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Advocate's Experience As A Homeless Child Partly Inspires Play At City Theatre

Kristi Jan Hoover
"Nomad Motel" runs at City Theatre through Sunday, June 3.

Nomad Motel is a new play that might challenge your concept of homelessness, and especially of homeless kids.

The play, by Carla Ching, takes place in Orange County, Calif., a place normally associated with affluence. The flip side is that housing prices are so high that families living paycheck-to-paycheck can’t always afford permanent homes. Nomad Motel, which is getting its world-premiere staging at City Theatre, centers on kids living in motels.

NOMAD MOTEL continues at City Theatre through Sunday, June 3.

One character, a teen-aged girl named Alix, was inspired by a real person Ching interviewed: Jennifer Friend. Back in the 1980s, Friend and her three siblings grew up with both parents. But her father, a tech entrepreneur, and her mother, a pre-school teacher, lived in financially precarious circumstances. Often, a rent-by-the-week motel was the best they could do. Sometimes, the family simply slept at friends’ houses until other arrangements could be made.

Friend made it through. She studied law and became a partner at a big firm. Today, at age 48, and after a career change several years back, she’s CEO of Project Hope Alliance, a nonprofit that works to end child homelessness.

She called the problem “the homelessness that isn't seen.” Homeless kids don’t typically live under bridges or beg on the street, but the transience of their lives makes schooling and everything else harder. Even those lucky enough to sometimes live in motels, as Friend did, have to contend with challenges like having zero privacy.

Credit Courtesy of Jennifer Friend
Jennifer Friend is CEO of Project Hope Alliance, which aids homeless youths.

And the problem is bigger than many people realize.

“There are 1.3 million homeless children in America's public-school system that are living in motels, shelters [or] cars, or couch-surfing, which means that each night they sleep on a different person's couch,” said Friend.

Project Hope, based in Orange County, provides services to such families.

“Project Hope Alliance specifically eliminates the barriers and fills in the gaps caused by homelessness for our kids,” said Friend. “So we actually have site-based programs where we have full-time intensive case managers on public-school sites to resource out the needs of the homeless children and youth all the way to age 24.

“So just by getting our kids to graduate from high school we're reducing the chance that they'll be homeless by almost 400 percent. But we're also introducing possibility into their lives. We're making sure that if they play an instrument they have an instrument to play, that if they want to compete in Model United Nations that they have the money to go and compete.”

Friend hopes that Nomad Motel will help raise awareness. The work was initially inspired when playwright Ching saw the documentary The Motel Kids of Orange County. The film led her to the Project Hope Alliance and to Friend. While working on the play, Ching interviewed Friend extensively. Friend says it was the first time she had shared her story at length. That helped dispel the shame she felt about her experience.

Friend spoke to 90.5 WESA while visiting Pittsburgh for opening night of Nomad Motel.

“One of the things I love so much about Nomad Motel is that Carla has done such a beautiful job in creating a story of possibility, strength and hope, that it allows for the audience to understand and empathize with our kids, but also know that that this is only one chapter in their story,” she said. “It's not the whole story.”

Nomad Motel has a cast of five, directed by Bart DeLorenzo. It’s produced at City Theatre as part of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere, in partnership with Horizon Theater in Atlanta, and Unicorn Theatre in Kansas City, Mo., where it will be staged after City Theatre’s run end.