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.”