Thomas Mullen’s whole life is contained in a 3 ½-foot-by-7 ½-foot portable “pod” shelter that his father built for him. He calls it his box. He sits in his box while writing his songs and uses its aluminum siding as a steel drum for his street music.
He keeps his clothes and treasures, the things he finds in alleyways, in his box. He has painted its aluminum siding bright yellow and scratched his name into the paint. He has scrawled words and lyrics across the windows and doors. He transports it from place to place on swivel wheels with a rope.
“It’s a good box,” Mullen said.
When his father, Jim Mullen, first gave him the box, “his initial reaction was it was too nice for him,” the elder Mullen said. “It was like he thought, ‘I can’t live in there.’ He lives on the street, sleeps in a bush. And this was shelter. He pedaled off right away, but by the next week he was totally ensconced in it, took ownership of it and was very pleased to have it.”
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On July 12, Thomas was separated from his box after he camped in it under a freeway. He was given a 72-hour notice by the police in Sacramento, California, to move it, and he did. But he only moved it 50 feet, still in the shadow of the highway.
Thomas was arrested for unlawful camping, and his box was impounded.
He was released the same day, but he did not go to the police station to retrieve his bedding, speakers and other belongings. He didn’t try to find his box. Instead, he wandered back to the neighborhood where his pod used to be, eventually settling in an abandoned house.
His father did not learn of Thomas’ arrest and the loss of his pod until July 18. He said that when he saw his son, he noticed Thomas’ condition had declined. He was likely not taking his medication and he was being particularly delusional, Jim Mullen said.
Jim Mullen said his son believes he’s in a writer’s guild and has a $100,000 insurance policy on his pod. He also thinks he runs an online business out of his pod where he sells T-shirts and sports memorabilia. Thomas has a fictional web address reading www.sacramento.com@TOMM on the door of his pod.
The longer he’s on the street without shelter, the worse he gets, Jim Mullen said.
Thomas, 38, has lived on the streets of Sacramento for the last seven years, according to his father. The family moved around when he was a child, from Alaska to Washington state, before finally settling in California.
Jim Mullen said Thomas was an average student, but a “personable and charming child.”
When he was 14 years old, his parents divorced, and that “sent him into a tailspin,” Jim Mullen said.
He had trouble adjusting to Nevada Union High School, so he went to an alternative high school where the curriculum was more focused on art. After graduation, he gravitated to music and clay sculpting. When he moved to Roseville, California, in his early 20s, he set up a small recording studio in his apartment. Jim Mullen thinks Thomas worked shipping old electronics to Africa, but he can’t remember.
‘No stranger’ to police
Then, seemingly overnight, his father said, everything changed. Thomas Mullen became a different person.
“I had been to visit him and he was working in his little recording studio, and then I get a call from him that he had quit his job,” Jim Mullen said. “I said ‘What? You quit your job? But you just got a car. How are you going to make the payments?’ And he said, ‘Oh something will work out. I’m not working for ‘the man’ anymore.’”
Thomas lost his car and apartment, and his girlfriend left him. He briefly went to live with his mother and then in Texas, but she and her sister were worn down by his outbursts, so she sent him back to California.
Jim Mullen said Thomas was later diagnosed with schizophrenia.
At one point, Thomas was living with a woman he met in Alcoholics Anonymous, his father recalls, and he was arrested after grabbing her gun in an argument.
“He was too crazy to be in jail,” Jim Mullen said. “Too crazy for their taste. So they sent him to Napa State Hospital for six months. Eventually they decided he was sane enough to go back to jail. He finished his sentence and then was out on the streets.”
His father estimates Thomas has been arrested about 40 times in the last five years for unlawful camping and unlawful storage of property.
“He’s no stranger to our reporting system,” confirmed Matthew McPhail, Sacramento Police Department spokesman. “And our reporting system goes back to 2004.”
Jim Mullen, 66, a retired truck driver, said he doesn’t have enough money to set Thomas up in an apartment on his own. And if he brought Thomas to live with him outside the city, he said, “We’d probably kill each other in three days.” He can’t park the pod in his driveway, either, because Thomas insists on living in Sacramento.
During his years on the streets, Thomas has often slept during the day and roamed at night for fear of being attacked in his sleep. Jim Mullen started to notice how the worry and lack of sleep was causing Thomas’ state of mind to deteriorate even further.
