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The interior of Elizabeth Jay's Dodge Ram van. The space doubles as Jay's bedroom and living room. (KUOW Photo: Sarah Rosenthal)

The interior of Elizabeth Jay's Dodge Ram van. The space doubles as Jay's bedroom and living room. (KUOW Photo: Sarah Rosenthal)

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Mom Moves Into Van To Pay For Daughter's Tuition


Eight high school students spent their summer with us at KUOW. It was part of our youth radio program, RadioActive. Students worked with producers and editors, and learned the basics of radio reporting. Over the past few weeks we've shared some of these stories with you.

Today, RadioActive's Sarah Rosenthal has a story about a woman who faced a difficult choice: She had to decide whether to keep her home or pay for her daughter's college tuition.


Elizabeth Jay: "This van is pretty comfortable; this van is amazingly comfortable. You should lie down on my bed. Pretty comfy, huh?"

We are in Elizabeth Jay's 15–year–old Dodge Ram van. It stalls out on a regular basis. Ants creep across the floor.

Elizabeth used to be a geneticist. She made $44,000 a year. She used to live in an apartment; 700 square feet. But she says she lived with a man who was abusive, both physically and emotionally. Elizabeth Jay is actually her pen name because she is still concerned about her safety.

But their relationship lasted 20 years, and they had a daughter together. By the time her daughter was three, Elizabeth decided she'd had enough.

She didn't want to do anything illegal, but she knew she had to get away in order to protect her child. She went to a lawyer for advice.

Jay: "I talked to an attorney on the phone. I wasn't married to him, and so I asked her if we would be breaking the law if we left and she said, 'Have a nice trip.' She didn't exactly answer the question but she said, 'Have a nice trip.' So, we left."

Four years later, Elizabeth saw her face on a missing person's postcard. Eventually she was arrested in the parking lot of her daughter's elementary school. She was charged with custodial interference. She was tried and sentenced to pay her ex's legal fees. Elizabeth says she also had to pay around $60,000 worth of child support over the next 10 years. She only had around $20,000 a year left to live on. She had to ask for help from social service agencies and food banks.

After living on the edge for five years, Elizabeth was told that she was going to be laid off, and it was getting harder and harder to keep up with the rent.

Jay: "And its very anxiety provoking, it's very tense. It makes tightness in your jaw and tightness in your stomach and you never really know, right? Am I going to get there or not? Am I going to make the rent or are they going to throw me out?"

Elizabeth had already been struggling with the rent when her daughter got accepted to a university. Now she needed to pay half her daughter's tuition, but she also needed a place to live. She couldn't afford both.

Jay: "I realized that I had a choice between paying rent or paying tuition. And that part was easy. That part was totally easy. There was no question I was going to pay the tuition instead of the — you know, I mean, what am I going to do? Say to her, 'Me first?' Of course not."

Elizabeth wrote a tuition check, packed up her belongings and moved out. She'd just become homeless. When her daughter moved into her dorm, Elizabeth moved into her van. She said her experiences with her own parents had inspired her belief that she was at least partially responsible for paying for her daughter's tuition.

Jay: "I didn't have parents who did that for me, and I guess I feel what a hardship that was, that my life was all the harder for having to do that. And I guess maybe I'd like to spare her some of that hardship."

Because of that decision, Elizabeth lives in a van. She got a part–time job, but it only pays $15 an hour. She cooks in a microwave at her new office and showers at the gym.

Jay: "You know one of the things that's an interesting thing is that it costs about $700 a month to be homeless."

The cost of her storage unit, her cell phone, car insurance, gym membership, and dues for her synagogue totaled $500.

And that doesn't include food.

Jay: "So, you add on $200 to that well, you got the cost of homeless being $700 a month."

Her entire life is in storage: couches, tables, chairs. Sometimes if Elizabeth feels desperate she'll play the lottery.

Jay: "There have been times — there have been days when I have been absolutely sure, just sure, that I was going to win that lottery because I needed it so much. But that didn't happen. Actually, the lottery sometimes makes me angry, but at the same time a lottery is hope. A lottery is a dream. And what's wrong with a dollar dream?"

Elizabeth isn't sure about the future, her own, or her daughters. Right now she struggles between her own optimism and the reality of homelessness.

Jay: "Every time I'm warm enough, I appreciate it. When I've had enough to eat, I'm grateful for it. I say a lot of little prayers inside of me of gratitude, of thankfulness. And you know, sometimes I'm mad at God too."

Elizabeth spends her life in survival mode, no time to think ahead. She lives day–to–day. And her daughter will start her sophomore year of college in the fall.

For RadioActive, I'm Sarah Rosenthal.

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