The low temperature for Columbus, OH on Saturday was 6 degrees. Blowing snow was creating whiteout conditions for drivers. George and Joyce Gruss were already delayed hours by winter weather when they stopped at a Wendy’s off of Interstate 71 to get some dinner.
While they ate, they noticed a woman at a nearby table crying. “We were thinking maybe it was a Valentine’s Day gone bad or something,” George told ThinkProgress. But when Joyce asked her and her male companion what was wrong, it turned out they were homeless and stuck in Columbus after someone they were traveling with on their way to Michigan left them there. They had been staying at a shelter but told the Grusses that they missed the curfew that evening and couldn’t get back in. And while they had scraped together $60, hotels wouldn’t let them stay because they didn’t have any identification. Homeless people often lack ID because it can be difficult to maintain the necessary documents.
So the Grusses decided to help. “We thought maybe more than a night would be good if we can do that,” he said. They decided to drive the couple to a Super 8 hotel in the area and buy them a stay for three nights, and then reach out to friends in Columbus who could get them more outreach and help. The couple accepted. “They said they’d be willing to do anything, whatever help we were willing to offer, they were happy to accept it,” he said.
When they got to the Super 8, George says no one paid them any attention, including a nearby security guard. He presented his own ID and credit cards and they were given keys to a room. After taking the couple to their room, George and Joyce said goodbye and kept driving toward Dayton.
An hour later, George got a call that ruined their good deed. It was a security guard at the Super 8. He said the hotel had checked on the room and when the couple couldn’t produce ID, it kicked them out. “We argued with them,” he recalled. “I told him we paid for the room.” Even though he said they were willing to risk any potential damage to the room, the guard insisted that because guests have to be 21 to stay in rooms and the couple had no identification to prove they were over that age, they couldn’t stay.
“He ended the conversation by saying, ‘Oh by the way, your repayment is not refundable,'” George said. He hadn’t cared about the money until that point. “I felt like I was robbed.”
He says his call to Super 8’s corporate headquarters didn’t produce any results either and he and his wife were already an hour away. “We got to Dayton so frustrated and so sad,” he said. “We missed the opportunity to help someone.” He posted on Facebook about the ordeal and his sons pushed the story out on Twitter. Eventually a petition was created, which had nearly reached its 15,000 signature goal as of Tuesday afternoon. “We’re not trying to bash Super 8,” George was quick to explain. “We’re just frustrated with one hotel.”
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the Wyndham Hotel Group, which owns Super 8, said, “As a hotel franchisor, we consider guest safety and security to be of the upmost importance and as such, require each of the independently owned and operated hotels in our portfolio to comply with not only our own brand standards but also all local, state and federal laws. Please know that we take seriously the concerns that have been shared and are investigating at this time.”
George noted that there may be reasons to have a rule requiring ID. But, he said, “I think they maliciously applied the rule and hurt a couple, put them out in the cold.”
He and his wife don’t know what happened to the couple. On their drive back home on Monday, they went to all the fast food restaurants in the area where they met as well as on streets and in stores. “But we never found them. So that’s where we are,” he noted sadly.
He says someone from Wyndham has called him since and said the company “would try to make this right,” in part by refunding the couple’s money. But, he noted, “The opportunity to make this right as passed. This poor couple got put out in the cold.”
But he said when the company sent him his refund, they’re going to give all of the money to a group in Columbus that helps the homeless. “We’re just going to donate it directly to that group and let them help other homeless people, because that’s what was intended to happen,” he said.
More than 153,000 Americans go without shelter on any given night, and frigid winter temperatures make a difficult situation a deadly one. The cold has already claimed homeless lives, and last year an estimated 2,000 people died on the streets.