After watching “Little April,” I was inspired to share my story. The courts desperately need to establish healthier and more sustainable safe housing for runaways and opportunities to provide adolescents with tools to process and regulate their emotional traumas. Juvenile justice centers implement more barriers on struggling youth, instead of providing resources to instill confidence and self-worth rooted in compassion and empathy for others.
At 16, I was on track to graduate my senior year after being repeatedly kicked out of foster homes. As an attempt to not change high schools, I began living in my car. For six months, my insecurities surrounding homelessness kept me from asking for help because I didn’t want to go to a juvenile justice center. Instead of embracing my passion for a better future, I only saw in myself what the system painted me to be. Though many accounts focus solely on the tragedies of homelessness, my experience became a testimony of my resilience.
Lay Me Down to Sleep
Vividly, I remember that everything had its place like a house. The stock-back seats unhooked into the trunk to construct a semi flat surface. With two yoga mats, one sleeping bag, and a very lumpy pillow, this became my bed. The top of my head would barely hit the back of the shotgun seat, so my feet had room to wiggle in the trunk. The remainder of the trunk was my night stand, stocked with my phone, water bottle, zebra pocket knife, wet wipes, and an empty Gatorade bottle for urination. The driver’s seat was my living room, a space to relax and smoke my Marlboro Menthol 100s before I began and ended each day. The passenger’s seat was my closet, filled with a backpack full of clothes, toiletries, and my AP Art History Book. Underneath the seat was my safe. Under the carpet and under the layer of shrapnel hid my most prized possessions: my kill switch, my money and my expired high school ID (I didn’t have a driver’s license).
A Typical Evening
The Berkeley Police recognized my car. The familiarity of the officers often brought bouts of anxiety and sadness. As the sirens flared to announce the officers’ presence, embarrassment would kick in as I tucked inside my warm cinnamon bun of a bed. I knew the drill: a knock on the window with their flashlight, my hands above my head, and an exit from the vehicle to be searched. The worst nights were when I had forgotten to wear socks before bed. I felt every pebble and bit of asphalt under my toes, making the situation more uncomfortable. I would shiver in the middle of the street while they searched the car and pray that I wouldn’t be taken to a juvenile justice center — Alameda County’s quick fix for kids without parents.
The blonde officer had a ride-along most nights, usually a boy my age, standing with his arms crossed. The ride-along would always end up glaring at my favorite Rudolph pajamas. Looking up into the night sky, I hoped it wouldn’t rain. Just as I would welcome the thought of sprouting wings and flying away, the officer would begin his set of questions.
“Ms. Cosio, do you have any drugs in the vehicle?”
I would reply, “No.”
Facetiously, my thoughts would answer, “I wish.” Maybe, then, this embarrassment could go away. The questioning would continue until the officer was satisfied that I was no threat and advised me to move my parking spot. Advice that seemed so simple took hours to fulfill. In the Bay Area, you can’t just park your car anywhere to sleep. There’s an enforced rule of no parking in residential suburbs because people believe that you are staking out their house to rob them. Really, the actual reason you don’t want to park on E14th in The Town or past the train tracks in Narf is because that sidewalk belongs to a different entity than the police. Parking on someone’s turf without payment or asking might have you wishing you were at the juvenile justice center. You can’t park at The Bulb, Racetrack, Grizzly Peak or the Marinas because, after the first warning, police tow your car.
After the first months of these encounters, most of the Berkeley force left me alone. They would say to me, “If it looks like an occupied car, I will turn on my lights. But if it looks like an empty car, I wouldn’t have any reason to stop.” Hinting at my most valuable survival tip: to be “transparent.” However, “transparency” while living in your car is challenging especially when it’s cold or raining. Most nights in the Bay Area are cold and raining. So, if you don’t want your body heat fogging up the windows and making it known that someone is living in the car, then you have to leave the windows cracked, meaning you’re cold. If you keep the windows rolled up to stay warm, then you fog up the windows, and the car looks occupied. I would whisper to myself “ignore me,” as the roar of their Crown Victoria’s engine approached. My heart would pound so hard I could hear the rush of blood in my ears. I’d press my body flat into my sleeping bag to pretend I wasn’t there. It was an extraordinary night if I went unnoticed.
Regardless of the nuisance of finding parking spots and police encounters, I felt safe in my “tin can.” I was in control of my space. I could roll the windows up and down, and put my feet on the dash. There was no drunk father in the car, no mother to hit me, and no foster family waiting for me to mess up. In my “tin can,” there was no adult making it known I wasn’t living up to their expectations.