“I’ve never been homeless before.”
At least Osiris Murillo still has her car — where she and her three-year-old daughter will sleep tonight, behind the gates of a designated “safe lot” in an unsafe neighborhood. “I haven’t taken a shower in a week, and I’m getting stinky.”
Murillo, who graduated from San Diego State in 2008 with a criminal-justice degree, hasn’t been able to find a job in her field. Still, working as a medical technician at a clinic in Ventura, she had a measure of stability. When she was laid off in May, things went downhill quickly. I asked: “Can’t your family help?” Her response reflected the admixture of tough circumstances and stubborn pride, which forms a familiar leitmotif pervading the stories of the mobile homeless:
“My parents are low-income, so I don’t want to be a burden on them. I have four brothers, but two are younger and don’t have any money either; the other two are out of the country.”
Since April 2010, folks like Murillo and her fellow travelers — many of them newly homeless — have lived at the intersection of 28th and L Street in the Grant Hill neighborhood. East of downtown and a little south of Highway 94, it’s a used-car lot of sorts, but nothing’s for sale except the opportunity for the nearly dispossessed to get off four wheels and back on their feet. It’s on this hardscrabble square of ungentrified San Diego that Dreams for Change, a local homeless-advocacy group, focuses its efforts on folks whose home is a car or other vehicle.
According to Teresa Smith, director of Dreams for Change, it’s not easy to find landlords willing to rent space for “safe parking lots.” (The Grant Hill facility is on a lot leased at $250 a month from the Greater Apostolic Faith Temple Church, which sits catty-corner.) The space, accommodating 26 vehicles, is full — a total of 50 or so folks, including a handful of families. Most are in their 30s or 40s, largely victims of job loss, foreclosure, or eviction; while some have lived here for months, others move on after only a few days. Whatever the tenure, no one imagined being here in the first place.
Mike’s van broke down on the way west from Dallas, and $3000 later, he’d scotched his plans to enroll in Western Sierra, an unaccredited law school next to Montgomery Field. He says that he was reluctant at first to come to the lot: “I don’t identify with the general homeless population.”
Back home in Texas, Mike owned a financial-services business, which he describes as “helping contractors to do the paperwork, like mechanics’ liens, so they can get paid.” Divorced with several grown kids, he’s originally from Israel. He emigrated in his 20s after Army service; since then, he’s been self-employed — a status that, he’s learning, doesn’t sit well with prospective bosses, many of whom prefer worker drones.
“My résumé doesn’t look good, so no one will hire me for a management position. I even applied for 200 or 300 jobs at fast-food restaurants and other places, but no luck so far.” Sounding a cheerful, almost nonchalant note, he added, “I’m already working on buying a bank-owned ‘REO’ [real-estate owned] home in North County with some partners — you don’t need much cash.” He says he’s not worried. But there’s something unstated beneath the upbeat veneer that suggests good fortune will be elusive. Nonetheless, Mike insists he won’t be living in the van for long.
Warren, 59, one of Mike’s neighbors on the lot, is part of a smaller, atypical contingent at the lot, the chronically homeless. Born in Tennessee, Warren wound up in San Diego after a tour in Vietnam, where he says Agent Orange wrecked his health. Obese, with bad teeth and halting speech, he’s seen better days — and years. On the Sunday evening I visited the Dreams for Change facility, Warren, assuming the role of unofficial greeter, hailed me: “Lookin’ fer someone?” Eyeing me with suspicion, he stood just outside the fence. It was 5:30 p.m. — the start of the “day” at the lot.
I asked Warren how he came to live in a car.
“Ain’t nuthin’ to it. You wind up homeless, you got a car — you know, that’s it. I’ve been here since April. I live in a veterans’ tent four months out of the year in Old Town. It’s open from December 10 to April 10. Three meals and a tent. As soon as I can, I’m gonna’ leave California. It’s too expensive here. I’m goin’ to Washington state. I’ve been homeless for seven years. I was living in a roofing yard, working construction. The landlord cancelled the lease, the guy who owned the yard had to leave — so I was out on my ear. Later on, I worked for NASSCO for a while. I was a cable-puller. I started at $9.45 an hour. It was enough to get me a small place. But then I came down with heart problems. Here in San Diego, a one-bedroom apartment costs $1000 a month. But [up in Spokane], a brand-new apartment costs $550 a month. I’m on Veteran Disability; it pays $985 a month.”
Warren, who wears the resigned countenance of one who submits without complaint to rules and regulations, explained the routine. Each night, at 6:00 p.m. sharp, the gates are unlocked, allowing the residents, many of whom have lined up on the adjacent streets, to vie for their favorite spaces. Within an hour, most of the 26 vehicles are in place, where they’ll sit until compulsory muster at 6:00 a.m. (7:00 on weekends) the next morning, at which time everyone will be required to leave until the following evening.
Teresa Smith, who runs the lot like a stern (but benevolent) house mother, states: “We want to get them up and out. We want them to focus on getting out of this situation.” Although some of her charges end up simply hanging out until the lot opens at night (when the place falls under the supervision of a volunteer), Smith says that the majority spend their days actively looking for work and/or availing themselves of services provided to the homeless.