The Big Read: In a wealthy US suburb, they sleep in a parking lot

By Antonio Olivo

John Baird Jr. smokes on the hood of his 2004 Mercury Grand Marquis sedan.  Photo / The Washington Post / Sarah L. Voisin
John Baird Jr. smokes on the hood of his 2004 Mercury Grand Marquis sedan. Photo / The Washington Post / Sarah L. Voisin

It's almost bedtime.

John Baird Jr., 47, smokes on the hood of his 2004 Mercury Grand Marquis sedan, his plaid sleeping bag neatly tucked in the trunk.

Kathleen McDermott, 81, slouches in the driver's seat of her 2002 Ford Focus station wagon. Two angel statuettes stare from her dashboard into clothes and clutter behind her.

Scott Downey, 52, works a crossword puzzle on his phone inside a 2006 Chrysler Town & Country van that smells faintly like cats. Clothes hang on hooks in the back, and emergency supplies of ramen noodles and Vienna sausages sit out of plain view.

They are in a Home Depot parking lot, largely invisible among the subdivisions and sprawl of Northern Virginia's Fairfax County, the nation's second-wealthiest community.

Sleeping in their cars, they are homeless but sort of not, a subset of a population officially classified as "unsheltered" and slowly shrinking in these suburbs of Washington, even as the number of people living in poverty continues to grow.

Each member of the trio spent decades living a more stable existence before family trauma or economic hardship led them to the streets.

Here, they help one another with errands and auto repairs, carpool to work or church, and check in on one another at night.

Just like their neighbors in the subdivisions around them.

Not the life he expected

Scott Downey, left, checks the oil in Kathleen McDermott's 2002 Ford Focus station wagon. Photo / The Washington Post / Sarah L. Voisin
Scott Downey, left, checks the oil in Kathleen McDermott's 2002 Ford Focus station wagon. Photo / The Washington Post / Sarah L. Voisin

After pulling into his usual sleeping spot off Route 50, Baird looks left, right and left again. There are other car dwellers parked nearby. The glare of laptop computers or lit cigarettes gives them away in the dark.

He pops the trunk and pulls out his sleeping bag and pillow, leaving the bags of family photos, medical records and other belongings undisturbed. After nearly 200,000 miles, his car has broken down a few times, and Baird's tab at a nearby garage has ticked up to $1,800. But he is careful to keep the interior neat and uncluttered, clear of any obvious signs that he's homeless.

Once the sleeping bag is unrolled onto the rear seat, Baird stretches out. A slight breeze blows through a partly opened window. The radio is on, a news anchor droning away, until he turns it off and shuts his eyes.

If you looked into the sedan belonging to John Baird Jr., 47, you wouldn't know he lives in it. He keeps everything organized in the trunk. Photo / The Washington Post / Sarah L. Voisin
If you looked into the sedan belonging to John Baird Jr., 47, you wouldn't know he lives in it. He keeps everything organized in the trunk. Photo / The Washington Post / Sarah L. Voisin

Baird grew up in Washington, D.C., with greater prospects, the son of a certified public accountant in a solidly middle-class neighborhood.

He always loved cars, and he worked at a gas station after high school before studying accounting at George Washington University. Meniere's disease, an inner-ear disorder that causes intense dizzy spells and nausea, kept him from following in his father's footsteps.

"I could turn my head too quickly and all of a sudden, boom - I'm on my back," Baird said. "It can knock me out, like somebody hit me in the head with a baseball bat."

He took a job as a mechanic for a Volkswagen dealership in Bethesda, Maryland, got married and had a son. When the marriage broke up, Baird inherited the Grand Marquis. Child-support payments and the monthly charges for the tools he rented ate up most of his paycheck. Soon, the sedan became his home.

He met Downey at the Lamb Center in Fairfax, which offers breakfast, showers, laundry and other services to the homeless. By then, Baird was working as a day laborer for a temp agency. The dizzy spells had worsened, and he could no longer comfortably duck his head beneath the hood of a car.

He and Downey began parking next to each other overnight in the Home Depot lot, where church volunteers pass out cartons of donated dinners six days a week. The two men agreed to watch out for each other.

One night, Baird woke up in the lot and saw a man staring into Downey's van. The man noticed Baird watching and strolled away.

Soon after, McDermott, whom they had also met at the Lamb Center, joined their huddle in the parking lot. She felt safer sleeping in her station wagon near two male friends. In the evenings, after dinner, they bantered and joked between cigarettes.

"Look into my eye - what do you see?" Baird said one night this summer, holding his middle finger up toward Downey after Downey cracked that Baird was getting old.

"Bloodshot," Downey countered, laughing.

On another day, Baird flirted with McDermott, who caressed his long hair and suggested he get a perm.

