STILLWATER, Minn. (WCCO) — On a cold winter night, Sandy Norton is reading herself to sleep. She’s wrapped in a blanket, in the front seat of her car.
“I don’t think about the outside world when I’m reading,” Norton said.
Norton is the face of the working poor. Her job at a fast-food restaurant doesn’t give her a paycheck large enough to afford rent. So a Ford Taurus is both Lazy Boy and bed.
“My co-workers don’t know either, and I don’t want them to know,” she said.
To stay safe and secret, she’ll move between parking lots. On this particular night the bedtime temperature is a chilly 12 degrees. But her night is anything but restful.
“Usually, I’ll wake up after a couple of hours after I fall asleep, freezing to death and I’ll turn my car on and then turn it off so I don’t waste gas,” she said.
On the other side of town, a college student slips inside his sport utility vehicle and pushes the seat back.
“As a child you know, I never would have imagined that I would be sleeping in my truck,” said Randy Jacoway.
It’s not just the working poor who you will find sleeping in their cars. Jacoway’s dorm room is a vehicle parked on the street.
“There are a lot of people who are really going through it right now and I just happen to be one of them,” he said.
He is only 22 credits shy of a diploma at Metro State University, so he’ll take classes by day and when the library closes for the night, Jacoway climbs into his vehicle, listens to music and shivers.
“So it’s always feeling like, yes, you’re under pressure and you can’t get a good enough sleep,” Janoway said.
Their stories aren’t that unusual. The recent recession forced many folks onto the streets, unable or unwilling to rely on family members or friends. And they are simply too poor to pay for rent.
Chris Jenks has been homeless nearly two years. His car is the living room, dining room and kitchen, all wrapped in one. His furnace is an idling engine.
“I couldn’t go on anymore and had to go move out to my car,” Jenks said.
The recession cost Jenks everything: His home, advertising sales job and even his family. Now, Jenks relies on friends for shelter while searching for work. It’s something that is hard to do with a bad transmission in your car.
“It’s something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy,” said Jenks.
The problem is particularly troublesome in the suburbs where homeless shelters are few and far between. So in Scott and Carver Counties, part of the plan to end homelessness is making all of their residents aware of the problem.
“One of the most unique challenges we face is that it’s much more hidden out here, so that causes people to believe that it doesn’t exist when it does,” said Allison Streich of Heading Home Scott-Carver.
The Wilder Foundation has been surveying the face of homelessness for decades and Greg Owens understands what drives people to the streets.
“There’s so much stigma attached to shelter use that people will often use a car or some other kind of vehicle,” Owens said.
Because wherever one lays their head, a basic human need is to feel safe and secure.
“We simply don’t have enough vacancy in housing that’s affordable for people with very low incomes and until that changes, it’s going to be very hard to turn this problem around,” said Owens.
That’s why on cold nights, Norton has few options other than a roof of steel idling in a Stillwater parking lot.
“After a while you kind of wish you were actually at home, in a home, any home, because it sucks after a while,” she said, fighting back tears.