When Mary Rose Deak sat in her car at night, she would stare up at the sky and let her imagination go.
“You can look out at the stars and sometimes you can pretend you’re in ISS,” she said. “You’re in this little space, kinda how it must be like to be in spaceships.”
Out of her car, she also learned trigonometry and calculus. With binders of work exploring vectors and derivatives, some of her favorite equations, Deak took online courses and devoured worksheets and college-level material.
For the past decade, Deak’s car has served as her home. Her life was packed into the trunk and backseat, her front seat functioning as a classroom, kitchen and bedroom.
Yet last Tuesday when Deak went to make coffee and a cup of soup – using a small stove with Sterno fuel – like she’s done numerous times before, a small ring of fire began.
She put out the first ring with a bottle of water. But the fire spread underneath her seat, flames unleashed to her life in the back of her car. A woman walking by urged Deak to get out of the car.
Within a matter of minutes, flames engulfed the Kia Soul – her home gone and belongings were gone.
The only items Deak salvaged were her purse and a DVD player with a trigonometry course.
Kelly Thompson, Deak’s daughter, remembers when her mom first started living out of her car. She was entering her senior year of high school when Deak suggested they move from Concord to California. Thompson went to live with a friend to finish out school, but Deak never made it out west.
For periods of time, Deak carried stable jobs. She worked as a lab scientist for the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Environmental Services. Here and there she would have housing as well.
In 2016, she applied for a housing choice voucher, commonly known as section 8. She was told the wait could be up to six years, but now she hears it could be as long as nine. Until then, she’s found comfort and routine in living in her car.
“In the car, at least you lock the door and put your seat down and have some privacy,” she said.
In her car, Deak kept binders of math problems. She had computers she used to watch online math courses and a Jackery portable power station and solar panel she used as a charger.
She pondered the intricacies of the natural world from the driver’s seat, like Einstein’s unified field theory. Thoughts about the mass of protons and electrons consumed her attention for hours.
“Why is the electron so much smaller yet carries an equal charge and does that mean it’s somehow wrapped up in some kind of different space?” she said. “So those are the things I think about in the car.”
Some days, Deak would draw to pass the time. She would set up her solar telescope to watch and draw the sun, noticing different sun spots and light flashes.
Living on the road, she also traveled. She drove out West to Joshua Tree and the Grand Canyon. She watched the solar eclipse from Nebraska and also visited the Arches National Park.
“I do like the homeless life, I have to admit,” she said.
She was not worried about how to get stable housing, in fact, her daughter said she is accustomed to living in her car now.
Deak spends most of her time in the Concord area. She knew where to take a shower – whether it is at the Homeless Resource Center, Planet Fitness or a truck stop off the highway – and she’s also held a few cashier jobs to make extra money.
When her car caught on fire, she was parked on Capitol St., just next to the State House. She slept outside that night under the Franklin Pierce statue, before Thompson found her and took her home Wednesday. She’s temporarily staying with her daughter, who lives in Concord with her husband and children, while they wait to hear back on insurance claims.
With her car gone, Deak is focused on finding a place to be able to store her remaining belongings. The other day Thompson and Deak went to Walmart to replace essential items. But she knows her math books and telescope are gone.
Thompson and her husband created a GoFundMe for Deak. In five days, they’ve raised $3,530. Deak never imagined the generosity of strangers online. She was thinking of ways to supplement her fixed social security income when Thompson set up the page.
“I’m just amazed at how kind and friendly people are,” she said. “I don’t always get on the streets.”
With the money, she hopes to be able to put a payment down on a new car soon.
From the front seat of her next car, she plans to return to her love of learning – from stars to vector problems to guide her time and thoughts.
“It’s silly, but I just try to get inspired with whatever resources I have,” she said. “There’s just so much out there online now that can help us personally feel connected to knowledge.”