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Helping America's mobile homeless

Every day, when Ebony Rhodes worked her shift at an Atlanta discount store, she felt guilty.She would look at ...

Posted: Mar 16, 2018 1:53 PM
Updated: Mar 16, 2018 1:53 PM

Every day, when Ebony Rhodes worked her shift at an Atlanta discount store, she felt guilty.

She would look at the families of customers, knowing at the end of the day they were going to spend the night in the comfort of their homes.

Meanwhile she and her four children were going to be spending the night in her car.

After being unable to afford to make a deposit on an apartment last year, Rhodes and her four children lived in a 1997 Buick Regal for six months.

They ate in the car.

They slept in it.

They played video games and had memorable conversations in it.

She knew it wasn't safe. But at the time, it seemed surviving in a car was better than the alternative. She was unable to find available shelters that took in entire families - and she refused to split the family up.

Finding secure places to park overnight proved to be a problem. Her kids would miss school too often. She knew it was no way to raise a family.

"A lot of times I didn't sleep, because the kids were asleep," she said. "I was watching to make sure nothing happened - no one tried to rob us ... so we'd just stay right there in the car.

"I apologized to my kids and let them know I'm sorry," she said.

It wasn't until an Atlanta police officer pulled her over that their life turned around.

Rhodes was taking her children to the library to study for finals when she was pulled over for having an expired tag on her car.

"She came to the car and asked why was I crying and I was like, 'because I know my license isn't good,'" recalled Rhodes.

The officer impounded her vehicle and arrested her. Rhodes' children were picked up by a co-worker while she was in jail and then her sister from Florida came to get them.

As Rhodes' story filtered through the Atlanta Police Department, Deputy Chief Jeff Glazier became aware of the situation.

"We have to do something about this," the 25-year APD veteran said to his wife, Michelle.

A call to remember

Glazier dipped into his networking coffers to do just that. Remembering he'd met the director of a family homeless shelter in a precinct he had recently commanded, he placed a life-changing phone call.

"I called her up and said, 'Listen I've got a family of five including three boys and a girl, and he's 17.' And she goes, 'Yeah, I have some room.' And if you know anything about shelters in the middle of the winter, there's nothing available and she had something available. I couldn't believe it."

Glazier didn't wait long to share the exciting news with Rhodes.

"When he called me that day I just started crying because I'd been trying to get into different shelters for a long time," Rhodes said. "No one would ever accept us."

But Glazier didn't stop there.

"You know, staying in a shelter is not optimal. I considered that the whole time just to be a short-term solution for this family. Because even those conditions weren't great -- by any stretch of the imagination," Glazier said.

He said his determination to help this family came easily. "If you talk to Ebony and you watch her, she has a great work ethic. It's just that she was sick. And so, when you're sick you can't work and you can't make any money. It's not like she didn't want to work, when I first met her, she had two jobs ... trying to do the right thing, she's trying to earn money for her family."

Mobile homeless

The Rhodes family's struggle represents countless Americans who use vehicles as shelter every day.

More than 176,000 people in the United States are homeless without access to shelter, according to a study from the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Of the 176,000, just over 19,000 are in families.

On a typical night in January 2016, 32% of all homeless Americans were living in unsheltered locations, according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

It's difficult to track their exact numbers, but many -- like Rhodes -- live in their vehicles instead of shelters.

"I was ashamed of my situation and then, I was like, some people are way worse than me," Rhodes said.

Communities getting involved

Some communities have embraced programs aimed at improving life for people who live in vehicles.

One example is a program called Safe Parking, which has taken root in Northern California.

Business and religious leaders work with people - including families - who wish to sleep in their cars overnight for free in 23 designated parking lots around the Santa Barbara area.

During a typical night, about 150 people are allowed to sleep in their vehicles, knowing that the parking lots are monitored.

People in the parking lots "form communities and they look out for each other," said Kristine Schwarz, executive director of the New Beginnings Counseling Center, which oversees Safe Parking.

They take care of each parking lot "because it's their neighborhood," she said. "We've never had any issues with our clients being robbed, or whatever."

The program "helps people who are on the brink between stabilizing their lives and getting back into housing ... or spiraling into chronic homelessness," said Schwarz.

Half of Safe Parking's approximately $400,000 annual budget comes from the federal department of Housing and Urban Development. The other half comes from private and local government money. Deep cuts in federal aid that have been proposed in Washington "could decimate the program," she said.

