Seattle's lack of housing forces families to live in their cars: "I reached a point where I didn't see any hope"

Seattle families forced to live in cars

Aaron, who lives with his wife Silje and their two children in a parking lot outside of Seattle, begins his day in darkness, making a two-hour commute by scooter and bus to his job at the post office. 

"You do what you need to get through a given day. You get rest when you can," he said. "You just keep going through the process of trying to get into better circumstances." 

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Aaron and Silje outside of their car CBS News

Aaron's family has called the Lake Washington United Methodist Church parking lot their home for the past nine months. They sleep in a minivan.

"It was very hard on Daniel," Aaron said about his son, who is autistic and traumatized by the family's situation. "He and I were out here and he said, 'I hate this life and I hate you.'"

Aaron and Silje got Daniel guinea pigs to help him cope with the situation. 

"Before we got the guinea pigs he was not very verbal. He didn't speak a lot," Silje said. 

She said their children ask them daily, "'When will we get a house? When will we get an apartment? How long are we gonna stay here?' And all we say, 'We don't know. We are trying our best.' 'Cause we are trying our best." 

But their best never seems good enough in part because Aaron makes $16 an hour, often too much money to qualify for public housing assistance. 

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Aaron and Silje's children CBS News

"I reached a point where I didn't see any hope for our situation," Aaron said. 

That sense of hopelessness led him to contemplate suicide as a way to give his family a better life. "I looked up what my likely social security death benefits would be," he said. "Silje and the kids were sleeping and I tried to hang myself. The belt didn't hold." 

A few spaces away, Crissy, her husband and their three children are also trying to hold on to their dignity. They've been living in their two vehicles for six months.

The lack of housing in Seattle is the biggest challenge facing the family, Crissy said. 

"We have to settle for whatever housing they give us, and they don't have much housing to give," she said. 

The Lake Washington United Methodist Church parking lot is considered a secure location and has bathrooms, a kitchen and access to social services.

Karina O'Malley, the director of the church's Safe Parking Program, said the main reason people end up living in their cars "is because income does not match housing cost."

In King County alone, more than 2,100 people live in their vehicles.

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Dr. Graham Pruss and CBS News' Maria Elena Salinas speak to a homeless person living out of an RV CBS News

"There isn't really a place for them in the shelter system, they're moving into these vehicles long term and living there that way," said Dr. Graham Pruss, a lecturer at the University of Washington who has been studying vehicle residency for the past 10 years. 

Asked what is driving homelessness, Pruss said, "What I've seen and particularly with people living in vehicles is that often it's labor market shifts."

"And so if you're in between that low income, $45,000, that you need to make maximum to get into affordable housing and $80,000 that you actually need to live within this community, you're stuck," Pruss said.

Living in a vehicle is a way for a family to "afford to maintain a place within this community, to keep with their medical systems, to keep their kids going to schools, to maintain a connection with their VA, whatever it might be that helps them," Pruss said. 

The median income needed to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Seattle is more than $75,000 a year. 

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan acknowledged that the city needs more affordable housing. Asked how to stop the cycle of homelessness, she said, "we are finding some of the smartest, best dollars we can spend is going upstream to stop people from becoming homeless in the first place."

"When we came in, we thought that having 1,000 tiny homes was the answer, but what the data shows is the shelter system we had wasn't working," she said.

The tiny homes Durkan referred to are 8 by 10 feet with no kitchen or bathroom. They are located next to high-rise luxury buildings where studios rent for $2,500 a month.

Earlier in February, Seattle's city council voted to create 40 tent cities, tiny villages and parking lots for people who sleep in their vehicles. 

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Crissy with one of her children CBS News

"It's getting more and more difficult for people in the middle class to live in Seattle," Durkan said. "We need to have a decade of housing where we actually build enough housing for the people living in this region."

But that's not soon enough for Aaron. He and Silje were denied an apartment for the 10th time.

In his last application, Aaron was over the threshold to be eligible. 

"So we just have to wait again?" Silje asked.

Their neighbors, Crissy and Matthew, had better news. Their apartment application was accepted.

"Go play. You're home," Crissy said to her kids.

For the first time in more than a year, they'll have a roof over their heads and a place to call home. 

"I feel like I'm a child in a dream and I'm literally going to wake up in a truck tomorrow," Crissy said. 

Crissy's daughter said she's excited "because we're going to have a place."

Aaron, meanwhile, is hoping hard work, perseverance and a little help will provide his family with a brighter future. 

"I love them more than anything or anyone else," he said.