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Living in Your Car as a Pandemic Consumes Your City

A “safe parking lot” in San Diego is a haven and a holding pattern during the coronavirus lockdown and an ongoing housing crisis.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Topher Bloomquist had been living in his car for nearly a year when California imposed its stay-at-home order to combat the novel coronavirus pandemic. Bloomquist, a 43-year-old former I.T. worker from San Diego, was scraping by as a food courier for delivery apps like Postmates and DoorDash. “I was keeping my head above water, but it was just above water,” Bloomquist told me. That was, until a Shop-Vac fell from a truck while he was driving and smashed into his car. The engine limped along but eventually stopped running. Without a functioning vehicle to make deliveries, he was not only homeless but out of work, too.

Bloomquist traced his spiral to homelessness to another auto accident, in October 2017. Before then, life was normal. He rented a house with a yard where his dog, a Goldendoodle named Stellabelle, could play. He had a job that allowed him to support his children. But one day, a car slammed into his body while he was crossing a street. Still conscious after the impact, he used his arms to drag himself across the asphalt out of the way of oncoming traffic. “I was holding my leg, and it was just a bag of blood and bones,” he said. While recovering, he negotiated a deal with his landlord to let him stay and repay his debt once he got back on his feet. The arrangement fell through, and in April 2019, he and Stellabelle spent their first night sleeping in his car, a burgundy 2006 Audi A-3 hatchback he had purchased back when times were better. Vehicular living is illegal in San Diego County. He was grateful to have tinted windows, at least.

In California, a state with the nation’s largest population of unhoused people,  it’s not uncommon to see people sleeping in their cars at night. Of the state’s 130,000 unhoused people, thousands find shelter in vehicles. Los Angeles County, where car dwelling is also illegal, counted 16,500 people doing so in 2019. These include not only chronically unhoused people, but full-time workers, couples, and families who can’t afford the state’s high cost of living.

The sheer number of unhoused Californians left them particularly vulnerable to the threat of Covid-19, and many are struggling to stay safe in the face of an inadequate state response. 

As of this writing, nearly 4,000 Californians have died from Covid-19 since the first case was reported in January, and 90,000 people have been diagnosed with the virus. The state started renting hotel rooms in mid-March and purchased travel trailers to house people during the pandemic. In San Diego, the city opened the downtown convention center as a temporary shelter. Still, advocates have called on the state to do more to protect the most vulnerable. In Los Angeles in April, a federal judge admonished city officials for letting more than 80 percent of handwashing stations along Skid Row go dry without soap for days. Another federal ruling stopped city law enforcement officials from seizing bulky items owned by people camped on the street. 

Since 2004, some Californians living in cars have been able to move into “Safe Parking Lots” established by nonprofits in cities across the state. At these facilities, residents are paired with a caseworker to help them find permanent housing. Until they do, they can sleep without worry of violence or police harassment. (Cops have continued to issue tickets to unhoused people throughout the pandemic.) In March, after nearly a year in the car, Bloomquist moved into a safe lot run by a group called Dreams for Change, which operates two facilities in the county and a food truck to serve the people living there. 

Dreams for Change paid to tow his broken-down Audi to one of its small lots near the 805 freeway, where he found a spot among about 25 other vans, sedans, and R.V.s. His new community included a range of people: an out-of-work preschool teacher, a construction worker, a plumber, food service employees, and delivery workers.

Lots like these serve as a lifeline to hundreds of hard-up families, but in this pandemic age, it remains difficult to practice social distancing. “It’s tough because it’s a social group, and it’s a social program,” Teresa Smith, the nonprofit’s CEO, told me. “There is obviously a great concern of being in a group environment like that.” 

Smith started the program in San Diego County in response to the Great Recession. But even as the economy rebounded, demand never let up. Since then, the lack of housing affordability in the area has only grown worse. Today, San Diego is one of the nation’s most expensive cities to live in. A 2019 study by mortgage finance giant Freddie Mac found that America’s Finest City has the second-highest population of “rent-burdened” residents in the United States—meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their household income on rent—second only to Miami. Today, the median home price in the county is $619,887, according to Zillow. And at more than $1,800 per month, the average rent isn’t affordable, either. “The housing crisis has impacted everyone, and not just low income,” Smith said.

Before Dreams for Change opened the lot where Bloomquist moved, the space was empty and blighted, with seven-foot-tall weeds growing through the cement. Long ago, it had served as a used car lot. A month before Dreams for Change took over, police found a body hidden amid the weeds. Workers and volunteers mowed down the weeds, cleaned out garbage, and repainted the shack, which is now an office and a common space for residents.

Still, the setup is less than ideal. The residents, about 50 in total, share a single bathroom. The program used to have an arrangement with local gyms to provide Dreams for Change’s clients with a place to shower, but when those closed under the pandemic order, residents had to wait more than a week for a shower facility to be built on-site. People bathed using a hose in the meantime. When the project took longer than expected, the nonprofit fired the contractor. After several desperate days without a proper shower, the lot’s residents finished the job themselves, digging ditches, hanging dry-wall, and securing the plumbing. 

In normal times, residents—most of whom hold regular jobs—are required to leave during the day. But the state’s stay-at-home rule has forced the nonprofit to change policies and allow people to stay 24 hours a day. A food truck operated by the organization serves two free meals a day, a rotating menu of sandwiches, quiche, and a garden salad for lunch and teriyaki chicken with green beans and rice, burgers, pitas, and a taco bar for dinner. 

Residents lucky enough to have a spot self-police social distancing rules. Conversations are shouted across the lot instead of through intimate interaction. Anyone who uses the shower must bleach it before and after use.

But living in such close quarters, sharing resources, and spending so much time together outdoors means that even the best attempts at social distancing have their limit. “In this situation where we are, I think it’s futile to do anything,” Bloomquist told me. “We’re all sharing the same bathroom. We’re getting food from the food truck. There’s not enough time to social distance ourselves and eat and do normal life. You’re just bound to bump into somebody all the time.”

Even before the outbreak, California’s efforts to reduce high rates of housing insecurity were barely managing the problem, and it’s clear that they are woefully unsustainable in the long term. Nonprofits and advocacy groups do their best to treat symptoms, but they lack the size, power, and authority to enact the systemic change necessary to address the deeply rooted institutional causes of the problem. The pandemic has highlighted state and local policy shortcomings toward the unhoused, resulting in frustration in cities across the state over the lack of available options. 

So far, no one living in the Dreams for Change lots has been diagnosed with Covid-19 or shown symptoms. If that happens, Smith said, the person would be given a hotel voucher to self-isolate. Bloomquist said that he’s trying not to let the virus disrupt his climb out of homelessness. He wants to find regular work and a home that isn’t his car and to be able to support his children again. “If I concentrate on something that I can’t control, then I have no chance,” he said. “I’m using this as a springboard to get myself back to where I need to be. I’m in this parking lot to get out of this parking lot.”