Driving home: The journey of two women living in their car

Nick Shepherd • Jul 16, 2013 at 4:26 PM

Sitting in the parking lot of the Salvation Army, Chanda Arrington is in her car with the door open keeping an eye on her two dogs.

She watches them run around for a while and then she decides to stretch her legs. She stands up and walks toward the back of the 1994 Ford Escort station wagon.

“I wish I could get off the damn streets,” she says. “I hate being on the streets.”

Prescription pill bottles, which contained medicine she used for her major depressive disorder, litter the driver’s side floor. Newspapers and some mail are stacked high on the dashboard in front of the steering wheel. She gets newspapers when she can to look for jobs and to do the crossword puzzles. She loves the Sunday crossword puzzles and tries to do as many as she can.

A storm brews in the distance and light raindrops kiss her skin. Flashes of lightning come in spurts, but the sound of thunder doesn’t follow. She looks up to the sky and sighs.

Rain means she will be cooped up in the car with her dogs and her girlfriend, Cassandra Hawkins. She hates it when it rains because the combination of heat and moisture creates a sauna-like atmosphere, and the inside of the car becomes almost unbearable.

The recession’s children

The two represent a growing problem in the region ever since the Great Recession struck. When the housing bubble burst, it sent many people from their homes, and some of those people ended up on the streets.

It’s a problem that retired Judge Steven Jones saw during the 1980s, and the issue got him involved in the field of helping the homeless. He has since become an expert in the field, traveling to Washington, D.C., on a regular basis to consult on the problem. He sees it rearing its ugly head again.

“Here we have repeated history,” Jones said. “We’re coming off another great recession, which has added to the number and rolls of people out there.”

Jones explained there will always be a core group of homeless for one reason or another. The core group of chronically homeless consists of about 650 to 850 homeless in the eight-county region, according to Point in Time, PIT/HIC committee chairperson and Appalachian Regional Coalition on Homelessness board member Greg Battles.

Between December 2009 and June 2011, ARCH arrived at the estimation that there were 3,947 homeless people in the region, mostly due to the Great Recession. ARCH counted 1,295 homeless in 2012. That is a difference of 2,652.

Battles explained that when the big influx of new homeless people occurred, President Barack Obama’s 2009 stimulus plan helped many of those who were newly homeless.

“When that happened, the newer homeless people were the ones we gave most of the money to,” Battles said. “Not only did people lose their homes, a lot of those people lost jobs too. ... The program was home-prevention and rapid-rehousing.”

Battles stated that without the stimulus plan of 2009 that was used specifically for the newly homeless, the acute homeless problem would have become “overwhelming to our states and nation.”

The stimulus funding worked in the region because the majority of individuals and families went on to become stable in their new housing and didn’t return to homelessness, Battles said.

New experiences

For Arrington, being homeless is a new experience.

She once had a good-paying job with UPS and owned her own home. She got behind on her house payments and then lost her job. Things kept going downhill for her and she finally ended up living in her car.

Being homeless is not as new for Hawkins. She is 20 years old, but has been homeless since she was 4. She bounced around in foster homes and lived in the woods for 11 of the 13 years she was in Illinois. Even though she’s been homeless most of her life, living in a car is a new experience.

“Out of the 16 years I’ve been homeless, I’ve never slept in a car,” she said. “I’ve always been out in a tent or something or under a bridge or something. It’s really hard to be cramped up and have all your belongings in there.”

Both Arrington and Hawkins are going to school. Arrington is enrolled in college. She said she’s failed a couple of courses because of her living situation, but is still determined to get a degree.

Hawkins is trying to complete her GED. She made it all the way to her second semester of her junior year in high school, walking 8 miles every day to school, before she finally had to drop out because she was homeless.

The two first met about four years ago. Arrington’s mother asked her to come up and help take care of her grandmother in Illinois, and Hawkins was cleaning Arrington’s grandmother’s house.

They moved to Kingsport, where Arrington’s father lives, and were staying with a man in his apartment, waiting on their Section 8 housing to be approved. A falling out occurred, and the couple moved in with Arrington’s dad. She said he eventually asked them to leave.

Hunger games

Three months later, Hawkins is inside the Salvation Army eating lunch. The pair showed up 15 minutes before lunch was served at noon. They rarely eat together. One usually grabs something to eat while the other watches the dogs.

A line had already formed when they arrived, and with every minute that passed more people arrived to stand in line, including a former Marine and his son. Hawkins knows a few of them because the same group of people shows up every day, so she exchanges hellos and asks to bum a smoke from the Marine. He is down to his last cigarette but offers her a drag, which she accepts.

