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Post photographer Michael Williamson is traveling across the country covering the economic situation.

Welcome to the Motel California


Benjamin Chamberlain stands outside the motel where his family now lives. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

SANTA MARIA, Calif. -- In a parking lot that was mostly empty except for a few time-battered vehicles, 6-year-old Benjamin Chamberlain zoomed past Michael and me in an imaginary car.

“I have two,” he said. “This one is an Altima.”

Just a few minutes earlier we were checking out of our motel -- a place we had chosen only because it was less than $70-a-night in an area where we hadn’t seen anything under $100 -- when I casually asked the front desk manager, “Do people ever stay here for more than a few days?”

“No,” he said, scoffing at the question. “We are not an apartment building.”

That’s when Michael and I knew that if we looked hard enough, we’d probably find families living there. Turns out, we only had to walk as far as our car.

Just a few feet from where we had parked, the door to room 111 was open.

Inside, Benjamin and his 3-year-old sister Hayley sat on the floor watching cartoons. They jumped up when they saw me. “Hi, what’s your name?” Hayley asked. Behind her, in a closet without a door, more than a week's worth of clothes hung from a pole and food lined a shelf high off the ground. Stuffed animals and toys stretched across the room, which was just big enough for two queen-size beds and a few pieces of furniture.


Kim Chamberlain grabs cookies from a shelf in a closet for her children, Benjamin and Hayley. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

“We’ve been here since January,” the children’s mother Kim Chamberlain, 35, said. “It’s cheaper to live here than to rent a one bedroom.”

Their lives, it seemed, had fallen on a ripple of the foreclosure crisis. With more renters in the market, many families that could once afford to rent an apartment or house are now seeing those prices rise, leaving them to seek out the only other housing within reach: cheap motels. Even before meeting the Chamberlains, Michael and I had been told by the cleaning staff at other places that families were increasingly making homes in rooms intended only for a night’s stay, that what was supposed to be transient was now becoming semi-permanent.

"This is what we cook on and what we eat on,” Kim said, showing me a table about three feet wide. She then walked to the closet and pulled out a hot plate where she cooks spaghetti and chicken, among other dishes. “We just kind of make do,” she said.


Kim Chamberlain's family has lived in a motel room since January. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

And they weren’t alone. The children had found friends among other families in the motel.

“Right over here, there was a family with a little boy that was 2. They were here for 18 months,” Kim said, pointing to a nearby door. “A couple with two teenage daughters got their home foreclosed and they were here six months.”

“The people next door to me,” she added, "they’ve been living here a long time.”

She and her husband chose that motel not only because it was cheaper than others, but because it felt safe, she said. But they weren’t going to stay forever, she added – they had a goal. They were aiming to save $6,000 to qualify for a house as first-time home buyers. They were already halfway there, she said, and with her husband’s job as an operator at an oil processing plant, she expected they would have the rest by the beginning of next year.


Hayley Chamberlain holds her "boo-boo bear" as she hugs a pillar outside her family's motel room. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

“They deserve better,” Kim said of Benjamin and Hayley. “They deserve better than this. They deserve a yard to play in. They deserve a place to ride their scooters and bikes, a place to be kids.”

As we stood talking in the doorway, Benjamin bolted between us.

“Excuse me,” he said. “I have to park my car.”

He pretended to leave it near the front door and then ran inside to get a drink of juice. He poured it on his own, spilling a little, only to promptly clean it up and run to tell his mom that he’d taken care of it. She was giving him a kiss and a high-five when Hayley called from upstairs. She wanted him to chase her. “Come on, Bubba,” she said. He ran after her and they weaved through the empty rooms and stairways, a now familiar playground to them.


Benjamin Chamberlain uses the floor to pour himself a glass of orange juice. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

“We spend a lot of time at the parks,” Kim said. “They come first.”

She said the family could save money if she took Benjamin out of private school, but she wants better for her children than she had growing up in Oklahoma, which wasn't much. She has already decided Hayley will join Benjamin at the school next year, even if it means the family will have to wait a little longer for the house.


Hayley runs after her brother Benjamin, whom she calls "Bubba." He calls her "Sissy." Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Out of breath, the children ran back to the room for a cookie and I took the opportunity to ask them what they want to be when they grow up. Hayley shrugged, unsure, but Benjamin replied without pause.

