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House prices force Americans to sleep in cars

Daily Telegraph

House prices force Americans to sleep in cars

Increasing numbers of women and elderly people are taking advantage of a scheme in one of America’s wealthiest cities that enables the homeless to sleep safely in their cars at night.

Organisers of the programme say they are seeing ever more unlikely people living out of their cars in the exclusive beachfront city of Santa Barbara, where the average house costs more than $1 million(£500,000). Many hold down part-time jobs while bedding down for the night in their vehicles.

Barbara Harvey, who worked as a loan processor, told CNN she had little choice but to live in her car after losing both her job and her apartment. She had been spending more than 75 percent of her income on rent.

Now she lives in her Honda SUV with her two golden retrievers, sleeping in one of the two women-only car park refuges run by New Beginnings Counselling Centre, a community outreach organisation.

“It went to hell in a handbasket,” the 67-year-old told CNN. “I didn’t think this would happen to me. It’s just something that I don’t think that people think is going to happen to them is what it amounts to. It happens very quickly, too.”

New Beginnings runs 15 car parks in the affluent city where the homeless can park at night. The lots are owned by churches, non-profit organisations, city and county authorities and open from 7pm when staff have left for the day to 7am. Two are women-only. The programme is thought to be the only one of its kind in the nation.

Nancy Kapp, New Beginnings car park coordinator, said she was seeing increasing demand for the programme due to the economic downturn. “The way the economy is going, it’s just amazing the people that are becoming homeless. It’s hit the middle class,” she told CNN.

Gary Linker, executive director of New Beginnings, said the majority of people taking advantage of the programme remained those “who have struggled with homelessness for a number of years and have always been part of an underclass.”

Nevertheless, one third of users hold down part-time jobs, he said, including Mrs Harvey, who earns eight dollars an hour and also collects social security payments. Another woman staying in the gated car park each night works as a city council car park attendant, he added.

But part-time work was not enough to enable the homeless to afford accommodation in the exclusive enclave, Mr Linker said. “People who have viable jobs who don’t make enough money to get by live in their vehicles. Santa Barbara is a little unusual in that respect as this is a very expensive town to live in.”

He said it was unlikely the city would see an influx of people rendered homeless because of the foreclosure crisis. “Santa Barbara is a very affluent community and people who come here to live are not that hand-to-mouth nor that speculative.” But he predicted the situation could be different in less wealthy areas and said New Beginnings had been inundated with calls from local authorities in other states keen to start similar programmes.

Mrs Harvey, a mother of three adult children, said her situation had upset her 19-year-old daughter, who moved in with friends to avoid becoming homeless.

“Sometimes she’ll cry and she’ll call and say, ‘Mom, I just can’t stand it that you are living in a car’,” Mrs Harvey told CNN. “I’ll say, ‘You know what? This is OK for right now because I’m safe, I’m healthy, the dogs are doing OK and I have a job and things will get better’.”

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