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Mobile Homeless

Greg and Jacque Amdal
Home Sweet Homeless: Greg and Jacque Amdal lost their Cupertino duplex when Greg's disability benefits were severed. The couple moved to Grant Park and then to Mount Madonna (above). Greg's employer owes Greg several thousand dollars in disability and back pay, and the couple hopes to obtain the money and move back into a permanent home.

Photo by Christopher Gardner

Between the shelter and the streets lies a place where some homeless people can hold onto their dignity and enjoy the view-- the great, publicly subsidized outdoors.

By Traci Hukill

LAST NIGHT'S wine-and-mushroom sauce is still sticky in the pan as Linda eases back in a lawn chair next to her campsite's firepit, novel in hand and dog at her feet. Dressed in stretchy leggings and a bright T-shirt, she looks just like scores of vacationers enjoying Uvas Canyon Park and other parks throughout the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Jose. She skipped the makeup this morning. She's relaxed and grateful for the peace, happy to not be working today. But Linda isn't on vacation. She and her boyfriend, Glen, live here, and this is her day off.

To other campers here at Uvas in the mountains just above Morgan Hill, Linda and Glen's campsite, with its aging travel trailer and smattering of lawn chairs, might look like any other. They're sharing a space with a couple from the Midwest, Ken and Marie, whose roomy purple tent rests on a springy bed of pine needles. They could easily be friends just getting away from it all for a week.

But a fellow camper on her way to the cinder-block restrooms 50 yards away might pick up on something indefinable about the site as she passed: a subdued sense of calm, the presence of everyday rhythms rather than the blithe chaos of vacation. These four haven't pulled a La-Z-Boy up to the campfire, but they're settled in nevertheless, and it shows.

"This is a respectable way to be homeless," Linda says evenly, her gaze unwavering. "We're not pushing a shopping cart somewhere. We're not begging for money. We all hold jobs, we all pay taxes."

Well, almost all of them do. Glen, a civil engineer, is in town seeking work today. It's been hard since he and Linda arrived here from Southern California two years ago, but things may be looking up: Not long ago he was short-listed for the position of assistant director of public works in a Bay Area city. Linda herself works as a medical assistant for people who don't know she lives traveling from campground to campground.

"People don't understand," she says. "They look down their noses at you." They would have been in a house a long time ago, she explains, reaching down to scratch her goofy Rottweiler-mutt's head, if housing weren't so expensive and if landlords took dogs. In the meantime she presents a seamless facade of normalcy to most of the world. (To protect that privacy, her name, and others in this story, has been changed.)

Maintaining the illusion of a mainstream lifestyle poses special problems, she explains. You need an address and a telephone number in order to get a job and a job in order to get a house. If you land a job, you need to be able to shower every day, to show up groomed and dressed in clean clothes. That's hard to do in the woods.

Linda and Glen have a mailbox at Mailboxes Etc., which provides them with a street address that looks on paper like a residence. They use a cell phone hooked up to an answering machine in their trailer so Glen won't miss calls from possible employers. Since most of the county parks don't have showers, they use a solar shower bag.

It's not a luxurious lifestyle, but it's cheaper than a motel and better than a shelter. At $10 a night--and split four ways at that--the county parks system is the best thing going. With the money they save they're able to splurge now and then. Last night they even dined on pork tenderloin in mushroom sauce with Caesar salad and wine. "We eat well because we can afford it," Linda shrugs.

"The human species has made good with cooking over a fire for a long, long time," neighbor Ken adds. He works as a school kitchen manager, a job he was able to get thanks to a conveniently located telephone at Grant County Park on Mt. Hamilton Road. In his early 30s, Ken has an optimistic air about him these days. In less than a week he and Marie are moving into a condominium after doing the campground circuit since their arrival in the Golden State last fall. Just as it serves untold numbers of other newcomers to California, the parks system provided the couple with lodging while they got on their feet.

