MIDDLEBURG – Ken Herda isn’t a bum. He doesn’t beg for money, rifle through garbage cans or talk to himself in the shadows. His car isn’t littered with empty beer cans or whiskey bottles, and clothes are folded neatly and orderly in the backseat.
With so many options to give up, Herda pushes forward to find solutions to his problems. He’s homeless; forced to live the past 23 months in the front seat of his Chevrolet Cobalt in the parking lot of a convenience store.
“I’m a proud person,” he said. “I’m a clean person.”
At 75, Herda gets a monthly check from social security. While it’s enough to keep gas in his car, pay for trips to the laundry mat and sustain a meager existence, it’s not enough to pay for a permanent roof over his head.
Once the operations manager for Southeast Toyota, Herda trouble started when his grandson died in a car crash. The accident was ruled a suicide, but Herda doesn’t believe it. He was living with family at the time, but he soon was forced onto the streets following the accident.
The Navy veteran struck a friendship with the convenience store owner. Since Herda’s car was clean and functional, the owner didn’t mind him parking in the front lot. At the same time, Herda is able to watch the property at night when the store is closed.
“Steve and his family have been good to me,” Herda said. “We look out for each other.”
Herda often spends the daylight hours sitting at a counter in front of the store. It’s a place to enjoy some air conditioning and charge his cellphone. He doesn’t bother customers and maintains an inconspicuous presence. Unless you were looking, you probably wouldn’t know he was there.
At night, however, the rumbling sound of traffic on State Road 21 serves as a backdrop, along with the throaty bursts of diesel power from construction equipment. It’s a torturous atmosphere of sound, lights, impatience and disregard. But for Herda, it’s home. For now.
“I have sunshades for the front and back windows, and I made cardboard cutouts that fit the side windows,” Herda said. “Everything is blocked out. Nobody’s really bothered me. It’s not much, but I’ve made the best of it.
“It was scary at first. I was concerned that somebody would approach me, maybe a [law enforcement] officer approach me and tell me to leave the area. But I feel comfortable when I lay the seat down.”
It also was hot.
In the summer, Herda said temperatures often surpassed 100 degrees inside the car and his air conditioner was broken. Let me tell you: you can sweat up a storm.”
Herda gets his meals from the Orange Park Senior Center. But what he misses most are the simple things he used to take for granted.
“The worst part is I think about things I used to do as normal person; having a decent meal, making my own meals.” Herda said. “I wash my clothes down at the laundry mat. I found a place where I can take a shower anytime I want. I’m doing it without permission. They don’t say nothing because I clean up after myself, just like I do here. I’m a proud person of who I am, where I’ve been.
“Basically, I’m a happy person.”
Herda is looking for ways to put his life back on track. He’s not looking for pity or a handout. He wants to fix the obstacles in his family life and return to a routine life – one that doesn’t require a tire rotation for his bed.