Living in cars

SN&R sought out the Sacramentans who live one step up from the streets and one step down from a permanent home, with no safe place to sleep. These people are mobile—and they’re threatened.

Gary Barbee sleeps in the front seat of his unregistered, broken-down truck and carries everything he owns in the truck’s bed, using his bicycle to move around Sacramento.

Gary Barbee sleeps in the front seat of his unregistered, broken-down truck and carries everything he owns in the truck’s bed, using his bicycle to move around Sacramento.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Gary Barbee has been lucky so far. Invisibly, he slept in the cab of his truck before dawn on a recent Saturday morning, unnoticed by local law enforcement. He’d covered the passenger-side window and the windshield with cardboard and sun screens. The driver’s-side window was dark and obscured by his body heat. Inside, his white hair and beard were buried in blankets that filled the cab like a tide rising almost to the windows.

A green car rolled up just after sunrise, stopped momentarily beside Barbee’s and idled for a minute. Barbee, a 61-year-old white man, didn’t stir but stayed curled up on the long front seat, and the car slid away.

The paint on Barbee’s truck had faded to gray, and he’d covered the full bed with a tarp to keep the rain off his possessions. On the very top was his bicycle with a basket, and a partially eaten chicken leg, but he’d left no trash on the ground, no evidence that he’d been living in the same spot for about six weeks. Barbee has found a safe place to park long term, one of those rare blocks on the eastern edge of the central city without posted street-cleaning hours or parking meters or a two-hour parking limit.

Around Sacramento, those blocks are precious to a small subset of Sacramento’s homeless population. Those living in their vehicles, the resilient lone wolves like Barbee, and the single mothers and the occasional couples, often can be glimpsed on the borders of city parks, relying on the public restrooms for water and washing up.

These folks are one step up from the streets and one step down from a permanent home. They’re mobile, and because there’s no free and legal long-term parking in Sacramento (though Barbee gets away with it, it’s illegal to park in the same place for more than 72 hours), they’re threatened, always trying to stay one step ahead of the tow truck.

In answer to a tentative knock, Barbee cranked the driver’s side window down a crack, letting out the heat and the musty, sour nighttime smells from inside. There was no hint of alcohol or any evidence of drug use, just soft-drink cans on the dashboard. He agreed to answer SN&R’s questions about how to survive living in a car in Sacramento.

Just like most of the nearly dozen homeless or formerly homeless people interviewed for this story, Barbee has met others living in their cars, including a couple of families. “Most of them lost them, though,” he added.

Vehicles come and go out here, but how often is a question that even the experts can’t answer. The city’s towing companies, code-enforcement officers and homeless-rights advocates interviewed for this article couldn’t guess how many people live in their cars or how often those cars are towed and for what reasons.

Through recent surveys, Sacramento has estimated that 1,600 “disabled chronically homeless persons” live in the county. The number of those living in their vehicles is unknown.

Katrina Middleton, director of information and planning services for the Community Services Planning Council, said, “It’s difficult to get numbers or do any analysis. There’s no way to interact with them”—especially if they’re trying to escape notice.

Barbee knows that he could lose his vehicle tomorrow, and he seems resigned. He can’t afford to keep the registration current or fix the dead engine. Eventually, code enforcement or the police will find it.

“When they find out,” he said in his stoic way, “they’ll take it.”

What will he do then?

“I’ll get on that bicycle and go,” he said, smiling, his arm draped over the steering wheel.

And he won’t miss a thing from the bed of his truck. “I’ll let them have it. I can’t carry it. … It’s just material things, just tools and stuff.”

Where will he sleep?

Barbee motioned toward a parking garage behind the church across the street from his secret parking spot.

“I’ll just join them,” he said, referring to the homeless folks who sleep in the garage each night.

It seems like Barbee, clinging to some shelter, should be allowed to maintain it, but there’s no place for him in Sacramento. He’s on the waiting lists for homeless shelters but seems to value his independence, though being on the streets leaves him vulnerable.

“Homeless people get robbed all the time,” said Barbee. “Down there around the projects,” he said, “they know when you get your money. They come up and take it.”

Thieves have approached him on his bike twice, sometimes with knives and guns, he said, and recently stole not just his unemployment money, but also his driver’s license. That’s another strike. A car can be towed if the driver doesn’t have a valid driver’s license.

Nearing retirement age, Barbee said he drove a semi for a living. When his old truck broke down, he couldn’t get to work, couldn’t scare up the money to fix it, and it didn’t seem worth it to keep the tags up on a vehicle he couldn’t drive, so his registration lapsed. His boss gave him three days to figure it all out, said Barbee, and then canned him.

