Brenda D'Alessandro lived in her car for a month after her landlord raised the rent at her Smithtown apartment.  Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Thousands of Long Islanders continue to struggle to get by, figuring out each week how they will pay the rent or mortgage, buy food and put gas in the car. As part of Newsday’s continuing “Feeling the Squeeze” series, here's Brenda D’Alessandro’s story. (Read the 2023 series here.)

Brenda D’Alessandro is a hairstylist who has worked in Long Island salons for nearly 50 years, a career she had wanted since graduating from Bethpage High School.

On Dec. 21, D’Alessandro said, she was evicted from the Smithtown apartment she had lived in for nine years because she couldn't afford the $360 monthly increase. No longer able to afford a “decent” place to live on Long Island, she started living out of her car.

D’Alessandro is part of what social services and other authorities on homelessness say is a growing subset of that population: working people living in their vehicles — typically cars, but also larger vehicles such as SUVs or vans.

Some experts interviewed for this story — part of Newsday's continuing “Feeling the Squeeze” series — say living in vehicles is becoming a new affordable housing option.  In D’Alessandro's case, she had been under a month-to-month rental arrangement before her landlord in 2023 switched to a yearly lease, resulting in a 15.4%  increase, she said. She had been paying $2,340 a month for her apartment in a two-family home. 

“If you had told me in high school I wouldn’t have a home one day, I would’ve said, ‘What are you talking about?’ " said D’Alessandro, who works for a salon in Huntington. “I came from a middle-class background, and we had everything we needed. My father was a mechanical engineer who later worked for Sperry and Grumman, and then he was a teacher. My mother was a homemaker who did some work as a seamstress.”

D’Alessandro, 65  and divorced following a 10-year-marriage, called her situation “a crisis.” For about a month — starting on New Year’s Eve — her 2011 Honda Accord became her home. Since the end of January, she has lived in her sister’s Bethpage house, but she said that's temporary. (D'Alessandro's sister asked not to be identified by name and declined to comment for this article.)

“My sister wants to sell the house, so when that happens, it’ll be back to my car,” D’Alessandro said, adding that she can't see affording her own place on Long Island again, even though she works. “Everything is over the top [in prices] on Long Island."

“I've tried everything I can think of and can't get help,”  D’Alessandro said. “Even if you can find an agency to help pay the price of getting an apartment — like the first month's rent and security or something like that — the issue is keeping up the rent. It's not the upfront money.”

There are no statistics on how many working or unemployed people on Long Island or elsewhere have turned to living in their vehicles, experts on homelessness said. Additionally, they said, the working homeless who live in their cars are usually hesitant to make themselves known to agencies, co-workers and others because they’re embarrassed about their predicament and don’t see themselves as stereotypical homeless  people.

“While on Long Island the number of persons living in places not meant for human habilitation is still much less than those in shelters, it is the area of the unhoused population that is growing the fastest in our region,” said Greta Guarton, executive director of the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless.

It’s harder to identify people who are living in their cars than others who are living in tents or encampments, Guarton said.

“They are less visible to the folks in the community and are able to hide better — both by keeping a low profile and by moving their cars often so community members are less likely to notice that a car has been in the same place for a period of time,” Guarton said.

Steven Crawford, a chaplain and founder of Homeless Long Island — an outreach ministry for the homeless — agrees that the population is difficult to get a handle on, but it’s growing, he said.

“About 40% of all homeless, according to HUD [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development], live in their car, and from our calculations, based on our street outreach and calls we receive, about 10% of that number work,” said Crawford, whose outreach ministry was started in 2007.

“Going out looking for the homeless living in their cars is a very difficult task. However, when we find one person living in their car, or when we get a phone call from someone living in their car, that usually leads us to others. But unfortunately, unless they reach out to us, they do not want help,” Crawford added.

Those working might not seek assistance, he said, because they “are mobile to get to and from work. Their car is an asset, and the income makes them unqualified for DSS [Department of Social Services] shelter.”

Crawford noted that the cheapest rent he was aware of on Long Island was $625 a month for a room that’s shared with two or three other people in a house.

Zachary A. Morris, an associate professor at Stony Brook University’s School of Social Welfare, said working people living in vehicles shouldn’t be a thing, but it is.

“To be working and to be poor should be an oxymoron, but it’s an unfortunate reality for many across the country,” Morris said. “Part of the challenge is that, while the cost of some material goods like televisions and microwaves have decreased, the cost of things you really need — like housing, health care, food and education — continues to rise.”

According to the latest figures in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index report released June 12, consumer prices rose 3.3% from a year earlier, slowing April’s 3.4% rate. And on a monthly basis, prices continued to be flat for the first time since July 2022, with falling gas prices keeping inflation under control following a 0.3% gain in April.

