“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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
He says, however, that full-time RV living, which he characterizes as a “subculture,” isn’t for the masses. Single, childless, and self-employed, he acknowledges that his situation is unusual. “I’m a master mechanic — I can fix anything — and I have enough work to last until I die.” He also notes that he has a band of good friends scattered around San Diego County, friends who allow him to park his motor home on their property for extended periods. “Right now, I’m ‘house-sitting’ at a friend’s place near Del Mar; I use the bathrooms, the kitchens. I have access to all the amenities. I have friends in different places all around the county. I also have a ’63 Airstream trailer parked up in Julian.”
In contrast to self-sufficient types like Robin, who claims a monthly outlay of a mere $80 for a cell phone and food, there’s a richer class of vagabonds, some of whose behemoth motor homes can cost upwards of a half-million bucks. These are the folks who pilot massive slabs of rolling luxury (albeit, some of it faux) that look like school buses on anabolic steroids. Made by manufacturers such as Prevost, the luxury rigs (think “Kenny Rogers’s tour bus”) can be equipped with indoor hot tubs and festooned with gaudy chandeliers. Unlike their downscale counterparts, who are moved from place to place on O.B. side streets, they’ll be found stationary — more or less — for months at a time, as their flush owners shell out greenbacks for spaces at the county’s “sanctioned” RV parks.
Rent’s a serious issue at these facilities: it ranges anywhere from a few hundred bucks to two grand per month. At the county’s most expensive RV park, the Chula Vista RV Resort (on San Diego Bay, near the Chula Vista Marina), the monthly tab goes from $1000 during the winter season to $1995 during the summer — depending on your space’s location.
According to Robin, who claims “to know everything there is to know about motor homes,” the market for high-end RVs has dwindled in the depressed economy. “There are sales lots with hundreds of expensive motor homes just sitting there; no one’s buying the shit.” Indeed, a cursory drive-by at dealers like Holland Motor Homes and La Mesa RVs reveals drastically slashed prices. Yet even hard financial times haven’t dampened zeal for the RV lifestyle among people in the motor-home business.
I asked Steve Wilson of Holland (whose offerings go from $60,000 to $1,000,000 — the latter a used model) about high-end RVs, and he gave me a short primer. “Motor homes fall into numerous categories: Class C and Class A…then you have diesel pushers (standard and luxury), and then you have motor coaches (all are luxurious). I’m not trying to be obstreperous, but it’s kind of like ‘ships.’ All ships are boats but not all boats are ships.”
The folks at the pinnacle of the RV heap, Wilson says, won’t be found in San Diego year-round. “Not too many people live full time in their luxury motor coach and [during the summer] they’re touring the northern part of the country — up to Alaska and also in Canada. Most of this class of travelers may spend three or four months aboard their coach, but they probably have numerous homes/ranches at which they stay before hitting the road again for maybe four to six months. However, we do refer to them as ‘live-aboards.’”
As for those who park their RVs in the county permanently, “Some of them stay in our nicer local RV parks [such as] Chula Vista, Mission Bay, and Escondido, or decent parks like the ones in La Mesa and Santee.”
Among aficionados, the practice of RV camping at unofficial locations is called “boondocking,” or sometimes “dry camping.” Simply put, it’s overnighting at a site without the hookups (sewer, water, electric) and other amenities offered by RV parks. On the internet, blogs and message boards are rife with tips on finding scenic spots off the beaten track. In many cases, the closest boondockers get to the wilderness is a big-box store parking lot in suburbia, where — according to chatter on the street — certain retailers will tolerate short, unobtrusive stays.