Thursday, July 17, 2014

Who are the homeless...

You might have an idea about who our local homeless people are. Maybe your ideas are based on the people you see panhandling in Downtown or how you see the homeless portrayed by articles in the Sentinel. That picture does not fit the people that GiGi and I have met on our journey.

We have met small business owners who live in sheds or in their stores in order to help make their small business thrive. We met a young working couple with low wage jobs and two dogs that can only afford to live in a campground. Our camping buddy had the financial means to rent but was homeless for seven weeks until he could find a place to rent with two kids and a dog. It took him almost 4 months to find a place!

Homeless... becoming more popular every year!

Using the limited definition of the federal government (an individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence), the Santa Cruz County Homeless Census counted local homeless. In the two years from 2009 to 2011, the homeless population rose 22%. This number does not include GiGi and I or most of the people we have met.

Do I fit the profile?

I am a short, fat, middle-aged, woman who is college educated... my bachelor's degree is 30 years old, so it is kind of meaningless. My parents lied about my age so I could get my first job at 12 years old. Since then, I've worked for major corporations around the Bay Area, but been self-employed for the last few years. Santa Cruz has been my home since the storms of 1982 forced me to move from Big Sur. Almost three years ago, we became homeless due to a series of actions by other people that turned our world upside down... took our home of five years and destroyed  my business. We are starting over from scratch.

I don't drink (except an occasional margarita), don't smoke cigarettes, don't do any kind of drugs. I have no history of mental illness, not a transient, not disabled, and not a veteran. Single, not married. Parents are dead and I'm not really close with my two much older siblings.


How much do YOU spend on food per month? Currently, I receive $189 a month in food stamps. That lasts me about half the month, with careful planning. Fortunately, local churches help feed us the rest of the month. They even have pet food.

At one point, I received welfare (General Assistance). They LOAN me $293 a month for rent (which I am required to pay back at some point), plus $50 for incidentals. Where in Santa Cruz can you rent a place for $300 a month? And how do I come up with the deposit?

My very Republican brother thinks I have somehow screwed this up because EVERYBODY else is making HUGE dollars off the welfare system. I laugh when people tell me that the reason there are so many homeless people in Santa Cruz is due to how much they can get here. They say the homeless are coddled here, pampered. I don't feel the welfare system is offering an abundance of riches.

Unemployment and cost of living here in paradise

The employment rate in Santa Cruz was 12.5% in January 2013, while nationally it was 8.5%.

A full-time worker must earn $33.27 per hour to afford a modest two-bedroom rental, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

According to the 2011 homeless census here, there were 2,771 homeless and the county received $1.7 million in homeless assistance grant money. That is $613 per person for the YEAR. How do you help someone with $600?

So, if you have suggestions about how to help people get jobs and housing, I would love to hear them.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Levels of homelessness...

We all lump homeless folks into one big category, but the only thing we all have in common is that we are doing the best we can with what we have.

I am finding there are many levels of being homeless. When they take the homeless census, they don't count some of these levels – only those living under bridges and in bushes. They don't count the others, like me, who are working and not really living anywhere. Because it has become illegal to be homeless in Santa Cruz and because there is such a stigma, we tend to hide and try to blend in.  Sitting here in Starbucks, I doubt anyone could tell that I am no different than the grungy woman outside that is being hassled by a cop... except I've had a bath. Let me repeat myself: most of us are not that different because we are ALL just trying to do the best we can with what we got.

I guess my definition of homeless is someone who does not pay money to live in a residential building? I question that definition because I am finding so many alternatives to what we think is "normal" housing. All of it seems to be transitional while folks are struggling – it is not usually transient folks who have not lived in the Santa Cruz area for awhile. What I have discovered is that there is not really a homeless "type"... there are as many stories as there are homeless people. Each is different, the reasons are different, and their solutions are different.

Really, there is no caste system or echelon – I suppose it depends what your own personal ideas are. For me, camping outside illegally would be the bottom, but I have known students at UCSC who were forest dwellers for 3+ years and were happy.

So, in no particular order, here are some of the levels of homeless I have seen...

Back in the early 1980s, the Downtown merchants hated the homeless and called them Trolls because they lived under the bridges. Some stores had signs in the windows saying "No Trolls". Though the signs are gone, the bias is still there. 

Using the 1980 definition, Trolls are homeless folks living under bridges or in bushes. I guess they get the brunt of abuse and attention because they are more obvious, while some of us look "normal". They get little sleep, live in a constant state of fear, spend their days just trying to provide the basics for living: shelter and food (and sometimes a shower). Until you have been there, you have no idea how long all that can take and how many lines you must wait in. You wait in line for the limited space in a shelter, wait in line for a free meal, wait for sunrise so you can get some sleep... always waiting. If you were not already mentally unstable, the lack of sleep would drive you crazy.