On Long Island, the Consumer Price Index climbed 3.9% in May compared with May 2023. That year-over-year percentage rise was slightly higher than April's 3.8%, the Labor Department said on June 12.

But while car insurance and transportation prices fell nationwide, housing inflation rose 0.4% in May for the fourth month in a row, indicating the continued struggle with housing affordability. 

Morris said being a working person and living in a vehicle had its own set of challenges.

“There are a lot of possible issues they may encounter, from not having an address to get mail, to finding it difficult to take a shower or do laundry, to experiencing discrimination or stigma from co-workers and employers,” Morris said.

Workers living in cars might end up losing their jobs, too, due to their housing predicament, Guarton said. They face a lack of access to adequate bathroom and bathing facilities, but also a need to purchase and eat more expensive, prepared meals, “which often are also not very healthy,” and not having refrigeration available for some medications, Guarton said.

In addition, inadequate sleep can be problematic, Guarton said. There’s an increased possibility of medical problems; lack of safety; being subject to fines or arrest for trespassing, or public urination or defecation; and an inability to change or launder clothing easily.

“For people with jobs, these can result in missing work, being sleep-deprived and not being able to perform as well as needed, and presenting in a less-than-professional manner,” Guarton said.

D’Alessandro said that while living in her Honda, she had to constantly think of how and where she could get done things most people take for granted.

“It was January, so I’d go through a lot of gas heating the car until it got 'really hot,' and go to a 7-Eleven or a gas station for hot tea,” D’Alessandro said. Towels were spread on the floor of her Honda “for more insulation,” and she’d sleep in sweats and socks under a weighted blanket — using the reclined driver’s seat as her bed. When asked why she didn’t lie across the back seat, she said, “because I was always in fight or flight mode.”

D’Alessandro said she stopped showering regularly, but when she did, she’d go someplace like Gold’s Gym, a participant in Silver Sneakers. The program allows seniors free access to certain exercise facilities if they have Medicare Advantage or Medigap plans. Other times, she showered at friends’ houses. “I couldn’t shower every day — just the days I worked,” she said.

Going to a shelter — even to shower — wasn’t an option, D’Alessandro said.

“I don’t know who, or how many people slept on those beds — and you have to call and see if there’s room for you even available,” she said. “You have to be in by 7:30 [p.m.] and leave at 6:30 [a.m.] — so with 30 people in a shelter, you’d have to start showering at 3 o’clock in the morning [to assure you’d be out by 6:30 a.m.]. They also tell you don’t bring anything — my life is in my car.”

Nights were spent looking for well-lit parking lots considered safe and free from possible police harassment, she said. D’Alessandro liked the Long Island Welcome Center off the Long Island Expressway in Dix Hills, but found it difficult to stay there.

“I thought it was safe because of the security cameras and because it was well lit. And I’d use the restrooms [sometimes] there because the place was immaculate, but the police would tell me I couldn’t stay the night,” D’Alessandro said.

During the daytime, when not at work, D’Alessandro said she’d often park in library and store parking lots, and would spend time parked near a trash bin in a parking lot near her job. “You’re alone with your thoughts; there’s nothing to distract you, so sometimes I’d do crosswords to keep me thinking about words and from being depressed,” she said.

For food, D’Alessandro would try to stay healthy by buying mostly protein bars and shakes, nuts and seeds, and she said other things to eat were available from St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church in Smithtown.

There are many reasons working homeless people and others choose to live in their cars, Guarton said. They include legal status in the case of undocumented immigrants; the splitting up of couples into male and female shelters if they don’t have children; and the cost of living there if you have a job or income such as Social Security.

The Department of Social Services “will take up to 80% of a person’s income toward their shelter contribution, so many choose to live in their cars and try to save more of their money,” Guarton said. “Additionally, DSS has curfews, and those with jobs in the evenings or overnight would have to choose between shelter and employment. Lastly, even a low-paying job may result in an income above the eligibility for a shelter.”

Living in a vehicle allows people to keep their pets and other possessions with them, Guarton noted, and there could be issues with not wanting to live at a shelter due to other concerns.

“Pets — shelters do not accept pets — and many folks will live in their cars or elsewhere so they don’t have to give up their pets,” Guarton said. For some people, she added, there is also an “inability” to live with others and/or shelter rules. “There are those who cannot share space with others due to mental health issues, safety issues or similar reasons.”

