PHILADELPHIA — Sometimes the problems are so overwhelming that Robert Cordero steps away from his children for a few minutes to pull himself together.
While two sons and three daughters play in a cluttered Cherry Hill, N.J., motel room, he turns up the radio, closes the bathroom door, and cries.
“I can’t let them see me that way. … Who will they look up to?” said the 40-year-old single father. “I have to go back and try to raise five kids.”
Cordero’s family has lived at the Hillside Inn for more than five months, along with a couple dozen other homeless people surviving on public assistance.
He and his children — ages 8 to 16 — moved there after Cordero lost his home-remodeling job and they were evicted from a Woodlynne, N.J., apartment.
The Hillside guests are among untold thousands nationwide who have been laid off during the economic downturn, then forced from houses and apartments to motels, officials said.
Unseen by motorists speeding by on Route 38, the men, women and children live in single rooms at the motel, where beds double as dinner tables, and folded clothes, food and toys are stacked high along the walls.
They’re trying to hold families together while looking for work — “on or off the books” — and getting by on welfare, food stamps, housing assistance and Medicaid.
Their needs strain the fiscally strapped state government, which is trying to hold the line on spending. In the fiscal 2012 budget, the Christie administration set aside $307 million for welfare clients, about $47.5 million more than in fiscal 2010.
Nearly 14,000 people were identified as homeless in New Jersey last year, said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Nationally, about 650,000 were living in shelters and motels, at the homes of friends and family, or on the street, HUD said. At least 1.59 million people were homeless at least one night last year.
“Many times, these are families who were doing very well until one or both parents lost their job or had a health problem or a foreclosure,” said Carol Kaufman-Scarborough, a professor of marketing at Rutgers University-Camden who recently completed a paper on the “hidden homeless” in motels.
Others “may be employed,” she said. “It’s just that their wages are not enough to pay for an apartment plus utilities.”
They “want to keep their families together and provide education for their children,” added Kaufman-Scarborough, associate dean of the undergraduate program at Rutgers’ School of Business. But “there is a significant lack of affordable housing.”
Homeless advocates find themselves helping a new group of people who are out on the street for the first time, said Richard Brown, chief executive officer of Monarch Housing Associates, a statewide nonprofit organization in Cranford, N.J., that helps the homeless find housing.
“This is their first experience falling through the cracks,” Brown said. “They can’t make ends meet and then end up living in motels, shelters and cars — or couch-surfing from one relative to another.
“There are families that have doubled up and tripled up because the economy has kept them from affording housing,” he said.
“There are more and more furlough days,” Brown added. “People aren’t getting raises and are losing a few hours of work.”
“That leaves them stretched and close to the edge,” he said. “These are scary times for all of us.
“If you don’t hear the voices (of the homeless), they’re hidden.”
Outside the Hillside Inn, there is little evidence of the homeless people who live there.
Inside is another story; space is tight.
In Cordero’s room, belongings cover every surface — the chest of drawers, the small refrigerator, and the floor along the walls (at least up to the waist).
The children make the best of their small world. Robert Jr., 16; Austin, 13; Carmen Anna, 11; Grace, 9; and Destiny, 8, lie or sit on two beds, playing and watching television.
They are discouraged from going outside. All that is there is an asphalt parking lot.
“The boys each have a dresser drawer, and the two youngest girls share a drawer,” Cordero said. “My 11-year-old has her own drawer … and I put my stuff on top of a storage bin.”
The four youngest take a bus each day to the Boys & Girl Clubs of Camden County while Robert Jr. heads by bus to Gloucester City, where he plays with a traveling baseball team.
Their mother, Samantha Van Horn, 41, who has not lived with the family since last summer, has been visiting lately — especially since Cordero was rehired this month by an Audubon home remodeler to perform carpentry, plumbing, and electrical work.
“I come here to help with the kids,” said Van Horn, another job hunter. “It’s not easy finding work. I’m trying to get a job at McDonald’s.”
After being out of work for nine months, Cordero knows how difficult the hunt can be. He hopes to use his new paycheck to move out of the motel to an apartment.
“I like working six or seven days a week,” he said. “When I sit home, I’m crawling up the walls.”
“You have to keep your spirits up and say, ‘Tomorrow will be better,’ ” he said. “If I give up, my kids will think it’s OK to give up.”
When the homeless look for help in Camden County, the first question officials ask is basic: Where was your last home?
“We try to figure out if they’re our responsibility,” said Shawn Sheekey, director of the Camden County Board of Social Services. “Where did you become homeless? If it’s another jurisdiction, we send them back there,” he said. If not, “we typically send that person, particularly individuals, to a shelter,” sometimes to motels.
“It costs $50 a night for us to put a single adult in a motel, $85 for a family,” he said.
These days, the county is “seeing people who have never been on assistance,” Sheekey said. “They didn’t see themselves ever needing help, and they’re embarrassed to be in that position.”
In this economy, “I’ve seen a lot of people who are 40, 50 and 60 years old — and laid off,” Sheekey said. Some “have a college education and have to take waitress jobs.”
“Lesser jobs are being filled by people who have worked 30 and 40 years,” he said. “You see people struggling outside of their normal perfect life because of the economy.”
Life has been anything but perfect for Beth Allen and her 9-month-old daughter, Kaylee.
Living a few doors down from the Cordero family, they have a roof over their heads, but little else.
Unemployed and disabled, Allen said she was waiting to be approved for food stamps or welfare, and was nearly out of food.
So the former Erial, N.J., resident, who fled an abusive boyfriend, depended on the generosity of other homeless people.
“It’s been hell,” she said as she sat on the edge of her bed while Austin Cordero played with Kaylee. Her room was cluttered with clothes, toys and other baby paraphernalia.
“I was a sales representative for a medical equipment company until a drunk driver hit my car in Delaware” a few years ago, said Allen, 46. “I had a brain injury and still have some memory loss.”
Until the accident, she said, she always took care of herself. “I’ve worked really hard. I’ve given food and clothing to others, and now this,” said Allen, who has been at the Hillside since June 24.
“I’ve gone days without eating — and Kaylee has just a half-can of formula,” she said. “I’ve hit rock bottom.”
In a nearby room, Lakesha Bullard, 30; her son, Jaheem Bullard, 13; and her husband, Barry Williams, 56, faced their own challenges.
“I had an apartment,” Bullard said as she ate a dinner of chicken wings on her bed. “We didn’t have the funds and had to leave.”
Williams, who is HIV-positive, said he had been laid off from his job as a mail sorter for the U.S. Postal Service.
“I’ve been looking for work,” said Bullard, who lived at the motel for five months. “I want to get an apartment. It doesn’t matter where — just as long as it doesn’t have drugs.”
Another motel guest, O’Neil Hill Jr., is not ready to leave — though his caseworker has informed him that the money for the motel would be cut off.
Hill, who had been there since March 21, lost his Camden apartment to fire and has not found employment since his layoff from a telemarketing job in 2009.
“I have no idea what to do,” said Hill, 41. “I’ve got no savings.”
In another room, Michelle Carter was also feeling frustrated. Like others at the Hillside Inn, she is required to earn her welfare, so she works at a day care center.
But she also has two children, John, 6, and Siani, 8, and they have to be dropped off with family. “I can’t take care of the day care center and look for a job, too,” said Carter, who has been at Hillside for about eight months. “It’s hard to find work when you have kids.”
In the Corderos’ room, the children were watching television and wriggling around on the beds.
“It’s rough, really rough, when you come from something to nothing,” Cordero said. “That’s life.
“You can’t go down any more when you’ve hit rock bottom,” he said. “The only way we can go is up.”