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Families displaced by Hurricane Ida on what it’s like spending the holidays away from home

Virginia Tharp stood in the back of the conference room at the Hammock Inn & Suites in Exton, smiling as she watched 5-year-old Avayah Harris belt “Jingle Bells” into the microphone.

“Sing it baby girl!” cheered Tharp, 47.

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Tharp closed her eyes and smiled, and for just a moment, everything felt normal.

But then she opened them, and remembered where she was — a hotel. Otherwise known as her family’s home for the last four months.

Tharp and her five children are some of the 49 people from 22 Chester County families who’ve lived at the Hammock Inn since their homes were destroyed and lives upended by Hurricane Ida’s floodwaters in September.

They don’t want to live here, but amid a shortage of affordable housing in Chester County, they have nowhere else to go.

The families who remain displaced are some of the area’s most vulnerable. All are low- to moderate-income. Some have a history of eviction or struggle with poor credit — factors that make it even more difficult to find new housing in an expensive and competitive market.

» READ MORE: Hurricane Ida destroyed affordable rental units. Hundreds of families still can’t find new ones.

The county is paying for their rooms, and upward of a dozen churches and local volunteers have stepped up to support them, raising money for future rent payments, delivering hot meals, and even submitting applications for subsidized housing.

Living in a hotel is no vacation. Families can’t cook, and mostly eat fast food or microwavable meals. Personal space doesn’t exist, and a good night’s sleep is rare.

“People forget that we’re still here,” said Tharp.

Still, the families have also built a community. They watch each others’ kids, and eat dinner together each Monday.

» READ MORE: Hundreds of Philly-area residents lost their homes in Ida. In one town, they wonder if they can ever rebuild.

On Saturday, they hosted a Christmas party, and for the first time since they moved in, the unremarkable hotel’s beige walls and stagnant lobbies felt somewhat alive. Children ran between rooms, ducking under chairs for hide and seek. Sisters whispered wishes into Santa’s ear, as brothers played football in the parking lot.

Here’s a glimpse into the life of displaced families living at the Hammock Inn, in their own words.


Marianne Murphy; her husband, Larry Chew; sons Jason Murphy, 25, and Jeremy Chew, 22; and their three cats are split between two rooms. Their Coatesville home was condemned. Like most families in the hotel, their kitchen is a microwave, toaster oven, and mini fridge. With no pantry, boxes of nonperishable instant foods and snacks — mac and cheese, cereal, SpaghettiOs, Oreos — cover any open counter space. A typical dinner looks like lunch meat or Chef Boyardee ravioli.

“That’s one thing I miss, is cooking.
“There’s no stove. Trying to eat is, uh — if we eat that day, it’s an accomplishment.
“It’s very depressing. It’s hard, but my son, he turned around and told me on Thanksgiving — because I’m used to cooking — he goes, ‘Mom, Thanksgiving is not about the food, it’s the people who are around.’ It made it easier.”
Marianne Murphy


Courtney Ryan and Verdon Taylor live in one room with their two sons — Donte, 10, and Kingston, 10 months — and two dogs. The couple’s rental in Downingtown was condemned after the flood. They don’t have a car — they walked to work previously — and now spend upward of $1,000 per month on Ubers to get to work. They were recently approved for a housing voucher, but the next hurdle is finding a place that will accept them.

“It starts to mess with your mental health, that’s for sure. It’s a lot of people in one room, a lot of noise.
“My son is special needs, so when it gets too many people, too much sensory overload, he needs a place to be. There’s no place for him to go here. So he’s resorted to going and sitting in the stairwells, when there’s just too much.”
Courtney Ryan


Colleen Moffitt shares one room with her parents and granddaughter, 6-year-old Cailyn Collins. Moffitt’s parents’ home is in the process of being repaired, and they hope to return within a month. The room has one queen bed, so Moffitt and Collins sleep on a pullout bed. She remains grateful for the community they’ve built at the hotel.

“If someone has to do something, the kids are never unattended. Somebody’s always watching them or with them. It’s like a little family.
“The other day [Cailyn] said, ‘Oh when we get back to the house will I still be able to see my friends? And I said, ‘Yes.’
“It makes you feel like you’re not the only one in this position...You can’t get mad because you lost stuff, it happened to other people, too. And I think everybody here realizes that, and they’re all going through the same thing. And that’s why we all just became friends and help each other out.”
Colleen Moffitt


Virginia Tharp’s family of seven — including five children ages 8 to 23 — is split between two rooms. They hoped to return to their Modena home once it was repaired, but in October, the landlord terminated the lease. Four out of five of her children have a disability, she said, and she cares for them full time.

“My kids are really feeling it too, like a couple of their behavioral issues got worse. Jacob’s having trouble in school and Hailey’s having trouble in school... I feel like a lot of it is from us being here.
“I get upset because I just want a house, I want to be able to go home, be with my family.”
Virginia Tharp


“Holidays just aren’t the same, that’s why we’re trying to make this holiday a little better compared to Thanksgiving, especially for the kids,” said Ashley Harris, 32, who lives at the Hammock Inn with her daughter, Avayah.

On Christmas, a local church has offered to bring fresh turkey, ham, and sides. Tharp and Marianne Murphy hope to set the tables and have a family-style meal open to all.

At Saturday’s Christmas party, people grasped for normalcy. Children decorated gingerbread houses and enjoyed games and snacks donated by the community. A photographer donated her time to capture portraits of families.

“It finally feels like the holiday, just seeing that joy in these kids’ faces,” said Courtney Ryan.

Back inside the conference room, Avayah Harris, donning sparkly unicorn boots, paused as she prepared for her next number, “Frosty the Snowman.”

In that moment, whether she lived in a hotel didn’t matter — this was her stage.