No Place Like Home
When you're a kid and your family is homeless, it's a terrible secret to hide.
Thursday, November 26, 1998
When 16-year-old Tabitha* gets out of class at Carmel High, she doesn''t go home. That''s because she doesn''t have a home. She, her 15-year-old sister and her mother, Sarah*, live in a camper, their "home" since they returned to the Peninsula from Montana in the summer of 1997.
Looking at Tabitha, as she sips a double mocha coffee in Plume''s in downtown Monterey, you wouldn''t think she was homeless. In her jeans and sweatshirt, her long, curly auburn hair neatly combed, her makeup carefully applied, she looks like any other teenager out for an afternoon snack. "I don''t look homeless, do I?" she asks, with a quick, ironic laugh. That''s the bitter joke, the continual struggle--trying to "pass." To look normal. So no one will know. So no one will laugh.
Sarah and her daughters are just three of approximately 4,500 people who are homeless in Monterey County tonight (see sidebar). They don''t fit most people''s mental picture of a homeless person--the single man wandering the streets, disheveled, unwashed, stinking faintly of booze, carting around his bedraggled belongings in a pilfered shopping cart. Those are the "street homeless," and according to Tom Melville, executive officer of the Coalition for Homeless Services Providers, they make up just about one-third of the county''s homeless population.
That means most of our homeless aren''t single men with shopping carts--they''re families or single mothers with children. In fact, according to national homeless organizations, the typical homeless person in America today is a 9-year-old child.
"Homeless children, the largest single group of homeless in the nation, are the most impacted, the most devastated," Melville says. "Kids in particular need a stable environment. They need to belong, they need ''normalcy.'' When you''re a homeless teenager, you''re well aware you''re not normal."
Two out of three homeless people in our area, according to Melville, are like Sarah and her daughters: ordinary folks who live on the financial margins until a crisis, or combination of crises, pushes them over the edge. These are the situational, the "transitional" homeless. Maybe they lost their job, then their health insurance, then maybe a sudden medical problem laid them low and they''re unable to pay next month''s rent. Maybe they''re a pregnant teenage girl kicked out by her parents. Whatever the reason, they suddenly find themselves without a roof, camping out with friends or living in a car. They tell themselves it''s just until they get back on their feet. Sometimes they''re able to pull themselves back up over the top and resume their former lifestyles; but sometimes the blows continue, pushing them downward in ever-increasing spirals of defeat.
That''s what happened to Sarah and her girls. Before moving into the camper 15 months ago, they lived in a rented house in Montana, where Sarah worked on contract with a federally funded social services agency, running programs for the needy. "But welfare cut back, and the contractors, like me, were the first to go," she says.
Already ill with hepatitis-C, ulcerative colitis and a thyroid condition, on medication that makes her vomit, suffering continually from diarrhea and fatigue, Sarah packed up her girls in the camper and returned to Monterey, where they used to live.
This is the third time in 15 years Sarah and her girls have been homeless. In between those hard spells, Sarah has held down various jobs--a chef in Carmel Valley, even once vice president of a local company--but she lives so close to the financial edge that she slips over again and again. The girls'' father does not pay child support, although Sarah''s monthly Food Stamps payment has been cut by $90--the amount he''s supposed to contribute to the family coffers.
For the first six months after their return, until April of this year, Sarah and her girls parked in the Laguna Seca campground, where they had access to hot showers and electric hook-ups for their small TV. But as money grew tighter, they had to shorten their stays, spending more nights parked on city streets. When a rod blew in the camper engine, repairs sucked their bank account dry.
Now, they spend nights parked on quiet residential streets. Every evening, the family drives around to find a safe place to park for the night. In the morning, right around dawn, while her girls are still sleeping, Sarah begins driving to find a place to park for the day.
"You think there aren''t homeless on the Peninsula?" she asks. "Look around at all the vans and camper shells. People live in there. A half-hour before dark, everyone''s driving around looking for a place to park for the night."
Twice a day, every day, the homeless lucky enough to have their own cars engage in a complicated vehicular game of musical chairs, circling prime parking spots, planning their attack. Timing is crucial: Park too early, and you risk being kicked out by the cops; wait too long, and the good spots are taken. "Wondering where I''m going to park consumes my thoughts for hours every day," Sarah says. "And there are a lot of us out here."
When the girls leave for school in the morning, they''re never quite sure where they''ll find the camper that evening. That makes it impossible to join clubs, or have any kind of normal after-school life. Each morning they make a plan with their mother, to meet at a certain corner at a certain time. If they miss the camper, they may have a back-up plan. Or not. If something comes up, they can''t call her--Sarah''s cellular phone was turned off months ago, when she was unable to pay her monthly bill.
