Living out of your car

We left our rental in San Mateo, California, on June 20. From then until September 1, we didn’t have a permanent address. We were living out of our car from June 20 to July 17. Then we had a short-term and very inexpensive rental ($500 a month, plus work barter) on the south coast of Massachusetts. As of September 1, we finally have a permanent address on Boston’s South Shore. Even now, most of our belongings are still in storage, and we’ve been living with whatever we managed to pack into the car.

We’ve had a pretty comfortable summer, all things considered. But our experience has made me think about what I’ve heard from some of the homeless people I’ve known. Now most of the homeless people I’ve known have not been street people. There are quite a few different kinds of homelessness. There’s couch-surfing, where you do short-term stays with friends and family, often rotating amongst several people so no one gets sick of you. There’s living in an RV or converted van, which can entail parking at night with friends or family, or parking at night in state or county campgrounds, or parking on the streets; the latter option is where you’re the most vulnerable. There’s car dwelling, which less comfortable than RV or van dwelling, since you have to sleep in a seat not a bed. There’s living in long-term homeless shelters, where you’re guaranteed a bed in one place for at least a month at a time. There’s living night-to-night in homeless shelters, where you have to line up every day to get a spot in the shelter. Then there’s living on the street, where you’re sleeping outdoors pretty much all the time.

In the popular imagination, “homelessness” means the last option: living on the street. But really homelessness is a state of being where you don’t have a permanent address. It’s a state of being where you have a lot less control over your life, and a lot less predictability. Considered this way, homelessness is similar to being a refugee.

As I said, we’ve had a pretty comfortable existence. We have adequate income, and we knew we’d find a permanent place to live sooner or later. We have enough stability, and enough money, that we could be somewhat picky about our rental options.

As comfortable as we are, not having a permanent address caused a certain amount of stress. It can be difficult buying things online, and these days you almost have to buy some things online, but with no permanent address where are you going to have them shipped? (We solved that problem by renting a mailbox at a UPS Store, which is not inexpensive.) There’s stress associated with the ambiguity of not really having a permanent legal address. There’s stress because your clothes always look a little rumpled; even I, a slovenly dresser, have found this to be annoying. There’s psychic stress: sometimes you don’t quite know where you’re going to be next week, and that’s uncomfortable. There’s more psychic stress: you feel a definite lack of control.

Again, we’ve been quite comfortable in the last two and a half months, but all these little stressors have added up. I’m more tired than usual, and less efficient. Even though I have a solid job, and we have solid financial resources, living out of a car is tiring.

This tallies with what I’ve heard from the homeless people I’ve known. They’ve talked about how the uncertainty can wear you down, can make you less efficient. Then if you’re looking for work on top of that, or working a low-wage job (and low wage jobs are far more stressful than knowledge-worker jobs), it’s all going to add up. You’re going to be tired and stressed out.

This is something to think about when we’re thinking about how to help people who are unhoused. If you tell unhoused people to get a job first, or to kick their addiction first, I’m not sure that’s actually a pragmatic, practical approach. Based on my brief experience living out of a car, I tend to believe that it makes more sense to put people in housing first, then when they have some stability in their lives they’ll be able to address the other problems.

Solving the Silicon Valley housing crisis four people at a time

The title of a recent San Francisco Chronicle article says it all:

He wanted to let homeless neighbors sleep in cars outside his church. It launched a two-year battle.

The “he” in the title is my new UU hero, Chris Kan. Chris grew up in San Francisco, and after a stint teaching at UC Santa Cruz, moved to Silicon Valley to do cancer research. He also joined the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto (UUCPA), where he got involved in an effort to allow car dwellers to park safely in the church parking lot. I’m proud to say that UUCPA is my congregation, too, and I’m proud that many of us supported Chris in this two year battle — showing up at City Council meetings, working behind the scenes with community stakeholders, coordinating with Move Mountain View, a local nonprofit, to provide support services, arranging to have a Porta-Potty on site, making sure we could provide free wifi to car dwellers, and on and on — but Chris was the one who provided clear and steady leadership through this agonizing two-year process.