“A jet pilot and a dad,” he said.

If he was aware that his family didn’t have much, it was hard to tell. In his imagination, it was clear, he had plenty.

“Take a picture of my motor boat," he said, holding up a half-eaten cookie for Michael to see.


Kim Chamberlain kisses her son, Benjamin, outside the family's motel room. She and her husband hope to save enough money to get a house by early next year. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

By Theresa Vargas  |  August 10, 2009; 11:53 AM ET
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Next: A Cowboy, A Van, & A Dream Of A Final Journey


According to the Republicans the Great Depression America is now in is an illusion and that we just aren't trying hard enough to find jobs and aren't willing to work. The truth is America is in a Great Depression. None of my friends have a job nor do I. I am trying to raise funding for my startup and I have friends with teaching credentials that can't even get a job as a teacher though they've tried for years. Oh, I do have one friend that just got a job as a SF police officer after 5 years of trying.

Posted by: blakesouthwood | August 10, 2009 5:48 PM | Report abuse

Show me a single mom and I'll show you a parasite draining the system. Single moms somehow feel they can breed all they want and our (sick) society rewards them for their behavior with programs such as WIC,foodstamps,Medicaid,etc.Single moms somehow have the narcissistic assumption that one is "entitled" to "the experience" of childbearing.

Yes a single mom is just a cheap who-re

Posted by: jellyhouse56 | August 10, 2009 5:59 PM | Report abuse

blakesouthwood: You must be kidding. You can get off your Republican bashing now; Democrats control the Congress and the Executive Branch. The Republicans are powerless. Your comment seems to reflect your partisan hatred for Republicans than it does the reality of the situation. Democrats are driving right now. There isn't a Republican in sight. You're comment is useless.

Posted by: DualTurbos | August 10, 2009 6:03 PM | Report abuse

jellyhouse56: Learn how to read. First, she is not a single mom - the article mentions a husband. You sound like a mean-spirited ignoramous. Besides, why do make assumptions about single mothers? Life happens; most do not start out as single mothers.

Posted by: wahoo3 | August 10, 2009 6:10 PM | Report abuse

Where did the single mom comment come from? This is a nuclear family living in a motel room. Too bad the comments are not focused on this entry. The photography is again beautiful, and the story makes me grateful for what my family has. My parents are Californians and always praised it as the state of opportunity. How sad that it is too expensive for many of its residents now. I can understand why this couple wishes to keep their children in private school. My aunt is a school nurse in the LA area and I've visited some of the 12 (!) elementary schools she's an overwhelmed system in decrepit buildings. I hope the idea of them owning their own home some day isn't just California dreaming....

Posted by: mlc2 | August 10, 2009 6:10 PM | Report abuse

$70 a night is an astounding $2100 a month. This is like the nonsense about people eating dog food because they couldn't afford real food.
Let me pull open the listings in any small to mid-sized city, I bet I could find a place for less than $2100 a month.

Posted by: slomiamg | August 10, 2009 6:12 PM | Report abuse

Slomiamg writes:
"$70 a night is an astounding $2100 a month. This is like the nonsense about people eating dog food because they couldn't afford real food.
Let me pull open the listings in any small to mid-sized city, I bet I could find a place for less than $2100 a month. "

True - but hotels often have lower week rates.

The Rte. 1 corridor has a large number of families living in hotels. the Fairfax county program FACETS ( has a number of outreach programs to these folks.

Posted by: iamweaver | August 10, 2009 6:17 PM | Report abuse

It doesn't seem that the article is giving us the whole picture about the price of the motel rooms. If a motel room costs close to $70/night then it costs about $2100/mo to live there, if a 1bd costs that much, then they are either in an expensive city like San Francisco, or an upscale area, if it is the latter most likely the schools are excellent, so there would be no need for private school.

Likely the motels don't cost that much, but we don't have that information, I sort of wished we did.

Posted by: jvittes | August 10, 2009 6:22 PM | Report abuse

How does the math work on this? I don't understand how a $2100/month can be cheaper than renting.

I wish among the sad narratives the author took the time to explain the math.