The spiral that resulted in D’Alessandro living in her car started with the COVID-19 pandemic, when salons were shuttered. When they reopened, she found she had lost half of her regular clients. She went from regularly working four days a week to working 2½, and becoming dependent on credit cards to pay bills for her phone, car insurance and other expenses when her savings were depleted.

D’Alessandro said because she couldn’t always be certain how many clients she’d have, the only income she could count on was her $1,100 monthly Social Security payment — $100 of which went to her Medicare Advantage plan.

“I’m older, and my clients are older,” D’Alessandro said, “so the pandemic caused me to lose half of them. People didn’t go to salons during the pandemic, and afterwards, my clients had gotten sick, died or decided to stay gray.” She said the owner of the salon asked her not to reveal how much she makes there. (The salon owner had no comment and did not want the name of his business used in this story.) 

D’Alessandro, who has no children and no other family or friends who will take her in, said one unfortunate event, or something like a medical emergency requiring thousands of dollars for surgery when you had no insurance to cover it, could put a working person on the road to living in a car.

She applied for low-income senior housing but was told she would be placed on a three- to five-year waiting list, and was told there were 7,000 people ahead of her for HUD housing.

“This is surreal,” D’Alessandro said. She spoke proudly of being a successful professional hairstylist for most of her life, including while a teenager. “When I was 18 or 19, I was able to buy a brand-new Buick Regal. I paid cash, $6,500,” she said.

“People think of the homeless as people who never did well, and as being criminals or on drugs,” she added. “I’m not saying they’re not good people, but that’s not me. I don’t even drink. … This can happen to anyone these days.”

Thousands of Long Islanders continue to struggle to get by, figuring out each week how they will pay the rent or mortgage, buy food and put gas in the car. As part of Newsday’s continuing “Feeling the Squeeze” series, here's Brenda D’Alessandro’s story. (Read the 2023 series here.)

Brenda D’Alessandro is a hairstylist who has worked in Long Island salons for nearly 50 years, a career she had wanted since graduating from Bethpage High School.

On Dec. 21, D’Alessandro said, she was evicted from the Smithtown apartment she had lived in for nine years because she couldn't afford the $360 monthly increase. No longer able to afford a “decent” place to live on Long Island, she started living out of her car.

D’Alessandro is part of what social services and other authorities on homelessness say is a growing subset of that population: working people living in their vehicles — typically cars, but also larger vehicles such as SUVs or vans.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Working people living in their vehicles appears to be a growing subset of the homeless population in America, according to authorities.
  • Co-workers and employers may discriminate when they learn an employee is living in their car.
  • A lack of personal hygiene and adequate sleep could cause a worker living in a car to lose their job due to a failure to present professionally.

Some experts interviewed for this story — part of Newsday's continuing “Feeling the Squeeze” series — say living in vehicles is becoming a new affordable housing option.  In D’Alessandro's case, she had been under a month-to-month rental arrangement before her landlord in 2023 switched to a yearly lease, resulting in a 15.4%  increase, she said. She had been paying $2,340 a month for her apartment in a two-family home. 

“If you had told me in high school I wouldn’t have a home one day, I would’ve said, ‘What are you talking about?’ " said D’Alessandro, who works for a salon in Huntington. “I came from a middle-class background, and we had everything we needed. My father was a mechanical engineer who later worked for Sperry and Grumman, and then he was a teacher. My mother was a homemaker who did some work as a seamstress.”

Everything is over the top [in prices] on Long Island.

—Brenda D’Alessandro

D’Alessandro, 65  and divorced following a 10-year-marriage, called her situation “a crisis.” For about a month — starting on New Year’s Eve — her 2011 Honda Accord became her home. Since the end of January, she has lived in her sister’s Bethpage house, but she said that's temporary. (D'Alessandro's sister asked not to be identified by name and declined to comment for this article.)

“My sister wants to sell the house, so when that happens, it’ll be back to my car,” D’Alessandro said, adding that she can't see affording her own place on Long Island again, even though she works. “Everything is over the top [in prices] on Long Island."

“I've tried everything I can think of and can't get help,”  D’Alessandro said. “Even if you can find an agency to help pay the price of getting an apartment — like the first month's rent and security or something like that — the issue is keeping up the rent. It's not the upfront money.”

How many unknown

After being evicted from the apartment she rented for nine years, Brenda D'Alessandro lived in her car for a month before moving in with her sister. She still uses her car to store some belongings. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

There are no statistics on how many working or unemployed people on Long Island or elsewhere have turned to living in their vehicles, experts on homelessness said. Additionally, they said, the working homeless who live in their cars are usually hesitant to make themselves known to agencies, co-workers and others because they’re embarrassed about their predicament and don’t see themselves as stereotypical homeless  people.

