Tipping Point

100 kids live in cars in Sacramento. So do hundreds of homeless adults. How can we help them?

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Gwen Mayse leaned against her Honda Accord and looked around nervously with her small Yorkshire terrier tucked under her arm. She was too scared to sleep.

Mayse, 59, normally sleeps in her car with her two small dogs. She lies in the driver’s seat, reclined all the way back. She parks next to her daughter’s Jeep Cherokee in a cul-de-sac of a north Sacramento business park. Half of the cul-de-sac is surrounded by barbed wire.

The warehouse that used to house a city homeless shelter sits empty only feet away.

As Sacramento struggles to find a solution to its growing homeless problem – opening and closing shelters, converting hotels to help the homeless, occasionally clearing out homeless encampments – a new problem confronts the county.

The number of people, including families with children, living in their cars in Sacramento County has drastically increased in the last four years.

Volunteers canvassing the county in January found four times the number of vehicles where people were living than they counted in 2015. Researchers estimate people were sleeping in at least 340 vehicles in the county. This included approximately 100 children. Most of the vehicles were in the city of Sacramento.

The problem illustrates the complex task of reducing the homeless population in Sacramento, which has seen rents and housing prices rise dramatically even as it budgets tens of millions of dollars on shelters and support services. The city is scrambling to avoid problems like those in San Francisco, where scenes of squalor have become a symbol of the divide between the rich and the poor.

Now, Sacramento officials are considering one remedy to help people living in their cars – putting many of them into one or more designated parking lots. Instead of a tent city, Sacramento would create a car encampment for the homeless.

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Laurane Ivey, 37, and her boyfriend Herb now live in an RV that they got after trading in their van on Tuesday, July 23, 2019 in Sacramento. Ivey said she suffered from heat stroke and was too exhausted to get out of bed. “It’s a lot better than a car but it’s hot,” said Ivey. Renée C. Byer rbyer@sacbee.com

Sacramento State researchers who worked on the recent homelessness report recommended the city create so-called safe parking zones – lots where people can park their vehicles to sleep at night and where they don’t have to worry about being towed or break-ins.

The lots would be staffed by security guards and include bathroom and shower trailers. Volunteers would bring food regularly. Many parking zone programs also provide people with medical and mental health services, as well as help finding housing and employment.

Homeless activists James Lee “Faygo” Clark and David Andre have since the fall of 2017 repeatedly asked the City Council to create safe parking zones for homeless people to sleep in their cars.

A year and a half later, the city still hasn’t opened the lots, while cities with far smaller homeless populations such as San Luis Obispo, Monterey and Santa Barbara have done so. City staff is just starting to look into it, prompted by requests from council members in July.

“Right now there’s a major crisis,” Clark said. “I think they’re starting to realize the things we’ve been saying for years are kinda true.”

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who has promised to get 2,000 homeless off the streets by 2020, has focused his attention on opening large “rehousing” shelters. He said he would support a safe parking zone as an “interim emergency solution,” though his priority is getting people sheltered.

The city has gone more than three months without such a shelter, though another one is planned to open at the Capitol Park Hotel downtown, where 80 elderly and disabled residents currently live. Steinberg originally said he expected that shelter to open in July, but it is now delayed until September, Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency officials said Wednesday.

Sacramento has set aside millions to open at least 800 more shelter beds. The county has about 5,570 homeless people, according to the most recent survey. They live in riverfront encampments, under freeway overpasses and outside City Hall. Sacramento State researcher Arturo Baiocchi, who worked on the study, estimates at least 65 percent of them – or 3,620 – live within the city’s boundaries.

“It’s time for a jolt of clarity and that jolt of clarity, to me, is people gotta be inside and in any way possible,” Steinberg said. “I don’t consider a car to be a long-term or even a medium-term place to be, but if we can organize an area in the short interim and use it to help people get indoors, I’m open to it.”

Living in a car is clearly not a sort of long-term solution. For one, it’s dangerous. Most nights, either Mayse’s daughter, Laurane Ivey, 37, or her boyfriend, Dana Ashley, 54, return to the cul-de-sac by dark. When she was interviewed by The Sacramento Bee on a recent evening in July, Mayse was alone.

“I’m afraid if I go to sleep and there’s nobody back here, then something might happen,” Mayse said.

Minutes later, a man she didn’t recognize drove into the cul-de-sac at a high speed, whipped around in a circle and drove away. Just up the hill, a man yelled inaudibly as he rode his bicycle along the Sacramento Northern Bike Trail along Steelhead Creek, which is peppered with homeless encampments.

“Somebody might try to get me,” Mayse said.

Statewide efforts

If Sacramento decides to open a safe parking program, it would join Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle and Oakland with similar encampments. San Francisco’s will start later this year.