Posted by: moshinsk1 | August 10, 2009 6:24 PM | Report abuse

fr slomiamg:

>$70 a night is an astounding $2100 a month. This is like the nonsense about people eating dog food because they couldn't afford real food.
Let me pull open the listings in any small to mid-sized city, I bet I could find a place for less than $2100 a month. <

You do that. Just remember the first and last month's rent AND security deposit. AND the deposit(s) to turn on utilities.

Get a life, and grow UP.

Posted by: Alex511 | August 10, 2009 6:28 PM | Report abuse

jellyhouse56:Remember that it takes two to tango, there are plenty of boys out there getting girls pregnant and walking away, maybe you should stop picking on the girls/women who are trying to be moms and are taking care of their children and start looking at the real problem. I am sorry for you....

Posted by: capecodbob | August 10, 2009 6:29 PM | Report abuse

Yep most places in California require first and last month's rent plus deposits plus you supply your own refrigerator plus utilities (first and last month also). Plus average rents in California are 1,000 a month and up.

Posted by: | August 10, 2009 6:40 PM | Report abuse

To DualTurbos: The whole country knows (those with intelligence) that the Republicans and Bush and Cheney and the Republicans in Congress BEFORE Obama got into office are wholly responsible for deregulation, allowing massive numbers of H1-B visas, looking the other way and thus allowing illegal immigration to the tune of more than 25 million illegals which is destroying America's hospital system due to rampant bankruptcy since the illegals don't have health insurance and now the tens of millions (my estimate 50M plus) American citizens without health insurance are now going to bring down the entire hospital system which will fail since they don't have medical insurance and the hospitals will pay the bill (usually in the ER) when it's too late and the hospitals will go bankrupt and shut down like they are doing all across the country.

The Republicans have done this with their look the other way economic policy and to increase profits for Wall Street the tech companies outsourced labor overseas to bypass paying social security and payroll taxes and pensions and health insurance.
So it was a team effort in terms of greed with the previous Republican administration and Bush who veto'd stem cell research and started the Iraq war as is Christian Crusade.

Have you read Bob Woodward's books? Maybe you should.
Have you watched FrontLine on PBS on the web. Are you
uninformed. Do you shun listening to NPR? Do you read the NYT?
Do you live in a cave? Are you clueless?

Posted by: blakesouthwood | August 10, 2009 6:46 PM | Report abuse

the 2100 problem, well here's how it goes, the weekly rate is usually lower, but even so there is no doubt that renting an apt. would be cheaper, however, most do not have deposit money and often will not be accepted because of living in motel. I had a weekly room with kitchen for 175 a week, for that same money I could have had a 2 bedroom apt. but I didn't have enough for deposit and didn't have enough at one time to even pay one month rent, let alone deposit. My take home pay was $250.00, so I only had 75 left each week for everything else. This was about 10 years ago, in California, but it's all relative to now.
I had lived in houses and in good circumstance all my life, but that's what divorce can do to you. Not having worked for many years while raising children, doesn't exactly make you an employable commodity.
Credit might be another problem in renting apt. usually when you end up living in motel it's because you have enhausted or ruined your credit.
Oh I did get out and doing fine now and feeling for all those who are on that path, it's a really hard one.

Posted by: dianed2 | August 10, 2009 6:55 PM | Report abuse

you don't send your kids to a private school then live in a motel. Get your prioritys straight people

Posted by: unreal3 | August 10, 2009 7:05 PM | Report abuse

Homelessness is one of the most serious and long neglected problems in the USA. I was homeless once for only two weeks and it was one of the hardest times of my 52-year life. Until you have experienced this, you don't know what it is like. Imagine wondering each day where are you going to sleep tonight and where are you going to take your next bath.

We allow our government to build posh and lavish buildings for employees and then give them the best salaries and benefits--simply because it is only taxpayer money, but we do little to provide a place for thousands of people in every county to have shelter and safety until finding work. We also have thousands of empty commercial buildings all over the USA that could accomodate homeless people.

The USA is not a humanitarian or civilized nation. Our country is full of greed and hearless affluent people. Well, I have news for those people: Anyone who dies wealthy or rich will spend eternity in poverty.

Posted by: maphound | August 10, 2009 7:06 PM | Report abuse

The people who are making the vindictive and demeaning comments of rent being $70 per night fail to appreciate that long-term residents are usually charged a lower rate (5 nights instead of seven) because they provide 100% occupancy and they clean their own room.

