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For Portland, Ore., Woman, Home These Days Is Where She Parks Her Minivan

The coronavirus pandemic has left tens of millions of people without a safety net. Naida Lavon is one of them.

Lavon is 67 years old, a retired school bus driver, and she was recently furloughed from her part-time job at Avis Rent-a-Car. In March, she also found herself without a home so she started living in her minivan on the streets of Portland, Ore. For the past few months, Lavon has been keeping an audio diary of her experience being newly homeless.

Her first night living in her car, Lavon didn't know where to park and feel safe. She drove around and found a road in an industrial area on the west side of Portland's airport. The road is lined on both sides with people living in their cars, RVs and trailers. Many look as if they have been parked there a long time: They have awnings and furniture set up. Lavon parks alongside them each night, and although she doesn't interact with her neighbors much, she says she feels there's safety in numbers.

For privacy, Lavon has blacked out most of the minivan's windows with insulating material. Her bed takes up half the back of her car. Her mattress is made out of seat cushions, camping pads and a duvet cover. She has an old sleeping bag for warmth. She stores her belongings in plastic drawers and a rooftop carrier.

One of the biggest hurdles for Lavon is staying clean. Because of the pandemic, many public restrooms are closed. She often goes to the grocery store during the day to use the bathroom and wash up. Occasionally, she stops by a friend's apartment to take a shower. Lavon says she tries not to panic about the possibility of getting the virus but takes as many precautions as she can.

Lavon considers herself fortunate compared with others living on the streets. She has a nice car, which runs well. She's usually clean and well-dressed. She has Social Security and a small pension, even if it's not enough to afford housing in Portland.

In her audio diary, Lavon records a conversation with her daughter, Laura Jones, 43, as they sit in a Starbucks parking lot. Jones lives about two hours away in Tacoma, Wash., with her husband and two kids.

Jones wants to know how long her mother thinks she can live out of her minivan — until September, Lavon replies.

"I would like for you to stay with us," her daughter says.

But there's no spare room, and Lavon would be sleeping in the kitchen nook.

"I'm not comfortable with that," Lavon tells her daughter. "I hate to feel like a burden."

Lavon also worries that her presence would add tension to Jones' relationship with her husband.

For Jones, the hardest part has been seeing her mom's bed in the car.

"That's when it hit me," she tells her mother. "What kind of daughter am I if I'm letting you live in your car?"

Lavon has struggled with housing instability since she was a kid. She grew up with a single mom who worked multiple jobs, and they moved around a lot.

"I'm just one of those people that's always on the move, not always willingly," Lavon says. "That's just how my life has gone."

This story was produced by Nellie Gilles of Radio Diaries, with help from Sarah Kate Kramer and Joe Richman. It was edited by Deborah George and Ben Shapiro. We also had help from Jessica Deahl.

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Nellie Gilles