Challenges for People Living in Cars

People Living in Cars

A Day in the Life for People Living in Cars

It’s 8pm on a Friday night. You pull your car into the parking lot of a local chain store. Steering to the far end of the lot, you seek the most secluded area. You check your cell phone battery – it’s at 82% – and then cut the engine. It’s a warm night and there is a nice breeze. But you don’t want to call attention to yourself, so you stay in the car. Eating a burrito you got at the local gas station for dinner, you survey your surroundings. The parking lot lights are bright and will stay on all night. Good for safety, tough for sleeping. Shoppers enter and leave the store, the automatic doors closing and opening with a click and swish each time.

Finishing the burrito, you straighten your hair in the mirror. You tuck your toothbrush and toothpaste into your pocket and head into the store. One of the clerks stares at you. You smile and try to look friendly but unapproachable. Don’t mess with me, you think. You head to the bathroom to wash up for the night and use the bathroom. The air conditioning feels good, so you wander the aisles for a bit, but don’t stay too long. The weekday manager doesn’t seem to mind you parking in the lot – but the weekend guy is on tonight and he’s less friendly.

Back at the car, you organize your things a bit. You take off your uniform shirt, which is stained from your shift at the diner. You’ve worn it for three shifts straight and it really smells. Your boss noticed – told you not to show up in dirty clothes again. You toss it into the laundry pile behind the passenger seat. It’s a huge pile. You’ll have to get to the laundromat this weekend.

You Look Around the Lot Again.

A mother fights with her child. Two men head to a truck, talking and cursing loudly. The automatic door clicks and swishes. You pull out your wallet low in your lap to count what you have left for cash. $18.50. Do some quick math. $10 for gas. Can you get away with $5 for food? That would leave $2.50 for one load of laundry and you could save $1.

You rummage through the grocery bag on the passenger seat of the car. Two apples and some peanut butter. A coke. Okay. It should be okay. You can feel panic rising inside you. I’m hungry, it says. Go away, you say back. I’m lonely, it says. Go away, you say back again. You’ll charm the customers tomorrow, and with a clean shirt, maybe you’ll get some better tips. You can make it one more week – pay day.

Folding up the cash, you put it back in your wallet. You take the dollar you plan to save and fish around under the armrest of the driver’s seat. Finding the crack in the plastic, you slip the dollar bill into it. You recall with a shiver the night a few months ago when some guys broke into the car in the middle of the night. They took your money, all of it, from your pockets. Ever since then, you try to tuck a few dollars away every now and then, into the crack in the armrest. You slip the rest into your shoe, which you’ll leave on all night.

You Shift in Your Seat.

The seat belt jabs your leg. The car starts to feel stuffy. It smells. Crouching low in the seat, you play on your phone for a bit. Watching the battery power sink to 40 percent, you know it’s time to stop. You crack two of the windows, just a little bit, to help with the condensation that builds up on the windows. Time to try to sleep. You double check that the doors are locked and climb into the back seat.

You prop the pillow against the door, pull a blanket up around you and over your head. The lights of the parking lot shine bright, even through the blanket. You sleep for a few minutes. An hour? Your leg cramps and you adjust, trying to get your body into an angle where you can stretch it out completely.

Noise in the parking lot. You lay low, watching out the window. A few people pull up, far enough away that you won’t likely attract attention. They yell. A radio blares from a car. You wait. It silences. They’re sleeping, too. You drift off. It’s cold. You wake up. Stretch. Shift. Pull the blanket tighter over your face. 4am. Birds start to chirp. Groaning, you stretch and try to capture some more sleep. It eludes you. At 6am, you crawl back to the front of the car, start up the engine, and head to the gas station so you can use the bathroom and fill up the tank. Another day.


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C4 Innovations advances recovery, wellness, and housing stability for people who are marginalized. We are committed to reducing disparities and achieving equitable outcomes. We partner with service organizations, communities, and systems to develop and implement research-based solutions that are: person-centered, recovery-oriented, and trauma-informed.

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