The Mobile Homeless in Clairemont

Kids play hide and seek among the cars at Dreams for Change (photo by Bill Swank)

They are known as “the mobile homeless” and are variously called campers, vehicular housed, vehicle residents and worse.

Neil Donovan, former executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, noted, “They are still hanging on to the remnants of their housed life.” Drawing from personal experience, Cynthia Johnson wrote, “It’s not such a great distance from ‘On the Road’ to in the street.”

In January 2017, it was estimated almost 1,000 people in San Diego were living in their vehicles, up 17% from the previous year.

It is not easy for the mobile homeless to live inconspicuously in Clairemont and surrounding neighborhoods. Like undocumented immigrants, they try to avoid interaction with the police and continually search for a safe place to park for the night.

Rick, Jimmy and Lani are part of this invisible Clairemont community. Rick has a camper-shell on the back of his old Chevy pickup. Although he is homeless, he is grateful for his dogs who provide companionship. Jimmy and Lani are labrador retrievers, brother and sister. He’s had them since they were abandoned as puppies in Mexico.

Jimmy and Lani don’t realize they are homeless (photo by Bill Swank)

Rick fell on tough times. He suffered a heart attack in his late fifties and can no longer work. The three subside on his modest social security check. In the early morning hours, the dogs run free on Fiesta Island. While the rest of Clairemont sleeps or drinks morning coffee, Rick has been awake for hours.

“The dogs are ready for action. They don’t know we’re homeless,” says Rick. “They’ve got it made, better than most dogs who are stuck indoors while their owners are away at work. Dogs want to be close to their owners all the time. My dogs are always with me. It is a lot easier being a dog than it is being an old (expletive) without a home.”

Pete grew up in Encinitas, went away to college, earned an art degree and quickly learned the truth about starving artists. He taught art part-time in community colleges for nearly 20 years, but employment was always tenuous. Part-time instructors are not well paid and do not have job security. Pete is currently without a job.

He’s found a place to park his RV which has become a sanctuary. He explained, “Two Mexicans live in a camper and didn’t like all the trash in the lot, so they cleaned it up. They said this is our home and we don’t want to live in a (expletive). The problem with most people who live in campers is they throw all their (expletive) outside and people start to complain. We don’t want any trouble.”

51-year-old Floyd is from the Midwest and lives in his truck by choice. He gets by with day jobs. Floyd is a friendly man who has cultivated a clientele of seniors with a never-ending need for a handy man. Admittedly, he has a drinking problem, but adds, “I don’t harm nobody except myself.” Friends let him use their shower and bathroom facilities. With Midwestern values and manners, he’s careful not to abuse the privilege.

He feels police harass people who live in their vehicles. “There was a cop who used to hassle every one who had a camper at Mission Bay,” Floyd complained. “Now he’s up in Clairemont and he loves to hassle us. He should be going after criminals and not people who live in their cars.”

He was pleased when a local judge recently ruled that police can not give tickets to people living in vehicles. There is also proposed legislation to limit law enforcement’s ability to impound vehicles used for housing.

When asked if any of them had ever held a cardboard sign on a street corner, all of these men were mildly offended. It is a matter of personal dignity and self-respect that they would never consider begging.

The Community Christian Service Agency at Clairemont Drive and Rappahannock serves low-income families and individuals. They are aware of numerous families who live in vehicles. Most parents have jobs, but cannot afford rent. CCSA advises this population to call Dreams for Change at 8804 Balboa Avenue for a safe place to park overnight. The facilities are provided by Jewish Family Services.

Jewish Family Service provides overnight parking, toilets and showers for the mobile homeless (photo by Bill Swank)

Joseph is a chef who lost his job six months ago. Unable to pay rent, he put the family furniture and belongings into a storage unit. Joseph, Mary and their two kids (seven and nine) have been living in their car since then. Their nine-year-old son is autistic with special needs. For that reason alone, they do not want to be in a homeless shelter.

They never thought they would become homeless. Joseph is working again and they drive to the restaurant while Mary and the boys wait in the car. They can’t save enough money to pay first and last month’s rent. Storage is $200 a month. Their furniture is living better than they are.

Joseph and Mary are polite, proud… humiliated and terrified.

“People treat you different when they realize you are living in your car. They really look down on you,” said Mary. “That has never happened to us before.”

Then they found a special woman at Holy Family Catholic Church in Linda Vista. Mary choked up and her voice cracked. “Miss Joanne is our guardian angel,” she said.

“Yes, she is our guardian angel,” echoed Joseph. “She’s a volunteer and she has really helped us. It’s not even her job. She told us about Dreams for Change. It is safe for our family here.”

Families sleep safely in their vehicles at “Dreams for Change” in Kearny Mesa (photo by Bill Swank)

Kids are running around and laughing as we talk, but their kids are in the car. The autistic boy can’t talk or relate to other children. Are Joseph and Mary typical modern, overly-protective parents or, realistically, have they adjusted to a new and potentially dangerous world?

Joseph said, “It breaks my heart to see my kids sleeping in the back seat. We wait until they are asleep and then we talk about our situation.”

“We can’t believe the situation we are in,” repeated Mary. “We try to be strong for our children, but we worry about the future.”

“Miss Joanne” is affiliated with the St. Vincent de Paul Society at Holy Family Catholic Church in Linda Vista. “We’re happy to pass on the blessings we’ve received,” as she explained their person-to-person mission. “We want to help the people we meet. Just listening and being respectful is important.”

Holy Family is an aptly named church for the many services they provide to families.

Outdoorsmen just want to be left alone, but there is a real and urgent need in our community for families with children living on the edge of panic.

If politicians are truly serious about reducing homelessness, they must make families the top priority.


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