Hopeless. Angry. Lonely. That’s how Amber Tillman and Christopher Smith describe how they are feeling these days.
The engaged couple has lived in their white Chevrolet Venture minivan every weekend since Gator football season began this fall because they can’t afford weekend hotel prices anymore.
Hotel prices in Gainesville and surrounding areas have increased because of game day travel.
What was once an $80 to $90 per night stay has increased to around $300 a night.
The couple, along with Tillman’s son Johnathan, 7, and Smith’s emotional support dog Dexter, have been in and out of hotels for about seven months. Two weeks ago, they began living in the van full time.
They station themselves outside the McDonald’s on Archer Road or any other parking lot where people won’t call the police on them.
“I feel like I’m dying inside a little bit more each day that I sit in this van,” Smith said.
An accurate record of families experiencing homelessness in Alachua County and surrounding areas is nonexistent. According to Patrick Dodds, the director of Continuum of Care in Gainesville, there are currently about 10 homeless families in the coordinated entry system in need of housing assistance.
“I think the number’s probably 10 times that,” Dodds said. “Families are often kind of the invisible homeless.”
Accurately counting the number of homeless families is no simple endeavor. "Families are hesitant to show up somewhere and say, 'we don’t have a roof over our heads' for fear of whatever repercussions may come,” Dodds said.
“They want to stay with their families,” he said. “I understand that fully.”
As a result, they tend to seek help when they’ve exhausted every other possibility, and even then, they keep to themselves in their vehicle and try to work under the radar, he said.
The Continuum of Care acknowledges that homeless families in the area are limited by program regulations and a lack of resources, but encourages more families to seek assistance.
Most Continuum of Care funds are grants, and the organization needs to know the community's needs to receive the appropriate funding.
Gainesville only has two family homeless providers: Family Promise of Gainesville, which is funded by the Continuum of Care, and St. Francis House, which doesn’t accept ex-felons.
“It’s very difficult when you only have one provider in a community,” Dodds said.
In January 2021, after struggling to pay rent on time, the Tillman-Smith family was evicted from their home in Newberry in the middle of the pandemic. The family lived in hotels like Motel 6 and Red Roof Plus+ for about six months. With their tax refund money, they were able to rent a home in Archer.
But in March 2022, the family was back to hotel hopping after running into complications on the rented property.
According to Tillman and Smith, the place was unlivable. Part of the ceiling had caved in, which allowed water in and created black mold. That resulted in respiratory problems for everyone in the family, Tillman said.
The eviction, on top of Smith’s past felony, is costing them.
Smith got out of prison five years ago after doing time for burglary of an unoccupied dwelling. Still, no one wants to rent to them, Tillman said.
They’re currently waiting for affordable housing options to become available. The last time they checked, there was still about a year's wait for Section 8 housing in Ocala, Gainesville and Jacksonville.
They said GRACE Marketplace in Gainesville couldn’t accept them because of Johnathan; children aren’t allowed to live at the shelter.
According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, families go through significant barriers when it comes to finding new housing after being evicted. They must often move into lower-quality neighborhoods that are less safe.
In a brief for its Homelessness in America series, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness explained this can result in myriad hardships, risks, and harm that add to prolonged instability, lost employment opportunities for parents, health risks and poor school performance for children.
Now, Smith is stuck delivering food from around 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. for DoorDash with their second car, a gray Mercury Sable that barely functions. The exhaust pipe leaks into the car, making him sick by noon every day. He comes back to the van, eats his daily meal and goes back to work.
Tillman is a certified nursing assistant and started working with Seniors Helping Seniors, an in-home care service, last week.
Smith said he has lost about 50 pounds in the past few months.
The family's life is a “revolving door,” he said. “I’m doing everything right, but I can’t get on my feet.”
He said he used to make enough money to pay for a hotel and food every day. After that, they were back to being broke. Halfway into the month, Smith’s pay gets cut in half after his government-issued phone runs out of high-speed data and starts lagging. He’s no longer able to do as many deliveries and makes $10 to $12 an hour.
According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, when people are using most of their income for rent, even a minor setback, such as a reduction in work hours or an unexpected expense, can be destabilizing and result in the loss of housing.
“The revolving door is going to keep revolving until we stop it by getting some affordable housing in place,” said Ernest Hull, the commanding officer for the Alachua County Salvation Army.
Hull said he’s seeing this problem increase among families now due to prohibitive housing costs.
“There’s not enough local housing, not only here, just about anywhere that I’ve been,” he said. “Cities and states have not done a fair job to help these folks to be able to recover.”
According to Dodds, people either want to stop homelessness, or they don’t. If they do, they must be open to affordable housing initiatives. He said if more places like this were built, folks would be housed more quickly.
“We’re still left trying to find properties to house folks at rates that are no longer existent,” Dodds said. “The reality is you can’t find anything in this town for less than $1,500 and most things are even more than that.”
Housing instability isn’t the only problem Tillman and Smith are facing.
The couple deals with severe depression and anxiety, and their situation only heightens that reality.
In the last three months, Tillman’s doctor has increased her Zoloft dosage twice. Her fiancé takes the same medication – each taking 200 milligrams a day.
“Our son is holding us together,” Smith said. “He’s probably the only reason we haven’t given up yet.”
Hull said that the growing problem of mental health issues among homeless people stems from the fact that communities are not doing enough to address the homelessness issue.
Tillman said she is beyond ready to have a roof over her head again.
“I don’t feel pretty or clean, and I’ve been in this outfit for three days,” she said. “As a woman, I need a shower.”
Throughout their struggle, Smith and Tillman said they have held on to their faith. They said they’ve seen God come through for them. Gas and food money has just appeared on days when money was tighter. Smith said he sees miracles every day.
“I’ll keep the faith, and I’m going to keep working and keep pushing,” he said. “Something will give eventually.”
This coming year, Dodds said the Continuum of Care has plans to fundraise and create new programs to accomplish what local providers can’t do.
“I think we’re trending in the right direction,” he said. “If we’re properly resourced, we can do it.”