First the water pump started leaking. That cost $60. Then the radiator went out. That was another $100. Then Jim Hall needed a new master cylinder and new brakes.
It’s happened to Hall many times over the past three years since he’s been living in his Toyota pickup. He can fix the car himself; he used to work at an auto parts store. The truck is the last thing he's got, and every part he replaces costs him a little more.
Each time something broke, he got lucky. When the master cylinder went out, Hall had already signed up for some temporary work. All the money he made went into fixing his truck.
That’s usually how it goes, Hall said. He’ll beg, find temporary work or sell Real Change until he has enough money to pay for the part. He’s relied on a little luck and a little hustle because he has few other options. Hall lives in constant fear of the moment he’ll turn the key and hear the engine sputter and die.
“When you end up with a car that doesn’t start, it’s devastating,” Hall said.
For people with steady work and a house, those repairs are setbacks. A $60 repair is a major expense for someone living in a car.
“Not for most people in the world, but for us it is,” Hall said.
Of the 2,736 people the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness counted sleeping outside in January, 878 of them lived in cars: the largest single segment of the region’s homeless population. It’s also one of the most hidden and underserved, said Bill Kirlin-Hackett, executive director of the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness.
Like Hall, the Interfaith Task Force and other groups that serve car campers are scraping together pennies and relying on luck. There are no dedicated resources to help.
The task force burned through $11,000 of grant money helping pay for car repairs and parking tickets but hasn’t received any funding since. It continues to help people by relying on sporadic donations and free labor.
“At this point we’re continuing to do this because nobody else will,” Kirlin-Hackett said.
The city of Seattle and nonprofits are exploring ideas, but there’s no dedicated funding yet.
Real Change Vendor Tracey “Melvin” Williams bought his 1999 Saturn SC in February and has lived out of it ever since.
In June, he had to park his car pointing downhill to get a rolling start. His car needed a tune-up and a new battery.
A customer gave him $60 for parts and asked her son to do a tune-up, and Williams was on the road again.
Then in July, he woke up one morning at Fourth and Lander and got ready to head out for his day. He turned the ignition, but it didn’t work; he pushed the car, but it didn’t start.
“The battery was a month old, so it had to be the alternator,” Williams said. The part will set him back $120.
Williams continues to sell Real Change outside of a Target in West Seattle, hoping that he will run into the woman who helped him before. If he can scrape together the money for the alternator, Williams hopes maybe her son could help put it in.
No quick fix
This won’t be Williams’ last repair. Car camping is hard on cars, said Graham Pruss, a research fellow at Seattle University’s Vehicle Residency Research Program and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington who has studied car camping for the past three years.
Car campers use their cars more than anyone, driving them by day and sleeping in them at night. Moisture builds up because people use the car 24-7, Pruss said, and the material starts to rot.
Typically, campers can’t pay for maintenance or repairs, so they all build up to a number of problems.
Last year, Pruss easily helped someone in Ballard replace a battery line. It was just $15 and 20 minutes of labor, he said, but typically people who live in their cars need many more repairs.
“That battery line is one of 99 problems with the vehicle,” Pruss said.
There are few options for someone in this situation. The Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness and the Ballard Community Task Force on Homelessness and Hunger have received $11,000 in grants to help people pay court fees and tickets and cover car repairs, but that money has dried up.
Cedar Park, an Assemblies of God church in Bothell, operates an auto shop that provides discounted repairs and parts to people who can’t afford market-rate mechanics.
Joseph Britton, general manager of Mechanics' Ministries, repairs about 100 cars a month at the garage adjacent to Cedar Park. More than two-thirds of the cars belong to low-income people, some of whom live out of their cars.
Without a mechanic, campers will help each other with repairs. Jim Hall said he will replace parts and do tune-ups for other car campers. These solutions are all Band-Aids, said Pruss.
“We’ve got someone who’s able to spend three hours to install an alternator, but who’s going to pay for the $300 alternator?” Pruss said.
The Committee to End Homelessness-King County, a government-backed coalition, has done little, Kirlin-Hackett said, to provide help for this population.
“They’re not addressing people in vehicles,” he said, adding that car camping is expensive and difficult, and many officials are reluctant to do anything that would be seen as supporting an inefficient and expensive lifestyle. “I think it’s the hardest way to be homeless.”
Kirlin-Hackett and Pruss agreed: Car camping is not the solution, but more than 800 people in King County live in their cars now. They need help getting into housing, both said, but the car campers also need help to repair their cars while they wait for that to happen.
“If people knew there was a [phone] number to get that help, they would use it,” Pruss said. “But it needs to be backed by funding.”
Otherwise, Pruss said, a car will turn into a “$1,500 paperweight.”
Williams faces that risk now.
After his car stopped running in July, he left it at Fourth and Lander, busing to West Seattle to sell Real Change and returning to sleep at night.
When he came back to sleep on July 28, he found a city boot: a yellow, metal clamp on the back passenger-side tire of his car that cannot be removed until he pays his parking tickets.
Williams, needing a new alternator, suddenly faced the possibility of losing his car entirely.
He turned to the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness to help him work with the courts on his parking ticket and the boot. But soon a tow truck will come for his vehicle.
On July 31, he leaned against one of the large red balls outside of the Target, just a few hours before heading home. He wasn’t sure if his car would be there when he arrived.
“It was there this morning,” he said.