Tim Barker never thought he’d have to live in his truck. Four months ago, the plumber, was in a one-bedroom apartment in the San Fernando Valley with a pool and a Jacuzzi. Then, on his birthday in October, he and 199 other plumbers were laid off by their union, Local 761 in Burbank. Now Barker’s son sleeps on the sofa of his cousin’s one-bedroom Hollywood apartment and Barker sleeps on the roof of the apartment building — or in his 2003 Ford Ranger pickup. “I’m 47 and I’ve never lived in my car,” says Barker, a husky 220-lb single father with sandy hair and a rapid-fire voice. In January, as torrential rains pelted the streets of Southern California, father and son were sleeping in the truck in San Pedro, next to the Los Angeles Harbor. “We were able to spend four nights in the Vagabond Motel but for two nights we slept in the car,” says Barker. “It was raining, cold and the cat was jumping on us. We both got sick.”
For people who cannot afford rent, a car is the last rung of dignity and sanity above the despair of the street. A home on wheels is a classic American affair — from the wagon train to the RV. Now, for some formerly upwardly mobile Americans, the economic storm has turned the back seat or rear of the van into the bedroom. “We found six people sleeping in their cars on an overnight police ride-along in December,” says John Edmund, chief of staff to Long Beach Councilman Dee Andrews. “One was a widow living in a four-door sedan. She and her husband had been Air Force veterans. She did not know about the agencies that could help her. I had tears in my eyes afterwards.”
“Cars are the new homeless shelters,” says Joel John Roberts, CEO of PATH Partners (People Assisting the Homeless), the largest provider of homeless services in Los Angeles County, which had nearly 50,000 people homeless in 2009. Of these, experts estimate up to 10% live in vehicles — even though this is illegal across most of the county. A similar situation is true for many other regions across the nation, especially in the Sun Belt. A woman lives in her BMW in Marina Del Rey, a swank L.A. address on the coast. PATH outreach workers Jorge Guzman and Tomasz Babiszkiewicz say she was an executive recruiter until the Great Recession. “She was self-employed for 36 years,” says Guzman. “Now she sits in the car with a blanket and reads. She has not told her daughter.” (See the 50 worst cars of all time.)
Barker the out-of-work plumber has checked out shelters, motels and homeless assistance programs across the Los Angeles area as he scrambles to find a roof for himself and his son to sleep under. “We went down to a shelter in downtown but it was bad — heroin, crack, smells. Randy looked at me and said, ‘Dad, get me out of here. It’s spooky. Now I am trying to get assistance to get into an apartment in San Pedro so Randy can get back in school.” PATH outreach workers are talking to Barker about his possible eligibility for federal assistance with rent and utilities under the new federal homelessness prevention program. (See how the new federal homelessness prevention program works.)
One problem Barker has discovered with living in a pickup truck is keeping track of things. “My cousin is our ace in the hole,” Barker says as he stands in the crowded one-bedroom apartment that has seen better days. On his cousin’s crowded coffee table, a worn yellow briefcase covered with union stickers sits stuffed with unemployment forms, birth certificates, old utility bills and school application papers for Randy, a skinny 12-year-old who loves basketball. (Are one in 50 American kids homeless?)
People who fall into homelessness say it feels like a spiral. A layoff, a medical emergency or a domestic quarrel sets off a chain reaction of bad luck. And the risk of falling into the economic abyss has increased, even in good times. Writing before the housing bubble burst and Wall Street collapsed, Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker showed that the big difference between 30 years ago and today is the dramatic growth in income volatility. American family incomes now rise and fall much more sharply from year to year and this is happening at the same time as the public and private safety net has eroded.
Some of the floating economic refugees, especially those from the middle and working class, “do not think of themselves as homeless,” says Susan Price, director of homeless services in Long Beach. “They think: ‘I’m not that. I am just living in my car.'” In fact, living in your car does count as being homeless according to the federal government. Peggy, 58, who lives in a small RV on a quiet Hollywood side street, says, “If I had known how hard it is to be homeless and how hard it is to escape, I would have called all my friends to ask for help. But I was embarrassed.” She was laid off from her telemarketing job in January 2009. “It was the same day that 76,000 people were laid off; I did not feel alone. I liked my job. It was within walking distance of my apartment.” Her mother gave her the nearly 20-year-old RV that houses Peggy and her dog, Fluffy. Wearing tennis shoes and a leather jacket, Peggy says she misses her apartment but enjoys being in the same neighborhood. “I sweep the sidewalk and pick up the trash,” she says. “There is a real sense of community here.”
“I know I am homeless,” says Agnes Cooper, 58, who parks her silver 2006 Chevy HHR hatchback at a local gym in Phoenix. “If [the managers of the gym] know, they haven’t said and I have not asked permission. When I first slept in my car, I was parking at a Burger King, but the young kids made fun of me and I am not accustomed to children being disrespectful.” Cooper says the passenger seat folds down flat and she sleeps well. She works out and showers every morning and says the gym is “the best thing that ever happened to my body.” A series of physical ailments to her back, legs and wrists caused her to stop working as a registered nurse and that, along with the death of her husband, forced her from her apartment.
Cooper says she faces a choice. She receives $909 in Social Security. After her bills, she has $289 left plus the $100 she now pays for storage. She could spend that money to move into subsidized housing, but if she did then she would be nearly broke — little money for food, no money to give at Sunday services, no money to buy her grandchildren gifts and no money to give to others in need — something she does on a regular basis. Now that her health has improved and her back is stronger she hopes she can go back to work, at least part time.
Cooper’s situation will be stable — until she loses her car. Price says, “When people can no longer can afford to register their car and the police tow it, then people are on the street. That is the last rung. The towing and impounding charges are steep and frequently people lose everything.” Rudy Salinas, who directs the PATH outreach team in Los Angeles, says, “Allowing people to park on the street is a short-term solution. It is great for tonight, but not for next year.”
“It’s no fun living in your car,” says Mike, a lighting specialist in the Los Angeles entertainment industry who has been out of work for a year. One of his last jobs was the Academy Awards show. “I don’t have a job right now, in part because of my situation. Did you know that 50% of people who are homeless and living in their cars have jobs?” He keeps his vehicle registration current and parks his van on side streets on LA’s West Side and the San Fernando Valley. “You want to park where it is safe and inconspicuous. Not a busy street where someone might plow into you and not a place where the bums will bother you.” Mike says, “If the police hassle you, they’ll impound your car and you’ll lose everything. I don’t want to find out.”