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Hard Times Generation: Families living in cars

Hard Times Generation: Families living in cars 14:10

Editor's Note: Two weeks after Scott Pelley's report aired, "60 Minutes" viewers sent in or promised more than $1 million to help homeless families in central Florida. Watch Pelley's full update by clicking here.

More than 16 million children are now living in poverty and, for many of them, a proper home is elusive. Some cash-strapped families stay with relatives; others move into motels or homeless shelters. But, as Scott Pelley reports, sometimes those options run out, leaving an even more desperate choice: living in their cars. 60 Minutes returns to Florida, home to one third of America's homeless families living without shelter, to find out what life is like for the epidemic's youngest survivors.

To learn more about the organization "Families In Transition" - the social services organization featured in this piece - click here. The organization works with homeless students in the Seminole County schools.

The following is a script of "Hard Times Generation" which aired on Nov. 27, 2011. Scott Pelley is correspondent, Bob Anderson and Nicole Young, producers.

Never has unemployment been so high for so long. And as a result, more than 16 million kids are living in poverty - the most since 1962. It's worst where the construction industry collapsed. And one of those places is central Florida.

We went there eight months ago to meet families who'd become homeless for the first time in their lives. So many were living day-to-day that school buses changed their routes to pick up all the kids living in cheap motels. We called the story "Hard Times Generation."

Now, we've gone back to see how things have changed. It turns out some families are losing their grip on the motels and discovering the homeless shelters are full. Where do they go then? They keep up appearances by day and try to stay out of sight at night - holding on to one another in a hidden America - a place you wouldn't notice unless you ran into the people that we met in the moments before dawn.

Time, has carried us into uncharted territory. The great recession began December 2007. Almost 1,500 mornings ago.

If you were rushing to work this morning, in Seminole County, Florida, it's not likely you'd notice the truck or hear the children getting ready for school.

Arielle Metzger: In the clear bin, we have dirty laundry. In that one, there's tools that we might need.

Scott Pelley: All these bank bags are storage of this and that.

Arielle Metzger: Like shampoo....

Austin Metzger: And over here is food.

Arielle Metzger: Food.

Pelley: So, you're really not heating up food so much. You're eating out of cans?

Arielle Metzger: Yup.

This is the home of the Metzger family. Arielle,15. Her brother Austin, 13. Their mother died when they were very young. Their dad, Tom, is a carpenter. And, he's been looking for work ever since Florida's construction industry collapsed. When foreclosure took their house, he bought the truck on Craigslist with his last thousand dollars. Tom's a little camera shy - thought we ought to talk to the kids - and it didn't take long to see why.

Pelley: How long have you been living in this truck?

Arielle Metzger: About five months.

Pelley: What's that like?

Arielle Metzger: It's an adventure.

Austin Metzger: That's how we see it.

Pelley: When kids at school ask you where you live, what do you tell 'em?

Austin Metzger: When they see the truck they ask me if I live in it, and when I hesitate they kinda realize. And they say they won't tell anybody.

Arielle Metzger: Yeah it's not really that much an embarrassment. I mean, it's only life. You do what you need to do, right?

It's life for a lot of folks. The number of kids in poverty in America is pushing toward 25 percent. One out of four. Austin and Ariel usually get cleaned up for school at gas stations. They find its best to go to different ones every day so the managers don't get sore.

[Arielle: Goodbye daddy.

Tom: Have a good day.]

Before the bell, they blend in with more than 1,100 other homeless students in the Seminole County schools. At Casselberry School we met 15 kids who'd been living in cars. With their parent's permission, they told us you don't get much sleep - with your brothers and sisters in the backseat - but that wasn't the worst part.

Marquis Gines: We were really scared. So, so we would stay up all night sometimes and watch over my mom and keep her safe.

Pelley: How many of you, show me your hands, were worried about your safety while you were living in the car?

Tiffany Lincoln: To me it was scary 'cause I thought something was either gonna happen to my mom or my grandfather or my dad or me.

Ashley Paige: We weren't staying in a very good neighborhood like where the car was parked. And someone came up and robbed my aunt for the little bit of money that we had.

Jade Wiley: Well, I worried that someone would just break in and steal my mom's purse.

Jade Wiley is eight years old. She spent three weeks living in her car with her mom, her dad, two dogs and a cat.

Pelley: Did you think you were ever gonna get out of the car?

Jade Wiley: I thought I was going to be stuck in the car.

Pelley: How did you keep your spirits up?

Jade Wiley: By still praying to God that somebody'd let us stay in a hotel.

Pelley: And how did you get out of the car?

Jade Wiley: Well there's this nice lady named Beth. And then she gave us a lot of money so we could stay at the hotel. And now I'm staying at the hotel.

Pelley: She said that a nice lady named Beth came and gave the family money.

Beth Davalos: Well, a nice community came. I just delivered it.

Beth Davalos runs programs for homeless kids in the Seminole County schools. This is the video that she shot when she found Jade's family.

[Jade Wiley, inside car: Well, we deal with it. Every day we deal with it when we live in the car.

Beth Davalos: We're going to get you a hotel room now? How do you feel about that?

Jade Wiley: Happy.]

When Davalos hears of a student on the street she uses county money and donations to get temporary shelter in a motel.

The money she had for Jade's family lasted only a month - so the Wileys, and Jade, are painting the rest of the motel in exchange for a room. But this is rare. Of all the homeless families in Florida, two-thirds are living on the street.

Beth Davalos: I hear about it every week, every couple of days. If they're not living in their car right now, they are avoiding it. Some of them don't even have cars to live in. Or they recently got out of it.

Pelley: Why is it happening right now?

