Two pickup trucks – one carrying a homemade aluminum trailer in its bed – made their way down Broadway on Tuesday morning, searching the streets of Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood for a place to park.
The “pod” trailer is home to 38-year-old Thomas Mullen, a homeless man who has been living on the streets of Sacramento for the last seven years.
Built by Mullen’s father, Jim, the pod was impounded by Caltrans after Thomas parked it under Highway 50 and failed to move it when given notice. Now Mullen had his pod back, but still nowhere he could park it without violating the city’s camping ordinance.
Thomas and his uncle, Paul, who had traveled from Stockton to help that morning, drove in a Ford pickup truck. They followed Jim’s pod-laden, little green truck. Jim said he wanted to look in Oak Park because “it seems to be a bit of a sanctuary for pods.”
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The pod movement started in Oak Park when neighborhood residents Aimee Phelps and Kevin Greenberg started Art-through-Pod, building portable shelters for homeless people.
After venturing off Broadway, Jim settled on a shady spot on 36th Street next to Oak Park United Methodist Church. He chose the spot because he had heard the neighborhood had allowed pods to be parked there before.
The old church, paint flaking from its exterior walls, was closed and looked empty as Jim and Paul tipped the pod onto its swivel wheels. Pastor Kataii Tapa could not be reached to comment on whether she was OK with the pod being parked outside.
“These pods generate calls,” Jim Mullen said. “It’s going to continue to be a problem for the neighborhoods that don’t want them. But the homeless people, to have a roof over their heads and a place to lock up their belongings for a change, they love them. My concern is that the cops will be rousting him from place to place, and they may impound it again.”
Thomas Mullen’s relocation to 36th Street followed nearly two weeks of sleeping in abandoned houses and under freeway overpasses. Caltrans impounded the pod on July 12. Jim Mullen tracked it down and took Thomas to retrieve it last week, but it had been badly damaged in transit.
Jim Mullen said it took him 20 hours and $40 worth of supplies to repair the structure.
“I lost a little blood to the cause,” he said, spreading his hands to show the dark red cuts to his fingers. “That darn sheet metal is sharp.”
Jim mended the split floor board, reshaped the doorway, repaired the support beams and added hinges to the bunk so his son could more easily store his belongings underneath it. He loaded the pod back into his truck, and drove from his home in Grass Valley to the Peet’s Coffee on Alhambra Boulevard for his standing Tuesday morning appointment with his son, he said.
Thomas was sipping a large coffee with sugar with his aunt and uncle when his father pulled into the Peet’s parking lot, the pod in the bed of the truck. He did not look at the pod right away and he was reserved when his father pointed to it.
Prior to losing his pod, Thomas had been very attached to it. He had painted a portion of its aluminum siding bright yellow, and wrote his name on the windows and door. He had drawn pictures of a martini glass and a gun on the front. He peeled tape off the side at the impound lot, revealing the words “Sorry Tom” penned underneath.
When he went to the impound lot to retrieve the pod last Thursday, he donned a tie for the occasion. But now, he appeared resigned.
“He’s having trouble taking possession of it again,” Jim Mullen said.
He built the pod to provide some protection for his son, who he says was diagnosed with schizophrenia years ago but frequently stops taking medication. The last time Jim dropped the pod off, it took Thomas a week to adjust to it.
As the Mullens looked for a new place to park the pod, they passed the dirt patch under Highway 50 where it had last been, and the abandoned, burned house on Truckee Way where Thomas had lived after it was taken.
Debbie James has lived on Truckee Way for 18 years. She said she had been calling the police four to five times a week to have Thomas moved since she retired in January.
She had tried to befriend him, sometimes giving him Subway gift cards and sandwiches.
But, “he was being obnoxious, peeing and pooping everywhere, just dropping his pants,” she said. “I would have left him alone if he wasn’t so obnoxious, but he was throwing trash in my yard. That’s when I started trying to get him moved.”
James said Thomas would go into her’s and her neighbor’s backyards and use their water spigots. She said she was worried for her safety.
“I have homeless coming into my neighborhood and setting up camp, and the police dispatch said that doesn’t sound like an emergency to them,” James said. “I need protection. I don’t know what can be done about this. It’s unfair that residents should have to deal with it.”
Jim Mullen is still worried that the pod will be impounded again. According to the city code, it is “unlawful and a public nuisance for any person to camp on public or private property.”
“You can’t just park that in a public right of way,” said City Councilman Jeff Harris, who represents portions of East and North Sacramento. “It’s not possible to have these (pods) strewn across the city. They’re respite from the elements; they’re not a solution to homelessness.”
Harris said the city does not have a sanctioned place where homeless people can park their pods, but the council is looking for locations to set up emergency shelter and triage centers.
Harris also said Mayor Steinberg has talked about changing the city codes so that pods could be parked at houses of worship that welcome them. The City Council will discuss the idea in September.
Until then, Thomas’ pod still runs the risk of being impounded.
As Jim and Paul unloaded his pod and wheeled it against the curb next to the church, Thomas stood in the street watching.
The two men filled the pod with crates containing Thomas’ belongings: a foam mattress pad, a new lantern, a backpack and clothes. A broom and a sliver bike frame hang on the outside.
Jim had to cut off the outer padlock and replace it since the key was among Thomas’ possessions still at the Sacramento Police Department. When Jim suggested they go get the rest of his things, Thomas declined, saying, “It’s overload, it’s causing me a lot of stress.”
Thomas told his father he’d gone to the emergency room recently and received medication. “He suffers from high anxiety, and that drives him to get back on his psych meds,” Jim Mullen said. But, he still won’t go to the doctor for treatment.
“He’ll go along OK for awhile, then he’ll run out of medication, spiral down, crater, go to the emergency room.”
After he’d finished unloading the truck, Jim sat on the tailgate visibly tired and perspiring.
“I’ve watched this eat (Jim’s) heart out for 10 years,” said Paul Mullen, Jim’s brother and Thomas’ uncle. “If you look at him, you can see he handles it well, but if you look deeper, it tears him up.”
Jim looked on as Thomas approached and circled the pod, inspecting the inside, lifting the bench now mounted with hinges.
His expression changed from a circumspect grimace to a wide smile and then back to a grimace. Finally, he offered his verdict: “It looks like a good place to store my stuff.”