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‘Hard, scary, sad’: life at a highway rest stop

Lisa lived in her car at a rest stop beside a highway near Seattle from May through early December of last year. With her was her 15-year-old son, a newbie among the more than 21,000 Washington state students who were homeless at that time. The boy and his mother would move into a motel room for two weeks to get clean and well-slept and recover some optimism, then return to the rest stop for two weeks to save money for gas and other necessities. “If I talk about it I get emotional,” she said. “My apologies if I start to cry. It was hard. It was scary. It was sad.”

Lisa had lost a job she loved, as manager of a 7-11 store in nearby Sea-Tac, when she was disabled by multiple sclerosis. After her landlord died and his heirs sold the home that she and her son had rented with housemates, she “fell short,” she said. She had no savings to cover what it would take to rent a new place: the background screening fees landlords demand, plus first-and-last months’ rent if her application was accepted, plus any deposit for cleaning or security. These requirements add up to a daunting total for poor people, even when they have jobs and the rent won’t gobble up well over half their income.

But too often the rent does exactly that in America, even to full-time workers, says a report published March 14 by the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC). The report, Out of Reach 2012: America’s Forgotten Housing Crisis, compares rental rates and working-wage levels across the country and finds that market pay for low- and median-level wage-earners simply can't cover market rents.

To pay for a modest, affordable two-bedroom apartment at fair market rental rates in an American city — “affordable” defined as costing no more than 30 percent of one’s income — a worker must earn what NLIHC calls a Housing Wage of $18.25 per hour. But wage-earners in urban areas average only $14.15 per hour. Outside metropolitan areas, where affordable rental units require an hourly Housing Wage of $12.21, wages average only $9.97.

Rising demand for rental housing pushed rents higher when the recession depressed homeownership rates across the U.S., according to Out of Reach 2012. And the supply of low-cost rental units shrank, with landlords either remodeling them into higher-priced units or letting properties decay. The most serious shortages of affordable, decent rental units confront the poorest of the working poor — those earning 30 percent or less of area median income. For every 100 workers in this category seeking to rent a home, only 30 units that they can afford are available, according to the report.

Washington is the 16th most expensive state in the nation in terms of the Housing Wage required to pay for an affordable two-bedroom apartment, says NLIHC. A renter working here at the minimum wage of $9.04 per hour would have to put in 80 hours, 52 weeks a year (see chart at top right), and a renter earning the average Washington state wage of $14.62 would have to work 50 hours per week all year.

In short, says the report, even Washingtonians working full time at the state’s average wage can’t afford a very modest two-bedroom family apartment.

Lisa and her son found the rest stop where they lived for half of last year while driving along I-5 on one of their searches for low-cost housing. They turned off the highway to let the family dogs run around awhile, and Lisa saw a few people who seemed to be living in their vehicles. “It looked like a safe place to be,” she said. “With my ‘handicapped’ sticker I could park the car right across from the rest rooms and the kitchen area where there was coffee.”

When their laptop and cell phone needed charging, Lisa would take her son to McDonald’s, she said. For his sake “I tried to keep life as normal as possible.” He’d go to school as usual, and then afterward meet up with friends at a community center gym where they could shoot baskets together. When Lisa picked him up toward dinnertime, “he’d pretend to his friends he was going home,” she said. Her former husband, from whom Lisa had been divorced many years, stayed connected with his son as best he could despite working as a long-haul truck driver all over the country, calling nearly every day.

“The longer my son and I lived at the rest area,” said Lisa, “instead of being scared and hiding I started to watch, and I’d see the same people. The woman who brought the old man food every day. The Oldsmobile with a cracked windshield that two gentlemen lived in. The woman in the bluish-gray station wagon — she would take things in and out of her vehicle, constantly rearranging, like keeping house. It’s like at home when you’re bored, you clean out a closet, you take things out and put things in. I caught myself doing it where I was parked.”

On a cold, sunny March morning after hearing Lisa’s story, I drove with boxes of miniature doughnuts and a big Thermos pump pot full of hot coffee to a rest area near Seattle, wondering whether people were living in their vehicles there. If so, would they talk to me? Were they caught in what some pundits like to call a reset? The word conveniently finesses personal and civic responsibility, as if homelessness, for instance, were the morally neutral product of a gigantic machine's automatic functioning instead of the brutal result of policy decisions made by human beings, which human beings can change.