“While on Long Island the number of persons living in places not meant for human habilitation is still much less than those in shelters, it is the area of the unhoused population that is growing the fastest in our region,” said Greta Guarton, executive director of the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless.

It’s harder to identify people who are living in their cars than others who are living in tents or encampments, Guarton said.

“They are less visible to the folks in the community and are able to hide better — both by keeping a low profile and by moving their cars often so community members are less likely to notice that a car has been in the same place for a period of time,” Guarton said.

Steven Crawford, a chaplain and founder of Homeless Long Island — an outreach ministry for the homeless — agrees that the population is difficult to get a handle on, but it’s growing, he said.

About 40% of all homeless people live in their car. Source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

“About 40% of all homeless, according to HUD [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development], live in their car, and from our calculations, based on our street outreach and calls we receive, about 10% of that number work,” said Crawford, whose outreach ministry was started in 2007.

“Going out looking for the homeless living in their cars is a very difficult task. However, when we find one person living in their car, or when we get a phone call from someone living in their car, that usually leads us to others. But unfortunately, unless they reach out to us, they do not want help,” Crawford added.

Those working might not seek assistance, he said, because they “are mobile to get to and from work. Their car is an asset, and the income makes them unqualified for DSS [Department of Social Services] shelter.”

Crawford noted that the cheapest rent he was aware of on Long Island was $625 a month for a room that’s shared with two or three other people in a house.

Working poor

Zachary A. Morris, an associate professor at Stony Brook University’s School of Social Welfare, said working people living in vehicles shouldn’t be a thing, but it is.

“To be working and to be poor should be an oxymoron, but it’s an unfortunate reality for many across the country,” Morris said. “Part of the challenge is that, while the cost of some material goods like televisions and microwaves have decreased, the cost of things you really need — like housing, health care, food and education — continues to rise.”

According to the latest figures in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index report released June 12, consumer prices rose 3.3% from a year earlier, slowing April’s 3.4% rate. And on a monthly basis, prices continued to be flat for the first time since July 2022, with falling gas prices keeping inflation under control following a 0.3% gain in April.

3.9%  How much the Consumer Price Index on Long Island climbed last month compared with May 2023

On Long Island, the Consumer Price Index climbed 3.9% in May compared with May 2023. That year-over-year percentage rise was slightly higher than April's 3.8%, the Labor Department said on June 12.

But while car insurance and transportation prices fell nationwide, housing inflation rose 0.4% in May for the fourth month in a row, indicating the continued struggle with housing affordability. 

Morris said being a working person and living in a vehicle had its own set of challenges.

“There are a lot of possible issues they may encounter, from not having an address to get mail, to finding it difficult to take a shower or do laundry, to experiencing discrimination or stigma from co-workers and employers,” Morris said.

Threat of job loss

Workers living in cars might end up losing their jobs, too, due to their housing predicament, Guarton said. They face a lack of access to adequate bathroom and bathing facilities, but also a need to purchase and eat more expensive, prepared meals, “which often are also not very healthy,” and not having refrigeration available for some medications, Guarton said.

In addition, inadequate sleep can be problematic, Guarton said. There’s an increased possibility of medical problems; lack of safety; being subject to fines or arrest for trespassing, or public urination or defecation; and an inability to change or launder clothing easily.

“For people with jobs, these can result in missing work, being sleep-deprived and not being able to perform as well as needed, and presenting in a less-than-professional manner,” Guarton said.

D’Alessandro said that while living in her Honda, she had to constantly think of how and where she could get done things most people take for granted.

Brenda D'Alessandro in her car at a parking lot in...

Brenda D'Alessandro in her car at a parking lot in Huntington on May 21. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

“It was January, so I’d go through a lot of gas heating the car until it got 'really hot,' and go to a 7-Eleven or a gas station for hot tea,” D’Alessandro said. Towels were spread on the floor of her Honda “for more insulation,” and she’d sleep in sweats and socks under a weighted blanket — using the reclined driver’s seat as her bed. When asked why she didn’t lie across the back seat, she said, “because I was always in fight or flight mode.”

D’Alessandro said she stopped showering regularly, but when she did, she’d go someplace like Gold’s Gym, a participant in Silver Sneakers. The program allows seniors free access to certain exercise facilities if they have Medicare Advantage or Medigap plans. Other times, she showered at friends’ houses. “I couldn’t shower every day — just the days I worked,” she said.

Going to a shelter — even to shower — wasn’t an option, D’Alessandro said.

