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Just a few years and a million hopes ago, “anchor” meant something entirely different for Tony Jones. Jones, 59, who describes himself as a “semi-disabled white man,” never imagined he’d be living in a car. A boat, perhaps — but not a car.

These days, along with a female companion, he scurries from place to place downtown in a battered sedan with sun-bleached paint, scratching out a life. He came to San Diego from Alaska in 2006. “My wife and I decided we wanted to retire on a big sailboat, so we sold everything we had — took our life’s savings and bought a 40-foot boat. We planned to live on the boat in San Diego in the winter and sail north for spring and summer. This was our dream, but I was to find out that sometimes a dream can turn into a nightmare.”

After settling down at a free anchorage, Jones, who had started a charter operation, was (along with many others) evicted by the Port of San Diego. Not long after, his wife died suddenly of a cerebral aneurysm. Jones turned to drink, and before long, found himself in the slammer one morning after exposing himself in public while in a drunken stupor. Charged with public indecency, in short order he was beaten unconscious by fellow prisoners wielding soap in socks. Next came solitary confinement, bad counsel from a public defender, seizure of his boat, and classification as a “Level 1” sex offender.

“Level 1?” Jones’s tag might have differentiated him in years past, but with Jessica’s Law newly enacted, all sex offenders (including those whose sole offense was urinating in the gutter) were to be barred from homeless shelters. (Jones’s probation officer told him that the penalty for lying about his conviction to gain admittance to a shelter would be 32 months in prison.) Jones’s next home was the banks of the San Diego River, where he says many local sex offenders seek shelter. At the mosquito-plagued river bottom, he contracted West Nile virus and came close to death.

Eventually, Jones met Nelda, an SSI (Supplemental Security Income) recipient who’d been given an old car by a church. “She had been living on the streets of San Diego for ten years and really knew the ins and outs of it.” After hooking up with Nelda, Jones set about customizing the car and fashioning his new life on four wheels. “I took out the back seat, cut out the metal divider between the trunk and back seat, placed a mattress in the back, blacked out the back windows. Now we were able to lie down to sleep and make a decent meal on her portable gas stove.”

Living in a vehicle takes a lot of planning; sure, there’s a roof over your head, but things like personal hygiene and food storage not only pose a constant challenge, but also serve as a venue for innovation. Jones says he uses the sinks in fast-food restaurants and the showers at a park in Ocean Beach. “I do the best I can.” Another man, Al H. — whose blue-and-white ’90s Chevy Astro van can be found parked in and around local beaches — told me, “I have a membership at Bally’s (health club), so I can take showers there, go to the bathroom, and also get a little exercise. When I want to cook food, I use the microwaves at the 7-Elevens and AM/PM minimarts. I keep my food in an ice chest that I fill up every few days.”

For many locals, turning a car or camper into a dwelling is a last effort at dignity, a vestige of the life that used to be, and one rung up from the street. Tony Jones quips, “It’s not a cool lifestyle.” However, a number of San Diegans stay unrooted by choice; it’s a carefree, peripatetic way to live. No strings attached.

Several months ago, one local — a fellow who calls himself Robin Hood — decided to cut those strings. “My monthly nut was killing me. The rent, the gas. And the waste of time — I was commuting an hour and a half a day from my place in San Marcos to where I was working near Del Mar. There were 42 stoplights along the way. So I gave away all my shit and set up this RV. I’m completely self-sufficient.” It’s the ability to not only survive but thrive, without the permanency and expenses of a traditional home that Robin, who describes himself as a “Wisconsin farm boy,” finds appealing. It’s also a source of pride, as well as peace of mind — he believes that, for him, Southern California–style disasters, like massive wildfires and large-scale Richter events, are eminently survivable. “I’m always ready to evacuate in seconds, and I have enough food, gas, and water to last a month.”

When I met with him on a tropical day in early September, the issue was comfort. The inside of his Brougham motorhome was cool. Pointing to the ceiling-mounted air conditioner, he said, “This thing will freeze your ass off.” The RV, given to him by a friend (he says it’s worth around $1500) is crammed with appliances, gadgets, contraptions — quirky versions of ordinary household stuff. Showing me around, he pointed to an oven and stove that run on propane, a refrigerator/freezer powered by an ammonia-based system, and a variety of devices that run on generator-supplied electricity. “Right now, I have a 3000-kilowatt generator, but I’m replacing it with a 4000-kilowatt unit. I also have three 12-volt batteries, and I can switch back and forth between those and the 110-volt household current.” (He does all the work himself.)

Brown, white, and rough around the edges, his 19-foot rig, which sits on a 1978 Dodge van chassis, isn’t much to look at exterior-wise, but Robin says it has everything he needs. “Everything” includes a laptop with full-time internet access (coupled with an all-in-one printer/fax/copier); a tiny shower that he hasn’t tried yet, incongruous hardwood floors, and a canned food pantry hidden under a bench seat. Those who look closely will find an inconspicuous level mounted to a wall. “Refrigerators like it when you’re parked on flat ground.” And lashed to the rear bumper is a small chain saw. “If there’s a tree blocking my way, I can get through.”

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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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