Juggling coffee, cream, sugar, cups, and doughnuts I approached the window of a dented blue Ford sedan with its warped hood roped to its front bumper. Behind the steering wheel sat an elderly man reading a Bible printed in some kind of Asian calligraphy. A clean folded towel covered the dashboard, a blanket draped the man’s knees, and the back seat was neatly stacked with boxes. Cranking the window down, he accepted a doughnut and a cup of coffee stirred with several spoonfuls of sugar plus an inch or so of half-and-half. He nodded when I asked him if he was living in his car. When I asked what chapter he was reading, he replied, “Matthew,” with a polite smile, then turned away from further questions.

In a parking slot closer to the rest room area, the rumpled, gray-haired owner of a dusty van crammed with belongings said he’d been living there for a year. Rick had loaded and driven trucks most of his life, until a degenerative spinal disc disease ended those work options. Now he awaited a decision on his formal application for SSI. His hopes for relief were high, so I didn’t say that even people who receive the maximum $698 monthly from Social Security for disabilities can’t find rental housing at what would be an affordable $209 per month (based on the guideline of spending 30 percent of income on housing). Perhaps he planned on sharing a house like Lisa’s former home.

Meanwhile, Rick said, he’s grateful to have a relatively safe place where he can live in his van. Highway patrol officers regularly check on vehicles overstaying the 8-hour limit to make sure drivers don’t have outstanding arrest warrants and aren’t intoxicated or on drugs, he said. “Speaking of which, all those years I was working, I thought people living the way I live now were deadbeats or drunks. Now I know better.”

Why would police officers and state highway employees let people like Rick and the silver-haired Bible reader park long-term in the rest area? “Maybe because they know if they rousted us out of here they’d have to roust us out someplace else, like a Wal-Mart lot,” said Rick. “Here, at least we’re sort of not in the public’s eye.”

In the parking space adjacent to Rick’s, an open-faced, clean-cut man in a fairly new white Jeep accepted coffee and two doughnuts. Duffy is in his fifties, a couple of years younger than Rick. In February, just before the lease on his apartment was set to rise rather steeply, he lost his job as a merchandiser. “I made over $50,000 a year at Sears,” he said. “I’ve only been living here a week, so I’m not as bad off as the lady in the pickup over there. She’s lived here seven years. A job’ll turn up soon for me.” To save on gas, he and Rick alternate driving together to get food and maintain contact with the worlds of medical care and potential employment opportunities.

Ann, an attractive, neatly dressed strawberry blonde who looked to be about 40, said she’d been living at the rest area ever since she was laid off from her warehouse job over a year ago. Her 20-year-old son, who didn't finish high school (“He hasn't had a chance,” said his mother), sat in their compact station wagon reading a Bret Easton Ellis novel as Ann and I stood in the sun for some conversation over containers of coffee. “It probably doesn’t sound like much, but at the warehouse I made $11 an hour.” she said. Ann keeps looking for work, though looking requires driving, “and that’s expensive.” Like Duffy, she made the best of her situation through comparisons with people who are worse off: “At least my son and I have a car to live in. Some don’t,” she said.

Across the lot from Ann’s vehicle a married couple sat in a small sedan with their tiny Chihuahua. They’ve been homeless for two weeks, said the wife, emerging from the front seat in baggy shorts. The woman and I sat on the curb in the sunshine and ate doughnuts as her husband, perhaps ashamed to talk about their situation, walked away toward the rest room, staring at the sidewalk. She and her husband couldn’t afford their apartment after the rent was suddenly raised, she said. Now they commute every afternoon from the rest area to the casino where her husband works, and she goes job-hunting while he's on duty. “We won’t be homeless long,” she said confidently. “We’re saving money already and just need to save up enough for first-and-last rent and so forth. I feel safer here than anyplace else we parked,” she said.

One of these stories already has a happy ending. Thanks to Solid Ground, the Seattle nonprofit that originally put me in touch with Lisa, she and her son now have a roof over their heads. Lisa’s more detailed account of living at a highway rest stop can be found in a recent post at Solid Ground Blog.

There’s a sad ending, too. It was time to go home, and my Thermos of coffee was nearly empty. I stopped by the dented blue Ford once more in case the elderly man reading his Bible might want the last of it. He held out his cup, and as I filled it with coffee and cream he gazed at the half-full box of doughnuts tucked awkwardly under my elbow. Maneuvering the box into his hands, I accidentally popped the lid open and dumped a few of the doughnuts onto the ground beside his door. He watched me pick them up. As I nodded goodbye, turning toward the garbage cans with a handful of grimy little cakes, he pointed at them and held his cupped hands out the window.

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