"If I had it all to do over again, I'd do it again like this," he says, popping open a Pepsi from Linda's propane-run fridge.

"If you can handle it, it's a great way to live," Linda agrees. Then, looking up at the canopy of tree branches and the chirping blue jays, she asks a rhetorical question: "Would you rather live up here with this for a back yard or in a scummy hotel?"

But Marie, who with her pale, veiny skin and jet-black hair looks like Morticia Addams in jeans and a tank top, is relieved to be leaving this lifestyle behind. Her spacious tent's interior bears the stamp of a woman restless to do some good old-fashioned nesting: It has a tiny bookcase, a houseplant and a right-angled tidiness that looks almost military. As she files her beautiful nails, which, like Linda's, are manicured but dirty, she adds her piece to the conversation.

"You get crabby every two weeks when you know you're going to have to move," she murmurs.

She's referring to the county parks' summertime 14-day stay limit, a condition imposed to ensure that all the taxpayers get a piece of the park pie. That means small bands like these two couples, who migrate together for security against thieves, are constantly on the move. Linda's an old hand at it by now and knows the ins and outs of the circuit. "You do your two weeks at Grant and Coyote early in the summer," she says, "because it gets too hot there later." Next it's Uvas and Mount Madonna, followed by Sanborn Skyline. They'll run out of campgrounds before they run out of summer and will probably head to Half Moon Bay to finish out the season.

Linda, Glen, Marie and Ken consider themselves "regular people who ran on bad luck at a bad time." They're friends with the rangers, they say, and help keep an eye on the place. But not everyone doing this is desirable company, they warn. They've seen people set up ramshackle tent cities in the parks and met families with 10-year-old kids who can't read because they've never gone to school.

For Linda and Glen, the campground circuit may become a long-term solution to the problems raised when a single income meets astronomical rents head-on. And although it's better than life in a shelter, the lines in Linda's pretty but tired face suggest that the constant relocating is getting old.

"After two years, I'm tired of it," she admits. "It's hard to stay clean up here. They should have showers." Having obviously put a lot of thought into this, though, she quickly adds, "But then again, showers attract people."

Too many people, not enough money. It's the song heard 'round the circuit.

Dog Days: Like his owners, this resident at Uvas Canyon Park prefers the summer months for camping out.

Photo by Christopher Gardner

PITCHING A TENT when money gets scarce is nothing new. During the Depression, Yosemite National Park overflowed with people "camping out" for the summer. Says park historian Jim Snyder, "Up until 20 years ago it was quite common for people to spend the whole summer here. We had no way to tell who was homeless. Some were doing their normal summer routine; others were living here because there was nowhere else to go. Oh, they weren't dirt-poor homeless. They had to have a car to get here."

A large automobile or an RV, in fact, is often one of the first steps out of homelessness, says Karen Gillette of Santa Cruz's Homeless Community Resource Center. People who are utterly indigent can't usually get to a campground to begin with. And since most of the Santa Cruz­based homeless who camp out in the nearby Henry Cowell and Sunset state parks continue to participate in meal programs, vehicles are doubly necessary.

But not everyone who uses the parks system as temporary housing is leaving the shelter system, as Linda and Glen's story illustrates. Many of them are newcomers to the area who can't or don't want to pay $50 to $60 a night to stay in a motel while they look for housing. As everyone knows, the housing markets in both Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties are notoriously tight, and move-in costs of $2,000 or more for first and last month plus security deposit for a one-bedroom apartment are commonplace. Add to that burden the sheer masses of people looking for housing (30,000 people moved to Santa Clara County last year) and vacancy rates that plunged to below 1 percent last June and a grim picture begins to emerge of--what else?--too many people and not enough money.

Sunset Beach State Park Supervising Ranger Stephanie Price has seen it all before. "I've seen the same thing everywhere, from Orange County to Henry Cowell: people camping out so they can scrape together first and last month's rent plus deposit," she says. "We don't discourage them from coming as long as they're paying their fees."

