The Sharp, Sudden Decline of America's Middle Class

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Kennan is 34 and quite short, with a long biker beard, a silver fleck of a nose stud and, almost always, a Wildhorse cigarette in one hand. Edgy energy keeps him in motion; he describes himself as "a very overanalytical individual."

Desperate to get his kids out of a homeless shelter after he lost his job in San Francisco, Kennan heard about the Safe Parking program from a friend. He saved his cash assistance for two and a half months and used the $700 to buy the RV, then waited two weeks until the rest of his welfare money came in to get it registered. "I basically plunged all the funds I had into the vehicle and then coped with just food stamps," he says. He and the kids named the RV Big Bertha. The First Presbyterian lot, which sits on a hillside in central Santa Barbara, has five spots in the Safe Parking program. Kennan received a spot at the edge of the lot. "When I rolled in that first night, I was so freaked out – never been to this town, don't know anybody," he says. "On the street, you run into crazy people everywhere. But there were two cop cars in the parking lot – it's a central location, and they were just sitting there waiting for calls. I was superstoked. You got your Safe Parking sticker on your windshield so they never bother you. It was comforting – very, very comforting."

After high school, Kennan knocked around the country for a while and then went to work for a relative in Florida as a vintage-boat restorer. September 11th inspired him to enlist in the army. He'd completed basic training and part of jump school when his back gave out, and he received a discharge. After moving to San Francisco with his kids, he struck up a child care arrangement with a friend and got a job in the packaging department at the U.S. Mint. It was a good job, but the Treasury Department was cutting back in the wake of the economic collapse, and Kennan couldn't get enough hours to get by. Around the same time, his child care arrangement fell apart, making it difficult to look for work, let alone hold down a full-time job.

The RV now sits on the street, in front of his new apartment. We stop to look at it on the way out. Kennan has pulled off its roof and walls and begun reframing it. He wants to both work and to care for his kids, he says, and the only way to do that is to have his own business. He'd like to get back to the kind of vintage-boat restoration he did in Florida.

"In essence, what you see out here has a lot of meanings," he says. "Because it's one, a prototype, and two, a backup plan." When the RV is fully rehabbed, he says, it will serve as a mobile advertisement for his restoration business. "There's a lot of people around here who have the money for toys," he says. The backup plan involves the fortification of the RV, survivalist style: waterproofing, solar panels, all-climate functionality. The Winnebago had been in rough shape when he lived in it with his kids, and Kennan had vowed that they would never again have to rely on such dicey shelter.

"Big Bertha has a lot of meaning to my family," he says. "She took care of us, now we're taking care of her."

I ask Kennan if he'll drive my car so I can take notes. As we pull away from the apartment, he says, "Man, I haven't driven a car in so long. This is weird, this is really weird. Just being in a car, period. So low. You're so low." We take Highway 101 northwest, beginning a tour of the world he and the kids inhabited after leaving the homeless shelter and striking out in Big Bertha. "The shelter was almost like those reality-TV shows where you get dropped into a situation," he tells me. "I'd never been on welfare before. I had no clue. I'd just heard people talk about it. What do you do? Die, kill yourself, or turn to drugs – and I do none of that. I got food stamps and cash aid for the kids. I got an old bike with a kid cart so I could get from point A to point B, because I had no transportation. I had a little cover for the cart in case it was raining."

We get off the highway and head down a commercial through street called De la Vina. Once he got the RV, he discovered that the roof leaked, so he bought a tarp and bungee cords to cover the holes. He ripped out the foul carpet ("It was so nasty, bro. It freaked me out to where I thought my kids were going to get sick"), and he strapped the bike and the kid cart to the roof.

"But now, what are you gonna do to shower your children?" he asks. "The very first thing was, 'How do I shower my kids?'" The weather was too cold for a camping shower. When he signed up for the Safe Parking program, Nancy Kapp told him about discounted memberships at the YMCA, and he began showering his kids there.

From De la Vina, we turn in to a strip mall. Kennan pulls into one of the spots where he used to park the RV after he finished shopping at Ralphs Grocery, a nearby supermarket. He often cooked something for the kids here, which sometimes drew complaints from the owners of a Chinese restaurant and a pizza place in the mall.

Getting out of the car, we take a short walk to Mission Creek, which runs under De la Vina and connects the strip mall to Oak Park, where Kennan and the kids would spend the better part of their days after leaving the First Presbyterian lot each morning at dawn. The creek runs clean, between stands of old oaks, with no trash in the bed – a hallmark of Santa Barbara. One of their favorite activities was to walk from Oak Park up the streambed on the way to Ralphs.

