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Subject of 'The Unwinding,' homeless family lives in a car


It's dark by the time Danny Hartzell pulls his aging Chevy Cavalier into the Walmart parking lot where his family often spends the night.

On this evening in late June, he parks the car and kills the engine, signaling bedtime. No one sleeps much on these tropical nights, but they arrange themselves as if they might, the Hartzells' two teenage children leaning on pillows they've piled between them. From the passenger seat, their mother watches for police cruisers and Walmart employees and anyone else on her growing list of likely saboteurs.

Behind them, a sign that reads Outdoor Living glows like a distress signal.

A year has passed since the Hartzells were featured in the bestselling book The Unwinding, by New Yorker writer George Packer, and they are on a new and terrible odyssey. Held up in Packer's book as a hard-working family who suffered in the aftermath of the housing crash, they are now homeless, their lives confined to the Walmart lot and the South Tampa plaza where they park during the day, surrounded by big-box stores.

Over the past year, they have won jobs and lost them, found housing and been evicted twice, the first time by the Tampa Housing Authority. Prominent charitable organizations and Hillsborough County officials have stepped in, but no amount of help has stabilized them for more than a few months. Profiled as characters shaped by post-recession America, the Hartzells have graduated to a different, but related, crisis — Hillsborough's dearth of housing for the poor and the chronically homeless.

• • •

"We were not always like this," Danny, 43, begins. But he and his wife, Ronale, 42, were born into poverty and there they remain. In early 2009, when Packer was first introduced to the Hartzells, they lived in an apartment near MacDill Air Force Base, kept afloat by Danny's $10-an-hour job laminating plastic snack-food bags. He was laid off during the recession. Soon after, his daughter was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, bone cancer in her left leg that required a prosthesis.

Helped by his daughter's monthly $700 disability checks, support from his brother, and money from the part-time job he eventually got at Target, Danny kept the family secure. But by 2012, after a failed move to Georgia and a prideful decision to quit his job at Walmart, they were in trouble again.

"We're struggling, but we're not starving. There's no life, but there's a roof over your head," Danny told Packer.

Soon, that was no longer true. The children of lifelong alcoholics, Danny and Ronale had severed ties with most of their family, except for Danny's brother Dennis, who lived with them until he abruptly moved out around Christmas 2012. Without his income, by the spring of 2013 the Hartzells were evicted from their $744-a-month apartment.

Ronale says she sought help from Metropolitan Ministries, pleading with the charity to give her a few hundred dollars to cover her rent. Danny had a part-time job lined up at Kellogg's, but his first paycheck wouldn't arrive for a few weeks, and by then it would be too late.

The charity rejected her request, citing lack of funds, she says. The Hartzells moved out, putting most of what they owned in an oversized storage unit they couldn't afford. When it was padlocked, they lost everything they couldn't fit in the car.

Danny's brother still works at the Walmart where the Hartzells sleep at night. They say he bolts if he sees them coming.

Kept abreast of the Hartzells' personal unwinding by Ronale's staccato text messages, Packer intervened. His book was on store shelves and he felt that his responsibility to distance himself as an impartial journalist had come to an end. Now he was simply one of their few friends.

"I became a source of periodic and not particularly thought-out or systematic help," Packer said. He had sent money their way before — that's how they bought their car — but it came from sympathetic readers of the New Yorker. He started making personal contributions, though never enough to get them more than a few nights' reprieve in a motel. Mostly, he made phone calls to all the right people. "Pulling strings," as Ronale put it.

Metropolitan Ministries couldn't help the family keep their apartment, but the charity paid for them to stay in a motel while employees in the county's notorious and now-defunct Homeless Recovery program gave them a list of apartments they might be able to rent.

Asked to take on the family's case by his boss, Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe's aide, Eric Larson, jumped in. By the look of his handwritten notes, Larson was an enthusiastic advocate. "THEY ARE IN!" he wrote last July after the family moved into an apartment. The county would pay 70 percent of their rent, and the Hartzells would pay the rest. Everyone agreed that by October, they would be self-sufficient. The system was working.

