Home sweet sedan: Car camping in Santa Cruz County

Rabb Sabin rests his injured foot while sitting in his bed at the Pacific Coast Manor in Capitola on Friday. Sabin is among hundreds in Santa Cruz County who live in their vehicles. (Kevin Johnson -- Santa Cruz Sentinel)

Rabb Sabin rests his injured foot while sitting in his bed at the Pacific Coast Manor in Capitola on Friday. Sabin is among hundreds in Santa Cruz County who live in their vehicles. (Kevin Johnson — Santa Cruz Sentinel)

By Jessica A. York Santa Cruz Sentinel

SANTA CRUZ — When it comes to living quarters, tiny houses sound cute. Tiny cars do not.

Rabb Sabin is one of what officials estimate to be more than 800 people living in their vehicles in Santa Cruz, and he wants to stand up and be recognized.

“Got any ideas of how to get us also counted? I’ve met a few hundred vehicle sleepers and they too want reasonable housing that doesn’t seem to exist (or is) available to us,” Sabin, 68, wrote in an email to the Sentinel after several recent articles on homelessness.

Like many of his homeless friends and acquaintances, Sabin, who has cheerily taken on the moniker of “Major Success” in honor of a health food business he used to own, is not obviously homeless. He drives to work each day, buys a hot beverage and settles in at his favorite coffee shop — “the office” — with a cell phone and laptop hooked into the business’ Wi-Fi.

Sabin shared how police knock on his window to wake him overnight and tell him he needs to move his car, because “camping” is against the law. Otherwise, he said, people cannot always tell that he is homeless. Sabin has arrangements to make use of a shower, knows the best places to park without arousing neighbor and law enforcement interest, and generally keeps to himself at night, he said.

“A homeless person that sleeps under a tree is much more identifiable,” Sabin said. “We’re not going around knocking on doors. The more people that know about you, you lose your anonymity. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

A place to rest

Sabin said he came to Santa Cruz County in 2006 from Southern California, after a business he was running folded. He lived in a home in the Corralitos mountains for three years before he ended up moving into his vehicle. For the past month, he has been staying at a nursing facility to recover after foot surgery.

“I get Social Security and disability, but it’s less than $1,000 a month. Try supporting yourself on that,” Sabin said.

Of the 2,895 unsheltered people counted across Santa Cruz County in a 2013 homeless census, the latest date such information is available, about 810 reported living in vehicles. Many cities in the county, however, restrict people from sleeping in what is effectively their home. Additionally, Santa Cruz city officials are in the process of converting several streets around its Homeless Services Center into permit parking only, 24 hours a day, at the request of Harvey West neighborhood property owners.

Homeless Services Center Executive Director Jannan Thomas said her organization did not protest the new parking restrictions, saying she felt police have done a good job listening to concerns. Center staff, volunteers, clients and visitors will need to find creative parking solutions and will have a limited number of temporary permits, she said.

“We are always trying to balance wanting to be a good neighbor in the Harvey West neighborhood and recognize when things like finding parking are difficult for our neighbors,” Thomas said. “At the same time, we want folks who are coming for services at HSC to be able to take advantage of those services.”

Not an advocate

Sabin, like many of his homeless friends and acquaintances, does not stay at the Homeless Services Center, whether for lack of available beds or for other personal reasons. In a recent interview, a bespectacled, beret-wearing Sabin introduced a reporter to one such friend, John.

“I’ve lived here for over 20 years. I have family here — it’s my home. I don’t want to leave,” John said, when asked if he had considered looking for housing and employment elsewhere.

John, 63, asked that his last name not be disclosed due to the fact that his partner in an upcoming business venture believes John’s association with homelessness will cost the two clients. He said he has lived on and off in his car for years, stressing that he does not want to be an advocate for “car camping.” John says he and Sabin are not unique.

“Children living with their parents and working — the only reason they’re living with their parents is because they can’t afford anything else,” Sabin said. “I don’t see that anyone has done any creative thinking to solve the problem.”

A bill introduced in February in the state Assembly seeks to stop counties, general law and charter cities alike from prohibiting, criminalizing or fining people for sleeping or resting in a lawfully parked vehicle. Assembly Bill 718 has passed out of committee and is due to head next to the Assembly floor for a vote.

The bill would not restrict local governments from establishing general parking restrictions, such as prohibiting overnight parking without a residential permit or setting time limits.

“Contrary to belief, many people who rest in vehicles have some type of employment. For them, the vehicle is transportation to work as well as shelter,” bill author Assemblyman Kansen Chu wrote in the bill’s introduction. “For a parent with children, it is transportation to a school or medical appointment. For all of these people, the vehicle is sometimes the last personal asset they own.”

Originally posted 05/26/15, 1:34 PM PDT at santacruzsentinel.com

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