Sadly, we all knew that UUCPA’s permit application would take forever to get through the city of Palo Alto. The city is notorious for its torturous permitting process. And during the application process we suspected we’d hear comments like, “We don’t want those people living near us.” Those are the things you have to expect when you propose any solution to Silicon Valley’s housing crisis: the city government will take forever to approve the project, and some city residents will talk about “those people.”

Admittedly, we were a little surprised when Stevenson House, the subsidized elderly housing project next door to our church, filed a last minute appeal to block our permit this summer. But it all turned out all right in the end. You can read about the appeal in this news article — the reporter quotes Grace Mah, president of the Stevenson House Board, as saying the Board wanted background checks. True, some safe parking programs do require background checks, but our local county opposes background checks because they raise another barrier to housing. Fortunately, the Stevenson House Board quickly changed its mind, and the next time they met they voted to drop the appeal. (That installment of the story is reported here.) I’m a big supporter of Stevenson House’s mission, and I appreciate the fact that their board, after doing their due diligence, ultimately supported our safe parking program. We’re grateful to have a good neighbor like Stevenson House, a group that’s also committed to solving the Silicon Valley housing crisis.

The big problem is how badly local city governments are handling any proposed solution to the Silicon Valley housing crisis. As Chris Kan told the Chronicle reporter: “They basically treated [the safe parking program] the same way you would if I was building a condo building…. [but] it’s literally a parking lot with a trash can.” I suppose you could do some incisive social analysis of why local city governments throw up barriers to any solution to the Silicon Valley housing crisis. However, I’ve given up on incisive social analysis, preferring to pour my energy into supporting people like Chris Kan, who are actually out there solving the problem. As I said, Chris is my new UU hero.

Update: NBC Bay Area covers this story here. Here’s an excerpt from their story — I particularly like Amber Stine’s comment at the end:

“A board member at the senior living facility next door [i.e., Grace Mah of Stevenson House] asked for a review…. She eventually dropped the request after Kan and other church members explained the program…. ‘The pushback is fine. Some of it is necessary. It creates conversation. I think it’s the outcome that matters more than anything,’ said Amber Stime, executive director of Move Mountain View.”

The Great Recession

Geographer Richard A. Walker, in his 2018 book “Portrait of a Gone City: Tech and the Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area,” writes:

“The Great Recession has been calamitous. The official U.S. government designation of a two-year lapse in growth 2008-2010 minimizes the reality….things are worse than that. The Great Recession won’t go away — regardless of the soaring stock market and falling unemployment. By any measure, recovery from the Great Recession was the slowest from any crisis on record, including the Great Depression of the 1930s [emphasis mine]. U.S. productivity remains poor overall, aggregate demand is weak because wages have barely budged, and corporations are not investing with any gusto. Loose talk of full employment by mid-decade ignores the fact that so many Americans have dropped out of the labor force entirely.” (pp. 64-65).

Two conclusions for congregations: (1) Expect fundraising to be an ongoing challenge, since many households have not recovered from the Great Recession. (2) Expect the need for congregationally-based social services such as food pantries and supporting homeless shelters will continue to be robust. In other words, we will have to continue to do more with fewer resources.

Housing solution

I wrote recently about how insanely difficult it is to find housing in the Bay Area. Since then, the East Bay Times reported that high housing costs have contributed to recent job losses in the Bay Area:

“The Bay Area’s job losses stem from two distinct phenomena: Some employers are slashing positions, and others are unable to hire. Some economists attribute this second problem to structural barriers posed by skyrocketing housing costs. The lack of affordable places for workers to live appears to have hobbled the region’s ability to fill jobs as briskly as in prior years.

“‘Housing is the chain on the dog that is chasing a squirrel,’ said Christopher Thornberg, principal economist and founding partner with Beacon Economics. ‘Once that chain runs out, it yanks the dog back.'”