Sometimes, if she can''t find the camper, Tabitha stays with friends. One recent night, when the camper ran out of gas on Carmel Valley Road, Tabitha spent the night sleeping in the bushes in downtown Monterey. "I was frantic, trying to hitchhike into town to meet her, and no one would pick me up," says Sarah. "I love my girls so much, and I feel so helpless at times. It''s exhausting to live in poverty. I have to be both parents for them. I can comfort them, but when I''m scared, there''s no one to comfort me."
Unlike the street homeless, Sarah and her kids won''t starve to death. They are not destitute--Sarah receives $565 per month from TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the program that has replaced AFDC) and $176 in Food Stamps. That means they can eat--just not well. And they sleep with a roof over their heads--without heat. They will live--it''s the quality of that living that suffers.
When you''re homeless, the simple activities of daily living become incredibly complex. How can you turn on lights to read, without electricity? Or take a shower, with no running water? Washing clothes, making coffee, calling a friend, mailing a letter--everything has to be carefully planned, and takes three times as long.
"It''s a big challenge stretching our funds out for 30 days between three people," Sarah says. "The economics of our situation means choosing needs over wants. We''ve given up our want of a home and car, and we concentrate on what we need, now."
That means, she says, buying food that is filling rather than nutritious. Hamburger meat "because it''s cheap" rather than fresh vegetables. Gas for her camper is her single greatest expense. "I constantly have to make choices, like do we stay in a campground tonight, or on the street?" she says. "The need for fuel for transportation, along with the cost of bus passes for the children, soap, shampoo, toothpaste, laundry, and all the other personal items we need, along with food, means we spend less and less time in campgrounds. At $23 a night, we try to stay four nights a month, to recharge our batteries."
Sarah eats some meals at the Salvation Army, where she takes showers and does the family laundry. "They are a blessing," she says, along with Shelter Outreach Plus (see sidebar). Other food she either procures at the county food bank, although she tries to stay away from too much canned food ("Too high-sodium," she notes), or buys at Safeway and other supermarkets when they have two-for-one sales. Staples include peanut butter, bread, lunch meat, cookies and fruit for the kids'' lunches, cereal for breakfast--things that don''t have to be cooked. To keep milk fresh, she buys four blocks of ice every two days for her cooler. "In the winter it''s easier," she says.
They get some clothing from a local charity thrift shop, where Sarah''s youngest daughter volunteers. This past summer, both girls were paid for working on the county''s mural project. They used their money to buy new clothes for school, and with their final paycheck, they took Sarah to Del Monte Center for a new outfit and a French manicure. "I''d always wanted one," she says happily.
On a typical morning, Sarah says, they are up and moving by 5:30am. It''s important to clear out of whatever neighborhood she''s parked in overnight before the residents wake up and call the cops on her.
"Sometimes people in the [Carmel] Valley will call the police to say there''s a homeless woman parked on their street," she says. "The cops come out, and they''re really apologetic, but they have to do their jobs. I think, why would this person call the police, knowing I''m a single woman with two girls in here?"
She drives around, while her daughters are sleeping in the back, until the beach or park areas she favors are open for daytime traffic, usually by 6 or 6:30. She parks, and fires up her small propane stove to boil water for her girls to wash. Tabitha usually goes first, using the water sparingly to wash her body and shampoo her hair. Then the girls get dressed, Sarah prepares their lunches, and she drops them off at a bus stop near the mouth of Carmel Valley.
Then her own day begins. "I get washed up, find a paper, look at the ''New Todays,''" she says. "If I''m not sick that day, I walk door to door applying for jobs." Sarah says she''s applied for "more than 50" jobs since returning to the Peninsula. No one has even called her back.
Sarah''s camper is old, but sturdy. When you open the screen door, a strong stench of urine and pet food hits you full in the face, from the family''s dog and cat. Inside, every inch of space is utilized. Sarah gets the lone single bed, and has carved out improvised sleeping nooks from a small storage area and the driver''s seat. Somehow she finds space for a sink, stove, toilet compartment, filing cabinets and closet. A couple paperback books are stacked in a cardboard box near the front door, mostly books about personal empowerment and spirituality.
Sarah reads a lot, and is nobody''s fool. She quotes James Madison and F.D.R as readily as the Sai Baba, a popular Hindu guru-philosopher.
"When we were in the campground, my girls griped," she says. "Then the car blew up and we had to move out. Now we can''t shower every day. We don''t have our little TV. I say to the girls, ''See, we complained about our adversity, and look what we have now.'' But should we get pissed off? No. We found out the Salvation Army has showers, they bring you coffee and pastries while you wait to do laundry. And Peninsula Outreach [now Shelter Outreach Plus] is there to give us hot lunches. So don''t tell me life isn''t wonderful!"
To meet Sarah is to be struck by two things: she is articulate and she is optimistic. Optimistic about being homeless? Sure, she says. It''s taught her girls humility, and to value human relations over material possessions. "We think we can only experience joy if we have certain items, and we lose sight of what''s really important," she says.
