ONE afternoon in November 2006, a policeman spotted an expired license plate on Dorothy Thomas’s 10-year-old Toyota Corolla as she drove through San Jose, Calif. He ordered her to pull over.
Struggling under the weight of thousands of dollars in credit card bills, Ms. Thomas was perpetually short of cash. She had not bought a $10 auto registration sticker. The officer checked his database and recognized that she had already been ticketed once before for the same thing. He arranged to have her car towed away.
“I got down on my knees and begged that officer,” Ms. Thomas recalled.
As she watched her car being hauled off, she sensed that this was the beginning of a descent into a crisis from which she might not easily escape. Without money to pay the towing and storage fees, she could not extract her car from the lot, and the tab soon grew to $1,600. Without a car, she could not reach the hospital where she worked in the administrative offices, so she lost her $16-an-hour job. Without a paycheck, she could no longer pay the rent on her modest home. She moved to Oakland, where a friend lived in a beaten-down, rented house on a street they called Crack Avenue. By year’s end, Ms. Thomas, then 49, was occupying a bunk at a homeless shelter, searching in vain for a job in an economy plagued by unemployment.