High-cost municipalities like Palo Alto have been experiencing a net decline in population for over a year now — while housing costs continue to rise. It will be interesting to see how this trend plays out. I suspect that changes in policy will have much effect on rising housing prices; this suspicion is based on what Jay Forrester wrote in his 2009 paper “Some Basic Concepts in Systems Dynamics”:

“People seldom realize the pervasive existence of feedback loops in controlling everything that changes through time. Most people think in linear, nonfeedback terms. … people see a problem, decide on an action, expect a result, and believe that is the end of the issue. [This is] the framework within which most discussions are debated in the press, business, and government.” Yet the world does not really work in a simple, linear fashion. Instead, says Forrester, “we live in a complex of nested feedback loops.”

Another way of saying this is that we human beings like to think of the world in terms of simple, linear, cause-and-effect relationships. Linear thinking provides a reasonably good model for most of our day-to-day actions, and we like to think it will work in all situations. A better model is to think of the world in non-linear terms, as a complex of interconnected feedback loops.

However, in practice it has proved very difficult to get most people to adopt a non-linear model of the world. I see this all the time in my work life. For example, when I’m doing pastoral counseling with people, I see that people often shy away at understanding their personal, spiritual world in terms of nonlinear feedback loops; they prefer to think that a personal, spiritual problem is easily addressed using linear cause-and-effect solutions; and those linear solutions may work in the short term, but after short terms gains there are typically feedback loops in the family and in other social relationships which tend to draw the person back to their original equilibrium.

In another example from my work life, congregations try to solve their problems using linear cause-and-effect thinking. If a congregation wants to increase membership, for example, they will typically find a linear cause-and-effect solution like improving their Web site or doing other advertising to draw new people in the door. One common result of this kind of linear “solution” is that there is a brief influx of newcomers, and a brief increase in attendance, but then within a year various feedback loops bring the congregation back down to the size it was before the advertising campaign.

So the reason I see little hope for policy solutions to the housing crisis in the Bay Area is that most policy efforts are driven by linear cause-and-effect thinking. Build more housing and housing prices will drop; implement rent stabilization measures and housing prices will at least be stable; — both these measures will fail because they don’t take into account the complex of feedback loops that are driving high housing costs, including availability of a range of jobs, transportation infrastructure, national and world forces bearing on the region, etc.

We have managed to solve our own immediate housing crisis. After the landlord sold the building we live in, we spent a month looking for housing and yesterday we signed a lease. We will be living in a cemetery — I kid you not — in a nice two-bedroom house that had been built for a caretaker. We solved our immediate problem with a linear cause-and-effect solution; but we have not solved the longer term problem of how two people who are not earning those six-figure high-tech salaries can afford to live in Silicon Valley.


We’re looking for a new place to live — our landlord is finally selling the duplex where we live, so he can use the money to enjoy his retirement. We’ve been looking for most of a month now, and it has not been easy. The average rent for an apartment around here is ridiculously high; the Bay Area has some of the highest housing costs in the U.S. In some cities in the Bay Area, you can make over $80,000 a year and still qualify for affordable housing options.

We refuse to spend more than a third of our combined gross income on rent, and we would prefer to spend only a quarter of our gross income. The apartments we can afford are either tiny, or shabby, or sometimes both tiny and shabby. To make matters worse, competition for these relatively affordable, tiny or shabby apartments is intense. All this combines to make our search for housing into an unpleasant task.

The ridiculously high cost of housing, and the shortage of affordable housing, are problems that will not be solved any time soon. Build more affordable housing? Recent news stories carried by Bay Area media outlets make it clear that demand will outpace supply of new affordable housing for the foreseeable future. Impose rent control? Most local rent control initiatives have failed, under intense pressure from the real estate lobby. Leave the Bay Area? That’s the answer for many people; several cities in Silicon Valley have lost population in the past few years. Live on the streets? The homeless population in the Bay Area continues to grow.

I don’t have any answers. But I do know that we here in Silicon Valley have a front row seat for watching the growth in income inequality.


Our landlord is selling the place we live in. Finding a new apartment in the tight Bay Area rental market has become our all-consuming task (we had a lead on one place, but that fell through). If you don’t live in the Bay Area, you won’t believe how tight the rental market is here. If you do live in the Bay Area, and you know of a one-bedroom apartment that’s reasonably priced within an hour’s drive of Palo Alto, let me know!