If one puts aside the blame and focuses on solutions then these poor people can be put into homes of their own.

My calculations show that it is possible to build housing estates, consisting of 3 bedroom houses, for $100,000 per unit. If the interest rate is 5% then repayments are $100 per week. That is an affordable amount.

These houses can have their own identity, be built as small bungalows and have a small yard. They consist of three bedrooms, one bathroom, one laundry, a good-sized kitchen, dining room, lounge room, and two car garage.

My scheme is based on the techniques employed by the Australian architect, Glen Murcutt.

The idea is to build nice neighbourhoods that people enjoy. I invite all of you to pick up a pencil and start planning.

Devising and executing solutions to the problem is better than hurling insults at one another.

Posted by: robertjames1 | August 10, 2009 7:12 PM | Report abuse

maphound :
"The USA is not a humanitarian or civilized nation. Our country is full of greed and hearless affluent people."

Yes that is so true, I am astonished just how much. I don't think it was always like this, in the 50's and 60's homelessness was not much of a problem, but it's growing by leaps and bound now and I think we need a national program to address this. That and all the other problems facing us are so daunting.
Another thing is dental care, I can't tell you the number of people I know, older ones especially that simple can't afford any treatment, dentures, anything and can you imagine how that effects health and ability to work and so on.
I am glad to see this diary and discussion here, this is not talked about enough.

Posted by: dianed2 | August 10, 2009 7:16 PM | Report abuse

"you don't send your kids to a private school then live in a motel. Get your prioritys straight people"


It seems to me that the mother in this story does have her priorities straight. Her children are attending private school because she wants them to learn -- she knows that education is a way out of poverty, and she's willing to sacrifice in the present to help her children have a better future. The story also notes that the reason this specific motel was chosen was because it was safe.

So how are her priorities wrong?

Posted by: L1234 | August 10, 2009 7:53 PM | Report abuse

To Jellyhouse56 you are so mistaken, and cruel. While it is true there are some in the system who are unwilling to make the neceesary changes in their lives. But, many of these families have endured pain and humiliation through no fault of their own. And, I hope you and no member of your family has to endure that kind of pain and humiliation in your life or lives.

By the way many single mothers, and fathers too are not single by choice. Many found themselves divorced or widow(er), or out of work. Families who have lost everything through huge medical bills, or other financially devastating situations, and these situations are unstainable unless you are one of the super rich. But, then we have notice that many of them have fallen on hard times too.

I know first hand what it feels like. For, I was one of them, but by the Grace of God, a lot of hard work, and caring parents the kids were raised, and bills were eventually paid.

No thanks to the system or people like you.

Posted by: MB12 | August 10, 2009 8:09 PM | Report abuse

Minute Maid orange juice? Never buy it. too expensive. I get the store brand. ALL dish detergent? Never buy it. I get the store brand. Private school? Why not homeschool the kids this year? It's not like they're learning algebra at their ages.

If rent on a one-bedroom apartment is $1500, by the time they pay telephone, air conditioning, electricity, water, condo fees, they'll be paying $2100. The hotel at first sounded expensive, but if they don't have good credit, who is going to rent to them without two months' rent and deposit?

The mom might try working for the hotel while the kids are in school.

Posted by: mcleangirl | August 10, 2009 8:12 PM | Report abuse

Relative to the "I could find a cheaper apartment somewhere else comment", or come to think of it, all of the negative comments here. They remind of the "why didn't they leave New Orleans when they knew Katrina was coming?" comments.

You don't know what any of these folks are going through, and certainly, a 6 paragraph article does not give you enough information to judge them. Come to think of it, the point of this article is for you to see things through THEIR eyes, not for you to judge them based on YOUR experience and current social status.

Posted by: JohnDinHouston | August 10, 2009 8:24 PM | Report abuse

read what I wrote Mclean girl...

You don't have enough information to make that call....

Posted by: JohnDinHouston | August 10, 2009 8:26 PM | Report abuse

Welcome wasting away in the new Obama-ville. Dem's have had Congress for 2 1/2 years and if King Obimbo has his way, we'll have health insurance and living in Obama-villes.