There are plenty of folks living in the forest around Santa Cruz. I see them coming out in the mornings. Some of them find their own little private niche, others band together and form communities. They share resources and look out for each other. A few years ago, there was a fairly large forest community off Highway 9 called Camp Paradise.

The difference here is that these are students going to UCSC on limited finances. They have a lovely, strong community in the forest and have built structures that they hand down to the next generation of students. They share resources and it is sort of a collective.

There are folks camping in local campgrounds as their residence. We met a few at the campground we were in... working folks who can't afford to rent a place and/or have dogs. The campgrounds are not real happy with that, state campgrounds only allow you 7 days in a row and I think 30 days per year. When I had to switch campgrounds, I called around looking for another spot for a week. One campground (with no wifi or amenities), over near Costco, told me they would only rent me a campsite for 4 days because they didn't want homeless people in there.

There are folks living in RV parks for years in trailers/RVs you would take on vacation. Space rental runs about $650 a month plus your electricity. It is your own roof over your head and it is relatively cheap rent for this county. I met families that have two trailers, giving them a bit more room than a single living space. One young mother had a second small Casita trailer as a play room for her son. She was decorating it with colorful fish.

There are also plenty of folks living in fully self-contained RVs. I have recently chatted with some of them about their experiences. One was a family with 2 kids that lived in an RV for the past 3 years until both parents found full time work and could afford to pay rent.

The biggest worry for RV campers is the cops. The cops have hassled campers in the middle of the night, surrounding the RV and beating on the RV walls trying to get them to come out so they can ticket or arrest them. They have had a bright orange "72-hour tow notice" slapped on the windshield after they were parked somewhere for just 2 or 3 hours.

You see them parked all over, the car full to the brim with the stuff to live. It is hard to carry your whole life in a rolling box and most people take storage space for granted. While you can lock your doors and feel safe, it makes you an easy target for the cops who can ticket or arrest you for sleeping in the car. You are more likely to be harassed in the city than out in the county.

NOTE: Someone told me that if you are sleeping in your vehicle, it can be confiscated or impounded. I called the Santa Cruz Police Department and was told this is not true. They CAN impound/confiscate for OTHER reasons, but not for sleeping in your vehicle.

There is only shelter space for less than 10% of the Santa Cruz homeless population (according to the homeless census that does not count all types of homeless). There is a line to sign-up each day and a waiting list. No pets allowed at any shelter. You have to be at the shelter at a certain time (5:30pm?), no in-out privileges, and you must leave at a certain time in the morning (like 7am). Take what you own with you.

There is a program, an alliance of a few churches, that allows a certain number of homeless people to sleep on church facilities. Each night, they are hosted by a different church. No pets allowed.


I am including living in a shed because I can't imagine living there very long. Recently, when I checked out a shed rental, there were quite a few people living on the property in sheds. They seemed happy with the arrangement.

Sleeping on a friend's couch, spare room, or garage still means you do not have a home - just a temporary roof over your head. I met quite a few students couch surfing to save money while in school. There is even a website dedicated to being able to travel the world while couch surfing!

I met one couple who had a store and lived (illegally) in the back room. All their money went to making the store successful. Eventually, the landlord found out they were living there and they were evicted – killing their business and their residence.

Local activist Brent Adams is promoting the idea of a "sanctuary camp" to allow homeless folks to camp somewhere legally and safely. This is an idea that has worked successfully in Seattle, Portland and many other cities as a part of a plan to get people off the street and keep them off the street. A sanctuary camp is a "tent city" for homeless folks. In other cities, it can be run by an organization, but has an onsite board mostly made up of the tenants. Among the rules: no drugs, no alcohol, no weapons, and no violence.

Be sure to check out Brent's video about local homelessness:

So that is my list... I'm sure there are other forms of homeless that I have not thought of or run into. I hope this opens your eyes to fact that people are struggling and are are getting creative. This is not a recession, it is a depression and it is just shameful that we allow our local government to criminalize these people who are just trying to survive.

In my opinion, if you vote for Ryan Coonerty, Cynthia Mathews or Lyn Robinson, you are voting to continue the practice of criminalizing homelessness.

Saturday, August 3, 2013


I completely understand why you would need to drink or drug if you are homeless. There is no escaping the constant stress and wondering what will go wrong next.

