Executive Inn families find new life in Rock Hill after eviction

Tassie Serrano never thought she would end up living in a place like the Executive Inn.

“No one ever wants to bring their family here,” she said on Wednesday as she sat in the hotel’s hazy lobby, heavy with the odor of stale cigarette smoke and age.

Serrano and dozens of other residents were waiting their turn to talk to Iris Hubbard, the executive director of Renew Our Community Central. After a meeting with Hubbard, the residents would be sent on to talk to other community agencies like the Salvation Army, Pilgrims’ Inn, the city of Rock Hill and, if they had children, the Rock Hill School District.

All of the residents were being offered assistance, a way out of the homelessness that they say felt inevitable nearly a week ago when orange condemnation notices were posted on every window at the inn.

But while some in Rock Hill may have seen the Executive Inn as a community challenge, Serrano and her family, including her mother, high-school-aged sister and newborn son, saw it as their home, because it was all they could afford.

“There’s a big misconception about this place,” said Lora Holliday, a member of the local Salvation Army’s executive board.

Earlier in the week when she was visiting with residents and trying to identify what services they might need, Holliday saw a school bus drop off a handful of elementary students and was shocked. She, like many, had no idea how many families with children were living full-time at the Executive Inn.

It was then, she said, she realized the hotel was no different than any other community or neighborhood in Rock Hill.

“Our perception of this is a hotel, but these people live here,” Holliday said. “These are working families.”

The majority of families at the Executive Inn have a steady income, said Bruce McKagan, executive director of ROC Works and one of the leaders in getting the Executive Inn families assistance.

But he said they’re trapped in a vicious cycle where they can never come out ahead with money to move to a better place.

“These are people that are just stuck,” McKagan said.

Some families, he said, were unable to save anything for utility deposits or first and last month’s rent, a requirement at many apartment complexes or privately-rented homes.

That’s what happened to Serrano, who said she had always worked until she had to go on bed rest halfway through her pregnancy. When they found out the Executive Inn was condemned and they had to leave, Serrano’s family met a woman who wanted to help them find their way.

“She said, ‘Y’all have to get that baby out of there,’ ” Serrano said. The woman is giving them a discount on their rent until they can make the payments, and the city assisted them with their utility deposit.

But as bad as the living conditions at the Executive Inn were – residents say there was no running water for the last few weeks and city documents allege mold, a cockroach infestation and numerous other safety and sanitary violations – Serrano’s mother, Jackie Carter, said they will miss it.

Nobody went hungry as long as Carter, who many residents called “Mama Jackie” or “Aunt Jackie,” was around, she said.

“We had cookouts together; we had Thanksgiving together,” Carter said. “We stuck together.”

As the Executive Inn families faced uncertainty over their living situations, another big player in the community stepped up to try to make the transition as smooth as possible for the 20 children affected – the Rock Hill School District.

Having this many children displaced at one time is unusual, said Serena Williams, coordinator of community services for the district. But each year, about 300 children districtwide face homelessness or home disruption.

“When families become homeless, they have an educational right to stay within their school of origin,” Williams said on Wednesday at the Inn, where she and a few other district representatives were there to talk to families about their options.

The “schools of origin” for most of the Executive Inn children are the Central Child Development Center, Northside Elementary School, Sullivan Middle School and Rock Hill High School.

Despite everything going on, Executive Inn resident Blair Perdue said it was very important to her to keep her two children, Ostyn, 6, and Airikah, 8, at Northside.

“Northside’s a good school,” Perdue said. “I want them to stay on track.”

The staff at Northside has been extremely supportive of agencies helping the inn’s residents since the school found out about the condemnation and eviction, she said. The school has called several times to check in with Perdue to make sure she and the children were all right and were working with agencies to find solutions.

Home and school are the two most important places in a child’s life, Williams said, which is why in a moment like this, maintaining a child’s school life is “critically important.” If a child moves out of his or her home school’s attendance zone, Williams said the transportation department will try to provide bus services to that child.

The school district can also provide families in need with food assistance through the Back the Pack program, and it has plenty of community partners to call on if the district cannot meet a family’s needs.

On Friday, the Executive Inn families packed up and moved on to places across Rock Hill. Of the 38 families who were at the inn in the days after it was condemned, eight found their own housing. Six didn’t seek any help, and the remaining 24 were assisted by community agencies and shelters that came to their aid.

By Thursday, more than $7,000 had been raised to provide assistance for these families, which Jenny Overman, spokeswoman for Renew Our Community, called a “real testament to our community’s heart and character.”

It is the hope of Overman, Holliday, McKagan and others who assisted these families that through additional support, the Executive Inn families would be able to stand on their own soon enough and keep their families out of the cycle that kept them stuck at the Inn.

That’s something Perdue, Serrano and many of the other families want, too.

“Bad things happen to good people all the time,” Serrano said. “This isn’t what we want our lives to be like.”