A single mother of four was taking her children to the library so they could study for finals. Suddenly, the red and blue lights of a police car flashed in her rearview mirror. She immediately broke out in a cold sweat. She knew she was driving with expired license and registration, and that she had no insurance, and was fearful of what might transpire.
The woman, Ebony Rhodes, only ever wanted to provide her children with a better life than she had – and a better future, as well. Education was always front and center in her mind, as despite all other hardships, she believed without education a person had nothing.
With her eldest child in high school and her youngest in middle school, Ebony knew it would be an uphill battle, being a single mother, to provide them with all the conditions they needed to build a life for themselves.
That is precisely the reason why, as the police officer flagged her down and was now approaching her vehicle, she started fearing all of her efforts will be for naught and it would all come crashing down for her and her family both.
Little did she know at the time, but that routine traffic stop would come to change the lives of both her and her family forever. Read on to find out how.
A traffic stop turns up something unusual
An Atlanta police officer flagged a 1997 Buick Regal down as part of a routine traffic stop, having noticed it had expired tags. The policewoman approached the car and found a woman bawling in the driver’s seat. When she asked her why she was crying, she replied, “Because I know my license isn’t good.” The cop ran the information, and found she had been driving with expired license and registration and no insurance. The woman, Ebony Rhodes, was promptly arrested while her car was impounded. As the car was being taken in, however, one officer noticed something peculiar about it – something that would change the lives of Ebony and her family forever.
Living out of a car
What the officer noticed was that the car was littered with bags containing clothing and other personal items. “This is our home,” Ebony told him. “This is where we were living.” It turned out the mother and her four children – Calvin (aged 17), Ja’heame (14), Issac (13), and Danniaja (11) – had been living in the car for the past six months. Ebony, it was discovered, suffers from a chronic blood disorder that sometimes prevented her from working. Then she couldn’t afford to make a deposit on a home, and the family found itself living out of the car. It was a desperate, but all too familiar predicament…
Homelessness an epidemic in the U.S.
While the Rhodes family’s story defies belief, it’s all too real – and not at all unique. A study by the National Alliance to End Homelessness conducted last year found that more than 176,000 people in the United States were homeless and had no access to shelter. Of those 176,000, a little over 19,000 are in families. While gauging the precise number is difficult, if not impossible, many – like Ebony and her family – live in their vehicles. But why is homelessness such a problem nowadays?
The problem’s root causes
Research over the past three decades has shown that people become homeless for a multitude of reasons, the classic one being loss of a job or decreased wages, but there are others, such as a sudden health problem or increased rent. In New York City, for example, a quarter of homeless families – like Ebony’s – seek shelter after they’d been evicted, while a fifth fled domestic violence. Others, meanwhile, seek shelter after leaving substandard housing. You may not realize it, but the problem is so prevalent that even the working middle class is not immune.
Teachers, nurses forced to live in their cars
A little farther west than Atlanta, soaring housing costs have forced hundreds of people – all gainfully employed – to live in their cars. When we think of homelessness we often think of poverty, but it’s a phenomenon that isn’t restricted to the lowest of society’s rungs. In California, teachers, nurses and chefs, to name just a few professionals, have resorted to this method, even in affluent areas like Santa Barbara. Marva, a 48-year-old nursing assistant, said she thanked God for waking up safe and sound, and for the Safe Parking program.
A California program helps the homeless
Northern California’s Safe Parking, operating for the past 13 years, allows participants to stay overnight in parking lots belonging to churches, nonprofits and government offices, but they have to be gone by early morning. It allows the homeless to sleep in a secure, monitored space, and has a 40-person waiting list. It has about 150 participants, 40 percent of whom work but can’t afford a home. Despite all the good it did, the program’s very future was now in jeopardy.
Budget cuts threaten Safe Parking’s closure
Safe Parking has an annual budget of $400,000, half of which comes from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and half from private citizens and local government. Deep budget cuts planned in Washington, however, threaten the very existence of a program that acts as the last barrier between getting back on your feet and chronic homelessness. Despite the danger, other cities in the U.S. and even Europe have shown interest. Atlanta, sadly, didn’t have it, and Ebony was left to fend for herself, which she’d hide from all those around her.