A couple of days ago, we got word from the campground that we had to move out. At that point, we could not find another campsite for this weekend - weekends are all booked up during summer. So, where will we go? Our time that should be spent looking for a more permanent living situation, will be spent looking for a new temporary solution.

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, 38% of homeless are dependent on alcohol and 26% on other drugs. This is supposedly the major reason people become homeless. In 2005, over 19 MILLION people needed, and did not receive, help with substance abuse.

Neither I or my camp partner drinks or drugs, though there are times I wish I did. I love a good blended margarita with salt on the rim from time to time, but am afraid I would not stop if I had one now. It would be easy for me to become addicted to not feeling the stress. Be warned: if I do start drinking, I have a history of drunk dialing... giggle... if it is 2am and your phone rings, it's me, blubbering.

There is also a high percentage of mental illness among the homeless population - around one third. That  means that nationally there are enough homeless people with mental illness to fill FOUR cities the size of Santa Cruz. Again, if you were not crazy when this started, I can understand how you would become crazy from the stress and lack of sleep. How can anyone possibly think people CHOOSE this as a lifestyle?

Regardless, homeless people are the poster child for chronic stress (continual stress over a long period of time). The symptoms are the inability to concentrate, insomnia, aggression, rashes, anxiety, intense mood swings, depression (fits of anger, lack of energy, suicidal thoughts), and high blood pressure. These are also signs of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

Our society is so image conscious...
How you are perceived when people find out you do not live in a traditional home. In the campground, it is one of the first questions people ask... "where ya from?" I'm not one to lie, so I tell them we live in the campground while we look for a home. We explain that finding dog-friendly housing is very hard here. The first reaction is the "pity look" they give, and then they move away as if we are lepers. Are you afraid homelessness is catchy like a cold? Are you afraid we are homeless because we are "bad" people who will steal or harm them?

I really need to come up with a good lie... maybe I am from a foreign country and don't speak English? From Dogotopia and I only speak woofish? From Titlandia and I only speak Boobish?

This whole experience is dehumanizing... and I don't take that well.

So far, everyone we have met are working people struggling to make it in a county that should be ashamed of its homeless policies. If you vote for Ryan Coonerty for Supervisor, the whole county will be subjected to his short-sighted policies that have not worked in the City of Santa Cruz... policies that have criminalized being homeless (as if we could afford to pay fines?)... policies that the federal government has found do NOT work.

Why doesn't our local government listen to what the federal government has found that actually works? Stop using the same ideas that have been ineffective for at least the last 30 years!

Thursday, August 1, 2013


Tomorrow, we have to leave the campground: our home for the last two weeks. The campground is booting out all the semi-permanent campers like us. Supposedly, we can come back here after 7 days.

My camp mate has finally found a dog-friendly rental in Watsonville... yay! I will miss waking up to his coffee and miss his BBQing skills.

There was a young couple with two white dogs that were here for two months. They are going to go stay in someone's carport for a week. They both work at low wage jobs and cannot find a dog-friendly rental in their price range.

I am going tonite to look at a shed to live in... a shed. I have to keep saying it to try to grasp the idea. It is a Tuff Shed that has been insulated and has a loft. $400 a month for a S-H-E-D. I am starting to lust after some of the chicken coops that I see. Some of those frickin chickens live better than we do!

On the other hand, it will be nice to get out of the tent and with my camp mate gone, I will have to pay the whole camp fee of $200 a week... so the shed is looking attractive. And the bathroom will be closer! Woohoo! And reliable, strong wifi! Be still my heart, it sounds like heaven... giggle.

Here is a short video of what I woke up to yesterday... Vinnie on his guitar and the view above the tent...

I'll let you know where we go next!

ADDENDUM: Well, we went and looked at the shed and I just could not do it. First there was a steep hill that I would have to haul GiGi up and down - that was not gonna work. Then there was lack of grass for GiGi to pee and play on (Princess GiGi will only pee on grass). Finally, there was the absolute mountains of stuff all over the property with little paths thru it. The very nice man who owns it is a hoarder and it was frightening.

We ended up in a friend's newly remodeled garage for two nights and then back to a campground for a week. After packing up and moving yesterday, GiGi and I slept the rest of the day. This is exhausting.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Lessons learned from GiGi...

GiGi is my 10-year-old Belgian Malinois and constant companion. She is my "significant other" and a daily life lesson in how to be happy.

About a year and a half ago, it became clear GiGi was having trouble with her back left leg. We went to UC Davis and it was decided that GiGi has Degenerative Myelopathy - an incurable condition. The good news is that it does not hurt her - her butt has gone numb. The bad news is that it will eventually kill her. We both live just happy she is here and still very much her willful, wayward, opinionated, joyous, spirited self. 

