With Rent Out of Reach, a Back Seat Becomes a Bedroom

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In August, when Rukmini Callimachi, a New York Times reporter who covers real estate, pulled into a parking lot in Kirkland, Wash., that’s dedicated to people who live in their cars, she expected to see clunkers, perhaps with bent fenders or a few broken windows protected by cardboard.

Instead she found a bright red Mustang. A Mercedes van. And an eight-year-old gray Ford Fusion, the car and home of Chrystal Audet, a 49-year-old social worker.

That was the first of many surprising discoveries that Ms. Callimachi made while shadowing Ms. Audet, who lived out of her car with her daughter and dog. The three-day trip capped off a monthslong reporting effort on what life was like for the tens of thousands of Americans who had turned to living in their cars amid a nationwide housing crisis.

Ms. Callimachi spoke with more than two dozen people for her article. Many of the car dwellers she interviewed were gainfully employed; they had jobs and decent incomes — Ms. Audet made over $72,000 — but, like Ms. Audet, did not make enough to pay off debts, cover bills and afford a place.

“As somebody who’s not from this country — I was born in Romania, and I was a refugee between the ages of 5 and 9 — it’s really striking, even shocking, to see this level of hardship in America,” Ms. Callimachi said in an interview. She shared more about her reporting; these are edited excerpts from the conversation.

How did you get the idea for this story?

When I began covering housing for The Times in August, I came across a U.C.L.A. study about the growing number of people who live out of their cars. It was shocking that, just in Los Angeles County, the number grew by more than 50 percent, to almost 19,000 in 2020 from 12,200 in 2016. Often they’re working but in a job that doesn’t pay enough for them to have a roof over their head. So they’ll work as an Uber or DoorDash driver; sometimes they’re living on a fixed income, like Social Security, or they’ve undergone an injury of some kind and are trying to subsist on disability.

How did you find Chrystal?

It took a few weeks. I was speaking to the directors of these parking lots, and — rightly so — they were very careful. They wanted to make sure the people I might interview were willing to talk to me, that they wanted their faces revealed and their names used.

Why was Chrystal an ideal candidate?

I sensed a real openness in her. It’s asking a lot of somebody who is in a very difficult spot to let a reporter in. Given that this is a story about homelessness and financial duress, that also meant I would need to ask her some really personal questions.

Why do you believe she was willing to open up?

She’s a social worker who spends her day helping destitute people, so I think there is an element of helping others. She has said to me more than once since the story was published that she hopes that it will help other people.

Why was it important to shadow her?

You can ask somebody, “Do you feel shame about this?” But it’s much more powerful when you’re able to see it and show it. For example, I don’t think I could have gotten the detail from her that showed the shame she felt when using a public restroom in the middle of a state park. On the third day I was with her, there was an equestrian competition at the park. She was surrounded by teeny-boppers with shiny boots and beautiful thoroughbreds with braided manes and tails. I noticed she left a big bucket, which I had seen her put her toiletries in before, in her car and instead bundled her lotions and razor in her towel, which she was carrying under her arm. She whispered, “I don’t want to draw attention to myself.”

Ms. Audet uses a portable toilet area to wash her dog’s bowls before bed.Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

How did you keep track of your observations?

I had a recorder on for much of the time I was with Chrystal, and I wrote down key quotes in a notebook. Every night when I returned to my hotel, I would type up, just from memory, the most salient things that had happened that day. I had more than 50 hours of tape between my time with Chrystal and the more than two dozen other people I interviewed.

What was your biggest challenge in reporting this article?

As Times reporters, we always need to be aware of our place in the power dynamic we inhabit. I’m a journalist from a large media organization, and this is a person who is in a very vulnerable place. I tried to be mindful of that. Ultimately, I wanted to be as honest as I could about this particular person’s financial duress while also being respectful of her privacy.

Housing activists caught wind that Chrystal was being profiled by a Times reporter, and she ultimately got housing. How do you square that?

She has been very clear that she believes that The Times’s shadowing her changed her fate. In my first draft, I did not include that. But then I sent the story to Ruth Fremson, the photographer who worked with me, and she said, “I think we need to mention it,” because otherwise it looks like this Cinderella story where she’s in dire straits and suddenly gets an apartment.I wanted to be transparent with readers that she was in this situation, and then people noticed her, probably because a reporter from a major media organization happened to be profiling her.

What story lines are you considering pursuing next?

There are countries around the world, and especially in Europe, that have decided that housing is a human right in the same way that free speech is a human right. There’s a movement in the U.S. right now that is trying to make the same thing happen.

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