Did you live in your car

Homeless in the USWhen the car becomes home

Kenny is standing next to his car. A neat silver off-road vehicle. A bit of rust over a rear wheel. From the outside, an ordinary car on the streets of Fairfax, Virginia. A home from within. Kenny's home. "I live here at the moment, hopefully not for long," he says.

The man with shoulder-length, dark-blonde hair and narrow face has been sleeping in his car for six months. He moves his backpack, shoes and a bag from the passenger seat to the back. There's a Bible in the side door. Everything is neatly tidy. "I was once told by someone that I was the most organized homeless person they knew; should be a compliment," says Kenny.

The back seat is down. A flat mattress lies on top. A jacket, an ironed shirt and a tie hang on the side behind the driver's seat in front of the window. Including a small red suitcase and a black sports bag. Next to it is a shoebox, on top of neatly folded T-shirts and in front of the trunk lid a transparent box.

"This is my bedroom. On the right is my closet. There are my clothes and everything I need to survive. I have a blanket, a pillow, two sleeping bags and two pillows. It's reasonably comfortable this way."

Kenny is six feet tall. He lies diagonally in the car so that he can fit in and sleep for a few hours. The man in the white sweatshirt, black shorts and black woolen hat parks his car in a supermarket parking lot in the evening and spends the night there. Last night was cold.

"That worries me that it's getting colder and colder now and that I won't be able to sleep in the car for long. It's still okay at the moment, but as soon as we get around zero degrees it will be too cold. I can't turn the car on all the time. to heat, then my tank is empty and I can't even get anywhere to take a shower. "

No insurance, no credit

According to official government figures, just over half a million people are homeless and without permanent residence in the United States. The real numbers are much higher, say numerous non-governmental organizations. They criticize the fact that the official statistics, for example, do not include people who have stayed with friends on the couch for a while, even if they no longer have a home of their own. Kenny is 54. He is the son of a pastor, studied and after his time in the military worked as a car salesman. He can still clearly remember the day when his life went upside down:

"I had a serious accident on January 23, 2013. I broke my shoulder blade, neck and collarbone several times. My life changed radically that day." He hadn't taken out his employer's health insurance, it was too expensive. Kenny wasn't insured.

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The bills soon pile up at his home. His wife separates from him. His life is falling apart in a hurry before his eyes. At first he comes to live with friends, moves in with another woman, but the downward spiral keeps turning:

"They send an invoice and if you can't pay it, they call the hospital: When do you pay, when do you pay. Then they report it and your creditworthiness is downgraded. And a landlord looks at it and thinks: How should he." because pay his rent? "

Even if Kenny sounds confident and laughs every now and then when he talks about his life, you can feel the sadness and heaviness. When he tells that he has no contact with his two children, tears roll down his face. His shoulders are shaking. Kenny is crying. When he has recovered something, he tells what has gone on inside him:

"That's the thing I miss the most: hugs, interpersonal touch. It can also be a smile, a nice word. I miss that. I miss hugging my children more than anything else."

At eight o'clock in the morning, Kenny comes to the Lamb Center, a church organization. Here they make breakfast and lunch for the guests. There are showers, a clothes closet, a dentist and a hairdresser. They help to find a job and apartment. And behind a counter, three washing machines and four dryers are in constant use. Here volunteers wash the clothes of the homeless guests. Tim is retired. The man with the white, short hair and the warm smile takes from men and women their plastic bags with the laundry and returns them freshly washed and neatly folded. You know each other. Up to 60 bags full of pants, T-shirts, socks or sweaters are washed here every day.

Lent money to the wrong people

Melanie was once a lawyer’s secretary. Then she lent money to the wrong people. She was kicked out of her apartment because she couldn't pay the rent. Your daughter was ten at the time. Melanie brought her to her ex-husband with a heavy heart so that she could be taken care of. Then she was alone. Alone in her car:

"I parked in a residential area in the evening, lay down around nine thirty. I put my backrest back, my mother's ashes behind me and then I slept. Early in the morning I went to the supermarket, washed and changed. Hardly one knew that I was homeless. "

Melanie fought her way alone. She is proud to have her daughter graduate from high school this year, goes to the graduation ceremony. But tell your daughter that she lived in the car? No way! Melanie is sure of that. She should concentrate on her studies and what to do with her life. Stand safely on your own two feet. Melanie wishes that. They meet regularly, but the mother does not want to be ballast. So she's facing the harsh reality of her life on the street by herself. She survived, she says with a look back.

Dozens of men and women sit at the round tables. There are always a handful of people gathered around a long table during Bible study. Faith helps many keep going. Like Printice. He was married for 40 years, then his wife falls in love with someone else and separates from him. A few days later, Printice had his first heart attack. Since then, his life has been turned upside down.

"Your life can change completely from one moment to the next," he says. The personable man was regional manager for Walmart for 30 years. But that doesn't count when he gets sick: "After nine days they said: We don't need you anymore. It would have taken me at least six months to get well again, so they said: Thank you, you can go. "

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When he left the hospital after the heart operation, he spent the night in the forest in Fairfax: "You collect a little wood, fold up leaves and lie down. A bag as a pillow. I hope you have a warm jacket on. But there are many who those who sleep outside now have neither a warm jacket nor a sleeping bag. "

In the little wood behind the gas station on Arlington Boulevard in Fairfax, Printice lived for three and a half years. Fairfax County is the second richest county in the United States. The average income here is $ 117,500 per household per year. Only in neighboring Loudoun County do people live who earn even more on average.

The 62-year-old has had a room again for four months, a roof over his head. At the beginning he couldn't really enjoy it: "I couldn't sleep. It took a week before I could sleep there. I was out of place. You forget how life used to be."

