Counting the camouflaged: the Homeless Census – Part 2 of 2

IF I WERE HOMELESS, which types of places would I go to shelter myself? More to the point, where would I park my car for overnight sleeping?

In our census tracts, the homeless kept a low profile. Attracting notice would risk harassment. Local residents might be alarmed if they noticed homeless people in their midst, and call the authorities to eject them.[7] For the homeless, this meant avoiding private properties like housing developments[8], apartment complexes, office campuses, and streets within these private jurisdictions. So public streets and public parking lots were the way to go.

There are long stretches of frontage roads alongside freeways, soundwalls, and overpasses in our census tracts: these were popular refuges. Most homeless’ cars would be parked on the ‘wall’ side of the frontage roads. Typically on the other side of the street were industrial/office parks or abandoned/unoccupied properties. After the businesses shut down for the night, their absent workers pay little heed to cars parked overnight across the street. There was also less through traffic on these roads, which meant less notice of the parked homeless’ cars.

We checked out the restroom at a neighborhood park, a rarity in this day and age. (One good thing about Randy and I as a team was that we could check the ladies’ and the gents’!)

Restrooms have been eliminated from most local parks due to maintenance, vandalism and security issues, but not this one. On that morning, the park was well used — grandparents pushing strollers with infants, toddlers on play structures, pet-owners walking their dogs, joggers, tennis-players, etc.

Along with the tennis-courts, the restroom at this park attested to the affluence and safety of this neighborhood of single-family homes. (The restroom was closed at night.) We counted one woman sleeping in a van parked in the small off-street parking lot of the park.

As a woman, if I were homeless and single, security would be a greater concern than if I were a man. Somehow I felt relieved on her behalf that she found this safe haven, one that even included a decent bathroom.

ONE OF THE LIGHT RAIL STATIONS we surveyed had a large parking lot . . . and negligible transit ridership. However, the parking lot was quite full, because it was served by employer shuttles. We parked and surveyed the parked cars on foot. To our surprise, the one homeless’ car we found was not in the station parking lot, but in the adjacent parking lot, an industrial/office complex next door. The public and private properties were divided by a row of scraggly landscaping, easy enough to walk through.

It had only been by chance that I noticed car keys dangling from the ignition. There was a device being recharged through the ‘cigarette lighter’. Walking around the car, one tinted rear window was slightly rolled down. We didn’t approach any closer, since clearly someone was inside.


Homeless people live in vehicles of all models and vintages. It could be a matter of what car you had when you became homeless; we counted some higher end vehicles.

RVs stood out, easy to spot. In our census tracts, all but one RV we spotted parked on public streets was a homeless’ home.[9]

People living in their cars usually try to keep it discreet and avoid attracting attention. There’s the desire for privacy; self-consciousness or embarrassment about being homeless; worries about break-ins and thefts, or even concerns about light/heat damage to things kept in a parked car baking in the sun all day long.[10]

Most of the homeless vehicles we saw had tinted windows or windows covered from inside, shielding the interiors. It’s slightly ironic that this thwarted us from seeing if the car was a homeless’ home — information we were collecting precisely on their behalf. There was some trepidation each time we approached a vehicle for a closer peek — the owner might be inside, and get startled by or offended at us.

With cars that clearly had lots of stuff, but no one inside, it was harder to gauge. Many people spend a lot of time driving, and keep tons of things handy in their cars, but sleep in a bed at home — the phrase ‘I live in my car’ metaphorical, not literal. The tell-tale signs of bona fide cases were poignant. A comforter neatly rolled up in the back seat. A potted plant gloriously sunning itself on the dashboard. Through a side window, we caught a still-life glimpse of an apple, an orange and a banana — in a wire fruit basket.

During orientation, we were recommended to survey inside fast food outlets, cafes, and the like. In the early morning, homeless people would likely be there to use the bathroom (public institutions like libraries wouldn’t be open yet), get coffee or breakfast, etc.[11]

In the census tract where I live, there was a mini mall with a donut shop, a cafe, a small Subway, and a Carl’s Junior. We headed first to Carl’s Junior, because we needed to use a restroom, which was most likely to be found there.

