KISSIMMEE, FLA. — The pandemic had forced them from their home. Then they had run out of money for a motel. That left the car, which is where Sergine Lucien, Dave Marecheau and their two children were one recent night, parked in a lot that was tucked behind a row of empty storefronts.
Sergine eyed some men gathering by a fence in the opposite corner of the blacktop.
“I just heard some f-bombs,” she said.
“I’m not worried,” Dave replied.
Days earlier, Dave had started a $14-an-hour construction job and expected to collect his first paycheck in the morning. If all went as planned, this would be their last night sleeping in the car.
“I see a guy doing drugs over there,” Sergine said, glancing at the huddle of men.
“Ginnie, this is a good spot,” Dave insisted.
The spot was six miles from the main gate of a shuttered Walt Disney World, the engine of Orlando’s vast tourism economy, which in the best of times had struggled to keep its armies of low-wage workers housed, clothed and fed. Now the pandemic was revealing just how fragile and cruel that economy could be, as thousands of those workers found themselves on the edge of eviction and homelessness, living in cars or squatting in abandoned motels.
In late May, Vice President Pence met in Orlando with executives who described the catastrophic damage to Florida’s tourism industry, after a record 131 million people visited in 2019. “If we don’t get back to work quickly, it’s all over. It’s all over,” the CEO of a large hotel and convention company told him.
“We’ll get this opened up,” Pence replied.
Even when the economy was booming, Dave and Sergine had lived in a state of near homelessness, shuttling between seedy motels that had become a shelter of last resort for thousands in the Orlando area. Last year, after six years of the motel life, they had saved enough to finally make it out. They bought an RV and rented a spot in a quiet and clean mobile home community. Sergine promised the kids they would never go back.
Now all that was gone. In theory, they qualified for a $3,400 federal stimulus check, but they had no bank account or address to collect it. In theory, Dave was entitled to unemployment, but as of May only about 43 percent of the state’s 1.1 million claims had been paid.
Their reality was another night in their 15-year-old Saab hatchback, the promise of a paycheck and then, maybe, an upgrade to a run-down motel room. Their last meal — eight hours earlier — had come from the McDonald’s dollar menu. Jayden, 12, hunched over a spiral notebook sketching robots, squinting to compensate for the glasses that had broken a few months earlier and had never been replaced. Phoenix, 7, complained that her parents had promised to buy her a basketball.
“I’m trying to teach you that you need food. You need water — you don’t need a basketball,” Sergine told her.
But when she looked away, Dave handed his kids $1 each — the last cash he had — and soon, the family was heading to the Dollar Tree, deciding that a moment of unexpected joy was more important than food. Phoenix picked out a jar of pink slime. Jayden eyed a bag of chips but settled on a spiral notebook. He would rather draw than eat.
Then it was back to the parking lot that was filling with the homeless. Dave blew up an air mattress for the kids that spilled out of the hatchback. When a man approached the car, he yelled, “Get away! Corona!”
When a second man in soiled clothes started to urinate about a dozen feet from the spot where Jayden was sitting and sketching, Dave cursed at him and ran him off.
“That’s why I don’t want to be here,” Sergine said. “We gotta move.”
They were loading up when the man reappeared, clutching a broken umbrella he had plucked from a nearby dumpster.
“I pee in the grass! I pee in the grass!” he screamed and charged at Dave, who grabbed a two-by-four from the ground and hit him hard in the back. The man, who appeared mentally ill, cried out in pain. Dave, Sergine and the kids fled to a better-lit, but more open and exposed, McDonald’s parking lot.
“Just one more night,” Sergine assured herself.
She set her phone alarm for midnight so that as Thursday turned to Friday, she could check whether Dave’s first paycheck had hit their account. She could hear the clatter of raccoons foraging in a nearby dumpster and the hum of cars rolling through the drive-through. At 12:01 a.m. she looked to see whether Dave’s paycheck had shown up in his account.
Nothing. They were still broke.
They had come to Orlando from Brooklyn in 2013, drawn by the area’s warm weather and seemingly endless supply of low-skill jobs. A few months after arriving in Florida they were short on rent and had to check into a run-down motel on Highway 192. For families with bad credit, no savings or prior evictions, the motels were often the only option. Dave, 50, and Sergine, 39, ticked all the boxes.