"Oh, Kathleen - I'm too old for you," he said.

A station wagon's promise

(L-r) Scott Downey, 52; John Baird Jr., 47; and Kathleen McDermott, 81. The three friends live in their cars. Photo / The Washington Post / Sarah L. Voisin)
(L-r) Scott Downey, 52; John Baird Jr., 47; and Kathleen McDermott, 81. The three friends live in their cars. Photo / The Washington Post / Sarah L. Voisin)

Drivers honked at McDermott, veering around her angrily, as she guided her station wagon slowly along Route 123 one recent day.

The cane she uses for walking had slipped beneath the gas pedal, making it impossible to speed up.

"Oh, I give up," she said after pulling over and discovering the problem. "It seems like the world has turned upside down."

Her legs and back burn with pain from sleeping in the driver's seat for nearly two years. Talking has become more difficult, with years of poor dental care causing her teeth to fall out.

When not at the Lamb Center, she spent most days this summer parked near a 7-Eleven whose manager allows her to use the bathroom. Nearby, just off the Fairfax Circle intersection, sits the auto repair shop that she, Baird and others rely on. The mechanic lets them pay when they can.

Kathleen McDermott walks into a 7-Eleven in Fairfax before going to sleep in the 2002 Ford Focus station wagon where she lives. Photo / The Washington Post / Sarah L. Voisin
Kathleen McDermott walks into a 7-Eleven in Fairfax before going to sleep in the 2002 Ford Focus station wagon where she lives. Photo / The Washington Post / Sarah L. Voisin

McDermott prays to the angels on her dashboard to help get her out of this rut. She found one of them in an alley, near a dumpster.

She'd been holding herself together for decades, ever since her husband killed himself in 1972 and her eldest daughter was found dead from undetermined causes in the woods outside Alexandria, Virginia, two years later.

A son became addicted to drugs and would die of an overdose in 2011. McDermott had difficult relationships with her two other children.

She bought the station wagon in 2002, needing a way to commute to her job as a typist for the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers union in Washington from her apartment in Falls Church, Virginia. The $10,000 purchase was a personal victory.

"I didn't have much confidence in myself," she recalled. "One of my co-workers said she believed in me, saying: 'Go ahead, Kathleen! You can do it!' And so, I did."

After she retired, McDermott used the vehicle mostly to run errands. Her surviving son, Dennis Burley, came to live with her in 2014, eventually bringing in a girlfriend. Feeling crowded, McDermott moved out. She signed over the lease to Burley, who says he has tried to persuade her to come back.

"She had her own bedroom here," said Burley, 59. "Apparently, this is something that she wants to do. I don't know why she does it."

McDermott, who gets about $1,340 a month in Social Security payments, stayed in a shelter at first but couldn't stand the fighting among other residents. She turned to her car as her best option about 21 months ago.

She cried herself to sleep on the first night, parked outside a Harris Teeter on Columbia Pike that she used to frequent while working.

'What makes agood neighbor?'

On warm evenings, Downey will sometimes stretch out on the asphalt of the Home Depot parking lot and nap. His body aches from all the driving he does and from sleeping in the driver's seat of his van when the weather is too hot to sleep in the back.

Scott Downey, left, and John Baird Jr. in the parking lot of the Fairfax, Virginia, Home Depot. Photo / The Washington Post / Sarah L. Voisin
Scott Downey, left, and John Baird Jr. in the parking lot of the Fairfax, Virginia, Home Depot. Photo / The Washington Post / Sarah L. Voisin

He bought the vehicle in 2013 for his wife, Kay, who lives in a mobile home in Salisbury, Maryland, with her 11-year-old grandson. Downey travels there some weekends to visit - stop-and-go Friday traffic for 160 miles.

The couple met online in 2006 and married a year later. They worked as school bus drivers and lived at a mobile-home park in Fairfax City for three years.

Eventually, Kay became homesick and moved back to the Eastern Shore. Downey couldn't find work there. He returned to Virginia, eventually taking the van with him.

"Even a room inside someone's house costs $700," he said. "I can't afford that."

Downey earns $9.25 an hour at an auto auction house in Sterling, driving new and used cars across a vast lot and cleaning them to prep them for sale. He says most of his paycheck goes toward the lot fee for the mobile home.

He has learned which churches serve the best free meals on which nights and how to blend in with the rest of suburbia. One night, he sat for hours in front of a computer in a public library, studiously catching up on the gospel music scene. He also frequents a local Marriott, sitting in a rear lobby charging his phone and using the hotel's WiFi connection on his laptop.

Some weekends, Downey drives a van for New Hope Fellowship in Chantilly, ferrying homeless people who don't have vehicles to the service. On a recent Sunday, the congregation included Baird and McDermott, as well as several other current and former car dwellers: a woman who used to sleep in her 1993 Toyota Corolla, a mother and son who live in their van, and a blind woman and her husband who have slept with a dog in their van for most of the past four years.

