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If we build it : the reality of being homeless

If we build it : the reality of being homeless

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I don’t sleep well. It’s not that I have nightmares. It’s that I wake to them.

At first I was convinced my experience would be a quick stint living in Santa Rosa’s Safe Parking program, but I am approaching two months now and all the shelters are still full.  Each evening I watch my son run and play in a filthy parking lot coated with motor oil and urine. I shrink quietly inside when what I really want to do is scream at the injustice.   

It could be worse. I recently met a family with four children, all under the age 10, without even so much as a vehicle to shelter them.  I was scared to ask where on the streets they slept.  Was it in a covered parking lot?  An abandoned building?  Was it safe?

Each day I looked for hope that the state of crisis my street-dwelling neighbors and I are enduring will end.  As I watched my son sticking his pudgy fingers into cracks in the filthy parking lot that doubled as our livingroom I wondered what kind of disgusting thing he was so preoccupied with.  He was proud of himself for finding dirt and bugs.  Instead of shrieking my horror at how filthy he was getting, while insisting that he sit tight on his box of clothes and read books until the sun set, I resigned myself to the fact that he needed to run around and was going to get covered in grime that I had no way of washing off.  With this resignation I detached from the pain by imagining giant redwoods springing out of the cracks, and it was only a small leap to imagine building tree houses out of the forest my son and I were babbling about while he played with a tiny patch of dirt.  Could I plant seeds in the cracks of Santa Rosa’s Safe Parking Lots? Could I build the tiny houses that we are so proud to have birthed in Sonoma County, and provide a roof over the heads of people who are stuck sleeping outdoors?

I bristle when anyone calls this car camping, as if the families that resort to it are on a weekend jaunt with their Igloo cooler and s’mores during Indian Summer have little more to worry about than getting their babies down for afternoon naps.

I place my son in his car seat every afternoon and drive around with the air conditioning on because sleeping in an oven, even an oven ventilated by rolled down windows, isn’t an option.  Would the money that I spend on gas be better spent elsewhere?  No.  There is literally nothing more precious than having a comfortable and well-rested baby, especially as I try to shelter him from my fear.

Driving is also an escape. The cold, Freon air pumping into our inner sanctum, white noise, lulling my son to sleep. My eyes see beyond the dirty streets. My first days of homelessness were muffled and confused, like the moments after a bomb blast. Time stood still as I recognized the unfolding events that would alter my life forever.  Stress distorted the sound of everything but my voice calling his name.  I only had the mental capacity for one thing, to stare at him with crazed determination, to make sure he was safe. His name is River. My soon-to-be-3-year-old-little-darling-boy, the most precious being I have ever known.  I stared at him through the spiralling circumstances beyond our control, no home, no warm bed, no place to feel safe, no place to reside as mother and son.

Sitting up in a car seat isn’t the ideal position for a baby to nap, that hour to 90 minutes refreshes both of us for the rest of the day.  I’ve found every available free wi-fi spot to go to during these nap time drives, for the rare instances when I can park, keep the car running, and connect to the grid in attempts to save the quality of our lives while he naps slumped over in his carseat.

The rainy season will soon approach and imagining this same routine in a constantly damp state stirs anxiety deep inside– one attack was bad enough for the emergency room, symptoms like a heart attack.  Thankfully my physical heart is okay, but my emotional heart needs resuscitation.

[stag_dropcap font_size=”100px” style=”normal”]I[/stag_dropcap] carry a gallon of bottled water, a loaf of sprouted grain bread, a jar of natural peanut butter, and a squeeze bottle of honey with us in the car.  We drink straight from the gallon jug like barbarians who don’t yet know the civility of glasses or sinks.  The bread grows mold rather quickly in the heat. We travel a circuit of homeless advocacy spots for generous meals. My favorite new joke is that I’ll easily roll out of this parking lot 2 sizes bigger due to all the refined starches and processed food the homeless are served.

The Living Room in Santa Rosa which serves homeless and at risk women and children provides a clean and safe environment with delicious food we could never afford on our own.  I’ve eaten more salmon and steak in one month than in my entire life.  I am grateful my son gets a full belly before his carseat nap.

My two dogs, Mia and Shakespeare, are the first casualties of our homelessness.  I can’t bear to the see them spend their days in a Volvo.  None of the places where I can enrich the life of my son, the library or the children’s playground, are dog friendly.  On the sixth day I returned to the shady spot where I’d left our car while grabbing sandwiches at Trader Joe’s to find Mia had escaped through the open window and was perched on the roof.  Such a clever dog.  Clearly irritated from too much time in the cramped and balmy car, she was aloof. I couldn’t reassure her or myself that our days in the Volvo would end anytime soon.  It was heartbreaking to realize any dog lover with a home could care for Mia and Shakespeare better than I could.

I was told it could be a three to five month wait before a bed in a shelter would become available, but I knew no shelter will welcome our dogs.  I even entertained the possibility that an animal shelter would house my son and I in exchange for walking their dogs in order to keep our family of four together.  I could not make the pieces fit, so I drove them to Muttville in San Francisco where I’d heard dogs roamed free in a large comfortable house complete with dog sized couches and toys amongst the workspaces of staff who lovingly doted on their emotional and physical needs while they waited to be adopted.

[stag_dropcap font_size=”100px” style=”normal”]I[/stag_dropcap] keep the front windows cracked in our vehicle when we sleep because even at night in the middle of September it is sweltering hot.  Being on guard 24/7 means I don’t sleep deeply.  I’ve learned to recognize the cries of 6 different children in the night and know whose child is waiting for comfort or waking from a nightmare.  Having no place private to pee in the middle of the night is an uncomfortable reality.  I am too scared to close my car door to relieve myself for fear that my son will awaken to a dark and empty car, and too scared to drag him out of bed and carry him into a pitch black outhouse.

