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.

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