We'll be "Nibblin on sponge cake
Watchin the sun bake
All of those Congressmen covered with oil
Strummin my our thing,
On my front porch swing
Smell those jobs, they have long gone

Wastin away again in my Obama-ville
Searching for my lost job and a malt
Some people claim that theres a woman to blame..,"
and her name is Nancy Pelosi
and her idiot King Obambi
That has made a so-called "disaster" a freakin' catastrophe.

When I lived in California, community colleges were FREE and State colleges and universities ran about $150-$280 a semester / quarter. Today, it's obscene! (Got $10k a year?)

Why? Thank Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the idiots in the California Delegation for hosing the State, while they were state legislators.

For what they did to California, so shall they do for the nation!

Obimbo is the King, so let's see what he's doing. Yeah, playing golf on the weekends. Pass some of that Waygu beef to the Chamberlain's, Your Hind_AZZ.

Posted by: Computer_Forensics_Expert_Computer_Expert_Witness | August 10, 2009 8:33 PM | Report abuse

It's sad to see people having to live like this. obama is destroying this country.

Posted by: yokosuka1985 | August 10, 2009 8:36 PM | Report abuse

Would have been nice if we knew where to send some money to help. If they only need $3,000 to get out of there I'm sure ten people can come up with $300 each. I'm in for ten percent. I've had it rough also but now I'm fine. sometimes it just takes people helping people and leaving the government out of it

Posted by: ease99 | August 10, 2009 8:58 PM | Report abuse

People have to live in motels because their credit score won't allow them to rent an apartment. It is a shame that that is the way our economy runs, but it is a fact.

In 1967 I lived in a $25/week motel because I hadn't built a credit history. I had some contacts that got me into my first apartment and then I established a credit history. Eight years later, my wife and I bought my first house.

yokosuka1985 has a typical comment of the completely uninformed. Mr. Obama didn't create this problem, neither did Bush. Presidents don't have that much effect on the economy. Bush did, with the wars, but in normal times, no effect. We did it to ourselves. I it easy to blame tough times on others but this is our fault. I "had" neighbors that did what caused the beginning of the housing crisis, they saw the easy money, refinanced, abandoned the house and left with a pocket full of money.

These are the people you should be blaming, in addition to the financing industry.

Posted by: mortified469 | August 10, 2009 9:00 PM | Report abuse

Oh and I forgot, I'm a diehard republican but even I know Obama had nothing to do with this mess. I don't like his policies but I'm not stupid enough to hand the blame to a guy whose only been in office a few months. He took office the same month these people moved into the motel, it makes conservatives look bad when we blame him and not the Bushies

Posted by: ease99 | August 10, 2009 9:09 PM | Report abuse

yokosuka1985 said:

It's sad to see people having to live like this. obama is destroying this country.

Yoko you are confused. This family has been living in this motel since January of this year as the article states. Bush was president in January.

Posted by: antiquepaper1 | August 10, 2009 9:42 PM | Report abuse

I know the author and photographer scrutinize each and every one of these comments. So keep doing what you do because you do it very well. I follow this series every week and look forward to each new post.

That being said, don't get too disheartened by the negative comments. Most of these "negative" posters live a life of privilege in the burbs and do not want to acknowledge that our country is barely operating in a state of crisis.

My heart goes out to each and every one of these individuals that you post about. Most notably the gentlemen when you started in VA in the homeless camp really took the cake. (Perhaps a follow up?)

I'll concede that I definitely deem some of these people more "worthy" than others, but the bottom line is that they are all in far worse shape than I am currently in.

Thank you for this series! It's given me a lot of perspective.

Posted by: wheels979 | August 10, 2009 9:53 PM | Report abuse

to ease99:
If people want to help why not do it locally, every town has this problem and there are many things one can do to help even as simple as handing out blanket or sleeping bags, personal hygene items, food and so on, or donate items to local shelters,
I try to give when I see a need, many times just walking to the store, I see need and give a little when I can. Don't shy away from homeless looking people, think if it was you. Even if it's liquor they want, think what it's like to be on the street with dt's and no place to lay down, no bathroom and so on. At public laundries you see them try to clean up and so on.
This country really, really needs to do more.

Posted by: dianed2 | August 10, 2009 9:55 PM | Report abuse

There was a time when a man would do everything for his family, instead of sitting in a hotel, collecting welfare, food stamps, Medicaid and rental assitance from the state.

