Like the Hollywood sign in miniature, the faded block letters proclaiming Skytop and Steakhouse can be seen atop the hill by those driving west on Route 28 just out of Kingston. The signs, outlined in bold red neon for decades, were originally built to attract drivers passing by on the then-new New York State Thruway.
The steakhouse has gone out of existence, replaced by a Mexican restaurant.
At the bottom of the hill far below is the Potter Brothers ski shop.
The Rodeway Inn maintains a motel at the top of the hill that constitutes an isolated archipelago of subsidized squalor hidden away from town residents. Here, fighting to stay above the choppy waters of vice and misery, a revolving cast of human beings struggles against mental issues, drug addictions, periods of incarceration, housing and financial insecurity — the judgment of society at large and plain bad luck.
During a rainstorm just last week, a 50-foot-long chunk of the front of the building overhang for a wing containing about 30 rooms crumbled and collapsed onto the parking lot and walkway below. While the detritus has been cleared, yellow caution tape still cordons off a main door which gives access to an interior hallway and bank of seven rooms. For now residents must lift the tape to pass underneath.
At the open door of Room 281, a lively young dark-haired boy stands with his mother, Katie Olson. Like a pregnant madonna, she welcomes Saugerties county legislator Joe Maloney inside.
“I was here last week,” says Olson. “In a different room. I had no power to the bathroom or fridge for two days. The manager refused to fix it, because we were home, he said. He also refused to give us a key for four days. For four days we had to climb in and out of our window.”
Here in her new room, where the carpet is dirty and threadbare, Katie shows Maloney around, cataloguing the code violations.
The exposed wires, for instance, where in two different places the wall plates for the plug outlets and the outlets themselves are missing. The wires can be seen behind the empty rectangles cut into the wall. Olson covered one outlet with duct tape after she saw her son investigating it with his fingers. The other exposed outlet behind a miniature refrigerator is harder to get to, but there’s room enough for a single-minded child.
“When last week’s stay was up, it was back to the DSS [Department of Social Services]. I talked to the DSS about what was going on. I actually have a letter I wrote to the supervisor, I can show it to you, stating the hazards of the facility. They dismissed my concerns. They went ahead and placed me back here.”
She points to a rusty brown water stain on the ground, which she claims is from septic overflow. “I haven’t taken a shower here,” says Olson, leading the way into the bathroom, “because when you run it, it smells like septic.”
She turns on the cold water in the sink to demonstrate and leaves it running.
She opens up the hot-water valve. Nothing comes out of the faucet. There is no hot water.
She points to the bathroom ceiling, where a black hole passes into the attic where the exhaust fan should be. The paint around the opening is spattered with grimy dots. “That’s mold,” says Katie to Maloney.
For a business out in the open on the top of a hill, it’s hard to find out much information about the Rodeway Inn. Everyone involved is cagey about giving information. The people working the front desk speak with accents from their Indian subcontinent. They say they don’t know who owns the motel, aren’t sure when the manager is around, and won’t share their own names.
Registered with Windsor Glenn Associates in New Paltz, Skytop Village Associates is the entity behind which the owners of the hotel maintain anonymity. But they must know the business of landlording and the importance of the building code because they also own the Skytop Village apartment complex a little farther up the hill.
According to Expedia, Rodeway Inn Skytop offers 60 rooms. As of early April, it had 671 customer reviews, 46 of which rated it as excellent and 383 as poor or terrible. The place advertises itself as a good place to stay for people on a budget.
A comprehensive snapshot of the emergency housing situation in Ulster County released by the state comptroller’s office in 2020 contains a list of 15 emergency housing vendors with which the county contracts. The Rodeway Inn is one of these. The names of the vendors are expressed only in alphabetical letters, such as Motel A, Motel J. and so on.
A member of the county government, speaking on background, explained the reason the motels go unnamed in the comptroller’s report. It’s because the motels involved were concerned their participation would tarnish their reputation with regular market customers.
But Michael Berg, head of Family of Woodstock, a non-profit with whom the county contracts for emergency housing, says he has a pretty good idea what the numbers at play are. “Whether it’s us or the county, we’re probably using about 40 of the rooms. They’re charging $100 a night during the four days Monday through Thursday,” says Berg, “and they’re charging a $130 a night on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.”
That’s the same price the Courtyard Marriott charges on the weekend for a room with a king-size bed and the same as the Hampton in Kingston, which has a pool and a fitness center, charges.
Charging what the market will bear is a business prerogative. This private franchise is no charity.
For the year 2022, commissioner Michael Iapoce of the DSS says, Rodeway received $574,672.75 for its boarding services, amounting for 7.75 percent of all emergency housing placements countywide.
Before the carousel of temporary housing began for her and her four-year-old son, Katie Olson, who is from High Falls, was living with her father, but due to a domestic violence issue, she sought other lodgings in domestic violence shelters in Poughkeepsie, at the Darmstadt Shelter in Kingston, at the Wenton Motel in Saugerties, and at The Mid Hudson Inn in Highland. She has even camped out under the sky rather than take a chance with possibly dangerous or abusive environments.
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For now, it’s her second go-round at the Rodeway Inn.
While Katie talks, her son is concentrated on sharing his thoughts, moving rapid-fire from subject to subject, trying to pique the interest of the strange men in the room.
And then Bruce Ginsberg, an Ulster County Human Rights Commissioner and vice-president for Family of Woodstock arrives. The boy turns his attention to Bruce.
“How you doin’, buddy?” says Ginsberg. “You doin’ all right?”
The men will be leaving. The child will be staying. In this way do hearts fracture and crack.
“I’ve heard complaints about the Wenton,” says Maloney.