Councilman Jay Schenirer said he asked city staff to look into the idea previously, but the city’s homeless services office was short-staffed. He and Councilman Rick Jennings renewed the request during a council meeting last month. Jennings sent interns to check out the zones in San Diego and San Jose and report what they learned.

The indoor shelters the city plans to open allow people to bring pets, partners and possessions, and don’t screen them for drugs or alcohol in their systems. They also provide guests with medical and mental health services, and help them find housing.

The city spent $5 million on its first such shelter, at Railroad Drive in north Sacramento, which permanently housed 164 people during the 17 months it was open – about a quarter of everyone who stayed there. Another 100 found temporary housing. In total, 658 people spent some time at the shelter. The city spent about $7,600 per person who passed through the Railroad Drive shelter, or $30,000 for every person who eventually got permanent housing.

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Laurane Ivey, 37, feeds dogs that belong to several homeless people living in cars on Thursday, July 11, 2019, in Sacramento. She said she has been living on the streets since she was 12. Renée C. Byer rbyer@sacbee.com

San Diego has five safe parking lots, about half run by the city and half run by a nonprofit, that serve more than 600 people living in cars and RVs per night. Along with bathrooms, showers and security, participants get help finding housing, jobs, finance management, dental screenings, credit repair, tutoring for kids and free meals.

About 42 percent of people at the city lots and 35 to 45 percent of those at the nonprofit’s lots find permanent or temporary housing, officials said. The nonprofit’s two lots cost about $85,000 annually to run, said Teresa Smith, CEO of Dreams for Change. The city’s three lots cost about $950,000 annually, according to a spokeswoman for San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer.

Assemblywoman Autumn Burke, D-Marina Del Rey, has proposed a state bill that would require all municipalities with populations of 330,000 or more to start safe parking programs by June 1, 2022. Burke said safe parking zones are not replacements for shelters, but a necessary accompaniment.

“It’s not one of those bills you want to have to carry because the last thing you’re trying to do is promote people living in their cars,” Burke said. “However, we do have to deal with the realities of the situations we find ourselves in.”

The programs cost some municipalities just $50,000 a year, Burke said.

“It can be a very cost effective model,” Smith, of the San Diego nonprofit, said.

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About this story

As Sacramento struggles to find a solution to its growing homeless problem – opening and closing shelters, converting hotels to help the homeless, occasionally clearing out homeless encampments – a new problem confronts the county.

The number of people, including families with children, living in their cars in Sacramento County has drastically increased in the last four years.

In this story, we take a look at the data and visit families living out of their cars to tell the story of Sacramento’s homeless crisis.

Safe parking zones and triage shelters often share a common goal – to get people housed. Employees of the organizations that help people find housing can meet the homeless at safe parking zones, before they go to sleep, or at shelters. The difference, Smith said, is that people who live in cars are frequently homeless for the first time, often have kids and jobs, and do not need the more intensive services like mental health and medical.

“This really is a different population than one would find in a shelter,” Smith said. “What we hear over and over again is they don’t fit in the shelter system. They’re usually first-time homeless. It scares them, and I don’t blame them. A car provides a different kind of barrier.”

Three other bills in the Legislature would address the issue of homeless car camping. One would require community colleges to provide access to campus parking for homeless students who sleep in their cars. Another would require the DMV to issue a 90-day permit to operate a vehicle for people in safe parking zones whose registration had expired. And another would exempt people in safe parking lots from requiring a smog check to register their car.

Steinberg said that by early next year, he wants to have at least one shelter open, if not two, and another alternative such as a safe parking zone.

Emily Halcon, the city’s homeless services coordinator, said her office is starting to look into the idea of safe parking zones, but that getting the lots up and running by winter would be “a huge stretch,” unless there’s already a designated location.

Schenirer suggested lots along the W-X street corridor beneath the freeway be considered for overnight parking. Jennings said he’s looking at parking lots in his south Sacramento district, including churches, community centers and parks.

Neither are sure that any of those will work, though.

Breaking the spiral

For many homeless families, living in a vehicle is like hanging on to their last piece of normalcy. They plan to just live in their cars for a few weeks in between losing an apartment and finding the next one.

But when their cars are towed, often containing the documents they need to find housing, it propels them much deeper into homelessness and poverty.

Laurane Ivey was one of the 394 people who spent time at the Railroad Drive shelter but did not find permanent housing. Now she sleeps just feet from it, in her RV.

An employee of an organization she met at the shelter is trying to get her accepted to the Housing Choice Voucher Program, formerly called Section 8, but with tens of thousands who apply and don’t get a spot, it’s unlikely she’ll get a call.

