Owners James and Haydee Charles tell PEOPLE they too experienced homelessness: "If it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone"
Kiplin Automotive Group
Credit: courtesy Kiplin Automotive Group

James Charles had no idea what all the commotion was about when his son “came out running and screaming.”

“He’d seen a guy in a van on our car lot and thought he was dead,” says Charles.

It turned out the guy was alive, but had no place to go. The homeless man had taken refuge in an unlocked car on the Kiplin Automotive used car lot in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Charles, the dealership’s general manger, received an apology from him.

“He said, ‘I’m sorry I scared your son — I just had no place to sleep,'” Charles explains. “He’d been sleeping in a tent before.”

That was six months ago, and the homeless man has since spent every night sleeping in a car on the Kiplin Automotive lot. He’s not the only one.

It all started four years ago, when Charles and his wife Haydee first started working with the dealership. When people couldn’t pay their loans, the couple was tasked with tracking them down and repossessing their cars. They hated every second of it.

“The repossession guy came to us and told us he couldn’t get one of the cars because a woman was living in it,” says James. “She was in the car in her pajamas. She said she’d fallen on hard times and couldn’t pay for the car or a place to stay.”

Kiplin Automotive Group
Lindsay, who finds safety at the lot
| Credit: courtesy Kiplin Automotive Group

Desiree Thompson tells PEOPLE, “They were my angels. I’d just had to pay to bury my grandson and I didn’t have anything left. I didn’t know what was going to happen when they knocked on my car window.”

James and Haydee tried to find Thompson a shelter, but when there were no open spots, they paid for her to stay in a hotel for a week.

“They made me feel like I was worth caring about,” Thompson says.

Upon purchasing the dealership, the family immediately realized this was a bigger issue.

“One of our first customers was Mr. Yates. He bought a car but didn’t have anywhere to go so we let him sleep on the lot,” says James. “He had a fan in there, a heater. Sometimes he would stay in hotels but he always said he felt most comfortable sleeping in his van.”

And Yates did just that for three years until he died last year.

Kiplin Automotive Group
Kiplin Automotive Group
| Credit: courtesy Kiplin Automotive Group

But James, a father of six children (pictured above), says in the last few weeks he felt the need to do more.

“I started doing research and I noticed in California they have what’s called ‘safe places’ through churches, where people know they can park their car and be in a safe space,” says James. “We have all this unused space on our car lot, so I thought we should make it available.”

He posted a notice on the dealership’s Facebook page, inviting people to park there: “We will provide a safe place to park at night. As this service to the community develops, we will look to help these families in other ways, but right now a safe place is what we can offer.”

James says his phone has been ringing non-stop. People from across the country are offering to provide supplies, and others are looking to spend the night at the car dealership.

“It’s been overwhelming. So many people want to help,” he says. “We’re so excited because we know so many people need help. We’ve had five people stay with us just in the last few weeks. We’re not talking about people who are not working. We’re talking about people who work, they’re average people who have just run into hard times and they’re just trying to hold on, just trying to get back on their feet. That’s who we’re hoping will come here.”

James says he and his wife know firsthand what that’s like. Years ago, they spent three months virtually homeless, moving in and out of motels.

“If it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone,” he says.

They’ve set up a GoFundMe campaign in hopes of offering even more to the people who show up in need.

“The reaction has been nuts: Hundreds of messages on our Facebook page, people saying thank you for what you’re doing,” James says. “We’ve had an enormous amount of people responding, which lets me know people care about this issue tremendously.”