While living in California, I've had my back against the wall, but never caved-in to despair or take a nickel in welfare payments. I ate my share of "Top-Ramen" and saved enough money for a small home, within two years of leaving California. I know have a large home, right off of a golf course and this is what my dream was.

I feel sorry for the Chamberlain's, but Pelosi and Reid have been running the House and Senate for 2 1/2 years.

What has Mr. Chamberlain done to either find another job, in another state or to improve his lot in life?

This may the time that tries men's souls, but the choice is clear- You can't rely on King Obimbo or anybody else, except yourself. Move to where the jobs are.

I did and never I looked back.

Posted by: Computer_Forensics_Expert_Computer_Expert_Witness | August 10, 2009 9:57 PM | Report abuse

Are you reading the same story that I am, Computer Expert?

I just read a touching tale about a family with their back against the wall, not accepting a dime from welfare, and working hard to save enough money for the down payment on a house. Why should they be moving when they are working on an achievable goal?

Posted by: iamweaver | August 10, 2009 10:05 PM | Report abuse

jellyhouse56: In the old days, they would have made sure people like you wouldn't be able to reproduce.

Posted by: Jumpy66 | August 11, 2009 12:27 PM | Report abuse

Computer Expert, it says her husband has a job.

Posted by: mlc2 | August 11, 2009 2:34 PM | Report abuse

Computer novice you are the only Bimbo, President Barack Obama has more intelligence, and a higher IQ in his pinkie finger than you have in your whole redneck sick loser body. You are sick, sad, a joke, and a pathetic excuse for a human being. You have a home off of a golf course, yeah right, what a shack near putt putt golf?

Posted by: 72Redskins | August 11, 2009 11:13 PM | Report abuse

@72Redskins scribbled- Computer novice you are the only Bimbo, President Barack Obama has more intelligence, and a higher IQ in his pinkie finger than you have in your whole redneck sick loser body. You are sick, sad, a joke, and a pathetic excuse for a human being. You have a home off of a golf course, yeah right, what a shack near putt putt golf?
A typical Obama-Nutzi rebuttal that is like his "Fearless Leader." I'll bet you were one of the people who flew-up to New York to stake your clain on George Soros' free $200.

I run a business and work for a living. As the Great Alec Baldwin said in Glen Garry, Glen Ross, "A... B... C... - Always Be Closing."

I'm far from being a "Redneck", but if I had my choice of being a "Lear Jet Liberal" and a "Redneck" I say, pass the grits and let's get to work.

Ever hear that a little rain falls in everybody's life? Well, B.O. is a freakin' deluge for people who keep America's infratructure running. You see, WE PAY TAXES.

I've saved my money and belong to a country club. If you feel inferior, you'll need to take advantage of the BO Health Care Plan in which the treat you like a mushroom by keeping you in the dark, feeding you manure and then turned into pizza topping.

Me? I wanted something, applied myself and reached my goals, while facing the challenges like "Affirmative Action" and "Disadvanteged Business" set-asides, which threw business towards unqualified firms or furms with a bogus corporate officer front, while good people were left scratching their heads wonder why the government is throwing money down a rat-hole.

Anyway, the thing is I applied myself and achieved. I don't need King Obambi and his crew of theives cutting into my golf allowance. I pay my share and donate a heck of a lot more. What's your lame excuse for whining? Yo' mamma didn't make you lunch when you were in elemetary school?

Posted by: Computer_Forensics_Expert_Computer_Expert_Witness | August 13, 2009 10:23 AM | Report abuse

It's sad to see people having to live like this. obama is destroying this country.

Posted by: yokosuka1985
LOL...really; so Obama is at fault here? Does it matter that these people moved into this hotel the same month that Obama took over as President?--NO...Does it matter that Obama has only been President for less than 8 months?--NO...that's right the NO, NO, NO, crowd at it again refusing to accept responsibility for the conditions that their administration left this Country in while at the same time standing in the way of progress with their chants of NO, NO, NO, SOCIALISM, SOCIALISM, SOCIALISM!! Amazing...simply amaging!

Posted by: Beingsensible | August 13, 2009 11:22 AM | Report abuse

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