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Laurane Ivey, 37, gets ready to help move a friends belongings and dog to transitional housing after leaving the Railroad Drive shelter on Tuesday, April 30, 2019, in Sacramento. Ivey has been living in her car a week before the shelter closed. She says they wouldn’t let her back in after she took several days to go to her daughter’s funeral. Her daughter was hit by a drunk driver and spent several days in a coma, suffered 14 broken bones and died. Ivey’s mother Gwen Mayse, 59, right, is also living in a car. Renée C. Byer rbyer@sacbee.com

She and her mother, Mayse, each receive $1,000 a month in Social Security, and have $6,000 in savings. Still, they can’t find a place to rent, usually due to their poor credit. They make calls to potential landlords they find online daily.

They’re often scams.

Ivey sat curled up in a hammock – an early birthday present to herself – on the concrete on a mid-July afternoon, her chihuahua Princess sleeping in her lap. She scrolled through Craigslist, shooting off texts and emails about potential apartments.

The day before, Mayse toured a small one-bedroom apartment, but the rent was $1,000 a month – her entire monthly Social Security check. She walked away.

“It’s not like I don’t have no money to get in to a place, because I do,” Ivey said. “It’s just finding a place.”

Mayse has had three cars towed in recent years. She never gets them back. When her Ford Expedition parked on an Elk Grove street earlier this summer was towed, she and her daughter lost everything – clothes, toiletries, tools, their new car jack, and even Mayse’s birth certificate.

Documents such as birth certificates and state identification cards are necessary to get housing, especially federally-subsidized low-income housing, but usually take months to replace.

Often when their cars are towed, people cannot afford the more than $400 they have to pay police and towing companies to get them back. Even if they have the money, it’s a difficult process if they can’t show proof of registration and title, like Mayse couldn’t.

“It just becomes that much harder to start again,” said Casey Knittel, director of Mustard Seed School, an emergency school for homeless children, where she increasingly hears parents tell similar stories.

Tajia Thelusma, 30, paid about $2,000 for the registration, license and insurance to get her vehicle back – several entire paychecks from her job working a graveyard shift at an Apple warehouse repairing iPhones.

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Tajia Thelusma, 30, smokes from a vaping pipe, as she talks about the struggles of living in her car on Friday, July 19, 2019, in Sacramento. Renée C. Byer rbyer@sacbee.com

Now that she has all the documents, police are still threatening to tow her car, which she parks near Loaves and Fishes near downtown Sacramento with her fiancé. Police recently placed an orange sticker on her car, meaning the vehicle has been parked on a public street for more than 72 hours and must be moved or will be towed.

“That’s why I got a tent,” Thelusma said.

Thelusma and her fiancé are prepared to sleep in the tent if the car is towed. But, like many homeless women, they feel much safer in a car.

“You can lock the doors so you can’t get attacked or raped,” Ivey said. “It’s harder for them to get to you.”

The tight-knit mother-daughter duo also like to have a car in case they need to rush to the hospital. Ivey suffers from seizures multiple times a week, and has also suffered from strokes, which are even worse in the 100-degree Sacramento summer heat that radiates from the surface of the cul-de-sac.

“We never know if she’s going to be on the ground one minute or not,” Mayse said.

But with the safety of a car also comes the burden of finding a place to park it. In the Sacramento region, it’s extremely difficult.

“Even way out in the country in some bushes we parked and got ran off,” Ivey said. “There are times when one night we’ll be here, another night we’ll be there. It’s hard. It starts to take a toll on you, it really does.”

The pair have been at Railroad Drive about five months – longer than anywhere else in their last five years they’ve spent sleeping in their cars.

“If we had to leave here, I really don’t know where we’d go,” Ivey said.

Ivey is hoping the city figures something out.

“We’re not hurting nobody,” Ivey said. “We’re just trying to lay our head down and get some sleep.”

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Laurane Ivey, 37, sinks deep into a pink plastic tub filled with water from a fire hydrant as she begins to scrub the dirt from her worn feet. Above her is a barbed wire fence surrounding the shelter she used to live in before it closed. With no place to go she lives in her car joining other homeless in parked cars across the street including her mom Gwen Mayes, 59, who sleeps with two tiny dogs for protection. She says she wished their was a designated parking spot for the homeless with showers and portable toilets. She says she has to go to the bathroom in a bag inside her car. Renée C. Byer rbyer@sacbee.com

Although they don’t worry about being towed as much as they did in other spots, finding ways to shower, go to the bathroom, and eat are daily challenges.

For Mayse, going days or weeks without showering is the hardest part. Every couple weeks, she drives to her friend’s house who charges her $5 to use her shower.

“Sometimes I feel like a hobo out here,” Mayse said. “I like to stay clean all the time. A girl needs a shower every day.”

Threatened with being towed yet again, Mayse and Ivey have recently moved their cars to another north Sacramento street. They’re expecting they’ll have to move again soon.

Staff photographer Renée C. Byer contributed to this report.

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Theresa Clift covers Sacramento City Hall. Before joining The Bee in 2018, she worked as a local government reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Daily Press in Virginia and the Wausau Daily Herald in Wisconsin. She grew up in Michigan and graduated from Central Michigan University.
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