Now, Barbee says he’s doing the best he can. He stopped drinking many years ago and attends as many as two Alcoholics Anonymous meetings a day. And he has friends like Anthony, the local artist who drove by in his green car in the morning. Anthony doesn’t knock, said Barbee, just turns his music up to see if Barbee’s awake. Anthony also lets his friend use the shower in his apartment on 25th Street, said Barbee.

“My boy comes by Saturday nights,” he added. “Takes me out to dinner.”

Gary Jr. showed up before noon that Saturday and idled nearby in his shiny car, which looked roomy and well-maintained.

“It’s the least I can do,” he said, reticent, a big man with his own kids who doesn’t know what to say about his dad living outside. He’d take Barbee in, he said, but he doesn’t have the room.

Losing one’s vehicle is a recurrent story for Sacramento’s homeless population. Most everybody SN&R spoke to mentioned somebody who’d had his or her vehicle stolen or impounded by local law enforcement—a vehicle was either parked too long in the same spot, or in a private parking lot; or the owner was arrested, and the car impounded.

It’s amazing how difficult it is for people who’ve lost almost everything to hold on to the last remnants of protection and mobility, especially in the central city, where streets are crowded by parking meters, two-hour zones and signs warning about weekly street-cleaning hours.

“The hard part is finding a place to park,” explained Beth Magnino, co-director of Maryhouse, a daytime shelter for women and children.

Even Loaves & Fishes and Maryhouse can’t let their clients park on the property overnight. So instead, cars and campers end up in illegal spots nearby, like the parking lot of Goldie’s Adult Superstore on Del Paso Boulevard.

They may escape notice for a while, but eventually the police find them, or the code-enforcement team does. They’re the ones who tow cars that have been in the same location for more than 72 hours.

Ron O’Connor, code-enforcement manager for the city of Sacramento, said that in the last fiscal year, the city towed 6,786 vehicles. He doesn’t know how many were providing shelter for homeless people.

“As long as a vehicle can move every 72 hours,” said O’Connor, “there’s no issue.” As for the small number of unrestricted parking spaces, he said that outside the central city, there are fewer parking limitations. In Del Paso Heights, Oak Park and East Sacramento, there are no signs, except on major thoroughfares, he said.

And the city can’t simply tow a car because someone’s sleeping in it, said O’Connor, though Larry Brooks, acting chief of the county’s code-enforcement team, said there’s been some discussion on this point, since code enforcement does get calls from neighbors who are uncomfortable with people living in cars in the neighborhood. “We’ve been told we can’t tow them,” said Brooks.

For more information, Magnino pointed SN&R toward two police officers parked in the middle of the Loaves & Fishes complex early on a recent morning. Officers Mike Cooper and Mark Zoulas are familiar faces to the homeless downtown. While Zoulas idled in the police SUV, clients walked up to discuss their legal cases or their progress, or just to joke with the officers. “Give me all your money!” said one.

Cooper and Zoulas were looking for a young homeless woman who’d picked up her 2-week-old child and fled a local hospital. Cooper asked if anyone had seen her at Loaves & Fishes, while Zoulas answered questions about the challenges of vehicular living.

“My partner and I tow vehicles routinely,” said Zoulas. “If a car’s left somewhere for days on end, it can be towed.”

And that’s not all. According to the Department of Motor Vehicles’ vehicle code, if a car has been unregistered for at least six months, it can be towed immediately. If it’s gathered more than five unpaid parking tickets, if it’s found without a license plate or visible registration, or if it’s been parked in a rest area for more than eight hours, a car can be towed. And if the owner has been taken off to jail or the hospital, his or her car, left abandoned, can be towed.

Alexa Lucas travels around the city in her legally registered ’89 BMW with her husband, Tommy; daughter, Nicole (sleeping in the back seat); and Nicole’s boyfriend, Wesley. The young couple sleep in the car at night while Alexa and Tommy stay in shelters. Alexa said she’s had four cars taken by the police in the last five years because the cops keep giving them tickets.

Photo By Don Button

Furthermore, the city’s unlawful-camping ordinance says, “It is unlawful and a public nuisance for any person to camp, occupy camp facilities, or use camp paraphernalia in the following areas: any public property; or any private property.”

And as for private property, according to Cooper, the owner of a private parking lot can have a car towed for almost any reason.

With the constant need to buy gas, move and avoid tickets, those with limited resources who stay in the central city in their vehicles regularly risk losing them.