A terrible secret
Many people didn’t even know Ebony was homeless, as she was still employed at the time. She’d get off work, and the family would just sleep right there in the parking lot, since she couldn’t find any shelter that would take them all in and refused to split the family up. “I was ashamed of my situation,” she said, before she realized there were other people a lot worse off. She wasn’t wrong, but it was not a safe way to raise children, which has been taking its toll on her…
The dangers of sleeping in a car
Trying to find a safe place to park overnight turned out to be a serious issue, and as a result Ebony’s children would often miss school. It was no way to raise a family, and she knew it, saying she stayed up many a night to watch over her children and make sure nothing happened to them. “I apologized to them and let them know I’m sorry,” she said. It all began, it turned out, with the death of her own mother.
Ebony struggles to support her family
After the death of Ebony’s mother, she packed the family into the car and moved to Atlanta, without a home or money. She eventually found a job working at Walmart, but could still barely afford to feed her kids and buy gas. Then her health issues worsened, and she was forced to stop working. “That’s the worst I’ve ever felt,” she explained, “not being able to be able to provide for my kids. As a mother, that’s your job.” Luckily for them all, their story reached the ears of the city’s deputy police chief.
The senior police officer rallies to the rescue
Deputy Police Chief Jeff Glazier, a devoutly Christian man, heard of the Rhodes family’s story from another Atlanta cop, and was shaken to his very core. He recalled turning to his wife and saying, “Michelle, we have to do something,” and she replied, “So go do something.” That he did, firstly getting her the car back. Glazier then went about leveraging his connections to try and find the Rhodes family some help. Suddenly, he remembered coming into contact with a homeless shelter’s director weeks earlier. If only she could help…
A Hail Mary attempt
“If we were to let Ebony’s family fail,” Glazier said, “I think that would be a failure on us.” To prove his willingness, he contacted the shelter’s director, despite knowing it would be nearly impossible for her to be able to accommodate a family of five in the dead of winter. It turned out she could actually take them in. “I couldn’t believe it,” Glazier said, but he knew it was only temporary, and Ebony’s troubles were far from over. Nevertheless, his reasoning for helping her was clear.
Work ethic in the face of untold hardships
While helping the Rhodes family find shelter was an essential first step, it was not the solution to their problems. Glazier was adamant to help them pull through, however, as he was extremely moved by her work ethic. “It’s not like she didn’t want to work,” he explained, adding that she’d actually had two jobs when he met her. She was just occasionally too sick to work, which led to all their troubles, but has tried doing the right thing for her children, who – as he discovered – had some health problems of their own.
A family plagued by health issues
While Ebony herself had a health issue, her children were sadly not immune to the ravages of disease. Her youngest daughter, for instance, suffers from Lupus and is partially blind in one eye. Her middle son, Ja’heame, suffered serious burns in a tragic accident. Her eldest, 17-year-old Calvin, goes from high school directly to work. “I work until about 10 or 11,” he said. It was an invaluable contribution, and they had even saved enough money to move into a small apartment, but the danger of homelessness still loomed. Something had to be done…
The kindness of friends, and strangers
Ebony got a full-time job as an assistant manager at a fast food restaurant, while Calvin worked 30 hours a week to help pay bills. Glazier – along with the Atlanta Police Department – decided an appeal to the public was in order to help them along. Creating a GoFundMe page, he set about creating a “safety net” for them, allowing them to pay for rent, food and medicine and save what money they made. Quoting Maya Angelou, he said, “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” But would it work? Recent evidence was optimistic.
Crowdfunding changes lives
Glazier’s attempt to turn Ebony’s life around using crowdfunding was not the first. Around roughly the same time Ebony’s case made headlines, another crowdfunding campaign touched the hearts of so many people. Funnily enough, it also centered around a car. Kate McClure, 27, was driving into Philadelphia to visit a friend when her car started stalled on her. She drove onto the closest exit ramp just as it completely ran out of gas. It was 11pm, and pitch black. She was alone. “My heart was beating out of my chest,” she said.
Help from an unexpected source
Kate didn’t really know what to do, and called her boyfriend Mark for help. He said he would come to get her, but until he did she was stranded there. That’s when a stranger emerged out of the darkness: Johnny, a homeless man who often sat on the guardrail near the exit ramp, reading a book and hoping for a handout. Alone in a car without gas in the middle of the night must have been terrifying enough, but now she was being approached by an unfamiliar man. What were his intentions?
