The Lincoln Tunnel Motel is a family-owned, no-frills spot in North Bergen, New Jersey near – of course – the Lincoln Tunnel into New York City. The motel isn’t glamorous, but it has gained quite a following on TikTok – not because it’s a tourist destination, but because it’s a special place for people who don’t have a home.
Brian Arya’s dad owns the 41-room motel. And in 2012, Brian decided to join the family business “after years and years of saying, ‘No. I’m not going down the motel route,'” he said.
“I was doing the night shift while pursuing my acting career during the day,” Brian told CBS News. While this graveyard shift could’ve been less-than-inspiring work, Brian decided to incorporate his love for creating and acting into his job.
They film TikTok challenges. They joke about their daily tasks at what they affectionately call “Motel Hell.” They bowl with guests in the hallway using disposable cups and a fake skeleton skull. And they’ve gained more than 822,000 followers on the platform – because even though most of their videos are silly, some are inspiring.
In one video, Brian pretends to talk to his younger self. The 16-year-old version of Brian is shocked he’s working at his dad’s motel, but present-day Brian assures him “we’re helping people.”
“One day I was thinking how interesting it would be if we just gave a free night stay to anyone who followed us on TikTok,” Brian said. “And around that time the pandemic happened.”
“People started getting quarantined, lockdowns starting happening, and then we started seeing an influx of unhoused people. You know, they just couldn’t afford rent anymore. And so, they’d come to our motel. And that just snowballed from there,” he said.
Brian started to let anyone who needed a place to stay take a room for free, no questions asked. He promoted it on TikTok as the “Free Room for You” program. And if the TikTok wasn’t already popular, it was after.
Some of the Lincoln Tunnel Motel’s followers started pitching in by sending monetary donations, food and supplies like toiletries for the people living there.
And not only do people come to the motel stay – they come to help. “People will come in and not want to rent a room, but say, ‘Hey, I want to rent this for the next person.’ And that’s just incredible,” Brian said.
When students from a local college found the TikTok, they started donating food from the school’s free food pantry to the guests at the motel. And people from across the country have helped fulfill Brian’s Amazon wishlist – a list of supplies he copied from other similar charities and homeless shelters.
Now that it’s cold outside, the motel and the people who donate are more needed than ever. “Last night it was 18 degrees. And just the other day, someone – who remained anonymous – dropped off care packages that they’ve made themselves, full of items. And they dropped off like 20 of them, just for me to give to a random person just walking off the street. Which I did, just last night,” he said.
Brian said he’s given away 50 to 60 free rooms so far. About half of the guests who came after losing their homes at the start of the pandemic are still there. “There’s definitely a community there,” he said. “Some of them are locals who have lived at the motel for a long time now … we all got to know each other.”
“Originally, I was a little shy,” said Brian. “After 10 years of working there … you just got to talk. You just got to get to know people, get to know their stories. And I’m fortunate I get to do that.”