“The most raggedy, hooker and drug-infested motel costs more than $1,000 a month,” Sergine said. For years, they were stuck. Phoenix took her first steps in the Home Suite Home motel. Jayden and Sergine kept a tally of the best and worst places they had stayed.
“Where was our first room at the Red Carpet Inn?” Sergine asked.
“Room 207,” Jayden replied. “It looked like someone got murdered in there.”
“Literally three walls had blood on them,” Sergine added.
Last year, Dave and Sergine finally scraped together enough money to buy a $4,500 RV and rent a slab in a mobile home park with shuffleboard courts and a heated pool. Dave, who had spent two years as a prep cook at the Regal Oaks resort, was earning $14 an hour. He took a second job as a dishwasher at the local outpost of Joe’s Crab Shack, a big chain restaurant.
Jayden and Phoenix finally had their own beds, a place to keep toys, and a steady group of playmates. Dave and Sergine promised the kids that they would never go back to the motels.
Money was still tight and sometimes they fought. In February, Dave was arrested on a misdemeanor domestic battery charge after Sergine called the police. She said she pushed him and that he responded by hitting her with a backpack. The charge was dropped. Then in late March the pandemic hit, tourism stopped cold and Dave lost both his jobs. Their RV was towed to an impound lot. They were back in the motels.
Three weeks later, Disney furloughed almost 43,000 park workers, adding a flood of new unemployed people to an economy that was already starved of tourists. Food lines stretched for hours.
Dave and Sergine pawned their wedding rings, their television and their children’s Christmas presents — Jayden’s Nintendo Switch and Phoenix’s tablet — to pay for motel rooms. A couple weeks ago, Sergine sold the family’s $509 monthly food stamp allotment.
Signs of suffering were everywhere. At the Lake Cecile, just three miles from Disney World, a few dozen people were living in rooms without electricity or running water. A recently released inmate had moved into one. In another, a pair of out-of-work Applebee’s employees were trying to make it livable, with a woman scrubbing the floor while her boyfriend fetched water in a bucket from a dilapidated motel across the street.
Several of the rooms on their floor were charred black by fire. Three feet of green, mosquito-infested slime and trash stagnated in the swimming pool.
Dave and Sergine decided that their car was safer than a free room at the Lake Cecile.
Dave had planned to rise at 4:45 a.m. so he would have time to wash up in the men’s room of a nearby Wawa before he reported for work at 6:30 a.m. But when the alarm went off, he was too tired, so he hit snooze a half-dozen times before getting up at 6 a.m.
About 30 minutes later, the family pulled into a gas station parking lot near Dave’s job site for the beginning of his shift. Sergine had never learned to drive so she and the kids would have to spend the day in the car — no air conditioning, no shade, the windows down and doors open to stave off the 90-degree heat.
Dave returned with some devastating news: He wasn’t going to receive his first paycheck until the following Friday.
Seven more days of living, eating and sleeping in the hot, cramped car; seven more days of hoping no one would notice as she and her kids cleaned themselves in gas station restrooms; seven more days of worrying about her family’s safety.
Sergine rested her forehead on the steering wheel and began to sob. She looked up a short time later to find a sheriff’s deputy peering through the car window.
“You are not in trouble,” the deputy said when she saw Sergine’s panic-stricken face. “By no means are you in any kind of trouble.”
The officer asked where they lived and whether the kids were able to do online school. Sergine gulped for air between cries as she shared the story of the last few days in frantic and confusing fragments.
“I wish I could get you out of this situation … I wish I could get you a place now,” the deputy said. “My heart hurts for you.”
“I feel like a failure,” Sergine responded.
“I think you’re doing excellent,” the deputy replied. She peeked into the back seat where Jayden and Phoenix were eating their first meal in more than 18 hours. Dave’s boss had advanced him $100 that they would have to stretch to cover their next seven days of food and gas.
“You guys be patient and take care of your mommy,” the deputy said, and was gone.
To Sergine, it felt as if every institution that might provide her help was either overwhelmed or inaccessible. She had waited on hold for hours with the IRS in an effort to claim their stimulus check, before giving up. “It’s out there somewhere in the cloud,” she said.
