Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Their Cars Are Their Beds

It’s almost bedtime. John Baird Jr., 47, smokes on the hood of his 2004 Mercury Grand Marquis sedan, his plaid sleeping bag neatly tucked in the trunk.

Kathleen McDermott, 81, slouches in the driver’s seat of her 2002 Ford Focus station wagon. Two angel statuettes stare from her dashboard into clothes and clutter behind her.

Scott Downey, 52, works a crossword puzzle on his phone inside a 2006 Chrysler Town & Country van that smells faintly like cats. Clothes hang on hooks in the back, and emergency supplies of ramen noodles and Vienna sausages sit out of plain view.

They are in a Home Depot parking lot, largely invisible among the subdivisions and sprawl of Northern Virginia’s Fairfax County, the nation’s second-wealthiest community.

Sleeping in their cars, they are homeless but sort of not, a subset of a population officially classified as “unsheltered” and slowly shrinking in these suburbs of Washington, even as the number of people living in poverty continues to grow.

Each member of the trio spent decades living a more stable existence before family trauma or economic hardship led them to the streets.

Here, they help one another with errands and auto repairs, carpool to work or church, and check in on one another at night.

Just like their neighbors in the subdivisions around them.

Not the life he expected

After pulling into his usual sleeping spot off Route 50, Baird looks left, right and left again. There are other car dwellers parked nearby. The glare of laptop computers or lit cigarettes gives them away in the dark.

He pops the trunk and pulls out his sleeping bag and pillow, leaving the bags of family photos, medical records and other belongings undisturbed. After nearly 200,000 miles, his car has broken down a few times, and Baird’s tab at a nearby garage has ticked up to $1,800. But he is careful to keep the interior neat and uncluttered, clear of any obvious signs that he’s homeless.

Once the sleeping bag is unrolled onto the rear seat, Baird stretches out. A slight breeze blows through a partly opened window. The radio is on, a news anchor droning away, until he turns it off and shuts his eyes.

Baird grew up in Washington, D.C., with greater prospects, the son of a certified public accountant in a solidly middle-class Northwest neighborhood.

He always loved cars, and he worked at a gas station after high school before studying accounting at George Washington University. Meniere’s disease, an inner-ear disorder that causes intense dizzy spells and nausea, kept him from following in his father’s footsteps.

“I could turn my head too quickly and all of a sudden, boom — I’m on my back,” Baird said. “It can knock me out, like somebody hit me in the head with a baseball bat.”

He took a job as a mechanic for a Volkswagen dealership in Bethesda, Md., got married and had a son. When the marriage broke up, Baird inherited the Grand Marquis. Child-support payments and the monthly charges for the tools he rented ate up most of his paycheck. Soon, the sedan became his home.

He met Downey at the Lamb Center in Fairfax, which offers breakfast, showers, laundry and other services to the homeless. By then, Baird was working as a day laborer for a temp agency. The dizzy spells had worsened, and he could no longer comfortably duck his head beneath the hood of a car.

He and Downey began parking next to each other overnight in the Home Depot lot, where church volunteers pass out cartons of donated dinners six days a week. The two men agreed to watch out for each other. (...)

‘What makes a good neighbor?’

On warm evenings, Downey will sometimes stretch out on the asphalt of the Home Depot parking lot and nap. His body aches from all the driving he does and from sleeping in the driver’s seat of his van when the weather is too hot to sleep in the back.

He bought the vehicle in 2013 for his wife, Kay, who lives in a mobile home in Salisbury, Md., with her 11-year-old grandson. Downey travels there some weekends to visit — stop-and-go Friday traffic for 160 miles.

The couple met online in 2006 and married a year later. They worked as school bus drivers and lived at a mobile-home park in Fairfax City for three years.

Eventually, Kay became homesick and moved back to the Eastern Shore. Downey, who grew up in Burke, couldn’t find work there. He returned to Virginia, eventually taking the van with him.

“Even a room inside someone’s house costs $700,” he said. “I can’t afford that.”

Downey earns $9.25 an hour at an auto auction house in Sterling, driving new and used cars across a vast lot and cleaning them to prep them for sale. He says most of his paycheck goes toward the lot fee for the mobile home.

He has learned which churches serve the best free meals on which nights and how to blend in with the rest of suburbia. One night, he sat for hours in front of a computer in a public library, studiously catching up on the gospel music scene. He also frequents a local Marriott, sitting in a rear lobby charging his phone and using the hotel’s WiFi connection on his laptop.

Some weekends, Downey drives a van for New Hope Fellowship in Chantilly, ferrying homeless people who don’t have vehicles to the service. On a recent Sunday, the congregation included Baird and McDermott, as well as several other current and former car dwellers: a woman who used to sleep in her 1993 Toyota Corolla, a mother and son who live in their van, and a blind woman and her husband who have slept with a dog in their van for most of the past four years.

Pastor Pat Deavers’s sermon focused on the biblical parable of the good Samaritan, a story about helping a stranger in need.

“That’s really the question, isn’t it?” she said, her voice rising. “Who is our neighbor? And what makes a good neighbor?”

by Antonio Olivo, WP |  Read more:
Image: Sarah L. Voisin