Sometimes people come with the intention of camping out while they scrape together that precious chunk of money and then get stuck, unprepared for Santa Clara County's high cost of living.

Melanie and her family followed husband and dad Jim from their home in the San Joaquin Valley to his contract job in the Silicon Valley (Jim's a lineman for Pacific Bell) in mid-June. They gave up their $575-dollar-a-month, three-bedroom, two-bathroom house in a town near Fresno and made the trip to Santa Clara County with the intention of moving here for the summer. It would be fun to be with Jim while the kids were out of school. One look at the housing ads changed that plan.

"I can't believe the prices out here," says an astounded Melanie, an effervescent mother of five in her mid-30s. "We're going home."

She's been at Grant Park for a week when these words first pass her lips. Three of the kids have poison oak, but their camp is tidy and everyone seems pretty happy.

A week later the family has moved to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. The poison oak has cleared up, but the camp's a mess, and Melanie's bravado is wearing thin. Just as she did last week, she airily declares, "This is fun for us. But we're leaving. We're going back home." The difference, after seven additional days outdoors, is that now her eyes don't meet mine as she speaks.

Fortunately for her and her kids, Melanie's personal faith emanates from her in near-palpable waves. Her family will get through, but others might not be so lucky.

Line of Communication: Ken uses a cellular phone while living at Uvas Canyon Park. His camping days are coming to an end, however, and he's made plans to move into a condominium.

JESSE AND TYLER, 4 and 5 years old, are the first in their camp to wake up on a foggy Mount Madonna morning. Seizing an unsupervised moment, they tear around the rudimentary bathrooms on their Big Wheels, racing each other through the hollow corridor between a free-standing wall and the restroom entrances. Slowly their older sisters, ages 9, 10 and 12, emerge from tents and the decrepit travel trailer hung with a blue tarp on one side.

The sprawling campsite, a short, proprietary distance from the bathroom, is the very picture of squalor. A clothesline burdened with jeans and plaid shirts hangs between two trees; the picnic table is loaded with two dish drainers, empty jars and boxes of food, and a crusty old Coleman two-burner stove. A kitten huddles near the tree it's tied to, a few scraggly houseplants adorn the front of the travel trailer, and an oddly proportioned pull-along cart rests off to the side.

Gina is 35 years old and looks 10 years older. Three of the five bickering children are hers; Tyler and his older sister are the kids of some folks Gina and her ex-husband, with whom she's reunited for "the kids' sake," met at Agnews Shelter. The two families pooled their resources, she says, and headed up to the parks as soon as they could.

"This is lots better than the shelter we were in," she says. "My kids got food poisoning there. And you have to be out by 8:30 in the morning no matter what, even if your kids are sick.

"My biggest complaint is the cold," she goes on. "It's not good for the kids."

They've been on the circuit for six weeks now. Gina's story is the kind shelter workers hear all the time. It starts with an abusive mother and a poor education and winds up 20 years later with an abusive boyfriend (not her ex-husband), an eviction and an inability to work because she must care for her youngest child.

"We've been worse off before," she says, handing me a cup of watery coffee. Everyone in the camp, I notice, drinks coffee, even 4-year-old Jesse. "I figure if my kids are with me and they're eating and they have shelter over their heads, things are basically OK."

She has no idea how long her situation will last. She gets AFDC and food stamps, and the other three adults are in Watsonville looking for work today. "If work doesn't come along soon," she grumbles, "no telling how long we'll be like this."

Regardless of how long before they can get into housing, their stay at Mount Madonna is drawing to a close. They're headed to Coyote in a few days.

Tyler's sister, Monica, is a pretty 9-year-old in a pink fleece jacket. Does she like camping out? She nods. Has she camped out with her family a lot? She hesitates a moment before answering in her best schoolroom-recitation voice:

"Yes. We're explorers."

