Cars: The latest form of affordable housing

At the precise moment that President Obama was proclaiming how well his stimulus package worked, a news story crossed my computer screen saying that 10% of Los Angeles County's 50,000 homeless are now sleeping in their cars each night. Multiply that number of car-dwellers to include the whole nation, and that's a lot of people who will no doubt sleep -- albeit behind the wheel -- more soundly tonight knowing just how much better off they are than our President thinks they would have been.

Let's get serious, folks.

The car-dwelling population has now reached sufficient numbers to qualify for its own bureaucratic designation. Meet the "Vehicular Homeless." Many are families whose lives were tossed in a recessionary salad spinner of job loss, followed by apartment and/or home loss. In some cases, there was health insurance loss and a family member's illness that wiped out their savings and sped the process along of moving from roof to backseat.

"Cars are the new homeless shelters," says Joel John Roberts, CEO of PATH (People Assisting the Homeless) Partners, the largest provider of services for the homeless in Los Angeles County. Warm weather climates tend to draw more car-dwellers for obvious reasons, so places like Florida and southern California are a car-dweller's Riviera. It's not illegal to sleep in your car, by the way, unless a municipality makes it so. There's a 40-something woman named Sandy who sleeps on a Berkeley sidewalk next to her car because she was busted for sleeping in it. So much for the People's Republic of Berkeley.

More often than not, car-dwellers park where they fall so to speak. Often, you will see a family sleeping in a car in the same neighborhood where they once slept on beds. Gas is expensive.

Mark Horvath, a one-time TV executive earning six figures who lost his own home in foreclosure, is now an advocate for the homeless. He runs Invisible People TV, where he travels the country and films their stories.

"Car and RV homeless are the fastest-growing demographic in our society," Horvath says. "You had 7 million jobs lost since 2007 and we are seeing the effects of that. Just go down to the beach areas around 7 or 8 p.m. any night and you'll see it. Families sleeping in cars and RVs on the street, just parked there."

Horvath helped a family recently who had lost their home to foreclosure. They and their three children were sleeping in the family car. "How do you do that? How do you keep your kids in school? It's impossible," he said. "Life just unravels."

"I recently helped a couple with a six-year-old boy who was going to school in Hollywood. When they lost their home, they were living in friends' cars -- not even their own. The child was always late for school and the school was getting upset," said Horvath, who found the family hotels and got them vouchers.

One of the least talked-about aspects of the recession is under-employment. People lost good jobs and the lifestyle that came with them, replaced by lesser-paying positions. They, too, are winding up in their cars. Yes, you can be working and still not be able to afford shelter that doesn't come on four wheels.

Becky Blanton, who spoke at TED Global 2009 last summer about living in her van, was one of the thousands of working homeless. She spent a year parked at a Wal-Mart outside of Denver. A freelance writer and editor, she earned money during this time, but not enough to pay for housing. The 54-year-old former journalist lives now with a friend in Virginia and regards the year of her homelessness as an adventure -- although not without its dark and lonely moments.

Car dwelling isn't just for older people. JJ CampbelI, 26, lived in a van for three months in Provo, Utah while looking for a job. He graduated from BYU in April, and like many recent college graduates, was unable to find work. He took the family's van, removed the seats, put in an old memory foam mattress and a rod to hang his clothes. It became home. He showered and cooked at friends' houses and spent a few nights on couches. "One night I spent in the van," he said, "it got down to 1 degree Farenheit; I woke up with a ring of ice on the blanket around my head where my breathe had condensed and frozen."

He now shares a basement apartment in Provo where he pays $250 for rent and utilities. He earns about $1,000 a month working full-time and launching his start-up,

Kevin Sudeith calls himself part of the "Ford family" -- a Depression era term for people living in their cars. He is planning to decamp on April 1 from New York City to pursue work as a rock carver while touring the country in a van. He ran a successful Persian rug business, which he says was featured in Forbes Magazine's collectors' edition twice.

His business first slowed noticeably in July 2007, and by summer 2008 he'd eliminated all extraneous expenses -- like cable TV and extra phone lines. "People were no longer taking out home equity loans to buy Persian rugs," he says.

By mid 2009, after cutting every possible expense and being as frugal as possible, he was running in the red, so he came up with this plan. He purchased a container in which to store his possessions and he will house them in the mid-west in a $40 a month storage unit. And he will hit the road. "Dispersed camping while living out of an automobile may not be the most comfortable life, but its better than running in the red, and its bound to be an adventure," he says.
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