Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Newly Homeless Turn to Sleeping in Their Cars on Townsend

Word was that a Hooverville of people living in their cars had taken hold on Townsend Street. People, including members of the lower-middle class who’ve hit hard times, had begun filling in empty parking spots. Not to mention, throwing buckets of septic waste onto the tracks, and littering everywhere.

At 6:30 p.m. on a recent Thursday I had spent a full hour milling about on the block, but found only signs of people living in a half-dozen vehicles – deflated tires, windows boarded up with cardboard, and a few stacks of garbage. No signs of life.

After a knocking a few times on the passenger door of an old RV, a groggy face emerged from behind curtains on the upper-deck of the camper – ticked off as hell.

“It’s the middle of the night,” the guy mumbled, before rolling back under his covers. “Come back at a reasonable hour.”

After paying three follow-up visits at various times of day, I have yet to discover when that “reasonable hour” is – or, for that matter, get that man’s story directly from him (He’s only been described to me by his neighbors). The usual rules don’t play when you’ve lost your house, the life you once knew and yet you still manage to work five days a week, his neighbors explained.

(Continue reading the story below the video...)

Robin, a recovered speed addict who moved into her RV on Townsend before the economy slumped, said this year ranks of new homeless started following her lead. From her camper window, she watches a man – her newest neighbor -- wake up each morning in a reclined seat of his maroon sedan, don business attire and, presumably, head to work.

She tells a similar story of another man who now lives in his white van, parked several spots closer to the train terminal. No kids, just single men doing what they can to stay out of shelters.

Thea Chroman, who recently produced a radio story on homelessness in San Francisco for, said she could find no city data documenting how many more people this year are living in their vehicles than previous years. But not all homeless are showing up in shelters or simply living on the streets, and she’s heard many stories of people taking to their cars.

Calling herself the mayor of Townsend, Robin’s title somehow fits. She cleans up refuse along her patch of sidewalk, eschews any consumption of drugs, and forms coalitions of homeless to route out thieves (her camper was once robbed and she vows it won’t happen again).

She’s proud, too, for the first time since she came off the amphetamines. Seeing herself as luckier than the rest, she’s converted her kitchenette into a soup kitchen.

“It’s going to get a lot worse,” she told me. “And I guess it’s because of the economy.”

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