A Story from Beit T’Shuvah Magazine:

Life in my Car by Jeanene Barnett

More than 9,500 people live in cars, vans, or RVs throughout Los Angeles, according to the latest count. This is one of their stories.

We had lived together for ten years, and our families had known each other since I was 13. “Stunned” is a word that doesn’t quite describe what I felt when I learned that instead of paying our rent with the money I made, my boyfriend was using it to buy drugs for months on end. He hid his habit from me, and I never saw the eviction notices—he was always sure to tear them off the door right after they went up. By the time I realized what was going on, it was too late. We were evicted.

My 18-year-old son and I were homeless.

It was a long, difficult two years. We slept from pillar to post, taking refuge wherever we could. Shelters weren’t an option for us—the waitlists were endless and there was always the risk of being separated.

After crashing in my sister’s back-house, I saved up enough money for a car—a brand new Kia Soul. We rented a room in Santa Clarita from a co-worker’s friend, far from my son’s school and far from my job as a referral specialist at Health Net. We stayed there for about a year, but it was miserable. The family we rented from fought constantly, and the co-worker’s friend would meet strange men and leave them alone in the house with my son while she went out clubbing. My son became severely depressed. It was time to move. We rented rooms in motels all across Los Angeles, which were very expensive. I was running out of money.

Determined to turn our lives around, I began working 12-hour days and driving for Postmates and Uber on the weekends. We slept in the car – me in the backseat and my son in the front – and showered at the gym. I say we slept, but actual sleep was nearly impossible to come by—I was so worried that someone would rob us or the police would tell us to leave, as it was against the law to sleep in your car in a residential or business area at the time. There had to be a better solution.

I searched the internet and discovered an organization called Safe Parking Los Angeles, which arranges for people who sleep in their cars to park them on approved properties with security guards and bathrooms. I applied, and we were approved for one of their locations in the San Fernando Valley.

Things began to improve. From the first day, the security guard was so welcoming, even when he was off the clock. He extended kindness to everyone in the lot, and we became close friends. Knowing we were safe, we were finally able to sleep.

Our worries eased a bit, but I was still in pain, both physical and mental. I would cry, wondering when the nightmare would end. I remember when my co-worker got her apartment: She had been in the same situation as me, living in her car, but she was able to leave the lot and stay with a relative. I cried tears of joy for her, but I still questioned God: when would it be our turn?

One morning, I woke up to someone tapping on my window. Still bleary-eyed, I rolled the window down and a man shoved a microphone in my face asking if he could interview me for the news. I said, sure—why not. The segment aired on Fox 11 and L.A. Councilmember Bob Blumenfield was moved by the story. He sponsored a meeting with everyone in the parking lot, providing dinner for all of us and a space to hold a conversation. We talked and learned about each other, how we all had ended up homeless. A newspaper reporter was there and featured me in a story. That’s how my co-workers at Health Net found out I was homeless.

To my surprise, they were very understanding. My boss was shocked at how strong I was despite my situation. The blessings just kept coming, like a domino effect. After the story ran, Safe Parking Los Angeles asked me if I would speak to crowds of people who were considering opening their lots to use for the program.

I delivered my speeches and was frequently met with staunch resistance. The crowds could be cruel; many were adamant about not wanting drug addicts on their property. I kept speaking and became a fierce advocate for the homeless.

People hollered and screamed: “I don’t want those people on this lot!”. Well, I could be just as loud. Speaking passionately, I began to win the skeptics over. They looked at me and said, we don’t mean you—you’re a working person. You’re not crazy. I clearly didn’t match the image of homelessness they had in their minds. Worse, many viewed homelessness as a kind of moral failing. But I didn’t shy away. I stood before them as the new face of homelessness.

I explained that there are thousands of people who are sleeping in their cars, for countless reasons: maybe they lost their job. Maybe they were bankrupted by a medical emergency. Maybe they were struggling with mental health and didn’t have access to the right treatment or therapy. So many people in Los Angeles and beyond are just one emergency away from homelessness. People began to listen; they heard me.

When COVID-19 hit, Safe Parking LA continued providing resources for us. I found a company that helps people get into apartments, regardless of eviction history. I got approved, and Safe Parking LA helped me with the deposit and furnishings. I was so excited. It was finally my turn. Overjoyed, I paid it forward, helping strangers with their groceries and advising homeless people about the parking lots.

I am still working, and despite being laid off due to COVID, my son is doing well. We are surviving. I am grateful to have a roof over our heads, and I will continue to speak up and be an advocate–a voice for the new face of homelessness.

Beit T’Shuvah has been a partner of Safe Parking Los Angeles since January 2020, when we opened up our parking lot on National Boulevard.

Check out the full magazine here: Beit T’Shuvah Magazine