Tammy Chalcroft, 59, is always careful to park in the shade during summer.
Sometimes she even drives out of her way to an isolated spot, opening the door of her RV and allowing her five cats to march outside and cool off.
Chalcroft lives in her RV, often parked just off campus. She said she’s struggled with homelessness since before she started at Clark in 2014, and she is not alone.
In Winter, Clark officials surveyed students and found that 26 percent said they had experienced housing insecurity in the past 12 months. They reported difficulty paying rent or mortgage or temporarily moved in with other people because of financial problems. Seven percent said they experienced homelessness in the past 12 months.
From Clark’s parking lot, Chalcroft pointed to two other vehicles she said she suspects people live in. The street is nonresidential and the presence of the Luepke Senior Center and Marshall Center (cq) nearby, with their public showers, might make living in a vehicle a little easier.
Chalcroft first lived in a park next to the U.S Social Security Administration building in Vancouver until halfway through her second quarter at Clark.
For her, comfort comes without four walls and a roof, but the life isn’t luxurious.
“My lawn chair was my house,” Chalcroft said. “ And that was totally surreal because I grew up middle class. I’ve always been in the middle class. Some nights I’d be sitting there in the park going ‘how could this even be possible in America?’”
After four months of sleeping in the park and going to school, Chalcroft was able to purchase the RV so she and her husband, Barry Chalcroft, were finally off the street. Now, she studies and lives in the RV. She said she will graduate this Spring despite multiple hospitalizations and all the challenges of being houseless.
She said this lifestyle is not her choice and if she could she would be living in a house.
Last Winter she was scheduled to finish her last two degree requirements: accounting and Excel. But she got pneumonia and was put on oxygen, spending three weeks in a Camas facility to recover. Yet she continued with accounting because it wasn’t offered again until Fall, she said.
When she was released, it was back to the RV, where normal daily tasks can be challenging. There is no power to run the water pump, lights or refrigerator. The stove works but there is no way to wash dishes, making meals hard. Tammy Chalcroft said she couldn’t think of any easy food to cook without refrigeration or running water so she’s eaten too many jars of peanut butter. Now, she said, she hates peanut butter.
The toilet functions, but is only used for emergencies because emptying it is expensive and inconvenient.
Yet, she said, she’s willing to do some extra driving to find her favorite snack: ice. Some places have ice that’s just like snow, she said while holding two half-gallon thermoses, ready to refill them.
Being near the campus is helpful, but she said she’s cautious not to park in the parking lot during busier hours and uses the private shower in Gaiser Hall when fewer people are around.
Tammy and Barry Chalcroft have struggled with housing and bills ever since he was laid off in October of 2005 from his job as a contractor for Nike where he said he made over $150,000 a year.
He said tech graduates who could be hired for less pay flooded the job market, making him overqualified for jobs he would normally get. He said companies were afraid that after training him, he would leave for a higher-paid position. He said he fell into depression after years of job searching.
For awhile, Tammy Chalcroft was able to support the couple and their five teenagers until she was laid off from her job at Walmart in 2010. They were no longer able to pay their rent so they packed their stuff into two storage units, thinking they would use it again someday.
After 16 years of living in one place and building community, the family was forced to split up. The kids all found places to stay at friends’ houses, but not together. That left Tammy and Barry Chalcroft living in their van with six cats and three dogs for 11 months.
Eventually they lost their storage unit from a past-due payment of $500. The items in the unit were expensive and sentimental to the family. Tammy Chalcroft said if they knew they were going to lose everything, they could have sold their stuff and still be living off the money.
Barry Chalcroft moved into the Share House, a nonprofit shelter in downtown Vancouver and Tammy Chalcroft rented a room until, she said, she was illegally evicted and had no place to go but the park.
When Barry Chalcroft heard his wife was living in the park, he said he couldn’t stand to stay at the Share House, because he didn’t want to picture her all alone. “It’s all my fault,” he said. “She’s kept us together. We’ve been married 35 years.”
He said she’s made sure that since the family split, they were still together in some way and that they see the kids every few days.
When Barry Chalcroft turned 62 in October, it didn’t occur to him that he could retire, but a month later he applied for Supplemental Security Income and it was quickly granted.
Clark is now part of the Homelessness Prevention and Housing Consortium, a partnership among local nonprofits. The program aims to help keep people in their homes and will be available to all Vancouver residents, including Clark students. Clark students in need can go to the college website and find the “housing help” page.
Now, with the past six months of receiving a reliable income, it will be easier to rent a place, Tammy Chalcroft said.
“There’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “And this time it’s not a train.”