Beth Davalos: The longevity of homelessness continues to rise, so people are running out of resources. The unemployment runs out. Their savings run out. The family that lent them money does not have it anymore 'cause they're looking at economic hardship. And before you know it they find themselves living in their car because they ran out of all options.

Earlier this year, when folks heard about the homeless students in central Florida, four million dollars in donations poured in. Beth Davalos set up food banks in 41 Seminole County schools; they gathered up clothing for the kids and shelled out cash for motel rooms.

Four million is a lot of money, but think of this: of all the families without shelter in America, one third are in Florida. At Casselberry School, we sat down with the Coates family.

Victoria Coates: Instead of three meals a day we ended up doin' two meals a day. And then there was this one day where we didn't have any more money and that's how we ended up in the car.

Last year, the Coates left Washington, D.C., for a new life in Florida but the jobs dried up. When the savings went, Victoria and D'Angelo learned how to be homeless. They found out there's a checklist for living in a car. You want security, lighting, a place where you might be welcome or at least a place busy enough to hide in. Walmart lots can be good - it depends on the manager, YMCAs mostly look the other way. D'Angelo settled outside a hospital emergency room.

D'Angelo Coates: And we knew that through bein' there we could at least brush our teeth in the morning, go to the bathroom if we need to in the middle of the night. And I'm sitting on the cooler in between our vehicle and another vehicle just to make sure they're okay.

Pelley: Standing guard all night.

D'Angelo Coates: Yup.

Pelley: D'Angelo, what does a man think about, sitting on a cooler all night with his family in the car next to him?

D'Angelo Coates: At that moment, I guess I feel less than a dad. I guess, I guess I can say or as a husband. Because I'm not able to provide for my family.

Victoria Coates: Going into that car really did something to me. I felt helpless. I felt like I couldn't help my children.

Pelley: I am willing to bet that the whole time you were in the car you didn't cry once, did you?

Victoria Coates: Unh-unh.

Pelley: Not in front of these guys.

Pelley: When it came time to put the girls in school, the school must have asked you for an address.

Victoria Coates: Well you have these boxes to choose and you had one that said shelter.

Pelley: You checked the shelter box?

Victoria Coates: Yeah.

Pelley: There was no box for car?

Victoria Coates: No.

Pelley: So you lied to them?

Victoria Coates: Basically.

Pelley: You do what you have to do.

Victoria Coates: There was not an option to take my girls away.

Pelley: I wonder if some of these families are hiding from the system, hiding from you because as one woman put it to us today, she said, 'I was afraid that if they found out we were living in the car, the state would take my children away from me.'

Beth Davalos: Yeah, they're scared. They're very scared. And the reality is if the state found them in a car, they could-- their children could be taken away and put someplace safe for now. But when we find them we can put them someplace safe.

The Coates tried to go someplace safe - they called every shelter in the area - but they were all full. After ten days in the car, the only thing in the bottom of the cooler was an orange. So, Victoria started calling again.

Victoria Coates: And we called each and every one of them. And then I got to the last one, which was Orlando Rescue Mission. And I called and the lady said, 'We have a program for your entire family.'

Pelley: You must have thought you weren't hearing right.

Victoria Coates: Yeah.

Pelley: How close did you come to running outta gas on the way to the rescue mission?

Victoria Coates: We had, like maybe a quarter tank before the "E."

Pelley: So really all you had to your names at that point was a quarter of a tank and an orange?

Victoria Coates: That's right.

It wasn't long after, the family made it into the shelter that D'Angelo found a job.

He's manhandling garbage cans and proud to have the work.

D'Angelo Coates: Hard work, but hard work's good for you. I'm thankful to have a job.

With help from his employer, they hope to get Jamie, Jamia and J'la in a home of their own by Christmas.

Pelley: What do you know now that you didn't know before you lived in the car?

J'la Coates: I know to be grateful that you have your family and that my mom is really, really, really protective.

Protective because there's a ferocity that comes with being a parent on the street. Hiding the kids from cops and criminals, watching options grow shorter, the days longer and the nights...the nights are just stubborn, sitting on a cooler, waiting for the sun.

One threat to a family out here is idleness, so the folks that we met fill the days with every free and normal thing. After school, the Metzgers drive their truck to the library.

Arielle Metzger: 'Cause they've got the computers that we can use. And light and all that.

Pelley: I wonder what education means to you two?

Austin Metzger: It's everything.

Arielle Metzger: It is everything to us. I plan to be a child defense lawyer. If I focus on my studies, I have that opportunity.

The American dream is durable. And there is something about growing up in a truck that makes you believe in it all the more. As we tagged along with the Metzgers they told us they like the truck better than a motel and they wanted to show us something they've been doing in the evenings: they're acting in a community theater, a free and normal thing.

On stage they had a chance to be somebody else, but what struck us most was that they were just as happy in their roles as the Metzgers.

Arielle Metzger: Before the truck I always saw all these homeless people and I would feel so bad for them. And then as soon as we started living in the truck ourselves I've seen even more. And I just feel so bad. And even though I'm homeless myself I wanna do as much as I can to help them get up, back on their feet.

Pelley: You sound very adult to me.

Austin Metzger: She is. She likes to take over.

Pelley: And you too a little bit, Austin. You had to grow up pretty fast?

Arielle Metzger: Yeah.

Austin Metzger: Yeah.

Arielle Metzger: Every time I see like a teenager or any other kid fighting with their parents or arguing with them and like not doing what they're told it really hurts me. Because they could be in my shoes. And of course I don't want them to be in my shoes. But they need to learn to appreciate what they have and who they have in their life. Because it may be the last day they might have it.

At the end of this day - when the play was over and the kids were ready for bed - Tom Metzger judged the lighting behind the theater and decided this was as good a spot as any in Seminole County to make a home for the night.

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