“When he’s on the street, he’s vulnerable to the other crazy bast---- living out here,” he said. “There’s a risk I’ll end up burying my son, which is backwards.”
He tried to qualify his son for Social Security disability so he could afford to put him in a home, but he said a lawyer wouldn’t take Thomas’ case unless he was getting medical treatment for his condition.
Jim Mullen then set up doctors and dentists for Thomas, but he wouldn’t go.
“He kept saying people were after him, and sprinkling magic dust in his face to make him to do crazy things,” Jim Mullen said.
“It’s rough out there,” he continued. “I just wanted to get him off the ground because then he’d be safer and have a shot at getting better.”
Jim Mullen thought he found a solution when he read about the Art-through-Pod project where Oak Park, California, residents Aimee Phelps and Kevin Greenberg started building portable sleeping pods for the homeless in their neighborhood. The pods feature a lockable door and are decoratively painted on the outside.
“I went to talk to them and the waiting list was so long,” he said. “So I looked at the pods and I thought, ‘I can build this.’”
It took Jim Mullen two and a half days and less than $200 to build Thomas’ pod. He made a bench to put inside so his son could sleep on top of it and keep his belongings underneath it. He added extra ventilation and made windows out of plexiglass. He also used old fabric to fashion curtains.
“His mental health really improved with the pod because he could get eight hours of sleep,” Jim Mullen said.
Rather than go looking for his son, which Jim Mullen says can be like trying to find a needle in a haystack, he meets Thomas every Tuesday morning at a coffee shop. It’s their standing appointment, he said.
Thomas usually sticks to the nearby neighborhoods, parking his pod under freeway overpasses and in alleys. Jim Mullen said a police officer told him Thomas stays in the area because his drug dealer probably lives nearby. When Thomas pulled out a cigarette Wednesday, a syringe was clearly visible inside the pack.
It was at one of their coffee meetings, on July 18, when Jim Mullen learned the pod was gone.
Thomas started living in an abandoned, burned out house near where his pod had last been. Prior to his arrest, residents had complained about Thomas using their hose spigots and electricity to charge his phone, McPhail said. Police spoke to Thomas about the complaints three times before his arrest on July 12.
By July 18, Thomas had returned to the same area, crawling in and out of the house through a boarded up window where the exposed nails had been jarred free from the window frame. He is still using the neighbor’s hose.
It took Jim Mullen a day of phone calls to find out the pod had been taken to a Caltrans impound lot in Rancho Cordova. When he told Thomas where it was, he didn’t seem anxious to get it back.
“Where can he put it where it won’t be taken again?” Jim Mullen said.
On Thursday morning, when Thomas finally agreed to accompany his father to pick up the pod, Thomas pushed open the boarded window of an abandoned house, wearing a necklace of rainbow-colored wooden beans and a loosely tied, plaid necktie. The tie was an addition to his usual jeans and black T-shirt.
Sheli Wright, public information officer for Caltrans, said a Caltrans employee, Paul Quaresma, had chosen to keep Thomas’s pod rather than throw it away when his campsite was cleaned up under Highway 50. But the pod had been damaged either in transit or when it was being unloaded.
The pod sat in a gravel lot next to more than 30 grocery carts that lay unclaimed from other homeless camp clean-ups. The door was ajar and there was a gaping hole in the roof where the aluminum siding had been wrenched away when the structure essentially broke in half.
Thomas picked at the splintered support beams, throwing loose pieces at the nearby grocery carts.
He paced around it agitated, putting his hands on his hips and mumbling to himself. “The art’s pretty damaged, man,” he said. “I didn’t know it was going to be this blown up.”
After some coaxing, Jim Mullen persuaded his son to load the pod into the bed of the pickup truck. But Thomas pulled the tow rope so hard that the support beams separated from the particle board base. The pod had become an aluminum shell.
“I can still fix it in less time than it takes to build a new one,” Jim Mullen said, surveying the damage. “So let’s take it.”
Jim Mullen said it’ll take him a couple days to fix the pod. He’ll need to construct a new base first, and reinforce the broken support beams.
But he’s most worried about finding a new place to put it.
He said he’s thinking about taking it to Oak Park, where other pods seem to be accepted. He’s also checking out a few churches that he’s heard house the homeless.
Camping is prohibited in the streets of Sacramento, so Thomas, like other pod dwellers, runs the risk of losing his shelter.
“They have every legal right to do what they did, but I think there’s a moral line there to not take someone’s home,” Jim Mullen said.