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Winter problem: More homeless are living in cars

7:13 AM, Dec 2, 2012   |    comments
(Photo: John Grap, Battle Creek Enquirer)
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"You can't leave the car running because it calls attention to you and burns too much gas," he explains. "Being in the car is better than being outside or in a tent, but it gets really cold."

Bell, 39, has been homeless since September. He was laid off by a Detroit auto parts maker and couldn't pay his rent. He loaded his possessions into his car and took off. He made it this far and is looking for work here.

"I'm lucky," Bell says. "At least I've got the car. Most people out here on the streets don't have anything."

The newly or temporarily homeless often end up living in vehicles, says Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. "The chronically homeless don't have cars," he says. "The people who have cars are the individuals who are still hanging on to the remnants of their housed life."

Many are within the first six months of homelessness and "not quite identifying as homeless," Donovan says.

A report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness found that the nation's homeless population decreased from 643,067 in 2009 to 636,017 in 2011. The only increase was among those not living in shelters: Almost 4 in 10, or 243,701, were living on the streets, in cars or abandoned buildings. That's a 2% increase from 2009. As winter approaches, those people are at risk in many parts of the country.

Haven of Rest Ministries, a faith-based non-profit group that has been helping Battle Creek's homeless population since 1956, is the only shelter in Calhoun County. It has a men's shelter and another for women and children. Both require clients to forgo alcohol and drugs during their stays.

To get those who can't or won't meet those rules off the streets, it also operates a "wet" shelter that's open from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. for people who are using drugs or alcohol, says Daniel Jones, the Haven's fund development coordinator. They're not allowed to bring contraband inside.

"We don't want them to fall asleep in a snowbank and freeze to death," says Elaine Hunsicker, the Haven of Rest's executive director.

The wet shelter originally operated from November to April but now is open all year. "If they don't want to go by the rules, we still care about their safety - during the winter months especially," says Todd Artis, supervisor of the Haven's men's shelter.

Michigan had about 94,000 homeless people in 2011. Battle Creek, a city of 52,093, has more than 1,400. About 100 people stay in the Haven's shelters here each night, Jones says. Many more live in tent encampments or in cars.

Larry Collins, 60, sleeps in a tent in a small camp near a freeway underpass. "It's my choice to be here," he says. He sleeps in a donated tent under sleeping bags and blankets. "I've seen people die out here," he says, but "basically we're set. We've got food; we've got shelter;, we've got blankets."

Until a few months ago, Ron Hager, 60, lived in his van. He and his girlfriend parked it overnight in the parking lots of big stores and truck stops, he says. Managers sometimes "came out and said something, but they don't harass you or call the cops," he says. He junked the van after he was stopped by police and ticketed for having a suspended license and no insurance.

Now he lives in a tent in the same camp where Collins lives. "This is more comfortable," he says.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say no one tracks hypothermia deaths among the homeless, but Donovan says there are reports of fatalities every winter. Some homeless people who are mentally ill or substance abusers throw away warm clothes, he says.

"The support system needs many, many more coats than the number of people who are homeless," he says. "We really need to hold cities accountable for how they manage the hypothermia crisis."

The Congregational Church in Lincoln City, Ore., this year opened the community's first overnight emergency warming shelter. The homeless are welcomed into the church's fellowship hall when weather conditions make it dangerous to be outdoors, says director Ken McCormack.

"There's a huge need for it," he says, and "a lot of the people who need help are living in their cars." Some, he says, "are just passing through on their way to somewhere else and they have a catastrophe: Their car breaks down, people get sick."

Some communities are cracking down on people sleeping in their vehicles. The City Council in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., this spring approved penalties for anyone sleeping in their vehicle on city property, including streets.

Council member Jesse Petrilla voted against the measure. "If someone is down on their luck, I believe the last thing they need is a $1,000 fine or six months in jail," he says. People who are tired or intoxicated, he says, pose less danger to themselves and others if they sleep in their vehicles.

Bell hopes he can find a job before he runs out of gas money. "If I don't get work," he says, "I'll have to sell the car and find a shelter or someplace else to sleep. I admit, the thought of being outside during a Michigan winter really scares me."

(Copyright © 2012 USA TODAY)

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