OPINION: When your car becomes your home
Earlier this week, I walked out the front door of Jubilee House to find a police car’s lights flashing. The police officer was looking at a truck that is often parked in one of the parallel spots on our street. It belongs to a homeless friend, who more or less lives out of the truck, and sometimes sleeps in our home when the weather is particularly cold. Our friend is in a difficult situation: he suffered a severe brain injury a while back and he is limited in what he can do for work. Employers don’t want to take him on because of his brain injury and the risk they assume if they were to hire him. His income is very limited, making it virtually impossible to earn enough money to afford an apartment or even a room somewhere. He struggles just to come up with enough money to put gas in his truck. He’s a nice, fairly unassuming fellow who has always been respectful and courteous to all of us at the house, often helping us out with chores and household projects. Most often, you’ll find him reading a book in some quiet corner of our neighborhood.
The officer asked me if I knew whose truck it was; I told him I did and shared with him a little bit about our friend. He said that he had gotten a complaint about it, and he pointed out that a tire was flat, there was a lot of trash in the car, and it had been in the same spot for too long (72 hours in a public parking space is the limit). I told him I’d talk to our friend and ask him to clean it out, fix the tire and move the truck (which would probably just mean moving it to the other side of the street).
On our street, we have another house or two and a couple of businesses. The businesses have always been pretty kind and cooperative with us, letting us know if they perceive any problems, and we typically work things out amicably to the benefit of everyone. The reason for the complaint against our friend’s truck had to do with how someone living out of his truck (and a messy truck at that) affects business, affects another’s investment.
We’ve had others who have lived out of their vehicles (usually older models, on the beaten-up side) on our street as well. Their stories are also compelling: one is an older man who gets a disability check but sends the bulk of it to his daughter in Ohio whose husband had left her and their children and who was struggling to make ends meet; the other is a couple with the husband suffering from multiple serious medical issues. They are all limited in where they can go, and frankly, they’re near us because they know us to be friends they can turn to if they are in need of help. (I do want to emphasize that for the most part, each of these folks are incredibly independent; they “live” in proximity to us but they take great pride in seeing to their own needs.)
I can understand and appreciate some of the concerns that a property owner might have, and I agree especially that folks like our friends really need to keep their cars clean and neat. (We offered to help our friend with the truck get it cleaned up and in working condition to make it less conspicuous.) Maybe getting our friend to clean up his truck and fix his tire will be enough to answer the complaint. I hope so. Very few people would choose to live out of their car if there was another alternative. But for some–actually more and more as the economy continues to crash–living in their car is the only alternative to living on the street.
I hope that each one of us can resist seeing our brothers and sisters who are living out of their cars and trucks because they have nowhere else to go as nuisances or eyesores. Homelessness itself is already enough of an indignity that no one in that position needs any further indignity added to it. When we see someone close to us–a family member, a friend, a neighbor–suffering, broken, embarrased or brought low, I think that the vast majority of us feel called to treat them with even more gentleness, respect and care than we might typically give. For people who are homeless and living out of necessity in their cars, I hope that this is what they can expect from us. They have nowhere to go, and they are trying to do as best they can in a really difficult, and often dehumanizing situation.
Those parked and living on our street are, in fact, our neighbors. And they are victims, as much as any refugee of an earthquake, hurricane, tsunami, or whatnot. Each of them has suffered their own personal (sometimes literal) Hurricane Katrinas. We can make things a little better for them. As good neighbors, we can help them; and, when necessary, we can help them to be good neighbors too.