Kathleen Cole tries to blend in with the other travelers passing through the truck stop just off state Route 46 and I-80 in Austintown.
Still, as she moves her eyes back and forth from her book to the glass doors at the front of the building, it's apparent that the 26-year-old is looking for something, or someone.
"I can't stay here forever," she quips, shrugging her shoulders.
Cole, originally from Denver, frequently searches for a friendly face, hoping to find the right truck driver - the one who will give her a ride and a respite from her life on the streets.
"It's better than being outside, especially in the rain," she explained.
Cole is among a society of homeless people seeking shelter at truck stops across the country, often relying on the kindness of strangers. She admitted that she has made a life of hanging around truck stops hoping to go undetected by the employees as long as possible, or until she secures transportation to her next stop.
Tribune Chronicle / Virginia Shank
Kathleen Cole waits outside the TA Travel Center in Austintown recently. The 26-year-old homeless woman is among a society of people who seek shelter at truck stops across the country, often relying on the kindness of strangers.
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, in 2007 there were 671,859 known homeless individuals in the United States. That same year in Ohio there were 11,264.
Sarah Kellar, a vendor who works out of local truck stops selling insurance to drivers, said that the connection between homelessness and truck stops has become increasingly apparent.
"Spend any time here and you start to see the reality of it," Kellar said. "Once someone has been hanging around, sometimes overnight, you start to realize they have no place else to go or maybe they just don't want to go home."
Austintown police Chief Bob Gavalier said that over the years his department has responded to reports of runaways and homeless people camping out at the truck stop overnight - sometimes longer. Safety is always an issue and concern, he said.
"We have a relationship with the churches here to get some assistance to people who need it, like a room for the night, some food," he said. "We do what we can. I can't say it's been a real big problem. But it happens."
Earlier this month one truck stop employee sought help for a homeless woman and her young son, who landed there via a big rig.
The police provided them with lodging for the night.
Dick Lowe, a longtime truck stop chaplain, said he has run into numerous homeless people at truck stops over the years.
"Sometimes they've been abandoned by somebody, or got a ride with a driver because they're trying to get somewhere," Lowe said. "Every situation is different."
Lowe said the truck stop ministry, in partnership with local police and truck stop workers, has helped prostitutes, homeless couples, single parents traveling with their children, drug addicts and alcoholics. Some of the people he's run across have suffered the chain reaction of losing their jobs, their homes, their families. Lowe said some people accept the help offered, but others seem comfortable living under the radar.
"There was one woman we tried to help, get her food, a place to stay, but she'd say she rides truck and that's just what she does," Lowe said. "She said it was her way. That's how she wanted to live, I guess."
Cole, who was raised in foster care, says she has been "on the road" since her boyfriend kicked her out of his place just more than a year ago. Belongings in hand, she has made her way to northeastern Ohio several times as a passenger in a semi. She has tracked her travels across the country, even charting her stops on a map.
Just a few months into it, Cole said she realized she was becoming part of a "system" of people living the same lifestyle.
So much has this system become a trend among experienced homeless people, some of whom are known as "deliberate homeless," that they offer advice on how to survive on the road through blogs, social networking posts and Internet chats.
For example, on the "Survival Guide to Homelessness" blog, the writer talks about using truck stops as a place to shower: "One thing you'll find is that you don't have to find all the possible solutions to your problems. You'll find solutions that work, get a routine going and look no further. When you do that, you're home. You aren't homeless anymore."
Cole admits she has relied on some of this online information. She carries a cell phone to maintain contact with drivers and "travelers" she has befriended along the way. She buys minutes for her phone with money strangers give her for food and other necessities.
"It's not uncommon to see these people with cell phones, laptops, you name it," said one truck stop waitress who asked to remain anonymous. "They might be good at staying off the radar, but they're also really good at staying connected."
Tim Callahan, originally from Florida, has used Internet service at truck stops to price bus tickets, get information about truck stop facilities, and advice on the most likely stop to hitch a ride. He passed through the Petro Truck Stop in Weathersfield recently after losing his job. After spending a night sleeping under a bridge in Youngstown, he said he sought help at the truck stop.
He seeks out truck stops because they typically are open around-the-clock, have lounges, TV rooms and theaters where he can sleep. However, most of these establishments, often part of chains such as the Pilot, TA or Petro, have policies against loitering and vagrancy.
"A lot of them have made it pretty hard for people anymore," explained veteran truck driver Joe McCabe of Struthers. "Most of them require you to have a CDL to even be on certain parts of the property."
McCabe, who has traveled all over the country in a semi, said he has heard horror stories from drivers and hitchhikers.
"Drivers giving rides and getting jumped," he said. "People, especially girls, looking for rides and getting hurt. They know the risks but they still take their chances."
Many truckers are reluctant to talk about the subject, and often deny giving rides because of liability issues. They don't want to admit to transporting passengers because it could cost them their jobs, McCabe said.
"There's a little more leeway for owner-operators," he said. "But there are risks. And most companies have strict policies against it."
Still, he said, it's hard to turn your back on someone asking for a lift or a few dollars.
That's what Cole, Callahan and others like them count on. If they're fortunate, they'll also come across a truck stop employee willing to help them when the drivers won't.
Recently, Cole found herself back in Austintown as she was trying to track down a truck driver she had met months before. So, she waited, and she watched. But time ran out and she was asked to leave the establishment. Working with a local ministry, she has been provided a bed at the Rescue Mission of the Mahoning Valley on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Youngstown.
Cole said she doesn't recommend the lifestyle, but for her it's been a matter of survival.
"There are worse things, like sleeping on the ground or on a bench," she said. "I don't have anyone. I don't have a home. It would be nice to have a place. I've slept in doorways and on the ground. Riding in a truck keeps me out of the cold, out of the rain. It's not much, but that's something."