Zoulas considers some of the folks on the streets his friends, he said, so he ends up advising them about how to stay within the law: “I tell them, park at hospitals, at Wal-Mart, different places all the time … rest areas.”

In Sacramento, however, Wal-Mart’s business license includes a stipulation: The store can’t allow camping. Wal-Marts across the country are known for hosting traveling retirees in their RVs, but Craig Moyle of the Municipal Services Agency said there are “no camping” signs at the three local stores.

Neither Cooper nor Zoulas sounded particularly interested in towing cars. They know where to find people, said Zoulas, “but we’re not hunting them down.” He and Cooper are sympathetic unless someone’s driving illegally, which is unsafe for other drivers.

“We can’t say, ‘You’re having a rough time. Do whatever you want,’” added Zoulas.

Working with the homeless population regularly, Zoulas understands that mental illness or substance abuse, along with a lack of resources, makes the basic parking rules difficult to follow. The pair have numerous stories of people in compromised vehicular situations.

The officers once found a Loaves & Fishes regular, a woman who swung between functional and nonfunctional, sitting immobilized, partially unclothed, in the seat of a generously loaded Crown Victoria. It was an executive’s car, said Zoulas, one that was maintained for visiting businessmen by a local company. The business owner kept it parked in the same spot all the time, and the keys were kept inside a nearby shack.

The woman’s “boyfriend,” Zoulas explained, found the keys, moved the car to the other side of its private parking lot and filled it with the woman’s possessions. Because she was temporarily paralyzed by an injury, said Zoulas, the woman was unable to look after herself without help. Though she’d only lived in the car for a little while, Zoulas recalled, it looked as if she’d been there for a decade.

“Disgusting,” he said.


Vehicular living gets even trickier when kids are involved. Though the officers said they rarely run into families living in cars, Magnino has two such families on her client list at Maryhouse, and St. John’s Shelter for Women and Children on Power Inn Road found half a dozen women among its 60 current clients who had lived in their cars. Half of those were raising children at the time.

Laura Weaver is one of those women. An outgoing, petite blonde, Weaver claims that her homelessness wasn’t related to mental health or substance abuse. She simply had “an income barrier,” she said. And beyond that, “a broken picker”—a habit of picking the wrong people to depend on.

On a recent evening at St. John’s, residents of the 60-day shelter streamed in for 5 o’clock roll call. Staff member Wanda Jackson, an energetic woman in a denim pantsuit, grasped Weaver by the shoulders and hopped up and down with her, forming a little squealing cyclone.

Weaver had just secured shelter for the next two years at Mather Community Campus, a training and housing program for employable homeless people. She was the success story of the day.

Weaver told SN&R she’d lived in her car off and on while raising two daughters, now 11 and 18 years old. The youngest stays with her at St. John’s while the oldest rooms with another family and works.

Sitting in director Greg Miller’s office, sometimes waving her hands in excitement and sometimes sitting on them to stay calm, Weaver started by explaining how she first lost her residence.

Weaver left a disastrous marriage on June 24, 1995, what she calls her “escape date.” But the details seem murky. She said she was the recipient of a bogus restraining order and never got her house or her possessions back.

With her kids staying with neighborhood friends, Weaver sometimes found herself sleeping in her car outside the house in which her youngest slept. The police roused her once, but because her daughter was living on the property, it was legal for Weaver to sleep outside.

To make her welfare funds last—women with children can get a few hundred dollars a month in aid—Weaver bought food in bulk, keeping just what she needed to munch on in her car and keeping the rest at a storage space she’s maintained for the last 10 years.

Weaver can’t remember how many nights she spent in her car.

“I lived in it long enough to get comfortable,” she said.

Finding it difficult to discuss the details, Weaver struggled to explain how hard it was even now to stop thinking of her car as her home. “Everything you own is in the car,” she said. “I have been very fortunate. I never lost it.”

Miller said the shelter often gets calls from women in their cars right after the holidays—about one call a day, according to shelter intake staff. The shelter is seeing an increasing number of women with mental-health issues, said Miller. “After Christmas, families are less patient with mental-health issues.”

Women with children get first priority at St. John’s.

Tami Detherage, a current shelter resident, spent three winter nights in her Geo Metro waiting for room to become available at St. John’s. She and her two big teenage boys slept in hospital parking lots, she said, because they felt safe. One would curl up in the back seat while the two in the front seats reclined just a little to get comfortable.

During the day, said Detherage, the family nursed sodas and coffee at neighborhood diners. The kids, enrolled in independent-study courses, did their homework at Denny’s.

