Opinion Columns & Blogs

Motor nomads of San Luis Obispo need a place to park

Diane and Bob, self-described members of the 'motor homeless,' photographed with the 34-foot RV they call home.
Diane and Bob, self-described members of the 'motor homeless,' photographed with the 34-foot RV they call home.

Bob is an amiable sort; a tall, angular man with a vocabulary as wide as his range of interests — which may have been honed over the years while working as a bartender in such places at St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands.

Aside from some dental problems, the 53-year-old Memphis, Tenn., native seems to be in robust good health, especially in light of the fact that he and his wife of 32 years, Diane, are members of San Luis Obispo’s homeless population. Or, as Bob describes his situation: the motor homeless.

It’s a growing population whose ranks are swelling each day in towns and cities: people are living in cars, campers, motor homes and recreational vehicles as their primary residences.

Places like San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara — where the cost of living has outstripped head-of-household jobs — have created tribes of mobile working poor.

Because it’s against the law to sleep in a vehicle on city streets, most of the people who have had to adapt to this lifestyle would just as soon not draw any attention to their plight; they’d prefer to quietly blend in, moving their vehicles around industrial sections of town every few days. It’s tiring and anxiety-driven to be what’s called in some circles a Stealth Van Dweller.

As noted, though, Bob is a good-natured soul who is willing to talk about his situation in the hopes that he and others won’t have to worry about breaking the law, getting rousted or becoming victims of crimes.

There’s a route to that end, and it’s being followed in places like Seattle, Eugene, Ore., and Santa Barbara. In the latter’s case, the city simply got worn down — emotionally and manpower-wise — by moving people around each night.

So, several years ago, Santa Barbara partnered with a humanitarian group called New Beginnings Counseling Center and passed an ordinance that allows the city’s motor homeless to use city parking lots from 7 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. each night. Bob and others would like to see the same ordinance passed in San Luis Obispo County.

Bob’s route to San Luis is a bit circuitous. Although born in Memphis, he was raised in San Jose. As soon as he turned 18, he headed out to the Sierra foothills where he helped his half brother Larry build a barn in Old Town Auburn. He ended up staying in the foothills for the next eight years, bartending and helping Larry on construction jobs.

When a cousin working at an oil refinery in the Virgin Islands asked him if he wanted to take a three-week vacation in St. Croix, those three weeks turned into eight years for the Bob and Diane.

His next stop was a vacation in Belize — and he and Diane ended up staying in that country for eight years, Bob working as a furniture maker and craftsman. He landed in San Luis in 2007 to help his mother, who lives in an age-restricted mobile- home park in San Luis, with her recovery from surgery.

Bob and Diane held down part-time jobs, that is, until Bob received notice that his graveyard shift, truck-driving job will be eliminated by Feb. 7. If you know of anything out there, contact him at gringobodi@yahoo.com.

Bottom line is that their 34-foot motor home is all they can afford in a town in which the median monthly rent is $1,070 and median mortgages are more than $2,000 a month, according to the Homeless Services Coordinating Council.

Yet there isn’t an ounce of self-pity in Bob or Diane. They’re ever optimistic about things turning around, and keep their eyes on the horizon for any opportunity.

That horizon includes San Luis Obispo adopting Santa Barbara’s program. Here’s how it works: Your vehicle — from a car to an RV — has to be insured and registered; the driver has to be licensed; and each lot will accept only five vehicles.

The reason for so few vehicles, Supervisor Adam Hill said, is to address any kind of noise issues. Also, while the city of Eugene provides sanitation and trash pickup services at its lots, Santa Barbara does not, which seems baffling.

Members of New Beginnings visit each municipal lot during the evening and offer help in finding solutions for the motor homeless.

Hill believes the county would support a similar program if it could partner with a church or organization such as the Interfaith Council, which already coordinates area churches in operating overflow shelters.

He adds that the homeless council has been studying Santa Barbara’s program, and it’s on the council’s agenda when it meets Wednesday, Jan. 19, at 1 p.m. at the San Luis Obispo Veterans Memorial Building on Grand Avenue.

As Hill has observed, those living in vehicles aren’t your typical homeless. They may have had their home foreclosed, or recently lost a job in a tough economy.

Or, like Bob and Diane: Underemployed and living in a costly area, simply looking for a helping hand, not a handout.There but for the grace ?