Home Sweet Parking Lot
Times are tough all over.
Today, several families are visiting the office of Catholic Charities at 333 East Poplar in Olathe, just across the street from Mill Creek Park, a few blocks from the Johnson County Courthouse. Inside the one-story, peach-colored building, parents are picking through bags of donated groceries in the food pantry and poking through cubbies full of free clothing. An elderly man, also here to pick up food, slips two one-dollar bills to a volunteer on his way out the door and tells him to give the cash to two tiny Hispanic girls in sundresses after he’s gone.
“In the big city, you know the homeless people because they’re the scraggly guys holding ‘will work for food’ signs on the side of the road,” says Lauren Flynn, director of a Salvation Army emergency shelter. “In Johnson County, they’re probably standing behind you in line at Price Chopper.”
Flynn says the waiting list of families seeking emergency shelter at the Salvation Army now tops 60. At the beginning of each month, a line of needy people snakes out the door and around the corner. But the agency’s emergency assistance money is gone by the second day of the month. The shelter can house 10 families at a time; it moves people with children to a renovated motel just around the corner from the Catholic Charities office.
In January 2007, workers from charity organizations went out to count the homeless population in the metro. They identified 293 people living on the streets or in cars or drifting from friend’s house to friend’s house — an increase of 38 from the same exercise in 2005. Half of the homeless people counted were children younger than 18. Flynn’s organization serves families first, and then single women if there’s room. Twelve Johnson County churches also lend sleeping space to homeless families.
But there are no options in Johnson County for single men. Mina Foster, a case manager at Catholic Charities, says she tells them to seek out the well-lighted parking lots of 24-hour stores and sleep in their cars at night.
“This is my little world back here,” Reynaldo Castillo says cheerfully, opening the passenger door of his 1978 Ford Econoline van. It’s white, detailed with a broad red stripe down the sides and lined inside with cracking, quilted vinyl. He wears jeans, a clean T-shirt, work boots and a “U.S.A.” hat embroidered with an eagle.
Castillo leaves the van in the parking lot of the Wal-Mart Supercenter at Santa Fe and Black Bob Road in Olathe, where he works unloading boxed merchandise off 18-wheelers from four in the afternoon until one in the morning. When he’s not at work, he drives a short distance east on Santa Fe and parks the van under a line of trees planted in a concrete island that separates a Blockbuster store from a Payless Shoes.
“Nobody bothers me over here,” he says. “It’s real quiet. You can just hear the birds. To me, it’s just like a park. It’s beautiful, you know. To me, it’s not that bad. They tell me in Kansas City, downtown is real bad. Over here is just like a little country, you know. I like it.”
Castillo’s van is tall enough for him to stand up inside. He sleeps on a yellow upholstered loveseat behind the driver’s seat. Opposite the loveseat is a small counter covered with papers, photographs and a paperback New Testament. In the back, behind a flimsy wooden door and underneath a pile of winter blankets, is a toilet that Castillo doesn’t use. The air conditioning doesn’t work, so Castillo keeps the front windows down, the back windows cracked and a ceiling vent open. There’s a breeze in the summertime, but in the winter, no matter how tightly he shuts himself in, blowing snow still finds its way inside.
He has lived in this van for two years.
Originally from Tampico, Mexico, Castillo worked as a firefighter before moving to the United States at 19. He graduated from high school and took some college classes. He and his wife settled in Corpus Christi, Texas, and had four children.
“I had bad luck,” Castillo says. “Too many kids. But sometimes, God blesses you for having kids.”
Castillo knows that there’s a shelter in Kansas City that accepts single men, unlike any of the charity organizations in Johnson County, but he has heard that drugs and violence make it unsafe. In this complex of linked parking lots, he’s the first car in the morning and the only one parked there on Christmas and Thanksgiving. He waves at people. Sometimes they wave back.
“I always see a lot of people coming out happy, coming from Blockbuster, all excited to go watch movies,” Castillo says. “I wish that I could be watching movies.” He laughs.
Life got hard several years ago when Castillo’s wife left him for a younger man. He points at pictures tacked to the walls of the van. In one photo, he stands surrounded by his four kids in the front yard of their Corpus Christi home. “You can see me, all depressed,” he says, pointing to himself in the photo. “Here I am about to lose them.” In another picture, the kids play in mounds of torn-up Christmas wrapping paper, surrounded by toys. “You can see they love me,” he says, tapping a picture of himself being hugged around the neck by a young son. “I did my best with them.”
