The Sharp, Sudden Decline of America's Middle Class

They had good, stable jobs - until the recession hit. Now they're living out of their cars in parking lots.

Janis Adkins lives in her van at the Goleta Community Covenant Church in Santa Barbara.
Mark Seliger
June 25, 2012 11:45 AM ET

Every night around nine, Janis Adkins falls asleep in the back of her Toyota Sienna van in a church parking lot at the edge of Santa Barbara, California. On the van's roof is a black Yakima SpaceBooster, full of previous-life belongings like a snorkel and fins and camping gear. Adkins, who is 56 years old, parks the van at the lot's remotest corner, aligning its side with a row of dense, shading avocado trees. The trees provide privacy, but they are also useful because she can pick their fallen fruit, and she doesn't always­ have enough to eat. Despite a continuous, two-year job search, she remains without dependable work. She says she doesn't need to eat much – if she gets a decent hot meal in the morning, she can get by for the rest of the day on a piece of fruit or bulk-purchased almonds – but food stamps supply only a fraction of her nutritional needs, so foraging opportunities are welcome.

Prior to the Great Recession, Adkins owned and ran a successful plant nursery in Moab, Utah. At its peak, it was grossing $300,000 a year. She had never before been unemployed – she'd worked for 40 years, through three major recessions. During her first year of unemployment, in 2010, she wrote three or four cover letters a day, five days a week. Now, to keep her mind occupied when she's not looking for work or doing odd jobs, she volunteers at an animal shelter called the Santa Barbara­ Wildlife Care Network. ("I always ask for the most physically hard jobs just to get out my frustration," she says.) She has permission to pick fruit directly from the branches of the shelter's orange and avocado trees. Another benefit is that when she scrambles eggs to hand-feed wounded seabirds, she can surreptitiously make a dish for herself.

By the time Adkins goes to bed – early, because she has to get up soon after sunrise, before parishioners or church employees arrive – the four other people who overnight in the lot have usually settled in: a single mother who lives in a van with her two teenage children and keeps assiduously to herself, and a wrathful, mentally unstable woman in an old Mercedes sedan whom Adkins avoids. By mutual unspoken agreement, the three women park in the same spots every night, keeping a minimum distance from each other. When you live in your car in a parking lot, you value any reliable area of enclosing stillness. "You get very territorial," Adkins says.

Each evening, 150 people in 113 vehicles spend the night in 23 parking lots in Santa Barbara. The lots are part of Safe Parking, a program that offers overnight permits to people living in their vehicles. The nonprofit that runs the program, New Beginnings Counseling Center, requires participants to have a valid driver's license and current registration and insurance. The number of vehicles per lot ranges from one to 15, and lot hours are generally from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Fraternization among those who sleep in the lots is implicitly discouraged – the fainter the program's presence, the less likely it will provoke complaints from neighboring homes and churches and businesses.

The Safe Parking program is not the product of a benevolent government. Santa Barbara's mild climate and sheltered beachfront have long attracted the homeless, and the city has sometimes responded with punitive measures. (An appeals court compared one city ordinance forbidding overnight RV parking to anti-Okie laws in the 1930s.) To aid Santa Barbara's large homeless population, local activists launched the Safe Parking program in 2003. But since the Great Recession began, the number of lots and participants in the program has doubled. By 2009, formerly middle-class people like Janis Adkins had begun turning up – teachers and computer repairmen and yoga instructors seeking refuge in the city's parking­ lots. Safe-parking programs in other cities have experienced a similar influx of middle-class exiles, and their numbers are not expected to decrease anytime soon. It can take years for unemployed workers from the middle class to burn through their resources – savings, credit, salable belongings, home equity, loans from family and friends. Some 5.4 million Americans have been without work for at least six months, and an estimated 750,000 of them are completely broke or heading inexorably toward destitution. In California, where unemployment remains at 11 percent, middle-class refugees like Janis Adkins are only the earliest arrivals. "She's the tip of the iceberg," says Nancy Kapp, the coordinator of the Safe Parking program. "There are many people out there who haven't hit bottom yet, but they're on their way – they're on their way."

Kapp, who was herself homeless for a time many years ago, is blunt, indefatig­able, raptly empathetic. She works out of a minuscule office in the Salvation Army building in downtown Santa Barbara. On the wall is a map encompassing the program's parking lots – a vivid graphic of the fall of the middle class. Kapp expects more disoriented, newly impoverished families to request spots in the Safe Parking program this year, and next year, and the year after that.

"When you come to me, you've hit rock bottom," Kapp says. "You've already done everything you possibly could to avoid being homeless. You maybe have a teeny bit of savings left. People are crying, they're saying, 'I've never experienced this before. I've never been homeless.' They don't want to mix with homeless people. They're like, 'I'm not going over to those people' – sometimes they call them 'those people.' So now they're lost, they're humiliated, they're rejected, they're scared, and they're very ashamed. I'm worried about the psychological damage it does when you have a place and then, all of a sudden, you're in your car. You have to be depressed just from the fall itself, from losing everything and not understanding how it could happen."

One evening last spring, I visit Janis Adkins in her parking lot at the Goleta Community Covenant Church. When I turn into the driveway, the sun has fallen to the horizon. The other residents haven't arrived yet, and Adkins' van, at the far corner of the lot, seems almost metaphysically solitary, drawn to the parcel of greenery at the asphalt's edge.

