Homeless crisis not confined to urban areas

Homeless is not just in the big cities anymore.

I came across this article from a website, KNOWTHELIES.COM that dealt with a new class of homeless in America. Since I had been researching the subject, some of the facts were very interesting to me.

“Homeless people living in cars and mobile homes across the U.S. are being joined by a new breed... the middle-class.  As mortgage foreclosures continue rising month on month, growing numbers of middle-class professionals are losing their homes and downsizing from four bedrooms to four wheels.

With numbers rising, New Beginnings, a homeless agency in Santa Barbara, California, has launched a Safe Parking Program, aiming to provide a refuge of sorts for those who have nowhere to go other than their vehicle.

"I see myself as a casualty of a perfect storm," said Guy Trevor, a homeless middle-class man. "The people sleeping at the parking lot are very friendly. They're just like me - they come from normal, everyday homes. I think a lot of people in this country don't realize that they, too, are a couple of pay-cheques away from destitution."

"The way the economy is going, it's just amazing the people that are becoming homeless," Nancy Kapp, the program's coordinator, told CNN. "It's hit the middle class."

Another of Kapp's clients, Barbara Harvey, also lost her job and subsequently her home in the foreclosure crisis. Like Trevor, her job as a loans processor was connected to the housing market.

The 67-year-old lost her three-bedroom home and now lives with her three dogs in her car, parking at night in a women-only car park run by agency.

"It went to hell in a handbasket," she said. "I didn't think this would happen to me. It's just something that I don't think that people think is going to happen to them."

The rise in the numbers of homeless sleeping in cars has led Los Angeles city authorities to attempt to clamp down on the problem. As with many other cities, it is illegal in LA to live in vehicles on public streets.

Earlier this year the city forbade nearly all overnight parking on residential streets. A first violation receives a $50 fine, while subsequent offences can carry fines up to $100.

"For more working-class and lower-middle-class people, the car is the first stop of being homeless, and sometimes it turns out to be a long stop," Gary Blasi, a University of California, Los Angeles, law professor and homeless activist told The Associated Press.

Los Angeles has the highest number of homeless in the U.S., with an estimated 73,000 people living rough. Of more than 3,000 homeless people surveyed last year, around 250 were sleeping in their cars.

"It's trending toward an increase," said Michael Stoop, acting executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. "People would rather live in a vehicle than wind up in a shelter, and you can't stay on a friend's couch forever."

I became acquainted with the problem up close and personal as a middle-aged, middle-class man working as a writer in Chicago. I was making good money. But not good enough to be living in that windy city, paying off debts from a painful past and actually eating something besides peanut butter 24/7.

About nine months into the endeavor, I had to make some hard choices. Eat and pay my bills or have a warm place to sleep each night. I decided the character of maintaining my integrity was more important than a comfy bed and I made a sacrifice.

I sold most of the bigger stuff, rented a $40 storage locker where I stored my personal things and clothing. I was a member of a health facility there as a part of my employment, so my early morning workout schedule had my shower facilities covered. I can remember the night that I cleaned up everything in my apartment and closed the door for the final time before turning in my keys.

It was one of those defining moments where it felt as if I had stepped out onto a precipice with nowhere else to go but off the face of that cliff. I shuddered as I walked out into the cool October night and a chill went down my spine, although I didn’t know if it was the temperature or my nerve.  All I knew is that it went all the way to the bone.

I had prepared for the adventure with a down-filled sleeping bag, my favorite blanket and pillow and plotted out places that I knew I could go to use a restroom at night.

The feeling of being nervous that someone will find out is an embarrassing thought or worse, being arrested for vagrancy. I was driving from place to place so that I was not in one area for too long. The nights become a series of drifting into exhausted sleep, waking up startled and knowing that you have to move. I thought it would be just for a few weeks, but they drifted through the winter and into the next season.

I began to target places like 24-hour shopping malls, bar parking lots that were open until 4 a.m. in Chicago, office parking lots and then finally rest stops. It was there in the rest area on the border of Wisconsin and Illinois that I discovered a hidden world. A community of homeless people all living in cars, blankets rolled up in their windows and car engines throughout the night turning on, turning off, doors slamming as people were visiting the restrooms. Below zero or 100 degrees they showed up every day at the same time, home from work and ready to battle a lonely night.

It was a safe place. The police knew, but pretty much left well enough alone as they had more important things to deal with than people sleeping in cars in a rest area. And I began to meet them. One man who had taken care of his elderly parents who had no insurance and as they had to go into assisted living, he lost his own home and moved into his van. Another man lost everything in a divorce except the 1976 Ford station wagon. And a young woman who had been scammed out of her life savings and left at an altar without a bridegroom had purchased a beater for $200.

All sad stories. All part of a middle class that had slipped through the cracks of society and too embarrassed to let anyone know. I found a community and I found a deeper compassion for those “yuppies” who had gone homeless. I was homeless for a year before I had finally gotten back on my feet, and in that time, oh what lessons I learned. How my eyes were opened to their plight.

It made me stronger. It made me more caring. It caused me never again to take everyday things for granted, and it made me realize that we are all just a few degrees of separation from that lifestyle. People may think that it could never happen to them. At least that’s what I thought.

Open your eyes to the hurting, hiding in the shadows and lost in the turnstiles of this life. Even here in the Camelot of Platte County. You’d be surprised.

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