Rising numbers living in cars

David Briggs
Homeless people in West Marin may be passing through town, or escaping harsher realities over the hill. While there are just a few support services, the coast offers quiet that can’t be found in cities.  

The number of people living in their vehicles in Marin nearly doubled in the past two years, reflecting a chronic issue that is complex and expensive to address. Homelessness on the coast continues to be a grueling ordeal, especially for mentally ill people struggling to maintain their stability. Marin is pursuing more rental units to house the most vulnerable individuals.

Law enforcement and homeless outreach staff counted 486 people living in their cars in Marin on Feb. 25, up from 254 people in 2019. Because of the pandemic, this year’s point-in-time count did not include homeless people without vehicles, so a complete picture won’t be available until next year. But anecdotally, the scene has gotten worse. Shelters are filling up and encampments are expanding in San Rafael and Novato. On the coast, people are caught in a vicious cycle with unaddressed infections and diseases, and no means to treat them; often paranoia, mania and schizophrenia prevent them from living in a normal environment. Even when a health issue calls for an emergency-room visit, patients are released right back into the exacerbating situation.

“They are stuck. They never get a chance to get into a situation that allows for physical and mental health recovery,” said Michael Payne, a counselor for Community Action Marin who is tasked with checking in on the homeless population in West Marin.

Studies have found that people experiencing chronic homelessness die on average 25 years earlier than their housed peers. Each homeless person costs an estimated $60,000 a year in services, medical care and law enforcement responses, said Andrew Hening, the director of Opening Doors Marin.

In West Marin, 49 people were counted living in their vehicles this year; 23 lived in Bolinas, 13 lived in Point Reyes Station and 13 were scattered throughout the area. Mr. Payne said they fall into two categories. One group, which has become more common during the pandemic, consists of transients who drive the coast and stop along Highway 1 for a few days at a time, visiting food banks and washing themselves in public facilities. They aren’t as familiar with the area and therefore face more stress. Some transients come to West Marin from the north for the warmer weather, while others come from Novato and San Rafael because it is safer on the coast.

“In general, when you’re homeless, you’re either predator or prey,” Mr. Payne said. “Over the hill, there are a lot of predators. The homeless who are prey want to get away from that, so naturally they come to West Marin because you don’t find the same type of predator.”

The other group consists of homeless people who have lived in West Marin for years, even decades. They are usually connected with each other, know where the services are located and are easier to find. They are supported by the Bolinas Community Center, West Marin Community Services and the Coastal Health Alliance. Mr. Payne’s role is to check on them weekly to see if their situation has deteriorated. He works alone now, though the county is hiring another two people.

When darkness falls and businesses close, homeless people return to the places where they spend the night—downtown, in the woods or in a vehicle. People with cars are out of the rain, but they can never lie fully prone, which creates issues with blood circulation. If the car doesn’t run, it may become a blight and sheriff’s deputies—generally patient with the homeless—are obligated to impound the vehicle, especially if it is accompanied by trash. 

Other homeless individuals sleep in a tent in the woods. Some have been living outside for more than a decade, and they walk more than four miles a day just to go to a food bank, Mr. Payne said. Deaths and disappearances are common.

The latest toll of the crisis is 58-year-old Billy Spangler, who was found dead in his vehicle on Saturday with no signs of foul play, the coroner said. Mr. Spangler had five cars that he lived in between Bolinas and Point Reyes Station.

Andrew Loose, the owner of Five Brooks Ranch where Mr. Spangler worked off and on for the past 15 years, said Mr. Spangler was a good soul with a troubled past. He had a strong connection with the horses, but every now and then he would seem like he was in a different world, and Mr. Loose would have him take a break from work. Last Thursday, he brought Mr. Spangler a meal, and he looked pale and his voice was rough. Mr. Loose asked him if he was seeing a doctor, and Mr. Spangler said, “No, I’m a doctor.”

“He was very special in his own way,” Mr. Loose said. 

Homeless residents in West Marin face the added complexity of being distant from the bulk of services, shelters and affordable housing. Laurel Hill, director of safety net services for Community Action Marin, explained that people will decline shelter beds over the hill because they are temporary and far away, or because they have a pet or a past trauma that prevents them from being in a group setting. People want to be housed, and they want to be housed in their community. But for the most part, that option doesn’t exist in West Marin.

For years, Marin managed homelessness with a maze of services with barriers that caused distrust; people wouldn’t seek help after failing out of a program, and their conditions worsened. The county recognized this in 2016 and switched its strategy to a “housing first” approach. By placing people in permanent supportive housing, chronic homelessness could be ended rather than managed, Mr. Hening said. The new approach has housed 320 people, and 95 percent of them still have a roof over their heads. 

The county is exploring more property purchases after securing 63 units last year on two properties in San Rafael and Corte Madera using state funding. People are placed into these units based on their score on the vulnerability index. Currently, only people in the direst situations qualify, but if more units are brought online, eligibility could be expanded.