The status of Dave’s unemployment claim had for weeks read “still pending.” The governor blamed the backlog on the state’s buggy computer system and Floridians’ failure to fill out the forms properly. Dave and Sergine had all but given up hope of ever seeing their money.
Sergine’s best chance was a local charity group. She dialed the number for the St. Vincent De Paul Society’s financial help line, which had given her some money last year when they were moving into the mobile home park.
“Our small volunteer group is overwhelmed with those requesting assistance,” a recorded message played.
“Please, please, please,” Sergine prayed.
“Speak your name slowly and clearly … ”
Sergine held her breath and waited for the beep.
“Sorry, that mailbox is full,” said a computerized voice. “Goodbye.”
She dropped the phone in her lap. Tears ran down her face and neck. “I want to hit something. I want to scream,” Sergine cried. “I feel like I’m drowning.”
In the back seat, Phoenix squeezed her pink slime. Jayden was playing “Brawl Stars” on his phone. Around them cars were filling up with gasoline and families were going about their day.
Sergine brushed away her tears and called the resource counselor at her children’s elementary school.
“I’m so glad to hear your voice,” the woman said.
“I’m falling apart. I am done,” Sergine pleaded. “We’ve been in the streets for three days now. Dave doesn’t get paid until next Friday. My babies don’t have food to eat.”
Sergine could hear the clack of computer keys on the other end of the line. “Let me think, think, think,” said the counselor, who promised to phone back in 15 minutes with some options.
“What’s happening?” asked Jayden.
“I don’t know,” Sergine cried softly.
Instead of a callback, Sergine received a text with a phone number for a relief agency that she had already tried. “Ms. Lucien, this is temporary,” the counselor wrote. “This situation is temporary.”
To Sergine, though, the prospect of another week of public humiliations, of her back throbbing and her children going hungry seemed endless.
“Help me, Jayden,” she said. “Help me think.”
Dave arrived around 3:30 p.m., drenched in sweat from digging trenches in the 90-degree heat. He tossed Phoenix a rubber ball that he had found on the job site. “A basketball!” she said, smiling.
They drove back to Kissimmee, past shuttered chain restaurants, empty outlet malls and a parade of hookers still working a stretch of sidewalk along Orange Blossom Trail. First stop was EconoLodge, where Dave and Jayden went to grab some free ice.
Dave had come to the United States from Grenada and settled in New York City when he was 17, and he knew what it was like to be hungry. “How can I heal this problem?” he sometimes thought when he looked at Jayden and Phoenix.
Jayden’s legs were stiff from the long day in the car. His head was down. “This is how life goes sometimes,” Dave told him as they filled a thermos and two big plastic cups with ice. “We’re almost there son. Your dad is working on it. Once we make it we are not going to have to stay outside again.”
Jayden still hadn’t lost faith in his father. “He’s very hard-working,” he had said one night in the McDonald’s parking lot. “I could call him a workaholic.”
Now, though, Jayden didn’t speak. He just nodded.
Their last hope for a room was Barbie Austria, a woman who served free hot meals on weekend mornings at a homeless encampment outside the Osceola Christian Ministry Center.
Sergine had met Austria three years earlier in the parking lot of the roach-infested Star Motel, which shares an owner with the Lake Cecile. Austria was passing out free food and clothing. They reconnected earlier this spring when Sergine and Dave lost their RV and were forced to move back into the motels.
About two dozen people lined up for a hot meal, including a woman Sergine had worked with a few years earlier at Walmart and a man who helped with maintenance at the Gator Motel in exchange for a break on his room.
“She’s a beautiful soul,” Sergine said of Austria, who was unloading folding tables from the back of her pickup truck. Her hair was pulled back in a tight black braid. A fanny pack where she kept her pistol hung from her waist.
Austria ran Kissimmee-Poinciana Homeless Outreach, a small street ministry, with the help of a former Army cook and few volunteers from her church. One of the volunteers handed Phoenix two s’mores cookies.
“Who found marshmallows this big?” she said. “They probably make them.” She took a bite into one of the cookies and handed the other to Jayden. “Most of the people here know me, and I like it,” she said.
A few yards away, Sergine was telling Austria about their nights sleeping in the car.
“When will you be able to get back in a hotel?” Barbie asked.
“Friday,” Sergine replied.