When Castillo first moved to Kansas two years ago, he parked the van in a Stilwell neighborhood until he found out it was illegal to sleep there in his car. A friend in Johnson County had told him about a job with a construction company, driving workers from site to site. Castillo got a Kansas driver’s license but never took the construction job — he didn’t feel comfortable driving around Johnson County until he learned his way around, he says. Wal-Mart was the next best bet.
He owes child support to his wife for their four children, so his Wal-Mart checks are garnished — $1,085 a month, leaving him with about $250 every two weeks to live on. He got behind on his child-support payments when he was out of work for a short period, starting in November 2006, after a workplace accident at a factory injured his knee. When he recovered, he got the job at Wal-Mart, then found a second job cooking and cleaning at a Golden Corral restaurant in the same shopping center. But last Father’s Day, Castillo says, he got depressed and decided not to show up at the Golden Corral.
“They’d been using me for a year and three months, but they were paying other people more money,” he says. “They saw that I needed a job, so they don’t have to give me a raise. But they know I have a lot of money taken out for my child support.”
For showers, Castillo checks into a $53 hotel room once a week. He trims his hair close to his head and does laundry at friends’ houses or laundromats. When he gets paid, he puts $50 toward gas.
Other men regularly park their cars to sleep in this Wal-Mart lot. “A white one and a brown one,” Castillo calls two of them, a black man and a white man with white hair. Sometimes a white Mazda Protégé with Kansas tags and a bumper sticker from a rock radio station pulls up, late at night, and a man sleeps there with his windows cracked. None of these men speak to one another.
“I don’t ever bother them, and they don’t ever bother me, and we do the same thing, you know?” Castillo says. “But the reason you keep it like that is so you don’t get in trouble when you’re living in the street, you know? You have to respect the others.”
Foster, the case manager at Catholic Charities, knows Castillo well and supplies him with boxes of food — items that don’t require cooking or things he can heat up at convenience stores. She also has been working to find him a place to stay. Catholic Charities will pay the first and last month’s rent, or a security deposit, to help a client get off the streets. Foster found a room for rent in a house where Castillo can live for $250 a month, and in a few days, Castillo expects to be able to move in. But he’s a little nervous about the change.
“I’m going to miss the way I am now,” he says. “I don’t have any furniture. There, it’s just a room with a carpet. I prefer to be in my van.”
Minnesota also prefers to be in his van, a 1989 Ford Aerostar that he parks under a streetlight in the lot of a Waffle House just off a highway exit. (He doesn’t want to reveal which one.) At night, the back windows of the van flicker with the glow of a miniature TV.
He’s called Minnesota because that’s where he’s from, though Waffle House regulars also call him “Minnie” and “Sota.” He was a construction worker who helped build the $650 million Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota. Sixteen years ago, he left Minnesota and headed south, toward Miami, where a flight-attendant friend was going to sneak him onto an Australia-bound flight. But his vehicle broke down in Olathe, and though he had $35,000 in his pocket, he has been here ever since. That’s his story, anyway.
In Johnson County, Minnesota built houses until the bottom dropped out of the new-home construction market. “I had my own townhouse,” he says, “But construction just went down to nothing, so I ended up losing everything.”
Now, word of mouth brings Minnesota odd jobs: finishing basements, building backyard decks and basic remodeling. The back of his truck is crammed with tools and lumber, and at night he finds a place to sleep among it all. He doesn’t have a mailing address or a bank account.
“I ain’t got no bills, so I don’t need an address,” he says. “It’s not as hard as people think. I survived the cold winters in northern Minnesota. I can handle this.”
Minnesota has parked at the Waffle House ever since he was booted out of Gardner’s Wal-Mart parking lot. The city of Gardner passed a “no idling” ordinance earlier this year for environmental reasons, and the police have since been shooing away truckers and other overnight parkers. But Minnesota says he’s friendly with the owner of the Waffle House, who considers Minnesota’s presence in the lot a form of overnight security.
Like Castillo, Minnesota does his laundry at friends’ houses. His motorcycle, a 1946 Indian, is in storage in Minnesota, but he still dresses like a biker: a denim shirt he got at the Sturgis motorcycle rally, with both of the sleeves cut off and a pack of Pall Malls resting in each of the two front pockets. His steel-wool beard extends about 3 inches below his chin, cut squarely at the bottom. He keeps a black bandanna wrapped around his head and wears yellow-tinted sunglasses. A cross earring dangles from one earlobe.
Minnesota’s wild days seem far behind him. He rode his bike independently, he says, turning down offers to join clubs like the Hell’s Angels or El Foresteros. He survived a collision between a car and a train in 1969 and a knife attack in 1980. But he says the shelters in Kansas City sound too rough even for him — not that he’d go looking for help, anyway.