Kathleen McDermott talks to Pastor Pat Deavers at New Hope Fellowship's Sunday service on July 10. Photo / The Washington Post / Sarah L. Voisin
Kathleen McDermott talks to Pastor Pat Deavers at New Hope Fellowship's Sunday service on July 10. Photo / The Washington Post / Sarah L. Voisin

Pastor Pat Deavers's sermon focused on the biblical parable of the good Samaritan, a story about helping a stranger in need.

"That's really the question, isn't it?" she said, her voice rising. "Who is our neighbor? And what makes a good neighbor?"

Running on empty

The late-July afternoon sun was strong as Baird was driving back to Fairfax from Loudoun, after a day spent moving furniture for a moving company.

His vision had grown blurry in recent months, and the glare did not help. He didn't see the red traffic signal warning him to stop at the intersection of the Loudoun County Parkway and Waxpool Road. He didn't see the truck that barreled into the right side of his car, sending it spinning.

Baird stepped out, ignoring the other driver, who was angrily asking, "Didn't you see the light?"

He hadn't. His heart sank. The Grand Marquis was inoperable, its rear section crumpled inward and the frame bent.

John Baird Jr.'s wrecked Mercury Grand Marquis sedan in an impound lot in Sterling, Virginia. Photo / The Washington Post / Sarah L. Voisin
John Baird Jr.'s wrecked Mercury Grand Marquis sedan in an impound lot in Sterling, Virginia. Photo / The Washington Post / Sarah L. Voisin

A tow truck showed up, and a Loudoun County sheriff's deputy wrote out court summonses for lapsed insurance and running a red light - misdemeanor violations worth up to $850 in fines.

Baird rode in the cab of the tow truck to the repair shop on Fairfax Circle. But he owed that shop $1,800, and he didn't have $135 to pay the towing fee.

As the annoyed tow-truck driver prepared to take the vehicle to an impound lot in Sterling, where it would accrue daily storage fees, Baird reached into his car to grab his laptop and asked whether he could retrieve his clothes, bedding and family photos from the trunk. The driver refused.

"I'm kind of screwed," Baird remembers thinking as he watched his wrecked car roll away.

He could not stay in McDermott's station wagon. She'd fallen after her legs swelled up and was briefly hospitalized. She then used her Social Security money to pay for a week at a motel, leaving her friends mystified as to her whereabouts.

So Baird slept in Downey's van for a while. Then Downey went to Salisbury and ended up in a shelter in Reston, Virginia, after his own brief hospitalization.

John Baird Jr., left, and Scott Downey sleep in Downey's van in the parking lot. Photo / The Washington Post / Sarah L. Voisin
John Baird Jr., left, and Scott Downey sleep in Downey's van in the parking lot. Photo / The Washington Post / Sarah L. Voisin

By then, a newcomer had joined their circle. Penny Winters, 52, arrived from Mississippi, driving a 2004 Honda Accord. She told a story about being laid off and struggling to secure government assistance.

Winters turned down Baird's first request to sleep in her car. But Baird offered to give her gas money, and she relented.

McDermott came back in late August. Soon, she would disappear again. But not before she and Baird spent a stormy night in her front seat outside Home Depot, happily watching lightning flash across the sky.

"Mother Nature is putting on a show just for us!" Baird shouted.

Any hope of retrieving his own car had vanished. A Loudoun judge reduced the fine to about $100. But he still couldn't pay it - and his tab at the impound lot was $3,000 and climbing. Without transportation, he was working only sporadically.

He bought a tent he could use in the woods and began sleeping in an abandoned building off Route 50, showing up at church one recent morning with disheveled hair and bits of leaves clinging to his clothes.

An ophthalmologist in Fairfax who treats low-income patients had found the cause of his blurry vision: cataracts clouding over both his eyes.

The other morning, Baird went to the Lamb Center to apply for Medicaid, which he hoped would cover cataract surgery. He ran into Downey having breakfast and contemplating a new chapter of his life. This month, he will move to Salisbury, work as a school bus driver for $16 an hour and live with his wife and grandson.

Baird's prospects are much more uncertain.

"At this point, jail would be better," he told his old friend. "At least I'd have a roof over my head."

Stepping outside, Baird walked to a nearby doughnut shop. He sat at a table for the rest of the morning.

John Baird Jr.after losing his car. Photo / The Washington Post / Sarah L. Voisin
John Baird Jr.after losing his car. Photo / The Washington Post / Sarah L. Voisin

- Washington Post

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2017, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf04 at 23 Feb 2017 20:59:22 Processing Time: 604ms