On any given morning, Jeffrey Marcus might be found at Custom House Coffee in Middletown. He might be perched on a high stool or at a low table with his laptop, writing his blog on Medium, with a large paper cup filled with coffee. Or he might be up at the counter.

Jeffrey Marcus is such a regular here, he even has a drink named after him: the Jeffocano.

When he isn’t at the coffee shop holding court on subjects ranging from urban geography to capitalism, he spends time at the library. He walks hours round-trip to his part-time job. Once in a while, he meets up with a group of friends to play Magic the Gathering or heads to the beach with a book.

But Jeffrey ends each day alone in his SUV, looking for a place to park in Middletown and hunker down for the night.  

"I am really so grateful I have a car. Listen, I mean being unsheltered is terrible,” Marcus said.

Marcus has been living in his Toyota Highlander for more than two years. It’s cold in the winter, hot in the summer, and the close quarters with merely a foam pad for a bed take a toll on his 6-foot-four frame. Earlier this year, he was admitted to the ER with back pain.

“Sleeping is not easy in a car at any time of the year. Doesn’t really get nice ever," Marcus said. "Privacy is always a problem. Quiet is a problem. Seclusion is a problem. Breaking the law wherever I park is a problem. Yeah, I mean, it still sucks.”

Marcus is 47. He grew up in San Diego and graduated from the University of California Berkeley. He moved to Rhode Island seven years ago because his now-ex-wife wanted to be closer to her family, and the couple wanted to escape the rising costs of living in LA. They divorced not long after arriving in Newport. Marcus, who says he had a high-paying management job in LA, eventually became unemployed.  

"I found myself a stranger in a strange land. I had to reinvent myself," Marcus said. I had to create friendships, create social connection that are relevant to survival."

Marcus lived in a small apartment in Newport, but the isolation of living alone and losing daily contact with his children took a toll.

He says he struggled with alcohol abuse disorder, so he entered rehab. But after spending a significant portion of his savings on treatment, he ended up living out of his car in May 2021 and has been there ever since. 

Marcus says some people might say he’s to blame for his situation, but he thinks his struggles have more to do with the fact that stable housing for people who have hit hard times is just not available. In Newport, there are less than 520 affordable units in seven different properties, but more than 15-thousand applicants are currently waiting for an opening. Marcus compares what happened to him to playing musical chairs. 

"When the music stops, somebody is going to be without a chair. That’s built into the game," Marcus said. "Nobody asks at the end of the game, ‘Well, how is that you didn’t have a chair?’ They might even be tempted to say something like, ‘Well, you’re too slow’ or ‘Maybe it’s because you’re on drugs’ or ‘Maybe it’s because you’ve made some bad decisions in your life and that’s why…’ But no one says to themselves, ‘Yeah, but there’s only three chairs and four people.’" 

Securing stable housing is the first, most important step to long-term safety and success for people like Marcus, says Ashley Salemi Tarvis. She’s the director of Lucy’s Hearth in Middletown, which provides night-to-night emergency shelter for families experiencing homelessness. She notes that once they have stable housing, up to ninety percent of people remain housed and begin to find work, secure childcare and improve their physical and mental health. 

"First of all, I would like to say that it is such a feat that that gentleman is still sober, and he’s finding the will to move forward," Salemi Tarvis said. "And I really hope that he is able to find housing and get to the next step. When your number one priority is survival, from day to day, you don’t get to thriving."

When Newport Mayor Xay Khamsayvoravong took office last year, he made housing his number-one priority. With nearly 16 percent of its housing stock affordable through subsidies and cost restrictions, Newport exceeds the state-mandated 10 percent. But Khamsayvoravong says the numbers belie an egregious lack of housing for year-round residents.  Some people who do have stable housing are stretched thin to afford it. According to Housing Works RI, nearly a third of homeowners and close to half of renters are cost-burdened, paying at least 30 percent of their incomes toward housing. 

"Newport can’t afford to lose its middle class, because when it does, it will become a two-dimensional resort town. A situation we are dangerously close to getting to right now," Khamsayvoravong said.

Part of the problem is Newport has little land left on which to build. The city has added only a net 24 housing units in more than two decades. Khamsayvoravong says the city’s critical need now is workforce housing for middle-income residents, like teachers and police officers who want to live where they work. 

That’s the idea behind the Coggeshall Elementary School project. It’s an unused, former school property the city wants to redevelop into workforce housing. The mayor says having more housing available for people on middle-level incomes at a place like Coggeshall could open up more units elsewhere for people like Jeffrey Marcus and help prevent the city from becoming the type of place people visit but don’t live in.

Newporter Conor Melville and his wife co-own the company that was recently selected by the city for the renovation of the Coggeshall School. He wants to focus his efforts and expertise on workforce housing.

"Our goal is to have twenty-five hundred units in 10 years. Without pandemics and things that throw curveballs at us hopefully we can get that," Melville said.

Melville previously renovated the former Calvert Elementary School that added 34 units to downtown Newport in 2022. At The Calvert, Melville charges eighteen hundred dollars a month for a one-bedroom apartment. That’s out of reach for Jeffrey Marcus, someone getting back on his feet with income from a part-time job. Still, Marcus says he feels fortunate, because he has his SUV, and he puts a positive spin on his situation.

"I really like having the freedom that I have right now. The world is my oyster in some regards. I do play my guitar in a park when no one’s there or sing into the waves when no one’s looking," Marcus said.

It’s been a hard stretch for Marcus, but he’s made friends, found a job and stayed sober. On a warm afternoon, before the summer beach parking fees kicked in, Marcus hung out at Surfers End at Sachuest Point in Middletown. He peeled off his shirt and stretched out on the sand with a view of the waves. He read a library book called “The Myth of Normal” about how toxic modern culture damages people’s mental and physical health. He spent the afternoon alone, surrounded by families and couples enjoying the beach, with the sun warming his body and the sound of the surf in his ears. 

 [CORRECTION: Jeffrey Marcus drives a Toyota Highlander. An earlier version of this story misstated the make of his car.]