Raleigh homeless couple: 'Within a blink of an eye, it can be you'
Posted February 20, 2012
Raleigh, N.C. — Raleigh couple John and Lee Venable are part of the nearly 13,000 North Carolinians who are homeless. Out of work for a year and living in their vehicle, they warn others that “within a blink of an eye, it can be you, too.”
“Life twists and turns. Some of the best of us, they lose jobs. They get laid off,” Lee Venable said. “You just never know.”
Despite the slumping economy, the number of homeless people in the U.S. has decreased by 1 percent since 2009, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. However, the number of homeless families in North Carolina has risen 22 percent.
Keeping a head count on the homeless can be tricky. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs tries to track the number of homeless veterans by counting how many people it serves.
Locally, WRAL News followed volunteers with the 100,000 Homes initiative and the United Way as they ventured out at night last month to find, count and try to help the homeless in Orange and Wake counties.
The groups estimate there are 2,000 homeless people on the streets in the Triangle on any given night. Those who are on the move and don’t ask for help can be some of the toughest homeless people to track down. The Venables are among those who travel and find “home” wherever they can.
“This is our home right now, and there's nowhere else for us to be,” Lee Venable said of the couple’s Mercury Mountaineer SUV. “A lot of times, I don't know the name of the street or whatever, just someplace I feel safe.”
When WRAL News met the Venables, they had recently been evicted from their apartment for not being able to pay rent and had been sleeping in their vehicle for nine days. Despite their struggles, they allowed WRAL’s cameras to document a day and night in their life.
“We have been looking for work (and) can't find work,” Lee Venable said, crying.
WRAL News tagged along as the couple stopped at the Women's Center of Wake County and tearfully met director Jean Williams. They told her they had been evicted and were facing a deadline to get their belongings out of the apartment. If they didn’t meet the deadline, they said, they would lose their things.
Williams made a phone call and convinced the landlord to give the Venables a few extra days to clear out their apartment. She also gave them some gas money after the couple ran out of gas in the parking lot.
John Venable said he usually walks to the nearest gas station, but on this day, WRAL News drove him to fill up his container. Later, he and his wife stopped at a southeast Raleigh park to eat some leftover chicken wings and water they bought with a gift card from the Women’s Center.
John Venable has been out of work for a year but said he recently found a manual labor job. It was too late to keep his apartment. Instead, his first paycheck went to buy car insurance for their SUV. He takes the family plight personally.
“Not being able to feel like a man, provide for the family, it's kind of hard to hold your head up,” he said.
When asked if they ever imagined they’d be living in the car, the couple replied: “Never. Never.”
“I don't want to be in the car,” Lee Venable said, crying. “(I’m) tired of sitting in this car. I want to get out and stretch. I really want to lay down.”
Volunteers from the Women’s Center of Wake County, Healing Place, Raleigh Rescue Mission and Passage Home came together to move the Venables' belongings out of their apartment. They convinced a local storage facility to donate a unit. Since John Venable now has a job, Triangle Family Services is working to settle the bill with the old landlord and help secure a new apartment for them.
As the sun went down, the couple left the city park and headed to a local Food Lion – not to shop, but to bathe. After working all day, John Venable doesn't have a place to shower, so he washes up in the grocery store's bathroom sink.
The husband and wife then scouted out a place they've stayed before – a Walmart parking lot. They parked the car, got out blankets and settled into their bucket seat beds. As night drew quieter, Lee Venable began singing: “I was thinking it’s a beautiful day. I was thinking it will be OK ... 'cause I know He watches over me.”
“That song is how I make it,” she said.
The Venables say they’re thankful for their SUV and for each other. They turned down opportunities to stay in a shelter because it would have forced them to be apart, they said.
“If I'm going to struggle, I'm going to struggle with her,” John Venable said.