“I don’t want to sit in the middle,” said Juan Carlos Zepeda Jr., 8, the youngest of three boys, to his mother. He stared at the pile of clothes and linens sitting in the back seat of their family car. “There’s no room.”

“Just sit down,” said his brothers, Adrian Diaz, 11, and Chris Diaz, 9.

To make room, his mother, Alicia Cerda, removed the pile of belongings from the back to securely seat her sons, then refilled the backseat until the boys were chin-deep in clothing.

“This is what we have to do to get around,” explained Cerda. “It’s all we have left.  Our trunk is also full.”

Cerda is a single mother of three boys, and homeless.

Her situation began three years ago when she lost her laundromat managing position after breaking her toe. A confluence of low income and child-care expenses caused her to turn away other employment opportunities.

“I don’t have anyone to help with the kids,” she said. “How can I work and care for them?”

The decrepit vehicle with permanently locked doors, clear tape for a broken window and a dying engine is the last possession she owns. The car is their storage, their family room and an undependable mode of transportation.

She said that high rent and coming up with a deposit and credit check make renting impossible.

She’s lived in and out of friends’ houses and hotel rooms for three years, moving her sons back and forth. The only consistency she’s able to offer, besides the family vehicle, is keeping them in the same school they’ve attended since kindergarten.

“I don’t want to take from them the last thing that’s theirs,” said Cerda between tears.

Living out of a car had been the norm until just recently, when she temporarily relocated into the Lighthouse for Women and Children, a Rescue Mission Alliance sub-program. The nonprofit Christian shelter is a “hand up” approach to providing clients with their immediate needs, like meals, showers and beds, so they can focus on their greatest needs.

It also has a recovery program that offers vocational training, counseling and addiction assistance.

“We work with the women and show them life outside of what they know,” said Mellanie Temple, the Lighthouse children resource coordinator, who says the program includes free tutoring from School on Wheels Inc., a nonprofit tutoring organization that offers homework help to homeless families. “Women don’t have to worry while here,” she said. The goal of the program is to help families find healing and independence; no family is ever turned away.

Temple says the homeless epidemic is everyone’s concern.

“With this economy, we are all a paycheck away from being homeless. It’s our problem,” she continued. “You wouldn’t want someone to say, ‘It’s not my problem,’ when you find yourself homeless tomorrow.”

The program functions through donations and volunteers and doesn’t receive government funds.

This week, Cerda will begin her first steady job as a telemarketer, earning her $10 an hour. She is already planning to rent a place with a friend she met at Lighthouse and is hoping it will bring the fresh start she seeks.

But child care remains a concern. Her babysitting arrangements were unexpectedly canceled, and she faces having to find last-minute babysitting or not making it to work at all. Furthermore, her time at Lighthouse will expire on Jan. 21.

“All I want is a home with a kitchen to cook a meal,” Cerda says, as she closes the car door and prepares to leave. Her engine starts making an egregious exhaust sound. Her crammed boys sit incognizant in the back, playing with the new Christmas gifts they got from the Rescue Mission’s Toy Give-Away; they’re on their way back to the Lighthouse where, for now, they’ll find a warm meal and beds and a hope for a better future.  

The Raw Deal is a news column, featuring those hit hardest by the flailing economy. If you know someone who wants to share his or her story, email editorial@vcreporter.com.