What It’s Like to Live in Your Car


November 27, 2019 By: Tina Mortimer Category: Hunger Stories

Cold, cramped, dangerous—that’s how Patience, a soft-spoken mother of five, described life sleeping in the family car. For one month after losing their St. Paul apartment, Patience, her partner, John, their months-old daughter, Ella, and Patience’s 14-year-old son, Kristian, slept in their Ford Explorer.  

“Our landlord raised the rent and we had no place else to go,” Patience explained.

Every night, they’d find a place to park at a big box store, lock the doors, and the four of them would huddle together under a blanket. Ella would squirm and cry—her wails, along with the fear of someone accosting them in the middle of the night—meant the family got little sleep. Meals consisted of fast food eaten in the backseat or the occasional dinner at a friend’s house.

Patience, on medical leave from her job and suffering from depression and high blood pressure, had experienced homelessness before. After fleeing an abusive husband, she was forced to live with friends and for a short period of time, with her stepmother. The fact that she didn’t have a home of her own, led a judge to grant custody of her three children to her ex-husband.

Patience was overwhelmed with shame and anxiety. She began having panic attacks. Then a friend suggested they find a homeless shelter until she and John could get back on their feet again.

“I was afraid to go to a shelter,” Patience admits. “I thought shelters were dirty places. It made me very anxious to even think about going to a shelter.”

Yet, the prospect of cold weather and more sleepless nights weighed heavily on Patience’s mind—and ended up being the catalyst she needed to ask for help. Then there were the children to think about. Patience was worried that living in the car was stunting Ella’s growth.

That’s how, a few days later, Patience and John came to the Family Service Center—a partner of Second Harvest Heartland—managed by Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

At the Family Service Center, Ramsey County families can receive safe housing, employment search assistance, three meals per day, onsite medical and dental services, use of a computer lab and laundry facilities to help them transition from homelessness to stable housing.

“When we arrived at the shelter, we were given a tray of healthy snacks and fresh bed linens,” Patience said. “They showed us to our room and told us to rest. I couldn’t believe how lucky we were. It was very reassuring to see how clean and organized everything was.”


The family’s first few days at the shelter was a whirlwind of emotions.

“For the first time in more than a month, we ate a healthy meal at a table as a family,” Patience said. “I was able to do my laundry and take a real shower! I thought, God has really blessed us here.”

They’d only lived in the shelter for two days when Ella suddenly began to walk. A few days later, she was holding a cup on her own. Then, like dominos, everything began to fall into place.

John found a new job. Patience began mental health counseling to help with her depression. She’s learning how to cope with her panic attacks, and she and John are both learning how to budget their money more effectively. Patience, who loves to cook, wants to open a food truck where she’ll make the African dishes—fried plantains and oxtail and okra stew—she grew up eating.

Most recently, the family applied for and found affordable housing. They move into their new home next month. 

“When I first came here, I was crying all the time,” Patience said. “We lost so much being homeless, but now we are healing.”

Give today so we can continue to support our partners

Second Harvest Heartland partners with Catholic Charities and approximately 1,000 food shelves and other hunger-relief organizations every day to reach the 1 in 11 Minnesotans who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Last year, we provided more than 1 million pounds of food to Catholic Charities locations.

As you give thanks this holiday season, remember to give your time and your voice to those who are less fortunate. And if you’re able, please consider giving a donation to Second Harvest Heartland to help families like Patience’s get back on their feet again.   



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