Little River usually wakes when I start to shift.  He too has become a light sleeper, and I wonder how much of his development will be stunted as a result of this social ill.  I know he has learned the routine because he says “leave the door open” in his groggy voice.  I worry about his safety when I cross five parking spaces to pee in the bushes at the corner of the lot, and scoff at whoever came up with the name “Safe Parking Lot.”

There are street lamps and cameras everywhere to provide a false sense of security.  It will not prevent anyone from harming us should they be crazy enough to do so.  Sometimes I drop my pants in the middle of the lot in plain sight to relieve myself on the wood chips, like a neighborhood dog, so that I don’t have to leave my son’s side. No one in their right mind would enter the pitch black porta-potty that you could see was covered in shit during the day and risk dropping your pajama bottoms in something that would never wash off your memory even if you could wash up after such a disaster – but of course, without a home we cannot.  I have become some wild creature who has stopped caring about modesty.

It is the slow assault of too-much-lack and not-enough-love that makes me question if there is something about us that is unworthy of human dignity.  But then I look into the face of this beautiful being that is my son and I know there has never been anything wrong with me or Little River. We deserve a home, a place to heal, a place to rest.

I’ve memorized the voices and laughter of the children who live here as they run and play, weaving in and out of slow moving traffic.  I watch in shock as River’s new best friend, a 4-year-old boy who is street wise beyond his years, chases my car down the driveway to say goodbye for the day.  I witness the pride and despair on the faces of parents as they comfort little ones under conditions like the aftermath of war. Our children run barefoot through fanciful “living rooms” that are oil stained and lined for compact cars.

Slowly I become hyper-aware of two things: not a single one of us has ever done anything to deserve raising our children in these conditions; food, clothing and shelter should be basic human rights available to all.  The birds, raccoons, and legions of well-fed rats that live with us in the parking lot enjoy as much.  We would find it unconscionable for prisoners to go without food, clothing, and shelter, yet most of the people I’ve met while living in this parking lot have committed no crimes other than that of being poor.  Homeless people unsheltered all over this state – I’ve heard numbers as high as 44,000 in L.A. – are sleeping in random nooks and crannies wherever they can find easy access to bathrooms, showers, drinking water, or a place to eat a hot meal. It is from this desperate position that we are expected to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” and “function as productive members of society.”

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[stag_dropcap font_size=”100px” style=”normal”]S[/stag_dropcap]onoma County has bragging rights for being one of the first places in America to inspire interest in tiny homes and the minimalist lifestyle that comes with living in one.  I’ve made friends with a roofer living out of his SUV with his wife and child because the housing market is too competitive for his income. The irony is not lost on me. However, he could be the skilled symbol of hope for the tiny house movement. We must wrestle with the fact that we’ve created a society that puts a dollar amount on our heads and renders 3.5 million people homeless each year, 35% of which are families with children.  That a two income household working at Walmart is going to move from shelter to shelter every few months because the local community hasn’t bothered to rally together and demand fairness and equality for all its citizens.  My elderly friend Jade has been living out of her car for 3 years.  She’s clearly suffering from delusions as she hugs everyone in the parking lot goodbye each week insisting that her boyfriend is only moments away from whisking her away to a beautiful home in the mountains.  Isn’t it possible that we could combine the talents and inspirations from the eureka state and put together housing plans that don’t discriminate against the poor, the sick, or the crazy ones.  

How is it that California hasn’t put the pieces together and recognized that it would be more cost effective to simply provide no strings attached housing for people that are in chronic distress?

The research has already been done.  Even if you don’t care about the discomfort of people living in extreme poverty at least you could vote your own best interest and demand that politicians spend your tax dollars wiser.  In the process of saving money we can eliminate the national disgrace of American shanty towns.  

[stag_dropcap font_size=”100px” style=”normal”]L[/stag_dropcap]ately I’ve had a recurring dream of tree houses being built by friends in one of the magnificent forests surrounding us.  My therapist explained that the reason I’m dreaming so vividly, so frequently, is because I’m not sleeping deeply enough while living in our car.  If that’s the case then thank goodness for the lack of sleep, for my lack of ability to look the other way when I pass homeless people on the streets and pretend that this is someone else’s problem.

Remember the old barn raising days?  Isn’t it possible that we could gather our friends, some builders and raise a bunch of real, lasting housing solutions for people that need it most?  I know there are housing codes, zoning laws, and rent control issues that need to be sorted out, but when you consider the fact that zoning regulations have historically kept disenfranchised populations down it is arguably one of the next important areas of social activism.  

Instead of suffering and degradation couldn’t we build tiny house communities that are surrounded by beautiful food forests maintained by the proud homeowners who have discovered a peaceful path to self-sustainability.  In my dreams we have made the earth our living room.  Our children run free through herb gardens and climb in and out of treehouses.  We have become builders, cultivators of community and a good and gentle life, free to raise our children without the fear that doing so will leave us financially and emotionally crippled in parking lots.  As I’m sure the Lake County wildfire survivors will agree, sometimes hard times, cruel circumstances, and injustices visit a family or individual through no fault of their own.  But you will see that we all are capable people when adversity is met with an equal and opposite reaction of love and support.  A piece purchased, a piece donated, a piece salvaged with plenty of muscle and goodwill to go around – I am convinced that bunches of at-risk children in families that are spread too thin will not only be housed, but will also be healed by a community that has made their needs a priority.  Where there is lacking this fundamental right to our personhood, something so basic as a home, a place to dream beautiful dreams, there can be no peace or justice. 

Dream, love, build, with me.

To contribute to River’s cause click here 

Cover image courtesy of Kevin McShane via Flickr

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