Prior to the Great Recession, Adkins owned and ran a successful plant nursery in Moab, Utah. At its peak, it was grossing $300,000 a year. She had never before been unemployed â€“ she’d worked for 40 years, through three major recessions. During her first year of unemployment, in 2010, she wrote three or four cover letters a day, five days a week. Now, to keep her mind occupied when she’s not looking for work or doing odd jobs, she volunteers at an animal shelter called the Santa BarbaraÂ Wildlife Care Network. ("I always ask for the most physically hard jobs just to get out my frustration," she says.) She has permission to pick fruit directly from the branches of the shelter’s orange and avocado trees. Another benefit is that when she scrambles eggs to hand-feed wounded seabirds, she can surreptitiously make a dish for herself.
By the time Adkins goes to bed â€“ early, because she has to get up soon after sunrise, before parishioners or church employees arrive â€“ the four other people who overnight in the lot have usually settled in: a single mother who lives in a van with her two teenage children and keeps assiduously to herself, and a wrathful, mentally unstable woman in an old Mercedes sedan whom Adkins avoids. By mutual unspoken agreement, the three women park in the same spots every night, keeping a minimum distance from each other. When you live in your car in a parking lot, you value any reliable area of enclosing stillness. "You get very territorial," Adkins says.
Each evening, 150 people in 113 vehicles spend the night in 23 parking lots in Santa Barbara. The lots are part of Safe Parking, a program that offers overnight permits to people living in their vehicles. The nonprofit that runs the program, New Beginnings Counseling Center, requires participants to have a valid driver’s license and current registration and insurance. The number of vehicles per lot ranges from one to 15, and lot hours are generally from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Fraternization among those who sleep in the lots is implicitly discouraged â€“ the fainter the program’s presence, the less likely it will provoke complaints from neighboring homes and churches and businesses.
The Safe Parking program is not the product of a benevolent government. Santa Barbara’s mild climate and sheltered beachfront have long attracted the homeless, and the city has sometimes responded with punitive measures. (An appeals court compared one city ordinance forbidding overnight RV parking to anti-Okie laws in the 1930s.) To aid Santa Barbara’s large homeless population, local activists launched the Safe Parking program in 2003. But since the Great Recession began, the number of lots and participants in the program has doubled. By 2009, formerly middle-class people like Janis Adkins had begun turning up â€“ teachers and computer repairmen and yoga instructors seeking refuge in the city’s parkingÂ lots. Safe-parking programs in other cities have experienced a similar influx of middle-class exiles, and their numbers are not expected to decrease anytime soon. It can take years for unemployed workers from the middle class to burn through their resources â€“ savings, credit, salable belongings, home equity, loans from family and friends. Some 5.4 million Americans have been without work for at least six months, and an estimated 750,000 of them are completely broke or heading inexorably toward destitution. In California, where unemployment remains at 11 percent, middle-class refugees like Janis Adkins are only the earliest arrivals. "She’s the tip of the iceberg," says Nancy Kapp, the coordinator of the Safe Parking program. "There are many people out there who haven’t hit bottom yet, but they’re on their way â€“ they’re on their way."
Kapp, who was herself homeless for a time many years ago, is blunt, indefatigÂable, raptly empathetic. She works out of a minuscule office in the Salvation Army building in downtown Santa Barbara. On the wall is a map encompassing the program’s parking lots â€“ a vivid graphic of the fall of the middle class. Kapp expects more disoriented, newly impoverished families to request spots in the Safe Parking program this year, and next year, and the year after that.
"When you come to me, you’ve hit rock bottom," Kapp says. "You’ve already done everything you possibly could to avoid being homeless. You maybe have a teeny bit of savings left. People are crying, they’re saying, ‘I’ve never experienced this before. I’ve never been homeless.’ They don’t want to mix with homeless people. They’re like, ‘I’m not going over to those people’ â€“ sometimes they call them ‘those people.’ So now they’re lost, they’re humiliated, they’re rejected, they’re scared, and they’re very ashamed. I’m worried about the psychological damage it does when you have a place and then, all of a sudden, you’re in your car. You have to be depressed just from the fall itself, from losing everything and not understanding how it could happen."
Then there is this.
The next thing welfare applicants must do is disclose every possession and conceivable source of income they have. "I can’t tell you how many people come to my office and say, ‘I couldn’t get food stamps because my car is worth too much,’" Kapp tells me. "OK, you have a car. But you’ve lost everything â€“ your house, your job, your pride â€“ and all you have left is that car and all of your belongings in it. And they say, ‘You still have too much. Lose it all.’ You have to have nothing, when you already have nothing."
Janis Adkins hadn’t been back in Santa Barbara long before she needed to apply for government assistance. She had never asked for aid before. At the California Department of Social Services, she filled out the form for emergency food stamps.
"I didn’t wear my best clothes, but I wore a light blouse and jeans, and I guess I was just a little too dressed up," she recalls. "Because the woman just looked at me and said, ‘Are you in a crisis? Your application says you’re in a crisis.’ I said, ‘I’m living in a van and I don’t have a job. I have a little bit of money, but it’s going to go fast.’ The woman said, ‘You have $500. You’re not in a crisis if you have $500.’ She said anything more than $50 was too much."
If Adkins had filled her tank with gas, done her laundry, eaten a meal, and paid her car insurance and phone bills, it would have used up half of everything she had. But emergency food stamps, she was told, are not for imminent emergencies; they’re for emergencies already in progress. You can’t get them if you can make it through the next week â€“ you have to be down to the last few meals you can afford.
"The money’s for my phone, it’s for gas, it’s for my bills," Adkins said.
"Why are you in a crisis," the woman asked, "when you have a phone bill?"
"I need the phone so I can get a job. You can’t look for a job without a phone."
"Why do you have bills?" the woman asked. "I thought you didn’t have a place to live."
"I live in my van," Adkins said. "I have insurance."
"You have a 2007 van," the woman said. "I think you need to sell that."
"Please, I need a break," Adkins said. "I need some help. I need to take a shower."
"Why didn’t you have a shower?"
"I live in a van."
The woman told Adkins to come back when she really needed help.
This is the saddest and probably most messed up thing I have read in a long time.