Everyone at the Waffle House seems to know Minnesota, and strangers don’t stay strangers long. He has a regular booth in the back, where he sips a Coke poured for him by a waitress he calls Mama Jo.
Before long, a trucker sits down in a neighboring booth and introduces himself to Minnesota. “I don’t care what they call me, as long as they don’t call me late for dinner,” the trucker says, then adds, “I been called everything, but my real name’s Harley, just like Harley-Davidson.” He’s waiting to pick up a load from the New Century AirCenter. Before long, Minnesota and Harley are sharing stories of hard times.
“If I would have been smart,” Minnesota says, “I would have stayed working for the union. I would have been retired by now. But me and the union couldn’t get along. I hate having someone tell me ‘You can’t do this; you can’t do that.'”
Harley nods his head vigorously under his mesh ball cap. “I know you’re right,” he says, his voice a pneumatic wheeze. “I used to drive for a company … tornado went through my hometown. Goddamn company told me I can’t drive home. I just took my cutters and snipped the Qualcomm” — the device that, among other things, helps a trucking company track its vehicles on the road — “and when I got home, I called ’em up. Said, ‘Do me a favor, you sorry bastards, and come get your truck. I’m home.'”
Soon, Harley and Minnesota are showing off scars and telling painful work tales. Minnesota displays a jagged scar across one shoulder, from falling off a three-story house. Harley regales the breakfast crowd with a saga from his roofing days when a buddy nailed his palm to a shingle. Minnesota one-ups him with the story of how he nailed three fingers together.
“They ended up taking me to the emergency room,” Minnesota says. “Shot my fingers full of Novocain and did exactly what I was going to do — lanced my fingers open. Except I would have gotten some duct tape, taped ’em up and headed for the bar. Bottle of Jack Daniel’s — that’ll cure anything.”
A big man in overalls and a little blond girl swing through the door into the Waffle House.
“Hi, Minnesota!” the girl calls out from the breakfast bar.
“Hi, sweetheart!” Minnesota calls back.
The stories turn to their kids. Harley once got in trouble for letting his young son sit on his lap and drive his truck. “At 4 years old, he steered that truck across the scale just as perfect as you’d want,” he says with a laugh. Then he turns serious, thinking about his ex. “I think that’s why she met that guy on the Internet,” he says. “She didn’t want him [their son] to grow up to be a truck driver.”
Harley says if you don’t pay your child support as a trucker, your company can suspend your license. Minnesota says he spent 30 days in jail for failing to pay child support. He says he heard from friends back home that his ex-wife told his son and daughter that he was dead.
“My daughter’s 32. My son’s 30,” he says. “I’m just curious how many grandkids I got. One day, I’m thinking, I just might have to go back home and raise a little hell.”
His laugh turns into a coughing fit. “These last three weeks, I’ve had nothing but trouble with my left lung. Mama Jo says I should get to the hospital. It could be walking pneumonia. But I can’t afford to go to the hospital — no insurance. This country’s version of population control.”
Sam works five nights a week in one Johnson County Wal-Mart, then drives 15 miles to sleep in a different Wal-Mart parking lot. He fears that if his boss and co-workers knew he lived in his compact car, he’d be fired.
Recently, he fell asleep just as he was pulling into the lot early in the morning, jumped a curb and scraped the underside of his car, rupturing the oil pan. He fixed it with supplies from Lowe’s. So far, it has held.
Sam isn’t his real name. He has white hair and kind eyes, crinkled at the edges. He says he just turned 50.
Sam never married and has no children. He has lived his life on the road, more or less. He grew up on a farm near Clay Center, Kansas, graduated from high school there and then worked in factories after his dad sold the farm.
He uses a post office box to get mail, reserved with the address of his last residence for reference. It’s the same address as the one on his driver’s license.
He showers once a week at a truck stop and douses himself with aftershave and Right Guard. To conserve gas, he doesn’t run his air conditioner in the summer. He’ll catch a few hours of sleep in the morning after work, before it gets too hot, and then drive to Cedar Lake and nap under a tree. But recently, he found out that his relaxation destination is also a gay hookup spot. “Some idiot in a construction pickup pulled up when I was changing clothes in there, and he says, ‘Oh, is it hard?'” Sam told him to leave, his mind flashing briefly on the gun in his trunk.