Take action on affordable housing

Housing advocates worry that funding for Section 8 housing may not be fully funded by the current Congress. Jane Graf, president and CEO of Mercy Housing, a nonprofit that provides provides affordable housing in the western states of the U.S., writes: “A recent survey asked me what my biggest concern was for 2017 in regards to affordable housing finance. Without hesitation, I answered, ‘Section 8 renewals.'”

Graf suggests that if we want to keep Section 8 housing fully funded, we should contact our elected representatives in Washington to tell them this. Graf added that the National Housing Trust has a suggested message you can use to write to your elected officials, online here.

I used the Common Cause Web site — here — to find contact information for my elected officials. I modified the National Housing Trust talking points into a letter that focuses on my main concerns: housing for seniors, and housing here in Silicon Valley. I’ve included a version of my letter below, in case you share my concerns and want to save time by using my wording.

You now have no excuse. Take five minutes and use the online contact forms for your elected officials to express your opinion about Section 8 funding. Or take fifteen minutes, and send a physical letter.

Here’s my sample letter: Continue reading “Take action on affordable housing”

Another view of Occupy

In the most recent issue of California Northern: A New Regionalism, D. Scot Miller sums up his experience of Occupy Oakland in his essay “The Hungry Got Food, the Homeless Got Shelter: The First Days of Occupy Oakland.” It’s worth tracking down a copy of this magazine just to read Miller’s essay. He gives one of the best summaries yet of what Occupy Oakland was trying to do, written by someone who was there from the beginning:

The hungry got food, and the homeless got shelter. The street kids who smoked and drank at the plaza before Occupy arrived continued to smoke and drink — and now they passed around books from the free library. People were helping each other, looking out for one another, and turning their backs on the stresses of foreclosed homes and benefit cuts. I saw people being radicalized by conversation and generosity….

If that’s what Occupy Oakland stood for, Miller also provides one of the best summaries I’ve yet heard of what Occupy Oakland stood in opposition to: Continue reading “Another view of Occupy”

Downtown Phoenix

Once it got cool enough to go out for a walk, Carol and I strolled over to find Lawn Gnome bookstore on 3rd St. between Roosevelt and Garfield. Along the way, we stopped at Bodega 420, a neighborhood store that carries a little bit of everything: locally produced food, canned food, ice cream, loose tobacco, condoms, playing cards, etc. We chatted with the owner, Adrian Fontes, a lawyer who runs the store in his spare time.

Adrian on the front porch of Bodega 420.

Adrian told us about the art fair that takes place on first Fridays next to his shop: artists, music, food trucks. He took us to the front porch of Bodega 420 and pointed out JoBot Coffee, some art galleries near by, the new apartment complex going up down the street, and Lawn Gnome Books. Adrian, whose family dates back over three hundred years in Arizona, said he lived for many years in Denver, and told us it was hard to leave there to return to Arizona. But now he’s excited to be in Phoenix: everyone’s from somewhere else, the city isn’t set in its ways, there’s room to innovate.

We wandered down the block to Lawn Gnome Books. I found a used copy of short stories by Joanna Russ, and Carol found The Hobo Diet, a book by someone who lived as a homeless man for five weeks in Las Vegas. Carol started talking with Billie Speece, one of the people who worked at the bookstore.

Billie in Lawn Gnome Books.

Among many other projects, Billie runs letter writing workshops at the bookstore. Years ago, Carol had been part of the Letter Exchange, and she and Billie talked about rubber stamps and mail art. Billie showed us some of the envelopes she makes from recycled paper, stitching the seams with embroidery thread. She said she is part of the Letter Writers Alliance; she added that recently AARP contacted her about her workshops.

I bought one of the handmade journals Billie sews together, using paper taken from damaged books, paper that has one side blank. One of the pages in the handmade journal I bought reads in part: “I wish Gertrude were here…. I wish she could see the man God is building on her foundation.” Another page reads: “Foods high in vitamins, minerals, and amino acids.” Carol just said, “What are you going to do with your journal?” I said I didn’t know; maybe I’ll just keep it.

Photo credits: Carol Steinfeld