In the United States, where the homelessness situation varies from state to state, a recent trend is to move into storage units.
Lift the rollaway gates on some storage facilities, and a secret life emerges. The men and women huddled inside are not just storing old photo albums and family heirlooms. They’re living among them.
With nowhere else to go, these homeless people have found temporary shelter in the one place that feels like home: the rented unit holding the last of their possessions. While the practise is not being tracked in the United States, law enforcement and social service officials who deal with the homeless say these are not isolated incidents.
For the Young family and their pet dog, “home” was, until recently, a 3m-by-4.5m unit at Uncle Bob’s Self Storage in Hollywood, Florida. The transformation from storage unit to overnight hideout evolved gradually for the Youngs, homeless since January after their house was sold to pay off debts.
At first, Uncle Bob’s Self Storage was a convenient place to store baby photos, treasured trinkets and whatever else the family of five could cart out the door of the three-bedroom, two-bath house they had shared for 16 years.
When Daphne Young signed the Uncle Bob’s rental agreement earlier this year, she says she never expected to violate the stipulation that prohibited “any human to inhabit” the property. “We kept looking for a place to stay, but all the shelters were full,” says Daphne, 52.
At first, the couple, their three adult sons, and Bruno the dog spent their days riding around in a rattle-trap sedan – pillows stashed in the back window, sleeping bags on the floor. They slept in the car at parks or carparks. Every day, they’d visit the Uncle Bob’s unit to retrieve clothes, thumb through a photo album, and be close to their valuables.
“And then we just found ourselves being there,” Daphne says, “using their rest room like it was our rest room, and eating right there.”
The unit was a gift: the US$186 (RM600) rent for one month covered by Operation Sacred Trust, a programme to end homelessness among military veterans in Florida. Daphne’s husband, Greg, 50, is a disabled vet who injured his back in a paratrooping exercise in 1982. Once a medical assistant for a cardiologist, Daphne says she was laid off in 2011. Their three sons – ages 18, 20 and 22 – have not been able to find jobs, they say.
They all live on the US$1,000 (RM3,000) a month Greg gets in veterans and Social Security disability benefits. It barely pays for ride-around petrol, occasional groceries, and 49-cent hamburgers, eaten on the hood of their car in front of their unit.
For a while, they kept up the appearance of following the rules. They made sure the car was off the property after hours and tried to look busy when visiting the unit by day. Slowly, they got bolder.
The three sons began sleeping there, among the clutter of boxed-up memories. All taller than 1.8m, they couldn’t take another night folded up in the back of the car, they say. Daphne and Greg slept in the car, which they parked protectively just outside the unit; there’s no air conditioning, no light, no electrical outlets, not even a fire alarm in the unit to summon help if needed, explains Daphne.
In the morning, there is a rush as the Youngs take turns at the only public bathroom on the property, often waiting as others wash up at the sink or brushed their teeth.
“Nobody looks at each other too much. You let somebody go to the bathroom and give them their space,” Daphne says. “Everybody is kind of respectful of the fact that, you know, we know you’re here, and we don’t want to blow your cover because this is all you have.”
It wasn’t long before the Youngs’ cover was blown, though. A manager opened the unit door one night, Daphne says, and discovered the three sons sleeping inside. One more violation and they were out, they were told. And the second warning came just a week after the first, with an eviction notice that gave them 10 days to gather up their things and get out.
Diana Stanley, CEO of The Lord’s Place, a homeless assistance organisation in West Palm Beach, Florida, points out those who call a storage unit their home aren’t always willing to be helped. “Unfortunately, sometimes people are not ready to let go of their possessions,” which is often required when moving into a homeless shelter or subsidised apartment, she says. “It’s the reminder of what used to be, and they have difficulty letting go.
“And then there are those who have animals they don’t want to give up,” she adds. “That’s one of the things that breaks my heart the most.”
For the Youngs, it’s Bruno, the pet Havanese they rescued from a shelter two years ago. They’re not willing to part with him now. And after all they’ve been through, they’re not willing to split up the family by going to different shelters, Daphne says.
Without their makeshift “home” at Uncle Bob’s, the Youngs are back on the streets. They rented another unit at nearby Pembroke Pines Self Storage, but it’s smaller, inside the building on the fourth floor, with additional layers of security.
Rather than risk losing everything with another eviction, they’re back to living in their car, the pillows stuffed in the back window, with Bruno keeping watch. – Sun Sentinel/McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
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