For Some Seniors Without Housing, A Parking Lot Is Home

Sep 18, 2016

Marge Giaimo makes her way to a picnic table under the shadow of an oak tree. Santa Barbara's trees, like its oceans and mountains, are one thing she says she never tires of here. After losing her senior housing three years ago, this table is where she does her painting these days.

"I feel very fortunate to have my car," Giaimo says. "It's a little cramped, but it's softer than cement."

Of all her once-valued possessions, today her 20-year-old, gold Oldsmobile is her most important one. It is her home, and she keeps it as neat as a pin.

A 2016 Homeless survey count shows a 16% increase in people on the streets.

KOSU's Michael Cross talks with Homeless Alliance Executive Director Dan Straughan about the numbers gathered from the 2016 Point in Time count.

For the full Point in Time report, visit www.CoalitionToEndPoverty.org.

The increase in heat is raising concerns among advocates for the homeless population.

Homeless Alliance Executive Director Dan Staughan says to avoid heat exposure and heat stroke unsheltered individuals are finding relief where ever they can.

"Our numbers, for example, in our day shelter are way up, over 300 a day, because people can come in and be cool and get a shower and that sort of stuff. The numbers at the other shelters are the same."

As a little girl growing up in a lovely house in Kansas City, Kansas, Audrey Cooper knew nothing about life with no place to call home. One day, her family took a trip out of state and her 8-year-old eyes beheld something she never forgot.

"The first homeless person I ever saw was on the streets of San Francisco," Cooper recalls.

Holding the coffee she received at Los Angeles's Downtown Women's Center, Sylvia Welker steers her electric wheelchair toward the curb. It's at this spot every day that she feeds the pigeons of LA's Skid Row.

"The birds are maimed and deformed and beat and dying and hurting," Welker says. "I'm scared for the birds, but for me, I learned not to be afraid. It doesn't do any good. Fear isn't going to change anything."

By taking care of the birds, the 71-year-old Welker keeps her mind off the dangers she and other homeless women face here.

When Caitlin Cheney was living at a campground in Washington state with her mother and younger sister, she would do her homework by the light of the portable toilets, sitting on the concrete.

She maintained nearly straight A's even though she had to hitchhike to school, making it there an average of three days a week. "I really liked doing homework," says Cheney, 22, who is now an undergraduate zoology student at Washington State University. "It kept my mind off reality a little bit."

Tiny homes, which can be as little as 50 to 300 square feet, are growing in popularity as a solution for the homeless. In Chicago, advocates want to build tiny houses to serve a specific marginalized group — homeless youth, especially those who identify as LGBTQ.

It's about 6:30 in the morning at a Starbucks near Santa Monica beach, and David Rodriguez Ordunez is checking Facebook while charging his phone.

He's one of 44,000 people living on the streets in and around Los Angeles — and he's one of three homeless people at the coffee shop this morning.

"Since there's Internet here, that's mainly one of the purposes. I've usually got to find locations to actually have access," Ordunez explains.

Why Starbucks instead of the library? "Well, the library opens like at 10 o'clock or something," he says.

Elvis Summers is not part of any nonprofit or government agency. He's just a 38-year-old guy with a Mohawk and tattooed arms who started a GoFundMe campaign last spring so he could build tiny houses for homeless people to live in. He got the idea after befriending a homeless woman in his neighborhood.

"It just got to me, you know, I'm just like, you know, everybody in this neighborhood knows you, they like you," he says. "Why does nobody give a crap that you're sleeping in the dirt? Literally."

About 7 percent of homeless people live in rural areas, but homeless advocates say services in those areas don't get as much federal funding as they deserve — partly because the number of homeless people might be underestimated.