motels are simply small business owners. They are family-operated businesses, and in these cases, they’re being asked to go out on a financial limb for someone who is homeless, for a reason they can’t vet?

Would I, personally allow a homeless person in my establishment? Maybe, on a case-by-case basis. There would need to be a non-homeless person like this Rex paying on a credit card and I’d need to meet them. I think that would do good. I think it’s the moral thing to do. I would feel better about myself and I’d be helping the community. But I’m not going to pass judgement on a business owner who chooses not to: It’s absolutely their right. If they’re uncomfortable with it – they get to be.

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