“Being homeless as a single woman can be scary — I’d wished for a long time to have a safe place to park,” said Stephens, 46, who works full time at a bank call center but has had a hard time saving enough money to get into an apartment since she ran into some financial trouble last year.
"Once you're in a hole, it's hard to dig out, so I keep my clothes in the trunk and go in to work early to shower," she said. "At nighttime, though, I get a little nervous. You never know when somebody will bother you."
A few weeks ago, Stephens was looking at Facebook on her cellphone and saw a post by James Charles, general manager of Kiplin Auto, a used-car dealership in Charlotte. Charles wanted everyone in the city who was homeless and living in their cars to know that he had decided to offer his well-lit car lot as a safe place for them to park and sleep at night.
He explained in the post: “We know that some families are struggling and in a tough situation. Yea whole families sleeping in the car. You would say but the shelters?? They are full guys. ... We would like to designate a safe place for those going through this tough time. We can’t put everyone in a hotel but we can get you a safe place for the night.”
“I was stunned,” said Stephens, who has now spent nearly two weeks sleeping at the lot and will soon be getting help with first and last month’s rent for a new apartment through a GoFundMe campaign started by Charles and his family.
Since making his offer on Jan. 23, Charles said about two dozen homeless families and single men and women have pulled into his lot — some to sleep for a night or two, others for several weeks.
“This is something that my family has wanted to do for a long time,” said Charles, 47, who has six children and runs the auto business with his wife, Haydee Charles; his parents, Kiplin and Mary Charles; and his sister, Shawna Charles.
His family can relate to the people who pull in each night to park, he said, because they've been there.
Four years ago, Charles said, his family was evicted and given 10 days to get out of their rental home when the owner decided to sell the house.
"It was difficult to find a place with six kids and a pit bull, and we ended up homeless, living in motel rooms for 90 days," he said. "Sometimes, we wouldn't find a vacant motel until after midnight and the kids had to be at school in the morning. We always thanked God that we had money for a motel and didn't have to sleep in our car."
It was a stressful and humbling time for the family, said Haydee Charles, 45.
“We were constantly moving, living out of bags, uncertain each night where we were going to sleep,” she said. “We wondered, ‘How many other people are going through a similar situation?’ "
Their children felt the frustration and uncertainty, too.
“It was embarrassing when the school would give us bags of food to take home because we were part of the homeless group,” added Yannis Charles, 14, who helps manage the Kiplin Auto website.
Two years earlier, after starting Kiplin Auto with his family, James Charles had sold a car to a woman and learned several months later that she could no longer afford to make payments.
“A repossession crew had gone out to get her vehicle and discovered that she was living in it,” he said. “All of the shelters were full, so we put her up in a hotel. That’s when we first realized there were people living in their cars in Charlotte. We never thought at the time that we’d end up homeless ourselves.”
Last year, the family was reminded of that difficult time when one son saw a man’s leg dangling from their family van’s open door in the dealership’s parking lot. James Charles had forgotten to lock the van the night before.
"My son ran to me and said, ‘Dad, there’s a dead man in the van!’ " Charles recalled. “I ran outside and here was this wobbly guy, climbing out of our van, apologizing for sleeping there during the night because he had nowhere else to go. My family knew then that we had to take a leap of faith and do something to help address the problem of homelessness.”
The first night after posting that he was opening the dealership parking lot to anyone who needed it from 7:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m., Charles said two people showed up. But as word got out, others who were having a hard time finding room in shelters or a safe place to park began pulling in, often with children, their cars loaded with everything they could take with them.
“We gave them a warm welcome, got a copy of their license and registration and a picture of their car, and let them know they could stay with us for up to 90 days,” Charles said. A local business donated a portable latrine, he said, and people in the community have stopped by with warm clothing, blankets and snacks.
After some media attention, Charles said he started getting calls and donations from people around the country, including in Texas, Michigan and California.
"The people who sleep in our lot are just normal people who have come upon hard times," he said. "They take the kids to school in the morning and go to work like everyone else, but usually, they've just had a tough time saving enough money to put down an apartment deposit."
Many of them, like Michael Miller, 49, have memberships at a local fitness center so that they can shower before they begin their day.
“It’s not easy to live like this, but James has been more helpful than anyone I’ve met,” said Miller, who became homeless after a divorce and has been sleeping in his van at Kiplin Auto for the past three weeks. He said he heard about the safe lot on the radio while driving around Charlotte looking for a place to park one night.
“I sent James an email and he called right away to give me the address and help me out,” Miller said.
With help from the nearly $5,000 donated thus far to the GoFundMe account started by the Charles family, Miller and others soon hope to bridge the money gap that has kept them from getting into apartments of their own.
“First and last month’s rent is all that is holding most of them back,” Charles said. His family has pledged to donate $200 to the GoFundMe from every car his dealership sells.
For Stephens, who is now looking for an apartment, that day will be cause for celebration.
“To have that first and last month’s rent paid is such a huge gift,” she said. “As soon as I turn the key and step into my new place, I’m going to lay down on the carpet for an hour and smile.”
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