Because the night is chilly and the van shell seems to draw the cold inward, Adkins has already tucked herself in, reclining against pillows and a rolled sleeping bag at the back corner of the van, beneath blankets and layers of piled-up fleece clothing. For privacy, Adkins has put silver sunshades in the front windshield; a row of clean shirts and blouses suspended on hangers obscures the lot-facing side window. By the light of a little LED bulb in a camping headlamp, she is reading a novel called The Invisible Ones, whose main characters are gypsies.

Adkins has tousled blond-gray hair and the kind of deep, unaffected tan that comes from working outdoors. She grew up in a middle-class family in Santa Barbara, but eventually took off to become a river guide in Utah. Adkins engages you frankly, her manner almost practiced in its evenness: few gesticulations, steady intonation. Across the ceiling of the van she has affixed a silken red-and-gold banner that spells out a Buddhist chant of compassion. She practices yoga and meditation and believes in the Buddhist concept of equanimity; she takes comfort in the parable of the Zen ox herder, who tries and fails, day after day, to break a raging ox. When a friend calls to ask how she's doing, she often says, "Still riding the ox."

But the rigors of homelessness – the sudden loss of the signifiers of her selfhood – regularly breach the protection of detachment; the trick for her is regaining it quickly. "When negative thoughts come, it's important to be able to say, 'It's just a thought,'" she tells me. "'Just let it go.' When I get really down, I try to look at a worse-case scenario, like the pictures of the Haiti earthquake. I go, 'What could I do to help?' Things like that drive me forward." She also reminds herself to be grateful: to Starbucks for free cups of hot water, to the YMCA for her discounted membership, to the Safe Parking program. Gratitude snuffs out self-pity.

Before the financial crash decimated the value of her home and her customer base, Adkins had been contemplating selling her nursery, High Desert Gardens, and going to work for a humanitarian or environmental organization. But the suddenness and violence of the recession took her by surprise. The nursery specialized in drought-tolerant plants and offered more than 100 species of trees. Over the years, she had developed a deep base of horticultural knowledge, and people came from long distances to seek her advice. Business was good enough that she could leave her employees in charge of the nursery and travel for a month or so every summer to escape the harsh Moab heat.

Within two years of the crash, sales had dropped by 50 percent and the value of her land had fallen by more than that. Four banks refused to help her refinance. "Everyone was talking about bailouts," she recalls. "I said, 'I'm not asking for a bailout, I'm asking you to work with me.' They look at you, no expression on their faces, saying, 'There's nothing we can do.'" She had to shut the nursery down and sell everything she could to avoid foreclosure: "I was practically giving stuff away just to try to make some money. Started selling everything that wasn't permanent. I was going to sell the doors, the windows, the gates if I could, but they told me I couldn't." She decided not to file for bankruptcy: It would have cost her thousands of dollars and require her to give up her van, which she was determined to keep. When she had nothing left to sell to make her mortgage payments, she was forced to put her home on the market, clearing only $4,000 on the sale.

"I was spinning out of control," she says. "I was starting to lose my wits. It's very surreal being at a level of depression where it's easier to think about suicide and dying than it is to bend over and pick something up you're stepping over. It was getting bad enough that my friends started looking at me, going, 'You better get out of here.' The only functional thing I could figure out was to just go. I thought I would go travel and figure out what I wanted to do next. So some friends packed up my house and we converted my van so I could have as much stuff in there as possible, and I just left."

However long it takes to lose everything, to get to the point where you're driving away from your repossessed home, the final unraveling seems eye-blink fast, because there is no way to imagine it. Even if you've been unemployed for a year and are months-delinquent on your mortgage, you still won't have a mental category for your own homelessness; it's impossible to project yourself into the scenario. The reality, when it occurs and endures, seems to have sprung from nowhere.

Without reflection, Adkins drove to a wildlife refuge she knew about in Arizona. She thought perhaps she could get a volunteer job there, something to keep her busy, but she soon realized that the plan would leave her with no way to make ends meet. "I went to a place by this lake and I just stayed there for 10 days and cried and slept. I was so bad." Eventually she headed to Santa Barbara. She hoped that old connections might help her find work, but it wasn't long before she began running out of money.

Sitting in her van, we chat a bit about High Desert Gardens and the gypsy book and her volunteer work at the wildlife shelter. Eventually I ask how she gets by. She says that a cousin in town gives her food and cash when she can, and a woman at the church arranges informal gardening work for her. Various people she knows give her their recycling so she can redeem the cans and bottles, and she borrows money from friends and acquaintances, like the manager of the wildlife shelter. Having maxed out her borrowing capacity, though, she is increasingly unable to pay what she owes to places like the YMCA, where she goes to shower. She wouldn't be adverse to dumpster­diving – "I hear there's good food" – but she's not strong enough to climb the sides.

"I actually tried panhandling a couple months ago," she says. "I was so broke. I had, like, a dollar. And I didn't know what else to do, so I went to the library and Googled 'effective panhandling.'"

"Really?" I ask.

"I wouldn't make that up," she says, laughing. "There were a lot of different strategies. One site said do not dress up, dress down. Look sad. Don't be negative in your signs. Say thank you constantly. Be humble for real, don't be phony-humble."

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