Safe hiding

Veronica Harnish lives in her car, a space she points out is a little wider than a coffin. Here, the educated Ashland woman shares a makeshift bed with her cat, her only companion.

When she first became homeless in November, it rained half the month, temperatures hovered at 40 degrees and she didn't think the two of them could survive.

But they have, thanks to Harnish's research and trial-and-error experiments.

With her newfound skills of living in a battered station wagon, she has written a guide to day-by-day survival for the suddenly homeless.

The woman, who uses the pseudonym Veronica Harnish to protect her identity, hopes to publish by summer a 110-page book, "Car Living When There's No Other Choice: Tips & Strategies for Survival & Safety." Each copy she sells for $10 will allow her to step out of hiding and donate to others who have lost their home.

Nearly 44 percent of Americans don't have enough savings to stay out of poverty for more than three months if they lose their income, according to a study released Wednesday by the Corporation for Enterprise Development, a Washington, D.C.-based source for data about household financial security.

Other studies show that many men and women living in their cars are working, but don't earn enough to pay rent.

"I didn't volunteer for this," says Harnish, who spends a few hours a day using a library computer to search for job openings in a county that has a 9.4 percent unemployment rate. "I am writing this book to counter the myths about poor people, public assistance and homelessness. It's easy to blame a person for his or her circumstance rather than address the problems of the lack of a living wage and affordable housing."

Harnish attended college and has worked in high-tech offices and government agencies, from the city to federal level. She lost her job in October, fell behind in her rent and moved into her car in November.

"The hiring process is slower than a snail stuck in tar," she says about a job she applied for in October. An interview was scheduled in early December, but delayed until January because of a snowstorm.

"These are the things that keep the homeless homeless longer," says Harnish, who now works part-time on call but still doesn't have enough money for rent.

On a recent Tuesday, Harnish, who is in her 40s, was standing outside her used station wagon. Parts of the steel body have eroded away and the door seals are gone, making it impossible to keep warm when the temperature drops.

But inside, Harnish's few personal possessions are orderly arranged. A grocery bag sits on the front seat. A suitcase and box of toiletries are against a side window in the back, where seats have been folded down to make room for a tarp layered with thin rugs, blankets and a sleeping bag.

To keep the linens as clean as possible, Harnish carefully takes off her shoes before entering the back of her car. The windows can be covered with towels and tarps, but that doesn't keep out street noise or fear.

One night while she was trying to sleep, a man started screaming about 50 feet away. As quietly as she could, she crawled into the front seat and then drove away. She has learned to stay away from places where alcohol or drug addicts huddle or near the paths male transients take from the railroad tracks to the freeway.

Unlike the chronic homeless, many of whom have psychological or substance-abuse problems, she sees her current condition as temporary. She says being homeless is frightening, especially for people who have always had a roof over their head.

"My book lets them know not to panic and that they can and already have handled most things that they will face," she says. "They just need to be alert, resourceful and be able to think things through. They have to know they can make it and be given specifics."

In her book, she explains the importance of renewing vehicle registration and auto insurance. "If you don't have car insurance or tags in Oregon, they will tow and impound your vehicle," she says. "If you live in your vehicle, game over, you're on the streets."

She also suggests ways to eat economically without needing a camper stove or a cooler. "Ice is $1.25 a bag and it melts," she says. She buys nonperishable food, but warns that a bag of apples will store well in a car during the winter, but not when it's 100 degrees in the summer. However, beans and rice will last forever and can be cooked in a pan on a public barbecue.

She also describes in her book how to access showers with low-cost gym memberships, set up a place to receive mail and ask for help.

"The fundamental commandment is that if you look and smell like a homeless person you will be treated like one," she says. "A lot of people don't tell family and friends that they don't have a home. I emphasize that you don't get bonus points for suffering. If they are truly your friend or relative, they can establish boundaries and still let you do your laundry or get your mail at their home."

She advises the newly homeless to be honest with the police.

"It's not illegal to be homeless and the Ashland police have been trained to be sensitive," she says. It is, however, against the law to camp or live in a vehicle on public property or streets, according to the Ashland Police Department. Violators are warned or could be cited, says Chief Terry Holderness.

Harnish also recommends to not let pride get in the way of using local resources such as food banks. "You will see there is more available than you ever noticed before because then you didn't need it," she says.

She posted a request on the crowd-funding website Kickstarter to ask for contributions to cover the costs of the book's layout and design, distribution and postage. So far, she has received pledges of $175 toward the $875 she hopes to receive by Feb. 13. Visit the page at

She writes under a pseudonym because she worries that future landlords, employers or acquaintances may judge her. But she is thankful for the few people she has met who have not.

When she goes to the Ashland Emergency Food Bank, she provides the volunteers with the necessary documents to show that she lives in Ashland (she mailed a postcard to herself to a friend's home). Then she points to other proof: her car.

A longtime food bank volunteer remembers her as the gardener who used to donate Swiss chard and other produce, all neatly boxed.

Over the last two weeks at a friend's property, Harnish has created a 40-by-20-foot plot where she hopes to grow more vegetables, herbs and berries to eat and share.

"When I'm not working or trying to figure out a solution to my problem, I shovel manure," she says. "There's nothing more mentally easing than that."

She stops to think about how her life has changed.

"Most of us are aware of the panhandler on the corner and hippies on the Plaza, but we don't know about the majority of the working poor living in their cars who make every effort not to be seen," she says.

"I want this book to be their life raft until they can get help and get back on their feet."

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or

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