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Dusk at 28th and L, at least during my brief visit, was peaceful. Residents chatted in subdued tones; a nightly reunion, of sorts. Surveying the lot, I saw a cluster of black folks socializing as if coming from church. Near me was a guy in his 60s, deeply tanned and wearing a tank top; he looked as if he’d spent the last decade fishing off the pier, and I might’ve asked, but something about his face told me that, even in this public space, there were remnants of privacy. He unlatched the tailgate of his beat-up pickup, crawled beneath the dented camper shell, and eased down until his back was flat and his toes were pointing up into the westerly breeze.

A few feet away, Smith, along with a paid staffer and a volunteer, sat at a table near their old van. It felt more like a trailer park on tranquilizers than a homeless encampment. Although adjacent homes had bars on the windows, it didn’t seem threatening — locals barbecuing, Norteño wafting from across the street, and kids scurrying around on bikes.

Smith notes that the site hasn’t been uniformly serene. “At the beginning, we had some shootings and stabbings in the neighborhood. But it’s pretty quiet now.” Osiris Murillo, for one, appreciates the security. “When I was staying in my car on the street downtown, people tried to break in. I could only sleep for ten minutes at a time; I tossed and turned all night.” But safety has its price: on the Dreams for Change lot, there’s a long list of rules, including zero tolerance when it comes to booze and drugs. Smith defends the paternalistic approach, which bars even a casual drink or two. “Their focus should be on things other than partying.”

This owner’s Toyota Previa serves both as his kitchen and bedroom.

According to the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, San Diego County plays host — with varying degrees of hospitality — to around 9000 homeless people. (The latest HUD-mandated yearly tally, the “Point in Time Count” — done at the end of January 2011 — recorded 9020, with 4039 in shelters and 4981 elsewhere.) For 839 of the “unsheltered” (to use task force lingo) home is in a vehicle. When I asked Peter Callstrom, executive director of the task force, whether living in one’s vehicle offers any advantages to shelter life, he replied, “Either situation is the last place anyone wants to be.” Callstrom says that most of the county’s motorized transients congregate in the city proper, with a concentration downtown and at the beaches — Mission, Ocean, and Pacific. But wherever the downwardly mobile (some call them “rubber tramps”) hang, the common thread is the constant battle to stay invisible, as far away from the prying eyes of nosy neighbors, thieves and marauders, and patrolling cops.

It’s the police that make things tough, say car-dwellers, by issuing sleeping-in-a-car citations. Lars, a trim, 40ish fellow with a silver ponytail, said, “Around Pacific Beach, everyone knows about ‘Sergeant Summers.’ She’s infamous for hassling people who live in their cars.” To be fair, he notes that not all San Diego Police Department officers are malevolent when it comes to dealing with (or better yet, ignoring) locals who live in their cars. “Cops are people like everybody else. Some will go out of their way to help you.” But, according to many who live in cars, when the long arm of the law extends to those at the bottom rungs, bad situations have a way of getting worse.

“Bad situations,” car-dwellers will tell you, always start with the prosaic, the mundane — jobs that disappear, roommates who don’t pay the rent. For Lars, it was the demise of his employer in October 2010, which in turn led to unemployment benefits, the typical series of futile job applications, and then, the inability to pay rent. Lars says, “I was working as a shuttle driver at the airport for a rental car company. Then they folded. I’d been living in a studio apartment in Little Italy, but unemployment doesn’t go very far in San Diego, so I moved in with a girlfriend up in Escondido. Then, some things happened, you know…”

What does local law enforcement have to say about San Diegans who live in vehicles on the street? Many of the mobile homeless are convinced that the San Diego Police Department targets them for harassment. (Warren says, “I believe that 50 percent of the cops in San Diego, their job is to get the homeless out of the state.”)

However, according to Sgt. Rick Schnell of the SDPD’s “HOT” — Homeless Outreach Team — that’s not the policy. Schnell, who speaks with palpable sympathy for San Diego’s down-and-out, states: “We don’t have patrols going around looking for people living in their cars. If an officer comes out, it’s because of a radio call, a complaint. Someone will call and say that there’s a guy sleeping in a car in front of a home or a business.” But it’s a low-priority item, says Schnell. “We typically deal with people who are worse off, those who’ve already lost their car.” Still, now and then — perhaps two or three times a year — the Homeless Outreach Team encounters families with kids lodged in a vehicle on the streets. “We refer them to the [San Diego County–run] Family Resource Center at 12th and Imperial. Not that it’s illegal to have kids when you’re homeless.”

