Striving to keep up appearances

Homeless living in cars often go to great lengths to keep their situation a secret


FAIRFAX, Va. -- After being evicted from his apartment last year, Larry Chaney lived in his car for five months in Erie, Pa.

As he passed the time at local cafes, he always put a ring of old house keys and several envelopes with bills on the table to give the impression that he had a home like everyone else.

While Michelle Kennedy was living in her car with her three children in Belfast, Maine, she parked someplace different each night so no one would notice them, and she instructed the children to tell anyone who asked that they were "staying with friends."

Last year, William R. Alford started keeping a car cover over the station wagon where he sleeps. "I originally just had drapes, but the condensation on the inside of the windows was a dead giveaway," said Alford, who has been homeless in Fairfax since May 2005.

As with all homeless people, finding food, warmth and a place to clean up is a constant struggle. But for those who live in their cars, remaining inconspicuous is its own challenge, and though living this way is illegal in most places, experts and advocates say they believe it is a growing trend.

"It's most often the working poor who find themselves in this situation, teetering on the border between the possessed and the dispossessed," said Kim Hopper, a researcher on homelessness for the Nathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research, which is based in New York.

The number of "mobile homeless," as they are often called, tends to climb whenever the cost of housing outpaces wages, Hopper said.

Last year was the first year on record, according to an annual study conducted by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, that a full-time worker at minimum wage could not afford a one-bedroom apartment anywhere in the country at average market rates.

In 2001, officials in Lynnwood, Wash., a suburb of Seattle, passed an ordinance imposing penalties of 90 days in jail or fines of up to $1,000 against people caught living in their cars.

Peter Van Giesen, a code enforcement officer for the town, said that up to 20 cars a night were found.

"Most of these people were trying to find work," Van Giesen said.

Living inside their last major possession, the mobile homeless have often just fallen on hard times, advocates and social workers say, and since they are more likely to view their situation as temporary, they are also more inclined to keep it secret.

Though the average duration of homelessness is four months, it tends to be shorter for the mobile homeless, experts say.

"You spend a lot of effort just trying to pass," said Kennedy, a former Senate page who wrote a book, Without a Net: Middle Class and Homeless (with Kids) in America (Viking Adult, 2005), about her experiences being homeless for several months in 1997 after her marriage fell apart. But residing - and hiding - in plain sight takes guile.

The best location is one sparse enough to avoid nosy onlookers but populated enough that the car does not stand out, they say, near enough to walk to a restroom but far enough to avoid passers-by. Parking lots of big-box retailers are a popular choice. If free, hospital parking lots are also an option. Guards often take pity when told that you are waiting to visit a sick spouse, many say.

Finding a place to shower can take ingenuity.

"The key is to be smart about when you enter and leave the building," said Randy Brown, who for the last three months while living in his car has been sneaking onto a college campus near where he waits tables in Fredericksburg, Va., and using a shower that security guards do not realize is publicly accessible.

Like several others interviewed, Chaney said that when he lost his trucking business after Hurricane Katrina and was evicted from his home, he was lucky enough to have already paid for a yearlong gym membership.

"That was probably the most important thing I had for keeping up appearances," said Chaney.

While pride is usually the motivation for not telling friends or family, worries about the law and harassment are more often the reason people give for keeping their situation hidden. Safety is also a concern, advocates say, since homeless people are frequently targets for crime and physical abuse.

Alford said he had learned to move slowly to avoid attracting attention by rocking the car when he was inside. When he has a lot of items to take from his car to the library, where he spends much of his time, he makes several trips rather than load his arms and seem like a "bag lady," he said.

"It might seem crazy, but the stakes are pretty high in the suburbs when it comes to staying invisible, because it's supposed to be sanitized out here," said Alford, who works occasionally as a Web developer. "People call 911 in the city to report seeing a homeless person, and the cops laugh.

"Out here, the cops are out the door in no time when that call comes in."

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