There was a hatchback with a faded paint job parked at the Carl’s Junior. Through its windows, we could see it was fully packed; even the front passenger seat was piled high. It was obvious only one person lived in it, there was space for no other.

Inside Carl’s Junior, there was no one to be seen in the seating area. But one of the booths was taken up, strewn with domestic items: letters, odds and ends, a full-sized bottle of breakfast syrup. It looked as domestic as the kitchen table surface in my own breakfast nook, strewn with letters, odds and ends, and a bottle of soy sauce.

A man with a bushy salt-and-pepper emerged from the men’s room, morning ablutions presumably completed. He headed towards his table.

I often meet up with a friend on Saturday mornings at the cafe in this mini-mall, three minutes away by bike. But in over a decade of living here, I had never been inside the Carl’s Junior. (I only eat at fast-food outlets on road-trips where there are no other options.) Otherwise I would have already known there were indeed homeless people in my neighborhood.

“HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN HOMELESS?” I asked Randy as we drove around the streets of Mountain View. It was not the most tactful of icebreakers, but as good as any other in getting to know him, given the circumstances.

“Oh, I’m not homeless, I’m at a hotel,” he quickly replied.

In his defensive tone, I read the implication that staying in a hotel was ranked higher than homeless shelters, or sleeping outdoors — even if he was forced to split the hotel room with a roommate who snored and hogged up the bathroom.

In his realm, there were delineations of ‘housed’ vs. ‘homeless’ which tied in to one’s self-respect, depending on where one slept. In my view, I considered him homeless, since he didn’t have a permanent domain. It was all relative.

Fortunately, he didn’t take offense with me. He was cordial, telling me just about everything I asked about his life. He was from Colorado, but when his parents split up, his mom moved the kids with her to Cupertino. “She wanted us all to go to college, but I didn’t.” He had held various jobs in the past; stockroom at Lockheed; TSA at SFO; security guard.

Currently he was unemployed, but was interested in computers — “I heard there’s a lot you can do with marketing.” He was involved with City Team downtown, occasionally helping pick up trash. He marveled that he had made $125 as a poll worker on Election Day. “But it was a really long day.” He would also be getting paid as a guide for this census.

ALL SURVEYORS HAD BEEN ENCOURAGED to drive their own cars for the census. Guides would be paid $10/hr for about 5 hours of work. Volunteers would not be paid, nor reimbursed for mileage.

On the immediate surface, it seems unfair. But it was reasonable, considering:

  • Volunteers were probably self-selected by empathy; willing to help the homeless with this survey effort without compensation.[12]
  • Since funds are usually limited, it was fitting to prioritize them for the neediest.
  • The homeless guides were doing legitimate work, earning their pay by using their expertise in identifying their brethren.

AS THE MORNING WENT ON, Randy became increasingly animated, excited about our progress. We worked well together— we were both diligent about trying to spot as many homeless people as possible, yet conscientious in reviewing candidate cars as ‘homeless’ or not.

For him, it wasn’t just about the pay, but also a sense of altruism. But the competitive instinct in human egos is strong. Whenever we identified and confirmed a homeless car/person, we’d grin at each other victoriously, like kids sweeping all the candy at an Easter egg hunt.

“I wonder how we’re doing, compared to other teams, if they’ve spotted as many as us?” he said several times, as if mentally vying to beat them in bagging sightings.
“I totally know what you mean,” I said. “But the numbers would depend on where they’re at, like if it had a lot of places where the homeless were likely to hang out.[13] But we can be proud of ourselves for being accurate, we know our data isn’t fudged. Our data is probably the closest to reality compared to other teams!”

In fact the homeless woman we spotted at the park was only due to Randy’s insistence on backtracking for a second look, long after we had driven around the park perimeter. We came across her van when we walked the park.

But in hindsight, we likely missed some also.

There was one hospital in our census tracts. It had urgent care, which would have been open 24/7. We merely drove by. In retrospect, we should have parked and walked in, since people in the waiting room were not visible from the street.

The day after the census, I biked past the parking lot of a shuttered free-standing supermarket in another part of town. With my new-found sensitivity, I had immediately noticed several RVs in the parking lot, and guessed they were homeless’ homes. I mentally gloated . . . and face-palmed myself. There had been a supermarket in our assigned tracts, but we had not checked it out. I had forgotten it was permanently closed. There could have been homeless cars parked there, which we may have missed. Lessons learned.