“They had prostitutes,” says Katie.
When brothels are outlawed and rents are placed out of reach, hotel rooms with in-house laundry service, showers and prominent bed placement are convenient natural theater sets for the business of sex.
An employee at the front desk of the Wenton Hotel denied there were prostitutes there.
“And I heard from a bunch of people,” says Maloney, “from these different motels, about sexual predators. Tyrone [Tyrone Wilson, ex-commissioner for human rights in Ulster County] said that he recognized somebody from the sexual-predator registry.”
“Yeah,” responds Ginsberg. “Earlier today, Tyrone identified the guy that was that was moving his stuff into a room over there.”
Wilson confirmed this, but did not know the individual’s name. He stated that he had recognized him from the community.
It is the solemn obligation of the Department of Community Corrections to keep abreast of and monitor the movements of any individual who has a sex-offender status, but it’s a tall order to keep tabs on an individual without a steady mailing address struggling within the spectrum of chemical problems available in modern society.
“The county will tell us that doesn’t happen,” says Maloney. “I’ve been told in meetings, we don’t put kids around sexual predators. And it was pointed out in Highland, allegedly, that they run prostitution rings. Where they have rooms for the men … boom-boom rooms.”
The words of a rhyming children’s song become shorthand for the act, and mocks those who would forbid it, reducing the crime to a peccadillo.
“Yep, at the Mid Hudson Inn,” repeats Katie, nodding. “They have boom-boom rooms. Upstairs on the right.”
While a sex offender can make a reservation at a motel on their own, the DSS has no responsibility for that scenario. “We would never place anybody that we knew was a registered sex offender,” says DSS commissioner Iapoce, “at a location that wouldn’t be in compliance with their sex-offender status.”
As Iapoce points out, it is the sex offender who has the affirmative obligation to conduct themselves in a manner that is in compliance with the terms, conditions, restrictions and prohibitions of their sex-offender status.
Which is to say, the individual already having demonstrated bad judgment and poor self-control in the past is legally responsible to now demonstrate good judgment and disciplined self-control in the present.
Well, our incarceration system is either capable of rehabilitating its inmates or it isn’t. Most likely there’s an array of outcomes. The ones Katie Olson would worry about, involve those individuals unaccounted for by the DSS or the DCC, without housing, without good judgment and without self-control, operating under the influence of mind-alternating chemicals.
Just outside the window in the back wall of Room 281 there’s a two-story drop down onto a grassy hill. If a fire prevented exit out the only door — say the doorjambs swelled with the heat, and the door was prevented from opening — this window would be the only point of egress. There is no rope ladder hanging there. There are no smoke detectors on the ceiling.
Just a little further down the hill, the septic-treatment machinery for the motel hums, hidden behind a wooden fence. But you can’t hide the smell. Katie points to the wall-unit air conditioner, noting that is has no filter.
“How long do you stay in one place?” asks Maloney.
“Twenty-one days,” answers Katie.
“All these places kick everyone out every three weeks,” explains Maloney, “because at that point you become a tenant.”
Thirty days is the amount of time, according to the New York State administrative code, after which a temporary lodger is considered a legal tenant and the obstacles to a property owner at this point for removing even a house guest become much more thorny.
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To preempt the possibility of the time-sucking legal inconvenience of eviction proceedings, motel owners have hit upon the neat solution of tossing everybody out around the 21-day mark.
“So if you’ve got a job, and you’re trying to work your way out of this situation,” says Maloney, “and imagine you’ve got a kid, tomorrow you could be out on the sidewalk. And people that don’t have their own vehicle, every three weeks when you’re booted out, you have to trudge down with all your stuff, to spend the day at DSS, maybe to be placed back in just the same place again. Or even somewhere at the other end of the county.”
Standing outside Katie’s motel room, Ginsberg looks over at the treatment machinery behind the fence. A mixture of sewage and natural gas wafts on the air.
“You see this thing there?” says Ginsberg, pointing at a sewer vent pipe which protrudes from beneath the grassy hill. “There’s methane under here that comes out through that. If the county is going to pay the kind of money it pays for this place, it should be condemned.”
But operating basic human services like housing and health care for anything other than profit strikes at the heart of private enterprise. Some of its champions resist any attempts at control. In the popular consciousness, publicly owned and run essential services are criticized for their inefficiency, dismissed out of hand and demonized.
“This is like a microcosm of a bigger problem,” says Ginsberg. “But it’s a damn good example of a problem that exists. This place is full of people who are being paid for by the county Department of Social Services. They’re brought here by DSS or they’re brought here by Family of Woodstock. And this is the best thing that we can do for them. The conditions are deplorable. And they’re living in fear of being turned out from this place if they say anything about the conditions.”
“I worked for Gateway of Hudson Valley for six years,” says Katie. “I’ve been an advocate for Office of Mental Health [OMH] and Office for People with Developmental Disabilities [OPWDD]. I don’t mind speaking out, because if nobody says anything, nothing’s gonna happen, and I’m not the only one this is happening to.”
And yet the motel setting is a sort of beautiful refuge up in the sky. You can walk out to a split-rail fence that runs along the edge of the hill, stand under the Skytop sign and look out eastward over the treetops and church spires of Kingston, with the green expanse of Dutchess County in the distance, and listen to the monotonous rush of automobiles on the highway far below. Going into summer, when the sun is shining, this sort of isolation can rejuvenate.
Or you can look below to the short, flat red building alongside the highway, the Motel 19, and imagine the homeless encampment out behind the back in the trees and scrub out there, and think about what could be different.
“So is this a story that you can run?” asks Ginsberg.