In GiGi's mind, there is nothing "wrong", just something is different and she adjusts her movements to compensate. She has no sadness about what she can no longer do - she is too busy causing trouble with what she has. At this point, GiGi cannot use her back legs at all and uses her front legs to pull her body along... my little mermaid.

GiGi is still very much as she has always been: she still chases cats and squirrels. The other day, she chased a little girl in a battery-operated Barbie Jeep. GiGi scooted along as fast as she could to try to bite the tires of the alien thing making the same annoying sound as the much-hated vacuum cleaner.

GiGi's condition has brought a funny change: she talks a lot more. Gently woofing her opinion on almost every subject... we hold conversations now. She uses her "inside voice" which is quieter than the loud alarm bark she still has.

GiGi still loves to swim, but I am afraid I am the problem here. There are few places we have found where I  have the stamina to haul her butt to the water so she can swim. We went to Highland Park in Ben Lomond. Getting to the water was hard, about half a mile, all downhill. Getting back to the car was another story and we won't be going again any time soon.

We tried a couple of different doggie wheelchairs and neither really worked for GiGi. She knocked it sideways and then laughed at me. You can't dig for gophers while in a wheelchair and we are all about digging for gophers. So I carry her butt in a sling to get where we are going, then let her go on her own if there is a slick surface or grass. Keeping her active will slow the progression of the disease.

It is GiGi's spirit that prompts me to ask people not to say "poor dog" or make sad faces around her. Do not wince when she scoots along. She is happy and has no need of pity or sadness.

A couple of weeks ago, we had three different strangers approach us and say that GiGi is suffering and should be put down. I'm afraid I don't have GiGi's ability to ignore them and I ended up yelling at them because I was minding my own business and did not ask for their opinion. They all initiated the conversation by saying I should put GiGi down because she could not walk and was suffering.

You would not kill your child because they got polio, would you? I guess President Franklin D. Roosevelt should have been euthanized? I am appalled at the audacity of people who think they know anything about GiGi's condition. One of them was a vet tech at Petsmart/Banfield who suggested I put GiGi down, then asked me if GiGi had a vet. I said yes, she has three vets: one for general issues, one for her condition, and one for acupuncture. Ignorance and mis-placed compassion. You cannot put your own pre-conceived ideas on this.

Someone suggested that we are an educational opportunity for people. We did not ask to be a learning experience and it is sometimes hard enough for me to handle what is happening with GiGi without having to help some stranger grasp the concepts.

This does point out the recent change in attitudes about our pets. There was a time that GiGi would have already been "put down" because she was not 100% healthy. I've always had big dogs and a couple of them had dysplasia or arthritis in the hips. It is painful and eventually they could not walk. I wish I could go back - there was one 120-pound German Shepherd named Tattoo that was not ready to go even though he was incontinent and in pain. Now I wish I would have given him a bit more time, but I was ignorant back then. So I guess if we can help change someone's mind about putting down their disabled pet, then we will have to continue to be an educational opportunity.

GiGi and I are in this together and I believe that GiGi will let me know when she is done and tired of being here... and she is nowhere near that. Her attitude is the same as it has always been: joyous and willful. She is fully present in her life and not in any pain... I am very grateful that she has no pain.

At one point, I had a months-long period of "pre-grief" – daily crying and mourning GiGi's passing just because she has this disease. It left me grateful for every single day I get to share life with her, but also hyper-aware of every subtle change in her condition. At this moment, it is only effecting her back legs, but eventually she will be incontinent. We are ready for that time: a water-resistant crib mattress and pee pee pads. GiGi has taught me that if I don't act like incontinence is "wrong", it will be okay. Also, I learned how to help her by "expressing" her functions - just push the right "buttons" on her body and out it comes.

I am learning from GiGi that nothing is "wrong", it's just different now. Accept the current situation and move on. She has always shown me the lessons to love everyone and forgive them in an instant... and forgive myself as well. Live in the moment... be happy you are here.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Counting your blessings...

The only way to stay sane is to count my blessings every day. Be grateful for what I have.

At this point, my blessings are pretty simple:

- I am grateful GiGi is still very much herself and is active. I will write another time about GiGi's condition.

- I am grateful GiGi is well-behaved enough to be laying at my feet as my "service dog" while I am using the electricity and wifi in this cafe.

- I am VERY grateful it is not raining.

- I am grateful that this campground is nice... it has a rolling lawn next to us and redwood trees.