“We’re especially concerned with funding and how women with children fit into the city’s plan to end chronic homelessness,” said Miller. “Women with children may not fit the definition of chronically homeless.”

Miller’s right. Sacramento’s new 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness focuses specifically on the 1,600 mentally and physically disabled people living on the city’s streets, often with substance-abuse issues.

Though the plan’s housing-first model is a great victory for homeless-rights advocates, it will not include resources for women like Weaver or Detherage.

For them, the overcrowded shelters, long-term programs like Mather, friends and family, and their cars will continue to provide what protection they have from the streets.

“Almost all the women who have a car here,” Weaver told Miller, “have lived in their cars. … I guarantee that if a client had a car here, she spent some time in it.”

Weaver’s situation deteriorated over the years. After living near longtime friends in her car—her daughters indoors while she was out of doors—Weaver and her youngest moved to a South Sacramento trailer park. From the trailer park, Weaver’s youngest continued to attend her South Sacramento school. Weaver’s visibly proud of providing that stability.

“I went from trailer to trailer,” said Weaver, “looking for a roommate,” but those were unstable relationships. “There’s a whole homeless bunch of people going from trailer to trailer,” she said. “The [residents] will take your money and pay their rent. They get mad at you, and you’re out.”

Weaver found herself especially worried about her daughter. “I could crawl into the back of the car,” she said. “I couldn’t do that for her. She never spent a night in my car.”

Though Weaver kept moving all the time, sometimes parking in other complexes, her car, too, was towed once. She was staying inside a friend’s house; her car was nearby, but someone had stolen the registration sticker, said Weaver. The car was gone only a few hours when she noticed it missing on July 4, 2005.

All her documents and clothes were in the car, said Weaver, and it cost her $300 from her welfare funds to get it back. She then failed to pay her storage fees and realized she might lose either the car or the storage space. She needed help, and she called St. John’s.

Usually, said Miller, the intake staff encourages women to call often. The facility has grown to a total of 100 beds for women and children, but still, there’s often a lag between making that first call and finding shelter.

While shelter babysitters look after her daughter, Weaver now works at Del Taco, getting her feet wet after 18 years away from the workforce. She’s excited about getting more job training at Mather, and she’s thrilled to let go of the fear she carried around day and night, and the tough persona that made her feel like a “double agent.”

She believes that a lot of women in the shelter have lived the same way, relying heavily on others to keep their families safe and turning over money and favors, including housecleaning duties, to maintain that generosity. Weaver, who had so few resources, always felt as though it was her job to fix her hosts’ problems, she said.

Although they routinely tow vehicles, police officers Mike Cooper, right, and Mark Zoulas, middle, also educate homeless people living in their cars about how to park legally.

Photo By Larry Dalton

St. John’s gave her some peace.

“St. John’s didn’t need me to fix it,” she added.

Rita Miller, an office clerk with Capitol City Automotive, one of the city’s contracted towing companies, explained that her company only tows cars that a government agency asks it to tow. A small percentage look lived in, she said, and the last time a woman came to claim a lived-in car was a couple of weeks earlier.

But even to get their belongings back, Miller said, car owners have to provide valid registration. If a homeless person can’t afford to register his car, he may not even be able to claim his possessions.

“They have to have valid registration or the pink slip to prove it’s their car,” she said.

The El Dorado Mobile Home Park, tucked away off Stockton Boulevard south of Florin Road, was just as Weaver had described it. Seemingly safe, it was full of older trailers, some neat and others hidden behind random piles of trash. Men worked on their cars, and women walked around casually.

SN&R approached a vibrant woman who looked about 45 and asked if she knew of homeless people constantly moving from trailer to trailer, sometimes living in their cars. The woman laughed, dramatically swirled her cigarette in the air and identified herself as “professionally homeless,” a woman who had lived in cars herself and now was involved in a few criminal activities.

“Think up a cute name for me,” she said, refusing to be identified.

We’ll call her Phoebe.

Phoebe was tall and stately, her eyes outlined in shadow and mascara. She wore a T-shirt and jeans, and though she had grown kids and had given up her legitimate life to drugs and identity theft, she said she could still “look pretty snappy” when she wanted to.

Phoebe had recently been living in “a real G-ride,” she said. And her boyfriend had just bought this “badass old gun.” Both the gun and the car were recently stolen, she explained. Now she was sharing a trailer with a number of people.

While she talked, two women watched from the back of a tiny trailer, their faces jovial. One of them brushed her teeth while she listened in.

