Four Wheels Away From Homeless

Four Wheels Away From Homeless

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The peal of downtown church bells splits the predawn San Bernardino darkness. In the distance a brightly lit Christmas tree glows red atop the Vanir Tower high rise. Phillip Yancy Swells, his wife Lavonda and two children rise from their ‘beds’, slip on their clothes and emerge one by one from their quarters – a 2002 Chrysler Town & Country minivan. They used the banks of Lake Secombe known as the ‘duck park’ as a restroom.

Having lost his job in March and their three bedroom house in October, Mr. Swells has joined the legion of downwardly mobile who are four wheels away from homeless.

The family is living out of their shabby 2002 Chrysler Town & County, and every night they have to look for a place to park where they won’t get pushed on by the cops, robbed by vagrants or insulted by residents.

Ms. Swells has a part time job as a waitress. In April the family took refuge with friends hoping to save money to rent an apartment, but that didn’t work out said Mr. Swells. “We’ve exhausted all options.”

As families gather this week to celebrate Christmas, the Swells, including an estimated 1.5 million nationwide find themselves forced out of their homes into their only other major possession, their vehicles.

For the Swells family “Homeless for the Holidays” is not that 2009 family movie about a Christian man who loses his job and learns about family and generosity. Rather as Mr. Swells describes this family lot: a humiliating slide into the abyss

“Think worrying about where to find toilet paper or bottled water,” he said. “No one could have told me in a million years: I’d wake up in my car,” he said. “I had a job and a house. Now me and my family are looked upon like a piece of trash,” the former respiratory therapist said as he stroked the head of his youngest daughter Zoe’.

In driving rain this week the Swells traveled to the weekly food giveaway at the Rock Church on Waterman in San Bernardino.

“We picked up some bread and a lot of fruits and vegetables. We’re eating healthier now – that’s good,” he said with a nervous grin.

Only three years ago, foreclosure was rarely a factor in how people became homeless. This Christmas holiday close to 42 percent of homeless people will spend any given night unsheltered according to “Foreclosure to Homelessness,” a survey produced by the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) and six other advocacy groups.

In San Bernardino, as in many other cities, it is illegal to live in vehicles on public streets. But the law is not easy to enforce. Police have to enter a vehicle to find signs that people are living there, such as cooking or sleeping, and occupants often refuse to answer when cops knock.

Parking-enforcement officers often give vehicle owners a warning and tell them to move on before issuing a ticket, and that usually solves the problem, said Mr. Swells. But other Inland cities in the area are not as lenient.

“We thought of camping out near the beach – say Santa Monica but there are a lot of parking restrictions out there.

It’s estimated that by the end of 2011, more than 1.7 million people nationally will become homeless. Many of them like Ms. Swells have jobs but still can’t afford a place to live. These “working homeless” actually constitute one of the fastest growing populations in the U.S.

“Many of these families never needed help before,” said Sandra Brown, Planning and Program Specialist, at the Community Action Partnership of San Bernardino County. (CAPSBC).

“They don’t know where to go. They don’t even know what to say, what to ask for.”

Tourist states with temperate climates, such as California and Florida, have long been magnets for the homeless. Los Angeles is the nation's homelessness capital, with an estimated 73,000 people on the streets. A survey of 3,230 homeless people last year in Los Angeles County found nearly 7 percent living in vehicles, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

"It's trending toward an increase," said Michael Stoop, acting executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. "People would rather live in a vehicle than wind up in a shelter, and you can't stay on a friend's couch forever."

People living out of their cars or campers tend to be more well-off than the homeless on the street. They usually have jobs or disability checks that enable them to maintain an old camper or van but do not allow them to afford rent.

"For more working-class and lower-middle-class people, the car is the first stop of being homeless, and sometimes it turns out to be a long stop," said Gary Blasi, a University of California, Los Angeles, law professor and activist on homeless issues.

Mr. Swells said he can barely afford to drive around with the rising price of gasoline eating away at his $950 monthly unemployment check.

Being homeless is “soul breaking”, he said while waiting for a food giveaway to start. “Imagine having lived a normal everyday lifestyle and then through a series of bad events you find yourself in a downward spiral of not being able to afford your food and then not being able to afford your home. Now imagine having to explain that to your child.”

“No child deserves to be living in a car wondering whether they’ll get a visit from Santa Claus, the same way other children do,” said Ms. Swells.

The Swells say they are also sick of police waking them up in the wee hours by pounding on their vehicle with their nightsticks, and they are tired of fighting with residents who call them "lowlife scum" and hurl other insults.

“Out here you lose your dignity and personal security. We need somewhere we can have a safe haven, where we won't be harassed,” Mr. Swells said as the wind from a passing car rocked his minivan. "I never thought we’d be living like this, but we’re stuck, he said pulling a cart of donated food toward his vehicle.

“Our faith is our best protector,” he said. “I can only pray that next Christmas we’ll be better off,” he said.”