Recently, she gave a sleeping bag to a street person who was in a very bad way. Tabitha bought a meal with her last $10 for a teenage boy she met on Alvarado Street who hadn''t eaten in three days. "Homeless people," says Sarah "are the world''s best recyclers."
That doesn''t mean they''re all angels, she adds quickly. "You should see them at the Salvation Army, pushing in line to be first for the donuts," she says, shaking her head. "Homeless people can be greedy, too.
"Sometimes the girls feel very bad about our situation, very hopeless. They ask, ''What does God want of us?'' I say, He wants us to be humble, to sacrifice our egos. That''s how you get tough. You become stronger, more real. You realize that as long as your needs are met, you''re OK. It''s the wants that tempt you and cause you pain. All the great Masters of the world, from Buddha to Jesus, lived very simply. And they lived with bliss.
"But oh God, do I miss soaking in a hot tub. And a comfortable bed. And a kitchen. And separate rooms, so we can have a little privacy. When I had a job and a home, I thought how nice it would be to take a cruise or go to Hawaii. I don''t think about those things anymore."
Although Sarah considers their current homelessness "a transition," it''s the third time she and the girls have lived outside. The first time was when her kids were three and four years old, and their father walked out. "We stayed in [Monterey''s] Veterans Park," she says. "We had our car, and we slept in a tent. I bought a little camp stove and ice chest, and the girls played in the pool every day. They didn''t know we were homeless."
Today, they certainly do know. And it''s that responsibility, that sense of failure as a parent, that weighs heaviest on Sarah''s heart. "It''s so hard on the girls," she says. "They become so embarrassed, afraid to tell the other kids, afraid to be ridiculed."
"When I first moved back, I wouldn''t tell anyone we lived in a motorhome," Tabitha admits. "My biggest fear is that people might be able to look at me and know I''m homeless.
"People here are ashamed of the homeless," she continues. "That''s hard on me. When I tell someone how we live, I get this whole sympathy act. I don''t like people feeling sorry for me."
What''s hardest about their situation? Not having a shower, definitely, she says. And not having a phone. "When I meet someone, they always ask for my phone number," she says. And, of course, the lack of privacy. "It''s hard to go to school," she notes. "If they find out you don''t have a stable address [in the school district], they''ll kick you out. They suspected me, because they saw me taking the bus to school." (Since this interview, Tabitha has dropped out of Carmel High and is enrolled in the county''s Home Study program.)
Not having a phone or address makes it hard to get a job, too. Early this fall, Tabitha ran away, convinced she could make it as an emancipated minor. She spent two months with a girlfriend, dressing nicely each morning to go out and look for work. No one would hire her. "People who don''t know I''m homeless say, ''Oh, the homeless, why don''t they just go out and get a job?,''" Tabitha says. "But how do you go to a job interview and tell them you''re homeless? They won''t hire you."
Now that Tabitha has ''fessed up to a few friends, and they''ve come to see where she lives, camper life has taken on a certain chic among some of her peers. "My best friend lives in Pebble Beach," she says. "She''s getting a Mustang for her birthday. She stayed with me once, and loved it. I said, What are you talking about? This is hell!
"I''m a teenager. I want to have slumber parties, talk on the phone for hours, stay up all night with my girlfriends and watch TV and eat popcorn. And I don''t have that. When I bring friends home, we just sit there in the camper looking at each other."
Since returning to Monterey, Tabitha has resumed relations with her father. Sarah has quietly asked him to take the girls for a while, to give them a better life, but he''s refused, afraid the extra financial burden might push him over the edge into homelessness himself.
The family''s homelessness weighs heavily on Tabitha''s mind. "It''s brought me a lot of depression," she says. That''s why she ran away. That''s why her younger sister is now in the hospital, having suffered what she and Sarah call a "nervous breakdown."
But on the other hand, Tabitha says she knows their situation is only temporary. "I''ve always had a house before, and I will again," she states firmly. When she graduates high school, she plans to go live with a half-sister in San Francisco, and apply to college.
Tabitha considers herself lucky compared to the street homeless. "I used to take for granted having a shower every day, doing laundry, having people over. Now that I don''t have those things, I appreciate what I do have. I sit here in Plume''s watching the homeless people walk by with their backpacks and I think, ''Thank God that''s not me.''"
Tabitha, her sister and mother didn''t choose to be homeless, she says. They don''t drink or do drugs--they just fell on hard times. "I feel abused by society," she says. "People walk by homeless people in the street as if they''re not there. It hurts me to see our government won''t help us. They ship out all this food and money to other countries while people are hungry and dying in this country.
"If every person who is judgmental about the homeless could spend a week where I am, they''d be more understanding," she says. "I don''t have a normal life. And I wish I did." cw