BOISE — Jennifer Miller told her 3-year-old daughter she loved her right after lighting the propane stove that accidentally ripped apart their car.
In the early hours of April 10, 2018, Miller and her two toddlers were preparing to sleep in a small sedan in the Walmart parking lot on Overland Road. Miller and her partner, Nicolas Rose, had been evicted two weeks earlier. They bounced between hotel rooms and spent their days scrounging for cash.
They lived out of the small vehicle with no heater, and that night, there wasn't enough to pay for a roof over their heads.
While Rose was away, Miller drifted off around midnight with her 1-and-a-half-year-old son asleep in the crook of her arm. Her daughter, Alliee Rose, was in a car seat behind her. She woke up to her daughter crying about the cold around 3 a.m., and she grabbed the propane stove Nicolas Rose had stolen earlier that day to keep the car warm. Miller lit it, assured her daughter the car would warm up soon. They all went back to sleep.
Less than a half-hour later, her daughter's screams woke Miller as flames licked the interior of the vehicle. With her son still in her arms, she opened the door to save her daughter, and a rush of oxygen flooded into the car and fueled the fire. Miller put her son down away from the car, tried to open door of the vehicle to pull her daughter from the fire, but it was broken. She crawled back into the vehicle and struggled to unbuckle her daughter from the car seat when the propane tank exploded, throwing Miller backward and killing Alliee Rose.
"It’s heartbreaking really, because you want to keep (your children) safe," Miller said in a phone call with the Idaho Press Thursday from an Idaho Department of Correction prison near Kuna. "That’s my biggest struggle with it is my intentions were to keep the kids safe and the kids warm. As a mom that’s my No. 1 priority, and I failed."
Despite the role Miller and Nicolas Rose's drug use may have played in the fatal accident, it doesn't change the fact that homeless families taking refuge in their cars are living in stressful and dangerous situations all over Boise. The explosion in the parking lot that sent Miller to prison and killed her daughter is an extreme situation, but they were far from alone in their life experience.
As the population in Boise has boomed and affordable housing has become increasingly hard to find, more people are turning toward living in their cars as a last resort. Residents experiencing homelessness choose to stay in their vehicles for various reasons, and the day-to-day expenses and hardships of living in a vehicle can take a toll.
Stephanie Day, executive director of Charitable Assistance to Community’s Homeless, said while living in your car may seem like a quick, cheap fix that's easy to climb out of, it’s not that simple.
“People might think that if you’re staying in your car, you should be able to save up a bunch of money, but it’s actually pretty expensive to stay in your car,” she said. “You’re having to go out to eat all the time to get food that won’t just rot, and a lot of times in the summer and in the winter you have to run your car for AC and heat, and that can be really expensive as far as gas is concerned.”
Day’s nonprofit runs Our Path Home, the coordinated entry point for anyone experiencing homelessness in Ada County who is looking for help with housing. She said 166 families with children in the county are living in their cars, which makes up 47% of total homeless families countywide. In January, the federally mandated Point-In-Time Count found there were 713 people experiencing homelessness on a single night in Ada County, though that count is often considered a low estimate.
LIFE ON THE MOVE
People choose to live in their cars for a variety of reasons, Day said. Sometimes residents experiencing homelessness would like to keep their pets with them, and other times they have social anxiety and do not want to live in a crowded shelter. Families and couples sometimes opt to stay in their car instead of the shelter because they can stay together, which is not allowed at the emergency shelters operated by the Boise Rescue Mission, where men and women are housed in different buildings.
For nearly a year, Aaron Dunn, 58, has slept in his small brown sedan in various parks and parking lots in Boise with his dog, Dodger. Every evening, he finds a quiet corner of the city to park his car, and the pair hunkers down for the night, hoping there’s no knock on the window from law enforcement telling him to move.
Dunn has been without a place of his own since 2012. He lost his home after he quit working to take care of his ailing mother. He still hasn't gotten back on his feet. In the past seven years, he has jumped from temporary situation to temporary situation, sometimes staying in housing through his church or with friends, until last September, when he ended up in his car.
