Moving from 4 walls to 4 wheels

Foreclosure sign

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: Even with the jobless rate at 5 and a half percent...the unemployment situation in this country's pretty good by most measures. But what about the *under-employed? People who have sporadic or maybe regular part-time work... ...but they aren't making enough to cover the costs of food and permanent housing. Marketplace's Jennifer Collins visited one strip of pavement here in Los Angeles that some of them call home.


JENNIFER COLLINS: Gary Crowe shares his home with his adult son and two dogs. And there's something else he wants you to know: Everything he owns hums along very well, thank you.

GARY CROWE: Microwave, stove, oven. Everything works.

And everything has its place. Even if the fridge is practically on top of the shower.

Gary lives in a 10-foot camper hitched to the back of a pick-up truck. Three years ago he lived in a house. But when his expenses climbed above $2,000 a month, Gary didn't make enough as a freelance mechanic to cover the bills.

Crowe: The rent just got way too high. And I didn't have a choice.

Gary pays about $500 a month to keep his gas tank full and his generator running. He rarely notices the traffic that rattles his home as it flies by on Riverside Drive. That's the thoroughfare just north of downtown Los Angeles where Gary parks. These days, Riverside is starting to get very crowded.

Crowe: Well, if you look down the street, you see all these motorhomes. About a year ago they wasn't all there. But it just seems like it's getting worse.

Social workers from Oregon to Georgia say they're seeing clusters of dilapidated vans and motorhomes cropping up along byways throughout the country. As food and rent become more expensive, they say some people are trying to save money by living in their vehicles. Many have day jobs. But at night their home is wherever they roll.

Michael Stoops is the acting director for the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Michael Stoops: I promise you we will see a tremendous increase over the next couple years in people living in their vehicles.

He says homeless organizations need to designate safe overnight parking. Very few places have programs like that. So, in cities like L.A., nearby homeowners complain about the dinged-up campers. Police order the homeless to move along. But there are rarely enough places to park.

And even the homeless worry about the people who share their streets.

Steve: He wont! No I don't gotta ask him. He...

That's Steve. He won't give his last name because he sells heroin for a living. A sign on his RV says "Welcome" in big letters. Just outside, there's a woman trying to hawk her engagement ring. Steve says his customers have been pretty desperate lately.

Steve: Even people who do drugs have no money. The working economy, if they don't have no money, then the people that bring me their money can't get no money.

Steve says his income is only a sliver of what it was in more prosperous times. But he sticks to the same streets. He says his customers need to know where to find him.

Just down Riverside there's Sam Tejada. Sam's got a family that depends on him back home in El Salvador. His 18-year-old daughter is in college there. He sends remittances whenever he can.

SAM TEJADA: If you no send it for my family, my family, you know, is no good.

Sam works in construction but the jobs have been spotty these days. To save money, he moved into a motorhome. And that's how Sam ended up sharing the streets with Gary, Steve and dozens of others.

Tejada: Sometimes the people think when somebody live like me, maybe this guy makes drugs or drinking, or maybe he doesn't work. Something like that. Maybe he's illegal.

Sam's lived here for 14 years. He has papers to prove he's legal, but he's thinking of giving it all up.

Tejada: The economy situation is no good. Maybe five months, if the situation is going to be like that, I come back to my country.

Maybe it's the wheels under their feet, but almost everyone on Riverside talks about moving on. It's only a matter of when.

I'm Jennifer Collins for Marketplace.

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