If the great Depression era photographer Dorothea Lange were here today, she’d go looking for people like the Garcia family.
The Garcias’ home is on two levels — the front seat and the back seat. Their “house” is a 1999 Ford Explorer for which they paid $500. The area behind the seats is jumbled to the top with clothes, utensils, tools, books and whatever is buried beneath. There is no closet organizer for a cargo area.
Their neighborhood this night and for the previous two weeks is the homeless car park on 28th street in San Diego. It’s located in this rougher part of town by the Dreams for Change charity.
Five people squeeze into the Explorer each night and spend many of their days there. Sleeping in the front are Lisa, 43; her husband, Ramon, 33; and 2-year-old Calithia. Lisa nurses Calithia in the passenger seat.
In the backseat are Abi, 15, and Hannah, 14. The two girls have a different last name.
The Garcias are next-door people: quiet and conservative. Admittedly that’s at my first glance, but you don’t need a case study to get a sense of that.
The car park has more than 20 paved spaces, which are free. It’s rented from the adjacent New Life Church. It opens at 6 p.m. and closes at 9 p.m. Normally, guests are in for the night after that. Everyone must be out by 6 a.m.
At this evening hour, children dart across the pavement like lizards on a summer sidewalk. Unless you’re stupidly reckless, you creep your car along and swivel your head. There’s a volunteer attendant, but she’s not a traffic cop.
As the lot begins to fill, the cars park in diagonal spaces and the people make themselves at home as best they can. It’s a mix of single guys, couples and small families. They’re quiet and do little socializing.
There is no blaring music, no shouting or loud laughter, even from the children. Smiles are thin and fleeting. The dispirited mood mirrors the lives of the people.
They are not happy to be here, but glad they are.
There are toilets, but no other facilities except for a “community” microwave. There is no barbecuing and no alcohol allowed, so forget a picnic. The sponsors don’t want you hanging out or becoming “settled.” In fact, in order to stay any length of time, you have to show evidence of trying to find regular housing.
The whole thing sounds rigid and tough, doesn’t it? Well, yeah, it probably is, for a reason. It’s also a godsend for those with no place else to go.
The Garcias are from the Portland, Oregon area. They came to San Diego two years ago seeking opportunity and to live with Ramon’s brother. That lasted two days until the landlord made it clear he wasn’t running a hostel and asked them to leave.
They then hoped to live with Ramon’s mother, but her Section 8 housing rules prohibited that. They quickly learned that local rents might just as well have been Trump Tower rates. The only recourse was moving into one shelter or mission, and then another, wherever beds were available until they were “timed” out. The Garcias are now on the waiting list for space at St. Vincent de Paul.
Sometimes they rented a downscale motel for as little as $40 per night for showers, TV and just to get away from all that was just outside the motel room window.
What they really want is to have San Diego in the rear-view mirror and return to Oregon for one main reason — the cost of housing. They would head north in a minute, Lisa says, but all they have is $100 and change. That would get them to L.A., and they sure don’t want to be there, either.
“We don’t like California. But every time we’ve tried to go back, something’s ended up stopping us. At one point, we had a van and the van broke down, and we didn’t have money to fix it. Just little things.”
When you’re poor, things go wrong more often and are tougher to fix.
Lisa thinks it would require at least $2,000 to make the move back home, considering the cost of gas, a cheap hotel to transition to, and then finding another job for Ramon.
Given the seeming long odds of escaping San Diego, Lisa is doggedly upbeat. She says, “I think overall, we’ve been blessed because it could always be worse. We could actually be on the street.”
How far are you from that happening?
“Like, if the Explorer was to break down, permanently, that would put us on the street.”
With a return to Oregon apparently not feasible at the moment, Lisa gives a long leash to her daydreams. “We talk about getting a little trailer or maybe even an RV, just big enough for the family, then we would travel. I want to teach the girls the history of our country in the actual places the history happened.”
Dreams are free until they happen.
Lisa says the kids get a semblance of formal education at a Learn4Life school in El Cajon, where Abi has attended. It’s a charter school with campuses in numerous locations and offers “independent learning.”
I spoke to Ramon by phone mid-morning as he was preparing for work. By voice, he’s a quiet, almost subdued, respectful fellow. The man is not afraid of work, because he won’t return home until he gets off at 2:30 a.m. And then he’ll have a 90-minute walk back to their car in the parking lot.
He has two jobs: washing dishes at one restaurant, and as a “food runner” at another. That job consists of carrying food from kitchen to tables. On a good week, he might make $500 from both jobs.
Don’t attempt the family’s math. It doesn’t add up.