“I don’t know who, or how many people slept on those beds — and you have to call and see if there’s room for you even available,” she said. “You have to be in by 7:30 [p.m.] and leave at 6:30 [a.m.] — so with 30 people in a shelter, you’d have to start showering at 3 o’clock in the morning [to assure you’d be out by 6:30 a.m.]. They also tell you don’t bring anything — my life is in my car.”

Well-lit parking lots

Nights were spent looking for well-lit parking lots considered safe and free from possible police harassment, she said. D’Alessandro liked the Long Island Welcome Center off the Long Island Expressway in Dix Hills, but found it difficult to stay there.

“I thought it was safe because of the security cameras and because it was well lit. And I’d use the restrooms [sometimes] there because the place was immaculate, but the police would tell me I couldn’t stay the night,” D’Alessandro said.

During the daytime, when not at work, D’Alessandro said she’d often park in library and store parking lots, and would spend time parked near a trash bin in a parking lot near her job. “You’re alone with your thoughts; there’s nothing to distract you, so sometimes I’d do crosswords to keep me thinking about words and from being depressed,” she said.

For food, D’Alessandro would try to stay healthy by buying mostly protein bars and shakes, nuts and seeds, and she said other things to eat were available from St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church in Smithtown.

There are many reasons working homeless people and others choose to live in their cars, Guarton said. They include legal status in the case of undocumented immigrants; the splitting up of couples into male and female shelters if they don’t have children; and the cost of living there if you have a job or income such as Social Security.

The Department of Social Services “will take up to 80% of a person’s income toward their shelter contribution, so many choose to live in their cars and try to save more of their money,” Guarton said. “Additionally, DSS has curfews, and those with jobs in the evenings or overnight would have to choose between shelter and employment. Lastly, even a low-paying job may result in an income above the eligibility for a shelter.”

Living in a vehicle allows people to keep their pets and other possessions with them, Guarton noted, and there could be issues with not wanting to live at a shelter due to other concerns.

“Pets — shelters do not accept pets — and many folks will live in their cars or elsewhere so they don’t have to give up their pets,” Guarton said. For some people, she added, there is also an “inability” to live with others and/or shelter rules. “There are those who cannot share space with others due to mental health issues, safety issues or similar reasons.”

Pandemic closed salon

The spiral that resulted in D’Alessandro living in her car started with the COVID-19 pandemic, when salons were shuttered. When they reopened, she found she had lost half of her regular clients. She went from regularly working four days a week to working 2½, and becoming dependent on credit cards to pay bills for her phone, car insurance and other expenses when her savings were depleted.

D’Alessandro said because she couldn’t always be certain how many clients she’d have, the only income she could count on was her $1,100 monthly Social Security payment — $100 of which went to her Medicare Advantage plan.

“I’m older, and my clients are older,” D’Alessandro said, “so the pandemic caused me to lose half of them. People didn’t go to salons during the pandemic, and afterwards, my clients had gotten sick, died or decided to stay gray.” She said the owner of the salon asked her not to reveal how much she makes there. (The salon owner had no comment and did not want the name of his business used in this story.) 

D’Alessandro, who has no children and no other family or friends who will take her in, said one unfortunate event, or something like a medical emergency requiring thousands of dollars for surgery when you had no insurance to cover it, could put a working person on the road to living in a car.

She applied for low-income senior housing but was told she would be placed on a three- to five-year waiting list, and was told there were 7,000 people ahead of her for HUD housing.

“This is surreal,” D’Alessandro said. She spoke proudly of being a successful professional hairstylist for most of her life, including while a teenager. “When I was 18 or 19, I was able to buy a brand-new Buick Regal. I paid cash, $6,500,” she said.

“People think of the homeless as people who never did well, and as being criminals or on drugs,” she added. “I’m not saying they’re not good people, but that’s not me. I don’t even drink. … This can happen to anyone these days.”

Resources for workers living in cars

Referrals for housing and support services

Free showers

Hands Across Long Island (HALI) Mobile Shower Unit provides showers placed in trailers that are parked at these locations and at these times. For more information call 631-923-6114.

  • St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (every first Monday of the month, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.), 31 Rider Ave., Patchogue
  • Congregational Church of Patchogue (Wednesdays, 3 to 6 p.m.), 95 E. Main St., Patchogue
  •  River of Life (every third Tuesday or the month, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.), 17 Third Ave., Brentwood
  •  Angels of Long Island (every first and third Thursday of the month, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.), 14 Herkimer St., Mastic
  •   Home Church, (every second and fourth Thursday or the month, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.), 298 Neighborhood Rd., Mastic Beach

Pax Christi Hospitality Center has four stationary shower stalls inside (seven days a week, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., but screening for intoxication is required), 255 Oakland Ave., Port Jefferson

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