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Page last updated at 01:44 GMT, Saturday, 27 September 2008 02:44 UK

'Car sleepers' the new US homeless

Barbara Harvey sleeps in her car
Car sleepers in California, hard hit by the housing crisis

By Rajesh Mirchandani
BBC News, Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara boasts a classic laidback California lifestyle, with uncongested beaches, wholesome cafes and charming Spanish-style architecture.

Of course there's a hefty price tag: nestled between the gentle Santa Ynez mountains and the inviting Pacific Ocean are multi-million dollar homes.

But in this sun-washed haven of wealth, many live far from the American dream.

In a car park across the street from luxury mansions, the evening brings a strange sight.

A few cars arrive and take up spaces in different corners. In each car, a woman, perhaps a few pets, bags of possessions and bedding.

Across the street from homes with bedrooms to spare, these are Santa Barbara's car sleepers.

Homeless within the last year, they are a direct consequence of America's housing market collapse.

4x4 homes

In this woman-only parking lot, Bonnee, who gives only her first name, wears a smart blue dress and has a business-like demeanour.

A year ago, she was making a healthy living as, ironically, a real estate agent. But when people stopped buying houses, her commission-based income dried up, and, like many clients, she too was unable to pay her mortgage.

Bonnee, one of Santa Barbara's car sleepers
Car sleeper Bonnee still works in the real estate business

Soon she found herself with nowhere to live but her 4x4.

Piles of blankets are in the back of the vehicle. Personal documents are stuffed into seat pockets. Books litter the back seat. A make-up bag and gym membership card (she washes at the gym) are in the front. With her constantly, are photos of her former life.

She can't quite believe her situation.

"My God, America's heart is bleeding," she tells me.

Tears fill her eyes.

"I know it'll get better. But it feels sad. I really fought hard."

A medium-sized 4x4 pulls into the parking lot and 66-year-old Barbara Harvey gets out.

She opens the back door and two large Golden Retrievers jump out.

Barbara begins her nightly routine. She moves a few bags from the boot to the front seat and takes out pyjamas and a carton of yoghurt (her dinner). She then arranges blankets in the back of the car.

It's not an American dream , it's an American nightmare
Nancy Kapp
Outreach worker for car sleepers

Barbara used to work in housing finance - this is the double whammy of the housing collapse where many who worked in the sector lost their jobs and their homes.

But since April, she and her dogs, Ranger and Phoebe, have spent every night in her car. It's cramped, but she says if they sleep diagonally they can all fit.

New trend?

The car park lets the car sleepers enter from 7pm, local public toilets close at dusk.

As a result, Barbara says she doesn't drink any liquids after she arrives. In the mornings, she showers at a friend's house.

Dressed in clean, comfortable clothes and wearing sunglasses, she is far removed from the stereotypical image of homelessness.

"I don't think I fit into anybody's image," she says.

"There's going to be lots of homeless individuals who are middle-class, there can't be anything but. We're in an awful mess economically. I don't think we've seen half of what's going to happen in this country."

It's hard to keep things clean. It's hard to feel complete and whole
Paige Miller

This new phenomenon of middle-class homelessness is hard to quantify, but New Beginnings, an organisation that runs the car park sleeping scheme in Santa Barbara, says they accommodate some 55 people in a dozen parking lots.

Outreach worker Nancy Kapp, once homeless herself, says there is a waiting list for car park spaces and she is getting more and more calls each day from people about to lose their homes.

She identifies it as a new breed of homeless emerging in America.

'American nightmare'

"Being poor is like this cancer, and now this cancer is filtering up to the middle-class," she says. "I don't care how strong you are, it's a breakdown of the human psyche when you start to lose everything you have."

"These people have worked their whole lives to have a house and now it's crumbling and it's in ashes and how devastating is that?" she says.

"It's not an American dream, it's an American nightmare."

California house prices fell by 30% in the year to May. Few parts of America have been hit as hard.

But national housing groups say they have seen a rise in homelessness across the US since the foreclosure crisis began last year.

Miller family
The Miller family feel "cramped" in their small mobile home

In another car park in Santa Barbara, Craig Miller, his wife Paige and their two children say they feel cramped in the small mobile home where they have been living for several months.

"It's hard to keep things clean," says Paige. "It's hard to feel complete and whole."

Originally from Florida, the family used to own a four-bedroom house with a pool. But when Craig's business failed, they lost it.

Undeterred, the family embarked on a dream to drive across America and make a new start in California. But unable to find full-time work, and unable to afford rent, as Craig puts it "we got stuck".

He says it was like a holiday at first but now it is much harder.

"Getting money for food, it's not something we've had to think about before," says Craig.

"We're definitely looking forward to getting out and getting a place. And we're working hard at getting there. This is just the journey, it's not the destination.'

As darkness falls on Santa Barbara, the car sleepers settle in for the night.

They'll have to be up early: they are not allowed to stay in the car parks beyond 7am. Some work, others spend their days driving from one spot to another.

When evening comes around again, they return to their car park homes.

In comparison to other countries, and indeed America's own long-term homeless, they are still fortunate.

But as America's economic crisis deepens, could there soon be more of them?





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