Melanie knows the feeling. After a year and a half in the car, she has just found a room. She often thinks of her friends at the Lamb Center who weren't as lucky as she was. Melanie enjoys having a little home again at last: "If I have to, I can just go to the toilet and don't have to go to the gas station to use the toilet."

Dave Larrabee has been with the Lamb Center for 20 years. He saw many people come and go. There is a US flag on a shelf in Dave's office. Also a memory of a homeless man who has found his home here for a long time. When he died, a friend tried to get the former veteran to have a funeral with military honors. At the end of the process, a US flag is handed over and it is now in Dave's office because the deceased stated that the homeless facility was the closest relative. For many people, the Lamb Center is becoming a substitute family, explains the man with the white beard and glasses:

"There was Dan, for example. He worked in a good Italian restaurant in Reston and lived in his car. In 2015 he received an" Employee of the Month "badge. What should he do with it? Put it in the windshield of his car "So he gave it to me and I hung it up with us so that everyone could see it. How you do it as a family."

A family in a hotel room

It is not uncommon for homeless people to have a job and earn money in and around Washington. Life here is expensive and the salary is often insufficient to pay the rent for an apartment. In and around the US capital, prices have continued to rise in recent years. Angela Pearson doesn't earn enough as a chef to be able to afford an apartment either. She lives with her family at the Quality Inn. A hotel on a major road to Washington. Directly behind the railway line. There is no playground far and wide. The city has rented the entire hotel as emergency accommodation for families.

Angela is sitting on a sofa in her ankle-length dress. It's just after seven in the evening. The woman with the dark, shoulder-length hair is done: "I worked three days, 14 hours at a time. I'm tired. I sleep when the children are sleeping. But I'm really tired."

Now she only has an hour to herself. Because she left her children and grandchildren at play. Four times a week, the Children's Playtime Project opens the doors of the so-called ballroom in the Quality Inn for a good hour and a half in the evenings. There is then a children's play kitchen, a crawling area has been set up and volunteers play with the children. Two days for the very little ones, two days for the older children who live here. Sarah has worked for the Children's Playtime Project for years. She knows the children well. Around 20 romp around the room. Ty, Trust, Janica, Alora and Truth dress up, play with the small kitchen, do handicrafts or listen to a book being read aloud. You are among the regulars:

"Here you can just be a child. Here in the hotel there are signs everywhere that the children are not allowed to run around or play. There is a motorway right in front of the door. You cannot go out. You live with your whole family in a hotel room. Here you can she'll be a child. "

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Angela, her husband, three children and two grandchildren have two rooms in the hotel. A security guard is sitting at the entrance. Anyone who comes in here has to sign a list. Even children have to have their rucksacks searched with metal detectors if they want to get into their "home". Food is distributed in the breakfast room. Melanie Hatter from the Childrens Playtime Project knows how hard life is for the families here:

"The whole family lives in a hotel room. Mother and father sometimes share a hotel room with three children. That may be nice for a week on vacation. But if that's life and you can only prepare your food in a microwave or." from the city, it's not a good experience. "

Angela, whose salary is not enough to keep herself and her family afloat, to pay her rent, tries patiently to accept it. The rent is breaking the neck of many families here in Washington, explains Melanie Hatter:

“In an ideal world, you work and you can pay your rent, buy food and have a good life. But in cities like Washington, rents have risen so exorbitantly that a job with a minimum wage is not enough to pay the rent. The families get kicked out and end up on the street. "

Angela has lived here in the hotel with her family for over a year. When they moved in, they had been homeless for a year. The hotels are actually only intended as a transition, explains Sarah: "This should actually be here for a maximum of 90 days, because it's a hotel. But I know children who were born in the emergency shelter. They are now two or three years old The system dropped them. A lot of people don't know that and that's why they don't care. "

"Do not judge him"

During play lessons, the little ones crawl in a corner with baby toys. Others romp through the large room, which is carpeted. At the end, a volunteer donates two pizzas for the children and there is a tangerine and a muesli bar for everyone. The children try to have something like a normal life, to get by in school.

Meanwhile, the parents are struggling bit by bit to get a little closer to their dream of a home. Angela has worked hard to get her credit rating back on track. That means, she pays her bills on time, does not incur any new debts. For many landlords, this rating helps determine whether or not they give someone an apartment. Will they give Angela and her family an apartment? The chef keeps her family together. Her husband looks after children and grandchildren. They are waiting for that one, the liberating day that they all dream of. The day they get an apartment and move out of their hotel room. The day they will have a home again.

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Everything will get better at some point, she says before going to her hotel room for a short time. A few minutes without the kids. Breathe. Gather strength. Keep going. Kenny, who lives in his off-road vehicle, also keeps going. Now and then people hire him as a driver. Then he clears his car early in the morning, stores his things so that nothing in his car gives the impression that he sleeps in it. Then he drives people where they want to go, earns a few dollars and picks up his things in the evening, settles in his car again for the night. Then he is alone again and sometimes he desperately asks himself: What is all this for?

"There are days when you think: is it worth trying again? I'm so tired and tired of trying again and again. Should I try again today?"

Kenny is often lonely. The tall, slim man is currently writing applications and he so desperately wants a roof over his head before winter. Kenny remembers his old life well, where he had a family, a house and a new car. He remembers what he thought of the people who - like him now - were homeless. He wants one thing above all from the others, those who do not live on the streets:

"If you see someone walking down the street, someone who is sitting on a corner and looking beggarly poor, don't judge them until you've had their own experiences and you know what they're going through."

A bit of respect, a bit of recognition, to be noticed at all, that's what they all want: Kenny, Angela, Printice, Melanie and the millions of other people who fall through the cracks in the USA. They don't want pity, just a second chance in life.