He works nearly every day of the week at his two part-time jobs. He's almost able to pay off the debt he has accrued over the years, but the gap between where he is and finding a home in Boise’s increasingly brutal housing market feels insurmountable. According to RentCafe.com, the current average rent for an apartment in Boise is $1,133, which is a 9% increase over last year.
“I don’t have any hope in people to help me out,” Dunn said last month, sitting under the trees at Idaho Fallen Firefighters Memorial Park. “All of my hope is in God, and I just pray, but I do have that feeling of, ‘Oh man, I'm never going to have a place to stay again.’”
Dunn said he chooses to stay in his car so he can keep Dodger with him. Plus, he has a medical condition requiring that he sleep in a recliner instead of a bed, which cannot be accommodated in a shelter. In his travels around the various corners of Boise friendly to those living in their cars, Dunn said he has encountered dozens of others staying in their vehicles.
“Most people in vans or RVs are families, or at least a couple,” Dunn said. “I’ve seen a lot of them that they have kids, too. Last fall a young couple that was sleeping here in the park with their young baby, who couldn’t have been a year old.”
Day said living in a vehicle can be as stressful and traumatic as staying in an emergency shelter, especially for children. Residents might have more freedom than they otherwise would staying in a shelter, but they also do not have regular access to showers, fresh food or personal space.
“I think it’s super stressful staying in your car, because you have no privacy,” Day said. “The kids are kind of feeling cramped, and sometimes it can be kind of scary depending on where you park your car. There are a lot of places that won’t let you park, so you’re constantly worried someone will find you and ask you to move."
Many residents living in their cars park on Americana Boulevard so they are close to Corpus Christi House day shelter, Interfaith Sanctuary, CATCH and other social services. Day said many residents stay in the parking lot of the Walmart on Overland Road, where Miller was during the accident, or other areas in the city away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Boise.
While Miller and her family were homeless, she said they avoided downtown Boise and the shelters because they are "scary places" to be with young children. Most of their days were spent playing in the alley outside of the storage unit where they kept their belongings following the eviction, or playing with toys in the car all over Boise. Despite how young her children were, Miller said they were well behaved and got along well during the experience.
"Children are resilient, and their spirits are really admirable because they are always happy," Miller said. "We would always laugh and sing, we had the toys in the car and play, but the other half of it is sitting in the car saying, 'Now what do we do?' because you have nowhere to go."
Miller pleaded guilty in 2018 to two counts of injury to a child and was sentenced to a fixed five years in prison as a result, with another 15 years possible. Traces of methamphetamine were found in her body following the accident, as well as the body of her son. In February, she appealed her case to the Idaho Supreme Court. Nicolas Rose died unexpectedly in June of this year at the age of 28, according to tribute the family posted online.
Even though sleeping in a car on the street could be considered a violation of Boise’s camping ordinance, the city’s police officers don’t commonly write citations for it, said Boise Police Lt. Tom Fleming.
Fleming works in the downtown micro-district, and he said the roughly 20 or 30 officers who police that area are familiar with many members of the homeless community, including those who often sleep in their cars. Officers have encountered families sleeping in their cars, as well as single people.
Boise police officers approach those sleeping in their cars in the same manner they would interact with any person experiencing homelessness. Their first concern is for the safety of everyone in the vehicle, Fleming said — they check to see if the person needs medical help or protection from the elements, depending on the weather.
Although weather played a factor in the accident that caused Alliee Rose's death, he said that case is an extreme one. Fleming said officers don’t typically encounter people with heating devices in their cars, even in the winter.
While people sleeping in their car may feel safer because they have some degree of shelter, they might still be at risk of robbery or assault. Police typically try to help a person find a more permanent housing situation, in addition to helping them find a place they can bathe and eat a meal, Fleming said.
Sometimes, police will ask a person to move their car. That's usually a proactive measure — they don’t often receive calls from residents about parked cars with people sleeping inside them.
“Occasionally we will get people who call because they’re concerned about the families or the people inside the cars," Fleming said. "It’s not usually because they’re frustrated with where the car is parked."
Officers will tag a car if it appears to be abandoned, which means the vehicle can be towed after 72 hours. Police are flexible on that rule — if a person left the car to go to a shelter in hopes of finding services or a more permanent living situation, they can allow extra time.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, vehicles are considered not fit for human habitation. Because of this designation, residents who are living in their cars are first in line for federal funds through Day’s Our Path Home program, which helps with rental assistance and deposits, as well as providing support services.
