Sara Rubin here, waking up warm and dry on these chilly November mornings, thanks to the roof over my head. Surprisingly, people who I spoke to for this week’s cover story in the print edition of the Weekly—people who are living in their vehicles—described making themselves similarly warm and dry and cozy. I had expected they might complain about uncomfortable sleeping conditions, but instead these interviews revealed to me a common thread of resilience. Insulation might be towels wedged along the edges of the windshield, but people are getting by.
That’s not to say they aren’t frustrated. People who grew up here, like Michael Williams, believe they should be able to live in a home. And of course they should. “It seems like housing should be a right,” Tia Fechter told me. “The fact that housing is not a right in our country is just…odd.”
Fechter created the nonprofit One Starfish, which operates the One Starfish Safe Parking & Supportive Services Program, of which Williams is a client. While there is a lot of momentum underway to chip away at the broader housing crisis in Monterey County and throughout California, Fechter recognized a sliver of the problem—people living in vehicles out of desperation—and decided there was a practical way to help get them on track and into more stable housing.
Since launching in 2015, Fechter estimates the nonprofit has served 1,200 to 1,500 clients. Some stay with the program for just a week or so until they land in a home; others, like Williams, have stayed for years.
In the face of a growing homelessness crisis, including more and more people living in their vehicles, there are reasons to be hopeful. Some of those reasons come from an organizational level. One Starfish’s leaders are looking toward what may be their next big move—offering actual housing. “We are putting our energy into trying to acquire housing, and we would make it another division within One Starfish,” says Michael Fechter, outgoing executive director (and Tia’s husband). “It’s frustrating to have 50-60 people in need of the one thing we really don’t have, which is housing.”
And then there are the stories of personal resilience. Those stories come from clients like Williams, who is all about relationships—he left the country and lived in Ireland for nearly 20 years, but held onto friendships he’d made before that. He is now renting land from a former boss and long-time friend in Prunedale, and working on building himself a trailer. He used some of his pandemic-boosted unemployment benefits to pay his son and daughter-in-law to help him with the construction, and he says the process of working together with them was truly joyful. “The blessings are always there, no matter what the hardship is,” he told me. Now he’s just waiting for the price of plywood to drop to complete the final steps.
I don’t think it’s Pollyannaish to see threads of hopefulness emerge in this story about a crisis. Certainly the problem is bigger and more complex than any single nonprofit can take on—and just this week, an unauthorized encampment of dozens of people living in vehicles on a county parking lot were served eviction notices—but I do think there’s work being done that makes a difference.
Sometimes it’s good to take a break from thinking about the unwieldy scope of the problem to instead think about the solutions, even if they are partial solutions. For people like Michael Williams, there is a light at the end of homelessness.
-Sara Rubin, editor, email@example.com
P.S. The Monterey County Gives! campaign is currently underway through Dec. 31. To support One Starfish—and the work of 169 other nonprofits in this year's campaign—please donate.