I THINK MY WORK EXPERIENCE in transportation and city planning was helpful in this survey work. This was the first time I had ever used my professional knowledge as a filter to consider homelessness — it felt novel and visceral. Frontage roads with soundwalls were built to reduce traffic noise for neighbors, but also provide a refuge for homeless people in cars. Whether it’s parking lots or streets in residential neighborhoods, the private vs. public distinction has major implications for where the homeless park. Recent requirements for large employers to provide showers at work stemmed from policies to encourage bicycle commuting, but could also serve homeless employees.[14]

“IF YOU BECOME HOMELESS, you’d be able to find somewhere to stay, wouldn’t you?” Randy asked me. It may or may not have been a rhetorical question. “Well, I guess I’m quite lucky. I do have family and friends around here whom I could probably stay with.”[15]

If I were to free-fall into destitution, and lose my home, I would hock every big-ticket item I own for cash: the Renoir, the TV set[16], jewelry, laptop, and even at last resort, my bike. But I would hold onto my car.

The car would be more than just transportation and housing. It would be modicum of control and certainty I had, where my hold over everything else was tenuous. The homeless already face so many obstacles and challenges in helping themselves/getting help. To have to contend with the vagaries of time-consuming transit trips and the fickle availability of shelter spaces on top of that would be beyond what I could bear. . . จนปัญญา

With a car, I wouldn’t consider myself ‘homeless.’

BACK TO POST [7] In 2013, the City of Palo Alto banned people from living in cars.

BACK TO POST [8] Newer housing developments (usually have HOA fees) usually have private streets, maintained by private contract.Older housing developments are usually on public streets maintained by the city.

BACK TO POST [9] It can also be tricky to determine if an RV is being used as a home in desperation, or simply a workweek home for people who live far away, and only drive home on weekends. During the dot-com boom of the late 90’s, I worked for a Bay Area transit operator. Some of the operations staff lived in the Central Valley. During the work week, they would live in RVs parked at work, at the operations yards (with management permission), and then go home on the weekends, which would be a 2+ hour drive.

BACK TO POST [10] When I lived in an apartment with uncovered parking, I often laid out my wet laundered sweaters in my parked car to be dried by the ambient solar heat. My sweaters dried quickly, without stretching, wrinkling or shrinking. It also saved money and energy by not using a machine dryer.

BACK TO POST [11] It’s interesting that you can tell which commercial districts have a high level of foot-traffic (and a dearth of public restrooms), by how many merchants post ‘restroom for customers only’ signs, or require you to get a key/code to enter the restroom. The heavy foot-traffic does not necessarily correlate with high numbers of homeless/street people; some businesses may simply be fed up with free-loading toilet-users.

I had recently had coffee in a cafe where I wished they had a ‘restroom for customers’ only policy’. There was only one toilet and I had to wait for four other people in line ahead of me — none of whom had purchased anything at that cafe. It was in Berkeley, of all places . . . on tony Fourth Street,

BACK TO POST [12] Helping the homeless by impersonally surveying them doesn’t warm the cockles of your heart as mach as doling out turkey dinners to them on Thanksgiving. But this data collection will help them in the bigger picture – to determine funding for them. Sympathetic cynics like me may prefer to contribute time and car mileage, rather than cash anyway. I have doubts about giving spare change to a panhandler on the street — would it go for booze or bananas? With the survey work, I know what the ROI of my time and gas will be.

BACK TO POST [13] This is a game where you don’t want a high score: more points means more homeless. It’s better to have less rather than more homeless people in this world.

BACK TO POST [14] At one point, Randy was working for Lockheed in Sunnyvale, but sleeping in his car. He could have theoretically used the showers there.

BACK TO POST [15] Last year we lived with my mom for several months, while our house was rented out.

BACK TO POST [16] Can you name that Duran Duran song?


2 thoughts on “Counting the camouflaged: the Homeless Census – Part 2 of 2

  1. Pingback: Chaperoning 5th Grade Science Camp at Yosemite: Part 2 of 4 | Fishface

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