A few years ago, in between jobs, I started hanging out at nearby Mission Bay during the day when I needed a break from my computer. I’d take a beach chair or blanket, a sandwich, a notepad and pen and sit under a tree for an hour or two. Peaceful, balmy, fewer distractions than at the oceanfront beach (also nearby). If people came along, they kept a respectful distance, cycling or strolling by on the path, arranging a lunch picnic at one of the many tables. Kayakers glided by on the glistening water.
I began to notice that several large RVs ringed the outer edges of the parking lot. How cool, I thought. What a great idea. Roll on down for the day. Bring kids or grandkids and your own kitchen. Play ball, fix whatever you want to eat whenever. Memories of my in-laws parking their RV at Disneyland so we could duck in out of the heat and then head back into the maddening crowds.
Around that same time, I also began to notice an old green and rusty orange van parked on my street. Specifically, I noticed the owner, craggily dark and handsome, in a seedy-around-the -edges way. The exact type that made my heart leap 20 years earlier. What caught my eye one day was him dragging clothing and bedding from a neighboring house to his van. (Since I was out of work I had more time to look out my window.) He wore a back brace and walked with a limp, which also wormed its way into my sensitive psyche and overactive imagination. Poor guy. Was he in some kind of accident? After that, his van moved around, parking up and down our block and along all the side streets. Occasionally I’d see him buying cigarettes at the 7-11, leaning into the van’s engine under the open hood or doing yard work for a neighbor, but most often he was sitting in his van staring into space.
I gradually realized he was living in his van. Then, after seeing the same RVs day after day down at the bay, I also began to realize that these were not just recreational vehicles, they were homes. They were not occupied by happy campers, but by people who had lost houses, apartments, possibly jobs or health, but come hell or high water held on their homes on wheels. They were living in them.
At night they had to leave the park by 10 p.m., when the gates closed and the police checked the area. They parked if they could somewhere on the streets and waited for the gates to open again the next morning.
Eventually I went back to work, the man in the van disappeared, my weekday visits to the bay lessened and my thoughts about the situation faded into the background. It’s a few years later now, the economy has supposedly gotten better for some, but not everyone. Not for the vets with PTSD and other disabilities. Not for those workers whose jobs have permanently gone away. Not for those who have lost their health and their bank accounts. Not for those who can’t pay rising rent. The number of homeless continues to rise. San Diego is in the top 10 American cities with rising rents and home costs and with large homeless populations. In San Diego, an estimated 4,500 homeless currently live in shelters and 4,100 are unsheltered – meaning they live on sidewalks, under bridges and overpasses, along creek and river beds and in church courtyards, doorways, parks, canyons and vehicles.
This year’s annual homeless census found nearly 1,800 people (or about 21 percent of the total) sleeping in cars, RVs or other vehicles. This number is probably low. Those living in vehicles are often uncounted and unseen; they have not fallen all the way, are still clinging to some kind of home, even if it moves every night in darkness. Stories are appearing about them.
A street lined with RVs, campers, vans in Mountain View, home of Google, in Northern California’s Silicon Valley. Many of the people who live in these vehicles used to work nearby, got laid off, and are trying to find work. Some are employed, but don’t earn enough to rent an apartment. A few are employed with decent salaries but don’t want to spend most of their take-home pay on rent.
A parking lot at LAX, reserved for airport and airline employees and their RVs. It’s easier and cheaper for them to spend their time off near work. In Paved Paradise, as Joni Mitchell sang.
Fiesta Island here in San Diego, east across Mission Bay from where I’ve seen the daytime RVs. A popular recreational site for cycling, boat launching, dog running, and the annual Over-the-Line beach softball Tournament. Now an ersatz RV park. The authorities and police have been letting them stay, not patrolling or checking the gates at night. This will change soon, as residents in surrounding hillside homes overlooking the island complain. I recognized the name of one of these residents, the husband of a woman I used to go to yoga with. I had been in their home.
Now we also have social media, like Next Door, reporting on vehicles that have overstayed their legally allotted time, usually 72 hours. This morning I read that the big white limo parked across the street from our apartment building has “homeless living inside. An old man in bad shape, probably an alcoholic, stumbled out. The wheels are on blocks,” said the post.
I went out to check. It is not on blocks. One of the back tires is flat. The windows are tinted so it’s impossible to see if anyone is inside. A few of my neighbors have complained about all the space it’s taking on the street. True, it is really, really loooong, but we all have garages and it’s not a busy block, there’s plenty of parking for visitors. I am probably a Neighborhood Watch flunky because the limo doesn’t bother me, assuming any occupants aren’t blocking others, throwing garbage out the windows, playing music late at night, or luring children inside with pot-laced lollipops. Now if parking suddenly disappeared or if five or ten limos lined up outside, I might change my mind.
In other words, I am cautious, but I don’t assume the worst. More ominous posts appear on Next Door, the majority assuming the limo is dangerous. They call a local news station that airs a story on it, emphasizing that neighbors are “afraid for their safety.” In another two days, the limo is towed away. The news does a follow-up story interviewing the owner, an older man with a dog. He had lost his wife and brother and driven down from Oregon hoping to find work with the limo. Ran out of money to fix the tire. He denied living in the limo and apologized for any inconveniences he caused. Whether he was telling the truth, non-threatening and able to work, who knows? It would take more than two interviews to find out.
As for RVs on Fiesta Island, if they are interfering with others who enjoy the park, or creating health hazards, they probably should not be allowed to stay indefinitely or in large numbers. Where should they go? It is illegal in San Diego to live in a vehicle or to park an RV on the street or in a public parking lot between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. Some cities are creating fenced spaces for the moving homeless, just as they set up shelters and turn old hotels into low-income residences for the sidewalk homeless. In San Diego, a non-profit organization called Dreams for Change operates two lots as part of a safe parking program. According to their website, 65 percent of those they help obtain housing or move to transitional programs.
Some homeless have already moved to desert areas like Slab City, 156 miles northeast of San Diego in Imperial County. A former military base, now owned by the State of California, it began attracting squatters in the 1960s. They live on the leftover concrete slabs entirely off the grid. No running water, electricity, trash collection. Now with approximately 200 residents (and several times that in winter), The Slab calls itself “The Last Free Place in America.” It does not have a good reputation. No one would mistake it for Palm Springs, for example. Whether all its occupants are lawless drug addicts, I don’t know.
As with those who live among us in their cars, vans, RVs, I suspect there’s a mixture of good and bad. Maybe some are alcoholics, addicts, mentally ill. Maybe most are doing the best they can in unlucky circumstances, holding on and taking shelter in the last of their possessions. Refusing to flee to the desert or give up hope.
For more information on laws in San Diego about the homeless and where they can live, see “Are there laws against homeless camps?” by Gary Warth in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Sept. 28, 2016.