Cheryl Lee, 50, moved into an apartment of her own at the end of July with the help of CATCH. Prior to moving in, she lived in various vehicles in and around Boise since 1994. Lee and her ex-boyfriend jumped from car to car over the years as the vehicles broke down. They lived on his Social Security disability check, which amounted to only a few hundred dollars a month. Most of the time, they left the car parked so they wouldn’t have to waste gas driving, and Lee walked all over the city for food and other essentials.
“Most of the issue is getting to places, because even if you have gas in your vehicle, you’re having problems because you’re running the car to keep warm,” she said. “Summertime, no problem, but during the winter time, it’s a little bit cold.”
She recalled one winter when the heater of their van was broken, so to keep warm they used a propane heater, just like Miller, in the car. To keep from suffocating, they had to leave some windows cracked open, and moisture froze all of the doors shut, leaving them trapped inside before they could signal for help from someone out on the street.
“Living in a vehicle is definitely more complicated than living in a shelter,” Lee said.
Dunn is still trying to make ends meet as a part-time mechanic and a delivery driver for GroceryWorks, a service through Albertsons. He typically is paid for his mechanic work; he also completes jobs for free or at a reduced rate to help others living in their cars.
After taxes, his monthly income hovers around $1,600, which he said is not nearly enough to cover rent and utilities for an apartment plus all of his expenses. He knows several other men with jobs staying at the Boise Rescue Mission in search of a place that he could share a place with, but places within their price range are few and far between.
“One time I found a place that would be perfect, but by the time I was checking on it, it was already rented,” he said. “That’s the problem, by the time I find something that is affordable, there’s 50 million people there trying to get it.”
He said he is on the list to receive housing assistance through Our Path Home, but in order to take advantage of it, he needs to find a place that costs only a third of his income in rent, according to HUD regulations. This remains elusive.
“I just keep praying and ask for wisdom,” he said. “I keep trying to help other people out, because the easiest way to get out of your troubles is to help other people. But it hasn’t helped me into a house yet. That’s the only problem.”
'MIGHT BE A LONG ROAD'
The city of Boise has had a complicated relationship with its residents who live on the streets in the past. In December 2015, the Boise Police Department closed down the tent city Cooper Court amid growing public health and safety concerns, sending the roughly 100 people living there to seek shelter elsewhere. The move was controversial; community members feared it would drive homeless residents into dangerous winter weather.
The city also faced a lawsuit from six residents experiencing homelessness in 2009, claiming Boise's then-policy of ticketing residents for sleeping outside when shelters were full criminalized homelessness. Boise is still in the midst of fighting the lawsuit, after the U.S. 9th Circuit Court in September found the policy in violation of the Eighth Amendment, which bans cruel and unusual punishment. City attorneys appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court and are waiting to find out if the case will be heard.
Since Cooper Court, city officials ramped up their work on chronic homelessness. At the end of 2018, New Path Community Housing opened for close to 50 residents who have been experiencing homelessness the longest. Construction started this month on a similar project on State Street for veterans experiencing homelessness. It's set to open next summer.
Wyatt Schroeder, the former CATCH director who's now director of community partnerships for the city of Boise, said nonprofits are bearing the brunt of the effort to bring those living unsheltered into programming, but city officials are also dedicated to helping residents find stability.
“We need to recognize that through the trauma people are feeling, their brain chemistry does alter,” he said. “It doesn’t mean they’re not working with services and they don’t deserve a home, but it means it might be a long road for some folks."
Miller said she lost custody of her son after the accident, and is still working toward getting work release so she could restart her life after being released from prison. She said she is sharing her story with as many people behind bars as possible, to help others find motivation to get clean and avoid a similar tragedy.
When Miller heard that over 150 other families are currently living the way she and her family was prior to the explosion, she paused.
"That’s a huge number," she said, barely audible over the crackle of the prison phone. "It breaks my heart. Sometimes asking for help is really hard, especially for us parents. It should be the easiest thing to do, but it’s not. No one should have to live like that."