"The head male is happy and confident that they can manage on their income," wrote one county official.

• • •

One of the calls Packer made was to David Reed, whose family owns Tampa Tank and Florida Structural Steel and is known for their charity work. In a previous life, Danny had been a welder, and Reed hired him full time at $11 an hour.

But Danny hadn't been on the job long when he was injured and a doctor told him he could only do light work. The company had none to offer him, so he stopped going to work. The family fell behind on their rent, and Ronale, who has diabetes and hypertension, told county officials she couldn't work because of her medical conditions.

October came, and Larson worked his connections to get the Hartzells into a program at Metropolitan Ministries called Uplift U. The waiting list was long, but he had secured a spot. All they had to do was agree to live on campus with other families, eat meals in a dining room, abide by the 11 p.m. curfew, and take classes on financial planning. They couldn't drink or do drugs, but the Hartzells don't do those things anyway.

The family refused. The same agency that couldn't help them pay their rent was now offering them an economic recovery program. Ronale had lost trust and Danny, who interprets the world through his wife, found the program patronizing.

"Living like this is hell, but living with them controlling everything you do, that's like hell also," Ronale said. "I don't want someone having the power over me. … I don't want to be powerless."

After spending $6,781.67 to house the Hartzells, Hillsborough County threw up its hands.

"There's a limit on what government can do," Larson said. He called a former St. Vincent de Paul volunteer, Michael Doyle, who interviewed the Hartzells and concluded there was no helping the family. They had become "agency-dependent," he wrote, "combative" and "defensive."

For every day they spend in their car, the Hartzells do not become more optimistic, or more grateful. They are one of many difficult cases in Tampa, and whether it was learned helplessness, paralysis or distrust, they had options at one point and they rejected them.

Evicted again, in February they got in their car and drove to Orlando, where they lived off their earned income tax credit while Ronale and Danny applied for jobs at Disney.

Ronale got an interview, but when Disney discovered she was missing all her teeth, she was dismissed. She has dentures, paid for by Medicaid, but she says they're too loose to wear. The family slid back to Tampa.

• • •

The last time the Hartzells' 14-year-old daughter, Danielle, can remember being in school was February. Their 18-year-old son, Brent, dropped out of Robinson High School, as did his parents years before he was born. He would like to work, but he needs a state ID and for that he needs a permanent address or a letter from a shelter.

By the end of June, the family had $5 in food stamps and no cash. Danny had a part-time job at a sandwich shop that paid so little he talked openly about buying a tarp and living in the woods.

"We're surviving," he said. "This is not living."

Alerted that the family was living out of a car in 95-degree heat, Metropolitan Ministries offered to put them in a motel for several days, provided they come to the charity's office first. The Hartzells were out of gas; they went nowhere.

At the beginning of this year, Hillsborough County disbanded its Homeless Recovery program after a Tampa Bay Times investigation found it was placing homeless people in unsafe and squalid conditions.

The county now contracts out its homeless services to three nonprofits. Metropolitan Ministries received $1.1 million to open a new temporary shelter for families, where they can stay for three to four months. Two weeks after it opened, it was full and remains that way. The Uplift U program is also full, as is the Salvation Army shelter where the county pays for 75 beds.

Hillsborough recently started a pilot program to quickly move homeless families into rent-subsidized housing. But this is for the most motivated families who score well on an evaluation.

Permanent housing, which some studies show is the most effective and least expensive solution to chronic homelessness, is in short supply here. Some cities, like St. Louis, which Hillsborough is hoping to emulate, have over 1,000 units.

When July 1 came and their daughter's disability money arrived, the Hartzells did not put gas in their car and drive to a shelter.

"They say, 'Oh, we added 40 beds.' Okay, well, there's still 500 people," Danny said.

Instead, they drove to the pawnshop to pick up their kids' laptop and PlayStation and checked into a motel. They told no one where they were; they figured no one would care.

Contact Anna M. Phillips at or (813) 226-3354. Follow @annamphillips.

Subject of 'The Unwinding,' homeless family lives in a car 07/05/14 [Last modified: Saturday, July 5, 2014 10:36pm]
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