A month earlier, when they were short of cash for a room, Austria had given her $150. This time Austria didn’t offer money. Instead she said she would try to help Sergine find a housecleaning job, though both knew the prospects were bleak. No one wanted strangers cleaning their house in the middle of a pandemic.
Dave grabbed four containers of food and some sandwiches that would have to last them the day. It was too hot to go to the McDonald’s parking lot so they parked in the shade of an oak tree adjacent to an RV park full of snowbird retirees. Behind them was a shopping center that Dave said he had painted four years earlier.
“You built it?” Phoenix asked.
“Nah, just painted it,” he said. “Me and two other guys.”
Dave leaned against a barbed wire and chain link fence that separated the lot from the RV park. He gazed out at the campers.
“My RV dream,” he said.
A thunderstorm was approaching. Sergine was reading a story on her phone about a new proposal from the state to extend eviction and foreclosure protections for a few more months. Neither proposal would help her.
“It’s going to be a sh---y day,” she said.
When the sun had set and the temperatures cooled, Jayden and Phoenix chased each other through the parking lot of a nearby strip mall and tossed Phoenix’s new ball until they lost it in the dark.
Then they looked through old photos on Sergine’s phone. Here was a picture of Dave one year earlier, standing in front of their RV in his black chef’s uniform smiling. He looked at least 30 pounds heavier. Sergine showed Phoenix a shot of her second birthday party.
“If I had a cake, why did I also have cupcakes?” Phoenix asked.
“We had money, and it was only $100,” Sergine replied.
Around 10 p.m., Sergine sprayed the kids with mosquito repellent. In the back of the family’s hatchback, Jayden and Phoenix drifted off to sleep. In the front, Sergine worried that the long hours in the car were making Jayden more withdrawn, less confident and sociable. She wondered if sleeping curled up next to his sister would stunt his growth; if going without glasses would permanently damage his eyesight. Phoenix carried on as normal, which worried her, too, because nothing about the last two months had been normal.
In the morning they were back at the homeless encampment where Austria was once again passing out food. “I feel like I’ve failed my kids,” Sergine told her. “I feel like I’d be better off dead.”
“I wish I had answers,” Austria told her.
“We never get answers,” Sergine said.
Austria was packing up the food when she called Sergine over and offered to give her the money she needed for a motel until Friday when Dave would collect his first paycheck. The total bill for the Econo Lodge came to $217.11, which Austria said they could pay back in $10 weekly installments. They made plans to get a room that afternoon, but because of a glitch with Austria’s credit card, they had to spend one more night in the car.
On a Monday afternoon, after five nights in the car, they moved into the Econo Lodge, more exhausted than elated. Jayden flipped on a cartoon channel and collapsed on the bed. Sergine and Phoenix headed immediately for the shower.
“Do we have money to put towards dinner?” Jayden asked his father.
“Eat what’s in the room,” Dave said tersely.
The car’s gas gauge read empty. The family was down to its last 48 cents. Stacked on top of the mini-fridge were a dozen single-serving boxes of Cheerios, a crushed peanut butter and jelly sandwich and six single-serving packages of crackers. Jayden bit into the sandwich, while Sergine searched on the phone for food giveaways that they could walk to from the EconoLodge the next day. Almost all of them took place in the middle of the day when Dave would be at work.
As the evening wore on, the family relaxed and tempers cooled. Dave climbed into bed next to his son and picked up one of Jayden’s spiral notebooks, pausing over a creation that was half-man, half-battery.
“You used to draw stickman,” he said. “From stickman to this … wow.”
“This is my final concept of what I want that character to look like,” Jayden said.
“It’s nice. It’s good,” Dave told him. “I wish I could draw like that.”
Now that they were someplace cool and safe, Sergine took a moment to think about the mistakes they had made since coming to Florida. “We get a little money and rush out,” she said. “That’s what we did with the RV. We rush into things without planning because we want out so bad.”
Dave fell asleep next to Jayden, who was watching cartoons and drawing. Sergine curled up in the bed next to Phoenix. By 10 p.m. the lights in their room were out. The air conditioner was humming. The faint smell of mildew hung in the air. They had made it back to the place where they had started seven years ago.
Julie Tate contributed to this story.
Photo editing by Karly Domb Sadof; Design and development by Joanne Lee; Copy editing by Briana Ellison.