The doors open and people start to file in. Before getting the food, she has to sign her name on a piece of paper.

“I’m number 47,” Hawkins says. “There have already been 47 people and it’s not even 15 after.”

She grabs a small cup of ranch dressing and Styrofoam bowl of salad. She is then handed a tray with a spoonful of spaghetti, two meatballs and a half of a toasted hot dog bun with garlic powder.

She grabs a bag of bread and a sweet tea. The bread can be used as a snack for the two of them in case they get hungry later.

She finds a seat and begins eating. After a few minutes, the large room starts to fill up. An older man two seats down asks her a question and hands her a cigarette. She thanks him and goes back to eating.

Another man sits down next to her. She knows him. Once, when he had been drinking, he grabbed her by the arm and tried to drag her out of a store, but didn’t get very far.

When Hawkins finishes, she steps outside and Arrington heads in to grab a bite to eat.

Hawkins grabs two one-gallon water jugs from the trunk and sets them on the roof. Every possession the pair owns is stacked inside the trunk and stretches to the roof of the station wagon. The water jugs are used for the dogs and right now they’re empty.

“Damn, I forgot to fill up the water,” she says. “We usually fill these up wherever we go for the dogs and I forgot.”

She lights the cigarette the older man gave her and stuffs the water bottles back inside the trunk.

Hawkins picks up a white dog bowl and calls for her two dogs, Brandy and Morgan, to get back in the car. The rain has stopped, and Arrington is walking back to the car with a box of food.

Brandy is the youngest dog, an Australian Shepherd with two different-colored eyes, and is not wanting to get back inside the station wagon she calls home just yet.

The two women say her name forcefully and finally the puppy succumbs and slinks back to the car. Morgan, the older dog, has been with Arrington for a long time, back when she still had a home. Morgan has saved Arrington’s life.

“I’ve had Morgan since she was six months old,” she says. “She’s been through a lot with me. I think through all of it, if I hadn’t had her, I probably would have killed myself.”

Not a home

They sit down inside the car and are off to their next destination; Hunger First.

Hunger First is a free store run by Cindy Risk. Risk said she started the store after her husband went to prison and she went into poverty herself.

Kingsport has a number of resources for the homeless. Hawkins says of all the places where she’s been homeless — St. Louis, Illinois, Tennessee — Kingsport has the best resources, but they are harder to get to.

Judge Jones was instrumental in bringing some of those resources for the homeless to Kingsport.

Eventually, homeless numbers went down and some of the resources were shut down or changed to meet different needs.

The red Ford Escort comes to a stop along a tree-lined street in downtown Kingsport. A few feet down from where they park sits a white building on the corner of Center and Myrtle streets.

Hawkins hops out of the car and grabs the two empty water bottles. Arrington stays behind with the dogs.

Two women stand outside the building talking. Walking up the steps, a few people are sitting on the porch, smoking and talking. A line spills out of the small door to the left. It’s Tuesday, which means it’s food day.

Inside the small store, a man with a baby looks at some sippy cups while other people inside try to get the baby to smile and say how cute he is.

Clothes for every gender and age hang to the right of the small door. The clothes rack snakes around one side of the store, and a tub full of mismatched shoes can be found at the end of the snake.

Hawkins pulls on her black Fox racing shirt and points to the rack.

“This is where I got my shirt,” she says. “I’ve gotten most of my clothes from here.”

Hawkins heads off into the back to fill up the water bottles. Risk comes out of the back and hands off a Styrofoam box of food to a person who quickly leaves.

The walls inside of Hunger First are decorated with sayings — some imploring people to vote — and original artwork from Risk. Hawkins keeps up with politics as much as she can and says she votes. She doesn’t really believe in the government but feels obligated to choose the lesser of two evils, she said. Both women feel Hunger First is a safe haven for them. Risk likes to say that if anyone starts trouble that 911 will be their best friend.

When the water bottles are full, Hawkins steps out on the front porch.

Food days, Tuesdays and Thursdays typically, are busier days at Hunger First. She signs them up for food and then starts talking with the men sitting on the porch. They talk about how nice the women are down at the local soup kitchen.

Hawkins makes her way back to the red station wagon parked across the street. Arrington has the door open and Hawkins tells her she signed them up for food.

“Why’d you do that?” Arrington asks. “Every time we get food from here, it never gets eaten and ends up spilling all over the car.”

The two agree it would be better not to get food from Hunger First. Hawkins gets in the passenger seat and the red station wagon drives off into downtown Kingsport, getting lost in the traffic and looking like every other car, not a home.

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