Sam’s circumstances are his own fault, he says. He hung out at the Outhouse, an all-nude club in Lawrence, and got to be close with a stripper there. She took him around her home and introduced him to her kids: a 13-year-old, an 8-year-old and a baby. They started calling him “Daddy.” Then the stripper fell into bad habits, moved to Kansas City, started living on the streets and couldn’t care for the kids. The children moved into a trailer with the stripper’s sister in Excelsior Springs. Sam started giving the women money — a little to start with, then more and more. Somewhere in the middle of all this, Sam hurt his back at the factory where he worked, so he went to work for Wal-Mart.
On his days off, he takes day-labor jobs at Labor Ready, but he still makes $1,000 less a month than he was accustomed to at the factory. He lost the apartment he’d been living in and moved into his car.
“The kids’d love to have me,” he says. But the stripper’s sister won’t let him stay in her trailer, and it’s far from his job anyway. As for the stripper, he says, “She wants me to stay with her, but she’s in Kansas City. In Kansas City, there’s too many drugs, idiots and an assortment of lowlifes. It would take more money to run back and forth. And to live in a decent area, the rent would be as high as it is over here.”
He demonstrates how he changes his driver’s seat into a bed, yanking the lever on the side of the seat and sliding back until the headrest almost touches the rear seats, which are covered in blankets from last winter. When it was cold, he ran the heat until the car was good and toasty, then wrapped himself in the blankets and slept a few hours. When the cold woke him, he’d repeat the process.
If there were a shelter in Johnson County that would take him, he’d probably go there, he says. “But I’d probably spend most of my time in the car,” he adds. “It’s a kind of freedom, I guess you’d call it. It would be nice if they had a soup kitchen down here.”
Where this Wal-Mart lot ends, a grassy field begins. Deer often creep through, ghostly silent, crossing the street from one undeveloped lot to the next. Sam usually parks near a row of dumpsters reserved for recycling. At night, raccoons break into the bins for cans and fight with one another over the sticky soda residue.
The people who sleep in this parking lot don’t talk. “You don’t bother me, and I won’t bother you, and we’ll get along fine,” he says. For company, he listens to talk radio. He likes Coast to Coast AM with George Noory, a show heavy on supernatural stories, tales of exorcisms and Bigfoot sightings.
“If it wasn’t for those kids over in Missouri, I would have left,” Sam says. “I probably would have headed southwest to a different part of Kansas, found a different area without such a high cost of living.”
He won’t say how much from each paycheck he keeps for himself, only that it’s not enough. “I need to tell the woman in Kansas City to get a job. I got $5 on me, and I don’t get paid until next week.” He pauses. “I’m going to start keeping $100 out of my check for gas and food. I wanna cut ’em both off. Livin’ like this ain’t….”
“Going without eating sometimes and hardly having any gas ain’t no fun,” he says. He won’t be here another winter, he vows. Then he adds, “I wasn’t planning on being here this summer, either.”
Recently, some cops came and knocked on his window and ran his ID. They told him that sleeping all night in a parking lot is illegal.
“But they didn’t do anything,” he says. “I think they looked around and saw five or six other vehicles with people sleeping in them.”
One recent Tuesday night, Castillo was supposed to have moved out of the van and into his new roommate’s house, but he’s still in the parking lot.
The roommate was nice at first, he says. He called Castillo his brother, and they shared a barbecue dinner. But then he demanded that Catholic Charities pay the entire $250 for the August rent, even though the month was more than half over, and he refused to prorate the amount.
“He decided he wouldn’t let him move in until he received the check from us,” Foster, Castillo’s case worker at Catholic Charities, says, frustration visible on her face. “Most landlords work with us and go ahead on our assurance that the check is coming, because we have a good reputation. We pay our bills. But he wouldn’t do it. And then, I guess, he and his other roommate talked and decided not to rent to him.
“It made me sad,” Foster continues. “It was really sad for Reynaldo, because even though he was saying, ‘I got used to living in my van and only eating during the day,’ he was getting really excited about getting out of this weather and into a home. And then it didn’t happen.”
Foster is still working to find Castillo a new roommate or a place he can afford. His situation isn’t uncommon, she says. She recently had to talk another one of her cases out of moving into an unfurnished garage — its owners were going to charge him $100 a week, and he wouldn’t even have been able to lock the door.
It’s OK that he’s still in the van, Castillo says. The house gave him a bad vibe anyway.
In the van, Castillo is protected by two gold-inked prayer cards stuck to the dashboard. One is an image of San Pedro. “When you ask him for something, he’s supposed to grant it to you,” Castillo says. “If someone tries to attack you, he is like your shield.”
The other card depicts a crucified Jesus surrounded by good-luck charms, including a rooster. “This is the tres clavos, the three nails,” he says, “to protect you from trouble. If you have enemies, like my mother-in-law, this is to soften their hearts and live in peace.”
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