Down and Out in Santa Barbara


After 24 hours in transit, we landed in Los Angeles last week just as Bush went prime-time to spruik the $700 billion bailout. In California, foreclosure rates are the second highest in the country. As Congress squabbled over the bailout (and conservative talkback radio blamed it all – and hurricane Katrina – on the Democrats), we drove across California to see the people and places directly affected by the housing crisis.

Nancy Kapp’s office is cramped. With barely enough room for a table and a chair on either side, she squeezes her buxom, velour-clad frame behind her desk, shakes both our hands vigorously, then looks at us expectantly.

We’re sitting in the back of the Salvation Army building in Santa Barbara, a seriously rich coastal town two hours north from Los Angeles. The look of the town is so strictly managed that even this building looks glamorous. We’ve braved LA’s freeways to find out if what we’ve been hearing is really true: are middle-class Californians really being forced to sleep in their cars?

Nancy co-ordinates the Safe Parking Project for non-profit outreach group New Beginnings, which provides secure overnight parking for 55 vehicles in 12 parking lots. According to reports, these carparks have become a refuge for California’s new breed: the middle-class homeless.

"There are women in our group who had houses and were quite wealthy, and some families, a few of which had million-dollar homes," Nancy confirms. Since the foreclosure crisis hit California in earnest last year, Nancy has seen the demand for the parking lots explode – there’s currently a waiting list to secure a spot.

In California, 16 per cent of people foreclosed on or evicted from their rental properties are forced to live on the street, according to a study conducted by the National Coalition for the Homeless. Many of these are choosing the relative safety of living in their vehicles. In California, however, camping out in your car can incur a US$50 fine – US$100 for repeat offences.

"Homeless people know how to be homeless, but middle class people do not know how to be homeless," Nancy tells us. "They’re scared, and they don’t know what to do – they’re used to having it all. They’re like, where am I going to use the bathroom?"

The parking lots are open from 7:00pm to 7:00am every day, and while they don’t offer any facilities, they are at least a safe alternative to the streets. "At least they have 12 hours where they can go to a place, they’re not going to get ticketed or hassled," says Nancy. "They have time to think, and plan."

Nearing 50, Nancy, who was homeless herself 20 years ago, comes across as poverty’s answer to Erin Brockovich, only 20 years older and a whole lot brassier. "This issue can’t be swept under the carpet anymore, because now it’s happening to ‘real people’," she says, with a look that dares anyone to disagree. "In my parking lot, we have an 80-year-old lady who has to piss in a jar in her car. That’s disgusting. The streets are the reality of what our Government is, and it’s the ugliest picture I’ve ever seen. If they don’t start saving these foreclosures there’ll be a revolution."

As she says this, a mother and her adult daughter appear outside the door."‘Come in, come in," Nancy beckons, and the two women pull up chairs to sit half inside, half out. They introduce themselves as Sarah and Julia. They are an attractive pair – except for a few holes in her hoodie, you’d think Sarah was a typical Californian mum enjoying a day at the beach with her daughter. I have to look carefully to see the way Sarah’s thumbs have worn through the cuffs of her sweater, which she wears like a second skin.

It’s 6:30pm, and Nancy has to make her bread run. We get up to leave, and it’s only then that I notice the silver electrical tape holding Julia’s denim shorts together.

We offer to take them for coffee. Walking up the main street of Santa Barbara, as tourists window shop and families cruise past in SUVs, I feel alienated on their behalf. Julia leads us into one of the emptier cafes, and we order coffee and chamomile tea.

Like many Americans, it’s not difficult to get Sarah and Julia talking. Their story is a Michael Moore wet dream. A stay-at-home mum for 22 years, Sarah became homeless after her marriage collapsed. After several Pyrrhic victories in court, Sarah was forced to file for bankruptcy. With her credit rating shot to pieces, renting became virtually impossible – real estate agents run credit checks on all applicants. "I was like, someone’s gotta rent to me! I’m not a freak," she recalls, her peaked cap jutting out over her wraparound sunglasses, worn defiantly as night falls outside.

Struggling to find employment, Sarah started working as an extra on film sets in LA, earning US$8 an hour. "They feed you well," she tells us. Unwilling to live in a shelter, Sarah decided to live in the only safe place she had – her car. She’s been living in it for over two years, and was joined by Julia, her 25-year-old daughter, a year ago when she too became homeless. With both women only eligible for minimum wage, renting is almost impossible. Michael Stoops, Executive Director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, concurs. "You’d have to work 100 hours a week at minimum wage to manage a rental here," he tells me.

Sarah and Julia have been living like nomads, parking along the California coastline – "If we have to live like this, we might as well have a kickass view" – and moving on regularly to avoid being caught. When their car broke down a few months ago, they joined AAA (America’s NRMA) for US$100, which entitled them to four free tows of up to 100 miles. After their last tow, they knew they had to pull something out of the hat.

In true American style, they turned to God. "We decided to go on a 250 mile Faith Walk, and keep walking until God intervened and gave us a car," she tells us, finally taking off her sunglasses. Her sharp blue eyes are deep set, and the circles under them were dark. "We had literally walked across the road with our packs on when a lady stopped us to ask what we were doing. I told her our story, and it turns out she was just about to sell her car, or donate it to a charitable organisation. She gave it to us outright, and even got it registered for us."

Just as things started looking up, Julia started having severe allergic reactions to almost everything she was eating. Her health has recently deteriorated so badly that she can only eat raw food – "not exactly easy on our budget," she says quietly. Without health insurance she can’t see a specialist. They are considering driving to Canada.

We ask Sarah and Julia about the upcoming election. Sarah is dismissive. "I’ve never wanted to vote for anybody in my whole adult life," she says, shaking her head. For Julia, politics is just a part of the wider conspiracy to create a one-world government. When we asked Nancy about the election she was emphatic. "It is essential that people vote Democrat. Not because they’re anything great, but because four more years of Republicans will ruin this country."

As a jazz band starts up beside us, we leave and walk the women to their car. "I always have mixed feelings at this point," Sarah says, looking at her car. "It’s sort of like home sweet home, but then… It’s better than nothing, I guess."

Our farewell is inevitably awkward. They don’t ask for charity, but are clearly holding onto the connection we’ve forged. We sense the boredom of it – the nothingness of day-to-day survival. They don’t believe there’s anything in the system to support their desire to get ahead, are tired of scraping but too proud to beg. We hug them goodbye and wish them luck, then leave them in the warm Santa Barbara night.


Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.