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Mobile homes: Many 'hidden homeless' Americans living in vehicles

A model 'parking lot' program in California could bring relief to people living in cars and vans across America

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – For four years, the only life Paula Corb and her two daughters have known is the one inside their 2000 Mazda minivan – stopping once in a while for take-out, groceries and gas.

Corb and the girls Alice and Emily are among 214,000 "unsheltered" homeless people in America, meaning they sleep in places not intended for human beings to sleep, like bus stations, abandoned buildings, parks or cars. For them, making a pit stop for gas is the equivalent of paying rent.

"We go on about a four-block radius," Corb explained. "It’s $5 to $10 a day. You see, that’s $70 a week times four. I mean, that’s more than we really have got.”

The vast majority of the country's 71,000 homeless families live in shelters, but almost 10,000 are living life like the Corbs.

For two decades, Paula Corb, her engineer ex-husband and two daughters lived in a four-bedroom house just outside of Santa Barbara. She described their life as a "fairy tale." But after her eight-year divorce, Corb went broke. The money from selling the house – at the bottom of the housing market – went to her debts and her lawyers. And as a homemaker for more than 20 years, she's had trouble finding work. The family packed up their stuff and moved into the van, where they live off of food stamps, gift cards for gas and food and Alice receives a Social Security disability check.

“It was scary. It was depressing,” said Alice Corb, 22, the older daughter, of the first night living in the van. “I just kept thinking, ‘How could this have possibly happened?’ And this mantra in my head just repeated over and over: 'I want to go home.' And I just kept avoiding this one thought in my head that says, ‘You don’t have a home to go back to.’”

Paula Corb gets maybe four hours of sleep before she’s awake and doing the family’s laundry in a church annex. To avoid the crowds, she’s started around 3 a.m. She uses a suitcase and microwave stacked on the passenger to stretch out her legs to sleep.

Doing a 180°

In Santa Barbara, a city famous for its coastline and its moneyed, Mediterranean ease, it’s illegal for anyone to sleep in a vehicle parked on public roads. Being among the "hidden homeless" and getting through the day can be a serious struggle.

“The first concern is space,” said Emily Corb, 18. “A lot of the time [was] how I going to sleep? Where am I going to put my things? Where am I going to put my books so they’re safe? ... Another big concern is bathrooms. Will the bathroom be taken? Will they be cleaned? Will we have gas to go to that bathroom? When will it close?"

But the Corbs have been able to find a semblance of stability through a Santa Barbara initiative that's helped the hidden homeless for more than a decade. The "Safe Parking" program works with churches, businesses and other groups willing to host a small number of homeless in their vehicles overnight.

About one in five area homeless people lives in a vehicle, said Kristine Schwarz, the executive director of the New Beginnings Counseling Center, the nonprofit behind the $246,000-a-year program.

“What started as a program serving a couple people in one or two lots has now mushroomed into serving 112 people or more per night in 20 lots,” said Schwarz, who added that the program combined with another effort to get people back into traditional housing serve 800 to 900 people a year.

But the efforts go well beyond trying to give people a better night's sleep..The group meets with their clients every 30 days – the length of time a permit is good for.

“We always try to check up to make sure they need any medical attention, if there’s anything we can do, any referrals…we see how their job is going,” said Amanda Staples, a coordinator for Safe Parking Program. “If people are constantly on the lookout for housing placement, we’ll go on Craigslist with them.”

Craig Burleigh, a patrol officer who has worked the streets for 13 years, said that since the launch of Safe Parking, tensions between people sheltering in their cars and law enforcement has eased.

“I think we’ve done a 180 in this city,” he said. “They have the correct paperwork and now they can feel safe sleeping in their vehicles, or RVs, knowing that the police will do the perimeter check, and then not be woken up at a 3 o’clock in the morning when you have children in their vehicles.”

A community

Safe Parking has guided other communities in northern California, like Monterrey, San Jose, San Francisco and San Diego, as they embraced the model, according to Schwarz. This summer, advocates pushed for it in L.A. County, when a federal circuit court overturned its ban on living in vehicles. According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, of the nearly 40,000 known homeless people there, roughly 8,000 live in vehicles. In Venice Beach, where the number of unsheltered people is among the highest in the country, homeless people in vans have become so much a part of the local culture that they attract tourists.

Paula Corb gets maybe four hours of sleep in the family's van before she’s awake and doing laundry in a church annex. To avoid the crowds, she’s starts around 3 a.m.
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But the proposal ran into opposition. So while the unsheltered homeless in L.A. are no longer a target of police, the conflict between them and the community is far from resolved.

But for Paula Corb, one of the greatest gifts of the "Safe Parking" program has been the community she's gained.

“You have to understand: This is very humiliating," she said. "If I were to go to the grocery store and see one of our old neighbors, I’d hurry up and leave… I didn’t want to be associated with the homeless community, which is why we stayed to ourselves for so many years."

But, she added: "It was through these programs that started hooking homeless people up to create a community.”

Her daughter Alice stopped asking when the family could go home a long time ago, but she can't stop thinking that things might be better in the morning.

“I believe it’s going to happen and I’m willing to keep going until it does. There’s no point in stopping here,” Alice said. “They keep saying, ‘What does not kill me makes me stronger.’ After this, whatever doesn’t kill me had better start running.”

And after years of studying under street lamps during high school, Emily Corb was awarded scholarships to college. She's now a freshman at Santa Barbara City College. Last week, she started renting a room at a friend’s house, giving her some luxuries that she hasn't had for years. But she still spends much of her time worrying about her mother and her sister.

"I feel survivor's guilt almost," she said.  

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