(CNN) — Every day, when Ebony Rhodes worked her shift at an Atlanta discount store, she felt guilty.
She would look at the families of customers, knowing at the end of the day they were going to spend the night in the comfort of their homes.
Meanwhile, she and her four children were going to be spending the night in her car.
After being unable to afford to make a deposit on an apartment last year, Rhodes and her four children lived in a 1997 Buick Regal for six months.
They ate in the car.
They slept in it.
They played video games and had memorable conversations in it.
She knew it wasn’t safe. But at the time, it seemed surviving in a car was better than the alternative. She was unable to find available shelters that took in entire families — and she refused to split the family up.
Finding secure places to park overnight proved to be a problem. Her kids would miss school too often. She knew it was no way to raise a family.
“A lot of times I didn’t sleep, because the kids were asleep,” she said. “I was watching to make sure nothing happened — no one tried to rob us … so we’d just stay right there in the car.
“I apologized to my kids and let them know I’m sorry,” she said.
It wasn’t until an Atlanta police officer pulled her over that their life turned around.
Rhodes was taking her children to the library to study for finals when she was pulled over for having an expired tag on her car.
“She came to the car and asked why was I crying and I was like, ‘because I know my license isn’t good,'” recalled Rhodes.
The officer impounded her vehicle and arrested her. Rhodes’ children were picked up by a co-worker while she was in jail and then her sister from Florida came to get them.
As Rhodes’ story filtered through the Atlanta Police Department, Deputy Chief Jeff Glazier became aware of the situation.
“We have to do something about this,” the 25-year APD veteran said to his wife, Michelle.
A call to remember
Glazier dipped into his networking coffers to do just that. Remembering he’d met the director of a family homeless shelter in a precinct he had recently commanded, he placed a life-changing phone call.
“I called her up and said, ‘Listen I’ve got a family of five including three boys and a girl, and he’s 17.’ And she goes, ‘Yeah, I have some room.’ And if you know anything about shelters in the middle of the winter, there’s nothing available and she had something available. I couldn’t believe it.”
Glazier didn’t wait long to share the exciting news with Rhodes.
“When he called me that day I just started crying because I’d been trying to get into different shelters for a long time,” Rhodes said. “No one would ever accept us.”
But Glazier didn’t stop there.
“You know, staying in a shelter is not optimal. I considered that the whole time just to be a short-term solution for this family. Because even those conditions weren’t great — by any stretch of the imagination,” Glazier said.
He said his determination to help this family came easily. “If you talk to Ebony and you watch her, she has a great work ethic. It’s just that she was sick. And so, when you’re sick you can’t work and you can’t make any money. It’s not like she didn’t want to work, when I first met her, she had two jobs … trying to do the right thing, she’s trying to earn money for her family.”
The Rhodes family’s struggle represents countless Americans who use vehicles as shelter every day.
More than 176,000 people in the United States are homeless without access to shelter, according to a study from the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Of the 176,000, just over 19,000 are in families.
On a typical night in January 2016, 32% of all homeless Americans were living in unsheltered locations, according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
It’s difficult to track their exact numbers, but many — like Rhodes — live in their vehicles instead of shelters.
“I was ashamed of my situation and then, I was like, some people are way worse than me,” Rhodes said.
Communities getting involved
Some communities have embraced programs aimed at improving life for people who live in vehicles.
One example is a program called Safe Parking, which has taken root in Northern California.
Business and religious leaders work with people — including families — who wish to sleep in their cars overnight for free in 23 designated parking lots around the Santa Barbara area.
During a typical night, about 150 people are allowed to sleep in their vehicles, knowing that the parking lots are monitored.
People in the parking lots “form communities and they look out for each other,” said Kristine Schwarz, executive director of the New Beginnings Counseling Center, which oversees Safe Parking.
They take care of each parking lot “because it’s their neighborhood,” she said. “We’ve never had any issues with our clients being robbed, or whatever.”
The program “helps people who are on the brink between stabilizing their lives and getting back into housing … or spiraling into chronic homelessness,” said Schwarz.
Half of Safe Parking’s approximately $400,000 annual budget comes from the federal department of Housing and Urban Development. The other half comes from private and local government money. Deep cuts in federal aid that have been proposed in Washington “could decimate the program,” she said.
The 13-year-old program’s success has spurred cities elsewhere in California to seek guidance from New Beginnings, including San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, Schwarz said. Leaders in places such as Oregon, Seattle, Hawaii and Europe have also expressed interest.
Schwarz said police support the program. “They love us. We work really well together,” she said. “We routinely go to their shift changes and give new officers updates on how it works. Quite frankly, it makes their job easier.”
There’s no place like home
Meanwhile, more than a year after her arrest, Rhodes and her family are living safe inside a home, where her kids can study for school and she can rest easier knowing they aren’t in danger.
Rhodes can afford an apartment and now works as an assistant manager at a fast food restaurant.
The relationship she and her children have developed with Glazier and the Atlanta Police Department is a “blessing” for all of them, she said.
“The whole APD is my family because I can call on them for everything.”
Glazier and the Atlanta Police Department set up a GoFundMe account to help keep Rhodes from experiencing homelessness again.
“We want to pay for rent, we want to pay for food and transportation … this is obviously long-term. It’s not going to end just because we give her a little bit of money. It’s about getting through the hard times, having someone to talk to and someone to lean on, to get advice from.”
Looking back on the day that changed the trajectory of her life, Rhodes said, “Had I not got pulled over that day, I’d probably still be in my car, just taking a risk every day. Losing that car and getting pulled over that day changed my life.”