- I am grateful the campground rents space by the month. State campgrounds do not and have very strict rules about how long you can stay... only 7 consecutive nights in any one campground.

- I am VERY grateful that we are not living in the car or camping illegally.

- I am grateful to have a co-camper who has cooking utensils.

- I am also VERY grateful that my co-camper is a great camp wife and he makes coffee in the morning.

- I am grateful to have a co-camper to share the cost with or GiGi and I would be living in the car.

- I am grateful to have been able to borrow a tent, sleeping bags, and the most comfortable inflatable mattress. We are quite cozy at night.

I have a love/hate with the tent. It is not tall enough to stand up in and, so far, I have not found a graceful way of exiting the tent. I feel like it either belches me out or gives birth to me. Sometimes I crawl out into the dirt and then stand up. Sometimes I attempt to stand up and then exit. Either way...

- I am grateful when there is no one around to watch me exit the tent. I am never sure how much of my body parts are on display as I fight with the tent that I am grateful to have. I am sure the German tourist children camping next to us would be scarred for life if one of my boobs decided to make an appearance... giggle.

- I am grateful for a real bathroom with hot showers.

- I would be even more grateful if the bathroom would magically move closer to my tent at 2:30am when I have to get up to pee.

- I am grateful to have reached a point in my life where a blow dryer, curling iron, and cosmetics are not necessities and I don't feel the need to stay in the bathroom until I look "perfect".

- I am grateful to wake up some mornings to Vinnie (one of the permanent residents) playing the dulcimer. I will try to record a bit of him at some point.

- I am grateful the campground has an ever-changing cast of characters. Last week, German tourists. This week, a guy who flat picks his guitar like a pro. Wish I could get him and the dulcimer guy together.

- I am grateful that we are camped next to a rolling lawn for GiGi to frolick. She scoots all over the place, chasing sticks and a resident campground cat. One day, there was a little girl with a battery-operated Barbie Jeep. GiGi hated that thing and scoot/chased her all over trying to bite the tires.

- I am grateful to have found a campground with wifi... I would be even more grateful if it worked reliably.

- I am grateful that the strangled screaming I hear  is an albino peacock and not the tourists being murdered in their beds.

- I am VERY grateful to people for donating enough funds for us to buy an RV... now if we could find one.

- I am becoming grateful for the experience of becoming homeless.

Monday, July 22, 2013


One of my first surprises is that the lower down the food chain that people are, the more they seem to want to form community... banding together and offering support. Sharing information about sources and resources. Something I've not experienced in a traditional housing situation.

How many "homed" people know their neighbors?

When is the last time you shared anything with a neighbor?

Seems the more expensive the housing and the more money you have, the less you reach out to others. Smells like inverse logic, doesn't it? Those who have, keep it to themselves... those who don't have, share with others.

The campground we are in has two sections: one for permanent residents with trailers/RVs and the area I am in is for transients/vacationers. There are some interesting people living here and they all have stories. I quickly learn that you can't judge them by their appearance (and I should not have done that anyway, duh!). There are no "losers" here, just people in transition doing the best they can at this moment. The lesson of "living in the moment" is being driven home with this experience and with GiGi's condition.

1917 Vogue Magazine
There are surprise "gifts" every day.... one of the campground residents is a professional musician of punk/rock/bluegrass and has toured with some very well-known bands. He picks up a four-string dulcimer and plays the most amazing and beautiful music while wandering the campground. Shocking what sound he can get from only 4 strings... sounds like at least 12 strings. His fingers just dance up and down the frets. I want to marry his hands, or have them grafted onto my arms instead of these slow, stubby fingers that struggle to strum a tortured sound from a guitar.

The musician and his lady/wife have run a couple of shops where they sold things. The shops went under for various reasons, but they are planning their next one... they both have a passion for finding things to sell, making things to sell, and selling to people.

Most of the people I meet here all have one thing in common: they cannot afford the high rents in Santa Cruz County on their low wages or fixed incomes. They are making alternative choices that give them a bit more control over their situation. They are turning trailers and RVs into "mobile" apartments, sometimes stringing a couple trailers together to give them what they need. 

There is a young single mother who lives in an Airstream with her daughter and has an extra trailer as the playroom. She is doing her best for her kid on her single income. Across the way, there is a married couple with a two teenagers who have a large RV, plus a second trailer where the husband lives. They almost divorced until they found this solution. People thinking outside the box for solutions.

As people in the campground tell me their stories, I come to realize how heroic they are... living through terrible life events and figuring out how to go on from there. They have not lost their hopes and dreams.

Maybe there is hope for me and GiGi yet.