The 13-year-old program's success has spurred cities elsewhere in California to seek guidance from New Beginnings, including San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, Schwarz said. Leaders in places such as Oregon, Seattle, Hawaii and Europe have also expressed interest.

Schwarz said police support the program. "They love us. We work really well together," she said. "We routinely go to their shift changes and give new officers updates on how it works. Quite frankly, it makes their job easier."

There's no place like home

Meanwhile, more than a year after her arrest, Rhodes and her family are living safe inside a home, where her kids can study for school and she can rest easier knowing they aren't in danger.

Rhodes can afford an apartment and now works as an assistant manager at a fast food restaurant.

The relationship she and her children have developed with Glazier and the Atlanta Police Department is a "blessing" for all of them, she said.

"The whole APD is my family because I can call on them for everything."

Glazier and the Atlanta Police Department set up a GoFundMe account to help keep Rhodes from experiencing homelessness again.

"We want to pay for rent, we want to pay for food and transportation ... this is obviously long-term. It's not going to end just because we give her a little bit of money. It's about getting through the hard times, having someone to talk to and someone to lean on, to get advice from."

Looking back on the day that changed the trajectory of her life, Rhodes said, "Had I not got pulled over that day, I'd probably still be in my car, just taking a risk every day. Losing that car and getting pulled over that day changed my life."

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 307836

Reported Deaths: 7119
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto20784248
Hinds19894408
Harrison17493302
Rankin13316275
Jackson13099243
Madison9896210
Lee9859169
Jones8293160
Forrest7523146
Lauderdale7189237
Lowndes6265144
Lamar610784
Lafayette6028117
Washington5280132
Bolivar4770129
Oktibbeha455297
Panola4442103
Pearl River4420139
Warren4281118
Marshall4273100
Pontotoc416472
Monroe4057132
Union403775
Neshoba3988176
Lincoln3871108
Hancock372185
Leflore3468124
Sunflower329389
Tate322781
Pike3181104
Scott310572
Yazoo304368
Alcorn297764
Itawamba296876
Copiah293065
Coahoma289677
Simpson287484
Tippah284868
Prentiss275659
Marion265979
Wayne261341
Leake261173
Grenada254982
Covington254580
Adams245982
Newton244859
George237847
Winston225981
Tishomingo222067
Jasper219748
Attala213373
Chickasaw204857
Holmes186471
Clay182454
Stone179131
Clarke176876
Tallahatchie175540
Calhoun163230
Yalobusha158836
Smith158634
Walthall130543
Greene129433
Lawrence126323
Noxubee125933
Montgomery125542
Perry125138
Carroll120826
Amite120141
Webster113432
Jefferson Davis105432
Tunica102525
Claiborne101330
Benton97225
Kemper95226
Humphreys94332
Franklin81923
Quitman78916
Choctaw72817
Jefferson64828
Wilkinson64727
Sharkey49617
Issaquena1686
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 519071

Reported Deaths: 10712
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson754131487
Mobile37774798
Madison33868494
Tuscaloosa25283443
Montgomery23969565
Shelby23112238
Baldwin20638300
Lee15524165
Calhoun14286311
Morgan14140268
Etowah13664345
Marshall11957219
Houston10383278
Elmore9994200
Limestone9814147
Cullman9475188
St. Clair9429234
Lauderdale9218227
DeKalb8747181
Talladega8060171
Walker7092275
Jackson6755110
Autauga6727103
Blount6488135
Colbert6205130
Coffee5401112
Dale4768110
Russell428938
Franklin419982
Chilton4083109
Covington4053114
Tallapoosa3893146
Escambia388074
Dallas3527149
Chambers3500122
Clarke346360
Marion3066100
Pike305875
Lawrence295395
Winston272372
Bibb256458
Marengo248661
Geneva245875
Pickens232959
Barbour224955
Hale218775
Butler212366
Fayette208960
Henry187844
Cherokee182044
Randolph176941
Monroe171540
Washington164038
Macon154848
Clay149454
Crenshaw149357
Cleburne146041
Lamar139334
Lowndes136453
Wilcox124327
Bullock121340
Conecuh109028
Perry107926
Sumter102932
Coosa99328
Greene90734
Choctaw58724
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Columbus
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Bits and pieces of low pressure over the next several days will give us some chances for showers and isolated thunderstorms. Albeit, severe thunderstorms will stay to the south and west of our area.
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