Johnny to the rescue
Despite her apprehension, Kate was willing to give him a chance. That chance would change both their lives. Johnny told her to lock her doors, and wait for him until he got back with help. “He said, ‘I’ll be back, trust me,’” she recounted later. True to his word, he then went to a gas station and spent his last $20 on buying gas for her. Since he never asked for money, and Kate couldn’t pay him back at the time, she promised to return. He chose to trust her, as she had him.
Never judge a book by its cover
Kate and her boyfriend did indeed return the following day to repay Johnny, and would stop ever so often to help him with some money. In the process, they got to talking and learned his life’s story. His full name was Johnny Bobbitt Jr. He was 34, and previously served as an ammunition technician in the Marines. He’d studied to become a paramedic, and spoken about his desire to become a flight nurse. Then, however, he spiraled into substance abuse problems – followed by money issues – and had been homeless for 18 months by the time he met Kate.
‘I can’t stop thinking about this guy’
Johnny’s story haunted Kate and Mark both. They were struck not only by his willingness to own up to his responsibility for his situation, but also by his caring attitude towards two other homeless men who lived with him under a bridge. “I can’t stop thinking about this guy,” Mark texted Kate. “OMG! Me, too!” was the immediate reply. Right there and then, the couple decided to help him with a small gesture that will nevertheless improve his life.
A little charity goes a long way
Kate and Mark got some old clothing together, bought Johnny some new socks, granola bars and basic toiletries, and added a couple of $10 gift cards to Wawa and brought them to him in a backpack. He was naturally over the moon, and – in true selfless style – promised to share everything they got him with his two friends. This brought the two think bigger – what if they could improve Johnny’s life in a more serious, impactful and long-lasting way?
‘Paying it forward’
Thinking about it, they decided the best way to help him would be to to share the story of his random act of kindness, and to hope the internet will respond in kind. Their campaign’s goal was relatively humble, seeking to raise $10,000. They hoped the money could go towards paying for rent, a reliable vehicle and a few months of expenses. “I truly believe that all Johnny needs is one little break,” Kate wrote. “Hopefully, with your help, I can be the one to give it to him.”
Back on track
Kate never imagined how successful the crowdfunding campaign would turn out to be. In just seven months, it raised almost $403,000 from 14,347 people, mostly in small donation of 5 or 10 dollars. It would be enough for him to buy – not rent – a new home, as well as the truck he always wanted. To make sure he’d never fall on hard times again, trusts were set up to allow him to invest most of the money wisely while receiving a monthly allowance. One random act of kindness, and his life was never the same again.
Crowdfunding saves Laura Napolitano
Crowdfunding can even literally save lives. A researcher and physician named Laura Napolitano began having difficulties carrying out the simplest of tasks. She eventually sought medical assistance, and was given the most devastating news of all: she had early-onset Alzheimer’s. Laura was her household’s chief breadwinner, and the burden – both financial and psychological – of her progressive disease became too much. To help, three of her college classmates set up a page for her on a “compassionate crowdfunding” site, which raised nearly $21,000 in under a year. Would Ebony be as fortunate?
The community comes together
The crowdfunding campaign turned out to be a rousing success. In about six months, more than one thousand people donated $62,700, with individuals giving from as little as five dollars to as much as 1,000 dollars. It would be enough to change Ebony and her family’s life forever, and not a moment too soon, as that 1997 Buick she was driving – the one that started the snowball that ended with her receiving help – had just died. So what kind of impact did it have on the Rhodes family?
‘A family away from family’
A very serious impact, it turned out. The money raised through the campaign helped Ebony prepay her rent and utilities bills for the next year, as well as buy a 10-year-old Honda that runs well to replace the Buick that died on her. The police’s efforts have well and truly paid off. “That‘s my family away from family. The whole (Atlanta Police Department) is my other family,” Ebony said. Glazier agreed, offering concluding thoughts of his own.
A life-changing traffic stop
While the campaign’s aim was, of course, to help pay for the essentials, Glazier made clear this was about the long-term. Ebony’s problems were “not going to end just because we gave her a little money.” What was even more important was giving her someone to talk to and lean on through hardships. And Ebony knew how lucky she was: it was all thanks to her being arrested for driving with an expired license in a beat up Buick… “Losing that car and getting pulled over that day changed my life,” she said.