SANTA CLARA COUNTY Parks and Recreation turns a glassy eye and a silver tongue to the issue of homeless people in its campgrounds. Says Tamara Clark-Shear, the department's spokeswoman, "No, we don't have any problems with homeless people staying in our parks. We don't know that they're homeless. We don't make that assumption. As long as they abide by the rules and aren't a nuisance, they have every right to stay there."

A reluctance to discriminate against homeless people probably isn't the reason for departmental reticence on the subject, however. Far more likely a reason is the public outcry raised last spring when a Santa Cruz­based homeless activist group called Save Our Shelters proposed using the state parks system to house homeless people. Starting in December, Save Our Shelters placed about 40 people at New Brighton Beach for several months, courtesy of the Santa Cruz City Council and private donors.

"I think it's an appropriate use of our state parks," says SOS organizer Sherry Conable. "But people from all over the country were calling, saying, 'Now we can't come to California. We don't want to be next to homeless people.' The state parks had been looking the other way, but when it became a formal program, they did everything they could to stop it."

This reluctance to coexist with the transients stems from another problem: Many of Santa Cruz's homeless people are mentally ill, and most folks are uneasy with mentally ill people. And as Karen Gillette, whose Homeless Community Resource Center offers day services and counseling, points out, "It's a little disingenuous of us to pretend that a lot of our clients are Joe Average."

The fact is, contrary to Clark-Shear's claim, people in transition are pretty easy to spot in the campgrounds, mentally ill or not. They stay in one place for a long time, and they're not particularly happy. Some of them drink. That puts the park rangers, who are by and large an amiable lot, in a bad situation as the first line of state authority.

Says Red Bell, a ranger at Sanborn Skyline Park, "Yeah, we get a few that come in and set up. At $8 a night it's cheaper than anything else. Sometimes they don't keep their campsite clean. Some of them have problems, drinking and so forth ..." his voice trails off. "A lot of them are down on their luck, maybe," he says finally.

Caught between compassion for people in need and the department's don't-ask-don't-tell policy on the subject, most of the rangers remain close-mouthed. It's understandable. Nobody wants to play cop, and besides, people do have a right to enjoy the parks system, no matter who they are or what their houses are made of.

GRANT COUNTY PARK has been a godsend for Greg and Jacque Amdal (their real names), a disabled couple in their 40s. In May they were living in a duplex in Cupertino when they learned that Greg's benefits, which included half-pay while he was on medical leave, had been severed. Out of money, without medical insurance and facing eviction, the two started the laborious process of moving out. It was slow going. Jacque, who has osteoarthritis, is in a wheelchair. Greg suffered a back injury 18 months ago and has been on medical leave ever since.

In mid-June, after nearly three weeks spent moving their household into storage, the two found themselves with no place to go. Help from family members wasn't forthcoming, Jacque says, and as for friends, well, "My husband's a very proud man," she explains briefly, and leaves it at that.

A shelter was out of the question--"Not with my bird and my cat"--and so the Amdals loaded up their Ford Econoline 150 conversion van (on which Jacque's still making $200 monthly payments) and went camping.

Camping isn't easy for people in wheelchairs, as Jacque has learned. At Grant, where the campground lies on a hill, even the handicapped space is too steep to negotiate in a wheelchair. She's dependent on Greg for everything, even trips to the bathroom.

They've been here a week when I meet Jacque. She's a petite, attractive woman with a boyish haircut that's at odds with the dark circles under her eyes. Clean, dressed in tie-dyed overall shorts and wearing a gold cross, she's determinedly chipper. Her campsite is immaculate and well-appointed. Candlesticks grace the picnic table and a trunk in the large tent serves as a coffee table. The Coleman stove, grill and lantern are all shiny and new, and assorted bright mesh bags for silverware, dishes and dirty clothes hang from the park-furnished food safes. I comment that she's well-prepared for this.

"You know, I've always been a camper, and I enjoy camping. If this weren't a have-to, it would be enjoyable."

