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The face of homelessness

By Michelle Kennedy

Once upon a time, my three children and I lived in my car.

It was another beautiful autumn day in my rural Vermont town, and I enjoyed the short drive off our hill down to the school where I would pick up my four children. It was the kind of day that makes one happy to be right where they are— the air crisp, but not too cold or hot and sun shining, but not too bright and made one forget that there was ever another life beside this one, where everything was going so well. I enjoyed the sound of the leaves crunching under my boots as I made my way to a spot overlooking the playground where we mothers gather to wait for the end of the school day.

I talked to the other mothers for a while and as we thinned out, I continued to talk with one mom who was obviously upset. She was an attractive woman, and her children were well-dressed and well-behaved. They played cheerfully on the playground with my children as we talked. I led her to a park bench where I listened to her tell me about her husband, recently injured on a farm job in town, and her worries of how they would not only pay the rent, but how she would have to quit school and find work until her husband recovered.

They lived on the farm owner’s property and while their rent was reduced, it wasn’t free, and she was afraid they would have to move somewhere else, as a healthier laborer would need the house they now called their own. I sympathized with her, and gave her some ideas of where she might be able to receive some temporary help. She left with a weak smile and I gathered up my own children, no longer mindful of the leaves under my feet. I watched her as she drove off in her decades-old car, shocked at what I had just heard from a woman I had always admired as so “put together,” and hoping that she wouldn’t end up living in it as I once had.

On such perfect days, when I can pick up my children in a car that runs well and take them home to our nice farm, it is hard for me to imagine that once upon a time, we lived in my car.

What began as an experiment in voluntary simplicity and a move to the far north of Maine, quickly became a nightmare for me and three of my children. The cabin my now ex-husband, Tom, exalted was a one-room plywood shack, covered in tar paper and lacking running water and even one plug in the wall. This was Tom’s dream house. I was stunned. I had left a nice apartment in Maryland for this? But determined to help Tom live his dream, I embraced it as my own—even as the coyotes howled when I tip-toed my way through the backyard at midnight to get the outhouse.

Looking for a way to make this place my own, I started a dogsled team and quickly became the local husky rescue operation. I began to love this life, even if the cabin still left very little to be desired. But as time wore on, Tom decided that having a job wasn’t for him— instead, he wanted to raise and race the sleddogs. “Thoreau didn’t have a job,” he would say.

It was the beginning of the end.

I took a job bartending in a local club on the weekends and it was there that I got the call that would change our lives forever. My beautiful, olive-skinned three-year-old daughter had been attacked by an over-anxious husky we had recently taken in. Her pretty little face ripped apart by the husky’s teeth. The back of her head, her shoulders, her arms, all bleeding and torn. She spent hours in general surgery and then returned to us, scarred both inside and out, but returned.

Of course she was terrified of dogs after that, but Tom chose to keep his sled dogs (they were his now), even after the accident. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back...not the lack of water, not even the fact that he refused to get a job. Dogs over children. I couldn’t believe it...

After the final blow-out over who was to blame for the accident, I packed up the kids into my Subaru station wagon and left—heading for the beach. With just $100 or so in my pocket, I still believed life had to be better at the beach. And mostly, it was.

Of course, reality soon caught up with me and although it was easy to find a job as a waitress on the coast of Maine during the summer, it wasn’t easy to afford and apartment or child care. Every night became a struggle to find a place to sleep—sometimes in a campground, but usually in the parking lot down by the ocean. My own oceanfront property, except that my house was a car and my furniture a series of Rubbermaid containers that held our clothes and a variety of odd things from cookware to photo albums.

Child care was the other issue that drained me constantly. Finding someone to take care of three children under the age of the five wasn’t impossible, but paying the $100 per week per kid was. I barely made $300 some weeks. I ended up splitting my tips with the younger waitresses who weren’t working the nights I was and they would walk the kids to the beach, take them to the library and then put them to sleep in my car, while I worked.

When they were asleep, I frantically ran from the bar to the kitchen door to make sure they were OK. On rainy days or nights when it was too hot to let them sleep in the car, my boss graciously let me lay them down in a spare dining room we only opened for special occasions.

I was committed to finding an apartment and patiently stashed every spare dollar not spent on food or gas into a videocassette case in the glove compartment of my car. In two months, I had almost enough for a security deposit and the first month’s rent, but that last month’s rent continued to elude me.

during the day things weren’t so bad…

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