Schnell acknowledges that, due to what he calls a “series of bad events,” a car may be impounded if the registration has been expired for a year, or if five or more parking tickets have accumulated. When a car is seized, “it makes things even tougher for them. Now [they really are] homeless — they have nowhere to go. It’s the last straw.” On the other hand, Schnell also suggests that a vehicle can be a hindrance for the otherwise dispossessed. “A car can be an anchor, because some people have to spend all of their money on gas and repairs instead of food.”

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Comments

nan shartel Nov. 30, 2011 @ 11:16 p.m.

2 many r having 2 live this way now...20/20 had a piece on it about the middle class living in vehicles after job and house lose...

great article :(

long but worth reading

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learnb4ugive Dec. 1, 2011 @ 10 a.m.

Good article. Shows that there are many faces of the homeless issue and different ways to bring about solutions. The Safe Parking Program run by Dreams for Change is an excellent example of this. By simply providing for a safe place to park (live) a homeless individual or family can now concentrate on working to improve their situation. By having experienced family advocates at the location every night improves the persons ability to quickly navigate the services needed to get employment, healthcare, shelter and basic needs. My understanding is that this is all done with just a small amount of money which makes it that much more impressive. Keep up the good work.

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Ponzi Dec. 1, 2011 @ 11:18 a.m.

Good story. It’s too bad that job creation in America is a thing of the past. Many of these people, living in their cars, once were what we commonly call “the middle class.” I wonder how they feel about the OWS movement. The people who demean the OWS movement are themselves one or two paychecks away from this fate.

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SurfPuppy619 Dec. 1, 2011 @ 3:59 p.m.

OWS and the Tea Party are two different sides of the same coin. They both want the special interest and cronyism OUT of government.

Here is a really good video from 10-2-2011 of an OWS guy laying a major smack down on a Fox news reporter. He is very articulate on his points;

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bohemianopus Dec. 4, 2011 @ 2:39 p.m.

GREAT story! Sorry it took me so long to get around to reading it. Kudos to surfPuppy619 and nan for the links. I found them both very inspiring.

I lived in a 30 ft. fifth wheel trailer (a Nu-Wa Hitchhiker) from 1978 to 1980. Of course it was in a sanctioned park in Half Moon Bay, CA with full hookups and laundry facilities in the park.

Back then, I was much younger and the experience was fun. Both my husband and I had well-paying jobs in Menlo Park, so we had lots of money to spend.

As illustrated in this article, today there is a whole different scenario with unemployment, no built in facilities in the rolling shelters, safety issues and the constant harassment by the police.

Each year at Christmas, I donate all the money I would have spent on gifts and cards to worthy charities instead. This year, I will be adding Dreams for Change to that list.

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crimtheory Dec. 5, 2011 @ 12:35 p.m.

We were disturbed to learn in Moss Gropen’s otherwise interesting and important story "My House has Wheels" (December 1, 2011) that Osiris Murillo, an alumnae of our criminal justice program at San Diego State University, who lost her job during the current recession and is now living with her three year-old daughter out of her car at 28th and L Street. We are concerned about Osiris’ future and want to reach out to her (though we do not have a contact number). We encourage Osiris to get in contact with SDSU’s criminal justice program’s career adviser, Patricia Frosio 619-594-5576 (pfrosio@mail.sdsu.edu). The SDSU Criminal Justice Student Association president RanDee McLain (cjsapresident@gmail.com) and the criminal justice Honor Society president Adrienne Ehrlich are also there to help, and Dr. Nurge, the coordinator of the Criminal Justice Program, will arrange to cover childcare while Osiris goes for interviews.
Sincerely Dr. Stuart Henry Director of the School of Public Affairs, SDSU 619-594-4355

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SurfPuppy619 Dec. 5, 2011 @ 3:16 p.m.

Awesome~~~~~~~~~~~

Thank you crimtheory!~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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nan shartel Dec. 5, 2011 @ 3:26 p.m.

how exciting...thx so much 4 ur caring helpful attitude...;-D)

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sandiegosunriser Feb. 21, 2012 @ 9:27 a.m.

Back in 1973, I drove a 1968 Dodge Window Van from the woods of Maine to Santa Barbara, California.

I literally put my bedroom in the back of the van, complete with a twin-size bed. For cooking, I used an electric skillet and plugged it into outlets behind gas stations.

It took me a week to drive cross country and was a great trip and I met all kinds of different people...

When I got to Santa Barbara, where I attended Brooks Institute of Photography, I would drive the van on weekends to a monastery in the mountains and park overnight--and no one ever told me to leave.

:)

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