A car to call home: Surprising number of homeless live in their vehicles, experts say

A car to call home: Surprising number of homeless live in their vehicles, experts say

July 7th, 2014 by Yolanda Putman in Local Regional News

Robert Nix sits in the back of his vehicle, which he lives in.

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

Robert Nix is one of the growing number of people living in their cars.

Robert Nix is one of the growing number...

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

Heat hovered in the 80s and the rain clouds had come and gone, leaving a suffocating mugginess.

Across from the Chattanooga Community Kitchen, Robert Nix, 49, sat in the driver's seat of his green Dodge van and waited for the sun to set. He waited for dark, when he would drive down the road and find a quiet place to park for the night, a place where he could spread out on one of the back seats and sleep.

For Nix, this van is the only home he knows. A cloth covers the passenger window, but doesn't keep out the summer heat. Handwritten notes cover the seats, scribbles for the book he is working on. The seats are torn and musty.

In and out of mental institutions, Nix hasn't held a job since his time in the military. He talks of fallen angels and aliens, and says he finds gas money by collecting scrap metal. He's homeless, but one of the lucky ones. After all, a car seat is better than a bench or concrete. At least he has a roof over his head.

"I keep plugging and mushing along to pull myself out of the mud," he said. "I'm thinking about trying to get an apartment."

When the economy crashed and foreclosure rates spiked several years ago, many people found themselves with cars but without addresses. No one knows exactly how many people are living out of their vehicles, but local aid workers say the number has risen in recent years.

Social workers hear their stories when they come for a shower or food and at night they see cars with newspapers covering the windows and blankets spread out. Some vehicles are even decorated like bedrooms with photos and mementos hanging.

"There has been a great increase in the number of people sleeping in cars," said Jens Christensen, Chattanooga Community Kitchen's executive director.

They park on the far reaches of Walmart parking lots, in hotel lots and at camp grounds. Some are like Nix, unstable, struggling with mental health but lucid enough to maintain transportation. Some are newly poor because of lost work.

Others use their cars to conceal their homelessness and even clock in at an office, said Michael Stoops, director of community organizing at the National Coalition for the Homeless.

There are not enough beds in overcrowded shelters, Stoops said, forcing many people to use their vehicles as a home. Some, like those who struggle with addictions or mental illness, can't follow the regulations of a shelter.

"The car is the last thing they have," Stoops said. "That's the vehicle to find a better life."

While homelessness across the country has been on the decline - in 2009 there were 643,067 documented homeless and in 2013 there were 610,042 - Chattanooga's homeless population has risen. A count in 2014 showed it had jumped 14 percent since 2012.

Of the 627 homeless people counted in Chattanooga this year, 171 were documented as "unsheltered," either sleeping on the street or in their cars. But those numbers are not exact.

A 34-year-old who wouldn't give her name came to the Chattanooga Community Kitchen recently for services.

She said she drove to Chattanooga from Atlanta with her 7-year-old and 13-year-old in search of work. The entire family slept in their car while she applied for jobs. Eventually, she had to send her children back to Atlanta to stay with family because she couldn't afford gas.

Recently she got part-time work at an assisted living facility, but she still sleeps in her car at night, on the waiting list for a shelter bed.

James Frye, 41, who was at the Community Kitchen the same day, said he has lived in his car for five years off and on. He was laid off from his job on the production line at a chicken plant and couldn't pay the bills.

He begs for money at Walmart, close to where he parks, to get money for gas and food.

"I am here till I get me a better job," he said. "I am working on getting a place."

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at yputman@timesfreepress.com.