A few feet away, a man had his head under the hood of a tan car, roomy and heavy with a big back seat. He was making sure it would run for a friend of Phoebe’s, a woman who watched with stern concentration, ready to take it over as her next residence.

“The whole car thing is weird,” said Phoebe. “You can roll through all kinds of things. Your friends who are couch surfers, you don’t think of them as homeless, but they are.”

She said she once lived in a beautiful 2002 SUV with her boyfriend. “Unfortunately,” she said in a whisper, “it was a little steamy”—meaning hot, stolen.

That’s one good thing about methamphetamine and homelessness, she added. “You don’t have to sleep!”

Phoebe claimed to have lost everything after being blamed for a white-collar crime she didn’t commit. Since then, she’d become “quite an adept shoplifter,” she said.

To her, becoming a criminal seemed only logical.

“Once you’re evicted once,” she said, “you’re screwed. You have to start stealing identities. … If your car breaks, and they tow it or whatever, you’re forced to become a criminal,” she said. “You steal [license] plates. … You know you’re going to fall behind the eight ball. It’s just a dance.”

She claimed that “straight” people couldn’t understand the prevalence of drugs and violence in the lives of homeless people. “Our lives are wacky,” she said, but she shook her head with visible affection, noting that she’d met some great, creative folks in her travels.

Though she seemed content, and even bragged a little about her outlaw life, Phoebe said she’d love to have her criminal history wiped out and go back to legitimate living. “It’s too expensive being homeless,” she said. “Imagine spending $50 or $60 for a motel room every night and always eating out.”

Identity theft, stealing registration stickers and memorizing account information is her new profession.

“If you’re not smart enough to become somebody else,” she said finally, “you’re screwed.”

To hear Phoebe and Weaver speak about vehicular living in Sacramento, one would assume that there’s no peace at all for people who make the choice to live in their cars. But SN&R found one woman with a very different story.

Rosemary wouldn’t let SN&R publish her last name, saying she feared that her homelessness would overshadow her accomplishments as an artist. A senior citizen who’s been homeless off and on for more than a decade, Rosemary looks like a kindly grandmother. She sat in a bare conference room at St. John’s with an apricot sweater draped elegantly around her shoulders and her face relaxed and peaceful. She talked softly and smiled easily, as if she’d glided through life without a single concern. But that’s not true.

After a comfortable marriage and a life as a composer, music teacher and writer, Rosemary found her situation slipping. After divorcing her husband, she wrote and produced a little musical in New York, she said, and then moved to Santa Cruz. She ended up in a detached garage—the only thing left intact after the Loma Prieta earthquake destroyed her parents’ cottage, she said.

What does she remember of the experience?

“I got a lot of creative work done in the garage,” she said.

To bathe, she filled a kiddie pool with water from the outside hose that she heated on a Coleman camp stove.

“When I came out [to Sacramento],” she said, “I just decided to live in the car. I didn’t know about shelters.”

It was 1995. Rosemary slept in the parking lot of Kinko’s at 37th and J streets, she said. “The [employees] would watch out for me.”

They also let her use the bathroom. She was living in a two-door coupe with all her belongings in the back seat. “I never felt uncomfortable,” she said. “I always chose 24-hour lots.”

Rosemary believes her faith sustained her during that year. “I prayed a lot. I didn’t realize the potential for harm. I felt cloaked. I’d cover one window, lie down, and they couldn’t see me.”

After a year of sleeping in Sacramento parking lots, Rosemary moved to San Jose, still homeless but working at a bookstore, and then moved to hostels in San Francisco. She just recently came back to Sacramento, where her children are helping her rent a one-bedroom apartment.

While she speaks, Rosemary maintains the peaceful, satisfied look of someone who’s walked through fire barefoot.

“I’ve followed my bliss,” she said.

She pulled a poem from her bag that she attributed to poet Fadwa Tuqan: “The key to my house is with me wherever I go. I always carry it throughout my wanderings in the deserts of grief.”

Rosemary likely would find Sacramento a much more hostile place were she to try to park her car in a private parking lot for months at a time these days.

With no place to safely live in their vehicles, homeless folks in their cars will continue to feel like Barbee, a sitting duck.

Even if the 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness provides housing for Sacramento’s most desperate people, women and children will still be parking their cars behind truckers at the freeway rest stops like Weaver sometimes did, or pretending to camp with the cross-country retirees in Wal-Mart parking lots, as Phoebe saw people do, or sleeping sitting up in well-lit hospital parking structures like Detherage, waiting to go inside for good.

Additional reporting provided by Don Button.