ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — For the four months his family spent living in their car at the start of the pandemic, 64-year-old Martin Davison says his legs were so swollen from sitting upright in the driver’s seat, he didn’t recognize them as his own.
What You Need To Know
- Extended federal unemployment benefits end June 26. Check out our expansive breakdown of unemployment changes
- The Davison family lived out of their car for months and fear they may need to again – this time, during hurricane season
- For the first time since HUD began conducting its Point-in-Time homelessness count, there were more unsheltered homeless people living in cars or on the streets than there were people experiencing sheltered homelessness
“Mentally, it looked like they weren't your feet and legs,” Davison said. “It became scary. No one realizes that till you’re sitting up for months and months.”
Now living at a hotel near Universal Studios, the Davison family fears they may soon have to return to living in their compact SUV — this time in the thick of summer, and during hurricane season.
They dread June 26, when Florida will stop paying out the weekly $300 Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation benefits Congress approved for states during the COVID-19 pandemic.
That extra $300 made an enormous difference for many struggling Floridians throughout the persisting coronavirus pandemic, said Davison’s 28-year-old son, Aaron.
They’re Republicans, but the Davisons vehemently denounce Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s decision to end FPUC, calling it “insensitive, indecent and inhumane.”
Republican governors have wrongly assumed that "unemployed workers are all just lazy and do not want to work,” Aaron said, referencing the 25 Republican-led states that have moved to stop paying FPUC. “I think I’d be living proof that that’s not the case.”
"It’s just not that easy"
Until March 2020, Aaron worked at Universal Studios as a turnstile attendant. He kept working for several months after his family transitioned to living in their car, catching as much shut-eye as he could — sometimes as little as 90 minutes — before his parents dropped him off at work each morning.
“(Universal Studios) became truly my home when I started to live in the car,” Aaron said.
Until the park closed and Aaron was furloughed due to the pandemic, working at Universal helped distract him from his harsh reality: his family was homeless.
They’re just one example of the more than 50,000 additional Americans experiencing unsheltered homelessness since 2016. From 2019 to 2020, people living on the streets or in cars accounted completely for the overall increase in homelessness recorded in January 2020, according to a new report from The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University.
Like so many other Americans struggling to afford somewhere to live, the Davison family’s financial instability began before the pandemic did. They lost their home to foreclosure in December 2019, Martin Davison said, after totaling the car he drove for his former job delivering computer parts for a supply chain.
“We did the best we could,” Martin Davison said. “But in the end, we knew the inevitable would come.”
After the foreclosure, Aaron said he worked hard at Universal, sometimes only getting one day off a week. It’s something he says he's used to after nearly five years of being the family’s primary breadwinner.
Both his parents are disabled — his mom in particular needs help because she has multiple sclerosis and diabetes. For Aaron, being her caregiver is top priority.
“I’ve committed myself to the family,” Aaron said from the passenger’s seat. Next to him, Martin Davison nodded vigorously in agreement.
“I’m going to take care of them in any shape, way or form as I can,” Aaron continued. “And it’s just not that easy … to say, ‘Well, you can just go back to work.’ No, it’s not that easy.”
Even as Americans get vaccinated and COVID case rates decline, many people still fear returning to work during a global pandemic. Aaron also points out, it’s difficult to job hunt when you don’t have a stable place to live.
“You need gas in a car to work. You need food to search for work,” Aaron said. “And you also need to be not just able to work, but capable of working, financially and emotionally.”
For Aaron right now, the idea of leaving his terminally ill mother to fend for herself in the car again while he works is unfathomable. He’s created a GoFundMe account for his family’s housing costs.
A national refocus on housing and homelessness
While the United States’s affordable housing shortage is nothing new, the pandemic exacerbated the problem, forcing a renewed focus on the thousands of people who live unhoused in what is arguably the most powerful country in the world.
Since President Joe Biden took office in January, his administration has directed billions of dollars to different types of housing assistance programs, including $5 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds for emergency housing vouchers. Local public housing authorities distribute those vouchers to people who are either homeless or at the risk of becoming homeless, and need assistance finding affordable housing.
Orange County received 66 EHVs from ARPA — a “modest number,” according to the county’s assistant manager of Housing and Community Development Nancy Sharifi, but definitely a beneficial resource for households transitioning into housing stability.
Those 66 EHVs can start getting distributed to applicants after the county executes a memorandum of understanding with the local Continuum of Care, led by the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida.
In the meantime, Aaron says his family's experience has prompted them to think more critically about homelessness. They say going forward, they want to advocate on behalf of homeless people.
“It’s a shame that, as rich as our country is, that we can’t help our own people,” Aaron said. “And it’s also a shame that it took the pandemic to put homelessness and housing back in the discussion.”
Molly Duerig is a Report for America corps member who is covering Affordable Housing for Spectrum News 13. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
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