Ramon does what we give loud praise to as “honest labor,” but — let’s be honest here — we don’t greatly respect it.
Things are made tougher for the family in this area of town because Ramon speaks very little Spanish, and Lisa none at all.
Lisa says she’s had two years of college. Her work experience has been retail and door-to-door sales. She doesn’t work currently, although Ramon would like her to get a job. She says she can’t leave the kids unattended, especially the 2-year-old.
Lisa says Ramon has an eviction in his background, and that stalks their search for housing. She says neither she nor Ramon has any criminal charges or abuses drugs or alcohol.
Lisa comes across as pretty straight-arrow, so I’m inclined to accept her word on that. Plus, the older daughter, speaking separately, says it is so. And you can normally tell when a kid’s lying, which I’m satisfied she’s not.
During the time I visited with Lisa and her girls, Lisa never smiled; neither did her younger daughter, Hannah. Polite, yes, but with no shine in the eyes.
Almost two centuries ago, poet Mary Howitt wrote, “Poverty is a weary thing, ’tis full of grief and pain.”
Lisa would agree that hasn’t changed.
I walk with her to a quiet table away from the kids and others in the lot.
Lisa is a closed person to a stranger. She would unburden her soul only to a priest or a torturer, and then it would require an upgraded rack. Much of what she’s endured being homeless would not fit into a romance novel.
I ask about a tattoo on her hand, “Christ for Life.” She says she’s a committed Christian. She must be, given her keeping the faith through the “valley of tears” the Bible tells us to expect.
Having access to a kitchen only seldomly, the family has no choice but to eat fast food.
I ask what they typically eat, and she says they often go to Albertsons, which offers prepackaged meals they like for $5. And, of course, there are always those golden arches.
(Salads? You think they should eat more salads? Try tossing a salad on the tailgate of a car.)
One of the unnoticed really bad things about homelessness is the unceasing, numbing boredom. There is little to do and nothing to do it with.
Lisa says she and the girls spend days hanging out in parks, maybe window shopping, and hours at the downtown public library.
“The girls like to sit at tables upstairs and read and do their studying and stuff, and that’s where my biggest problem has been. If I take her upstairs, my toddler, even if she’s being quiet, they (librarians) don’t want her to run. They don’t want her to sit on the floor. It’s like rule after rule after rule, and I’m, like — I mean, seriously.”
Do the kids say, “Mom, can we have a house?”
“All the time. ‘Mom, I want a house. I want my own bed.’”
She says there is not much family conflict over their plight, but who knows what goes on behind car doors.
Adult intimacy must be wishful thinking — or yearning — for the parents.
“Yeah,” she says, with an animated nod. “It's very aggravating to not have that personal, private time. It aggravates me a lot, me more than him. Sometimes, we’ll switch and the girls will sleep in the front and we’ll sleep in the back.”
Living in a car, you must have some pretty good family fights.
Lisa doesn’t blink. “We’ve had our moments, yeah.”
What if Abi wanted to go to a prom, say?
“We would make sure she went to the prom. You know, they don’t really let their friends know what’s going on with us.”
Teenage kids, boys and girls, can be pretty cruel. What’s the answer when they ask, “Abi, where do you live?”
“I don’t know how they handle that.”
Do you worry about the girls hanging around with the wrong people?
“No. I feel like I’ve taught them really well because I haven’t hidden things from them, and so they’ll flat out tell you, doing stuff like drugs is stupid.”
It is near the end of the day and Lisa’s shoulders sag a bit. Living out of a car, her daily grind is like a perpetual camping trip, except there is no campfire to sit around and no scenery to admire. There can be eyes in the darkness, but they’re not raccoons’. There is no home to pack up and return to.
Instead of a bathroom down the hall, there is a gas station toilet on the corner, or a porta-potty.
Every morning, the shoulders get braced and Lisa starts all over again.
Living the way of the Garcias is ghastly, but the gravity of it is made even worse considering that millions of Americans could be looking for empty parking spaces of their own. All it would take is the loss a job, tapped out slim savings or a lingering illness. The balance beam is painfully narrow in our society.
Even after people have been through poverty and escaped, the memory haunts them. They can’t escape the fear it will return. But that’s not the worst: They are often bothered by guilt for having been a failure, even when it’s undeserved.
For those unable to escape poverty, the psychic pain and guilt are exponential.
I hate poverty, gut level. On the flip side, I also find garish self-indulgence obscene.
That’s an easy segue to the NFL star who recently lost a $100,000 diamond earring in a lake.
Ahhh … ain’t that a shame.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org