Inside the van, a fluffy 14-year-old cat lives with a caged cockatiel beneath a "Home, Sweet Home" plaque hung from the paneling. The Amdals sleep in the van, and from the looks of things, they're going to have to get used to it.

As Jacque figures it, Greg's former employer owes them several thousand dollars in disability and back pay. They're waiting for that chunk of money, but delivery is not guaranteed. In the meantime, they survive on state disability checks, which amount to less than $1,000 a month combined. It's enough to keep them in the parks system indefinitely, but not enough to get into a house anytime soon.

The Amdals are on the slipperiest of slopes: One wrong move, one more minor catastrophe, and they could slide from their precarious position as "people in transition" to "homeless couple." The peace, privacy and dignity afforded them by the parks system helps keep that specter at bay and allows them to believe their situation is temporary, and that it isn't hopeless.

MANY BUREAUCRATS would prefer not to illuminate the state and county parks systems' shadow role as a safety net for thousands of newcomers and displaced families--for understandable reasons. In a county like Santa Cruz, for example, where tourism is the leading industry, it just doesn't pay to advertise that the family in the next campsite might be wondering how they're going to stretch two packages of hot dogs into next week.

Nor would it pay to advertise that friendly park rangers are stalking around sniffing out people in unfortunate circumstances and giving them the boot if officials decide to take action and ban homeless camping.

Possibly the Santa Clara County Parks and Recreation Department's reluctance to address the reality of homeless campers reflects our culture's deep ambivalence about unsightly or unfortunate people: No one really wants to look at them, but no one wants to be the Scrooge who kicks them out of the way, either.

When my boyfriend and I moved to California almost two years ago, we knew no one in town. We had no jobs, and since the fall quarter had just begun, housing that fit into our student budget was next to impossible to find. It didn't matter, anyway; we first needed jobs in order to get a house.

So we used the Cupertino address of a friend, signed up with an answering service accessible to us by pay phone and camped out of our car while we looked for jobs and sent out résumés typed up at a Mailboxes Etc. on a rented computer.

There is no experience to rival the frustration of dressing for an interview in the woods. We were rumpled and bedheaded, tired and sick of driving. I landed a job as a coffee jerk after a couple weeks, and a week or two after that we rented a room from an aspiring slumlord.

A month isn't long to camp out. Families do it for fun all the time. We became experts at pitching our tent in the dark. We could break camp and be out of Henry Cowell or Mount Madonna in 10 minutes. At first we joked about hanging our diplomas on the tent walls. We joked about being the Beverly Hillbillies.

About a week and a half into it we stopped joking. The camping life is hard if it's not truly a vacation. But tiresome as camping became, there's no doubt in my mind that we would have left California had it not been for the parks system. (And who knows? Maybe we should have. California already had too many people when we showed up.)

The idea of camping out still shimmered with adventure even after the reality of it had begun to rust. We knew that later we would reminisce about our camping days, mentally filter out the dirt in the tent and the cold nights and the scared feeling we started getting as the weeks rolled by, and determine that we'd been plucky. Staying in a shelter, on the other hand, would have felt like disaster from beginning to end, and we would not have put the photos from that time in an album.

Before I fell asleep each night I imagined how my house, when I finally found one, would look. It would have plants, a bathtub lined with bottles of bubble bath, a shelf for tea. I coveted drawers and closets and lusted after a porch to sweep.

It's been said that most people--even those on suburban streets with Toyotas out front and VCRs in the living room--are just a few paychecks away from homelessness, just two or three bad months away from lying in bed shivering and fantasizing about rolling out of a warm bed and showering in their own bathrooms. Just a season's time away from dreaming, as I did each night before falling asleep, as Marie does when she straightens her sleeping-bag bed so that it's perfectly centered in her impeccably clean tent, of a place to unpack their bags and call home.

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From the July 10-16, 1997 issue of Metro.

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