"We called it our Journey," Kennan says. "I'd say, 'Hey, who wants to get fruit? Who wants to get vegetables?' We'd go all the way down the creek to Ralphs to get food. The kids loved it." Along the way, they'd carefully clear clumps of sticks and leaves lodged between rocks in the creek bed. Kennan told the kids they needed to do this so "the water could flow properly." This became a serious undertaking, and the regularity of the Journey steadied their lives.

Returning to the car, we drive down to Oak Park. At its edge, a road winds through a little wood; we turn onto it and find the parking spot they occupied most mornings, deep in oak shade and just above Mission Creek. Being here leaves Kennan thoughtful; as if to preclude sentiment, he abruptly pulls out, and we drive along the length of the park: a broad, oak-canopied lawn along the creek, a spacious playground, a wading pool for kids, bathrooms. Kennan points to a public tap near the stream.

"This park has everything, bro, everything you could want," he says with the tenderness, almost wonderment, that people in the Safe Parking program express when talking about any public amenity that affords comfort: clean water, electrical outlets, showers, a safe green space, a good playground.

From Oak Park we turn right onto a road leading back to Highway 101, Kennan excruciatingly conscious of the road's steep grade. He'd run out of gas a few times trying to make it up the hill – the RV's gas gauge was broken – and had to carefully roll downhill to get as close to the nearest gas station as he could. "The major issue was always gas," he says. "The RV was really guzzling gas bad – to the point of over $300 a month just for the small circle we would do around here." The First Presbyterian lot was partway up a steep hill, and every night, the ascent burned a ton of gas: "It sucked, bro." Big Bertha was also bedeviled by electrical issues. O'Reilly Auto Parts offered free battery charging, and Kennan took them up on it every week. "They got kinda tired of it," he says.

We get off the 101, and after a few turns pull into the YMCA parking lot. Kennan used to park at the very edge of the lot, to minimize conspicuousness. The Y is a big, modern, glassy facility, built around a courtyard. With the familiar note of thankful wonder, Kennan says, "They got so much cool stuff in there, bro. So much cool stuff."

We head toward the parking lot at First Presbyterian. The basic routine was to leave the church lot at 7 a.m. for Oak Park, where they would play and hike until about 3 p.m. Then they'd drive to the Y for more activities and a shower. Then errands – battery charging, welfare paperwork, grocery shopping – and finally back to the church lot.

The First Presbyterian Church, ensconced in a neighborhood of mountain views and landscaped mission-style homes, is a large, red-roofed, cream-sided­ building with stained-glass insets. The smooth parking lot forms a hilltop plateau dotted by a few islands of fit palms; past it, the hill descends to a little valley of tile roofs and treetops. We park in Kennan's former spot, at the back of the lot, and get out. The land falls away just past a chain-link fence. A few weathered blue plastic chairs stand next to a Safe Parking porta-potty.

"We used to sit in those chairs at night and look at the stars," Kennan says. They could hear owls hooting after dark, visible sometimes as shadowy forms in the moonlight. The lot was mostly empty, and Kennan kept to himself. "My kids are my best friends and they consume all my time," he says. "When I parked, that was it. The blinds were drawn, the sun goes down. 'Love you, kids, time to go to sleep.' Seven, 7:30, they were out. I would relax for a few minutes, play card games or something on my cellphone, and then I would go down too." Each day had been filled with peril.

"It was a complete disconnection from everything that people are technically connected to," Kennan says. "Under the circumstances that you're in, if you don't have the mind frame to understand that every day is beautiful, you can become bogged down and break. It was six and a half months before I really hit my breaking point." He had applied for Section 8 housing, but nothing had come through. "I was very close to going back to the shelter if the RV broke down," he says. "It was just a baby step up."

He'd already headed for the desert, in search of a cheap trailer park, when he decided to call one last time about the Section 8 housing. "Your name is still on the list, sir," he was told, "but there's nothing available." Later that day, though, he got a call – an apartment had unexpectedly come open. "I almost started to cry, I'll be honest with you," he says.

At first, when the family moved into the apartment, they almost never left. "We hibernated for about a month," Kennan says. "We'd go to the grocery store, but that was about it. We'd watch movies constantly. We just hung out, ate a lot of fruits and vegetables. I'd make a big salad, and everybody got a fork, and we'd just hang out and watch movies and eat. We got over it eventually."

Kennan lights a cigarette and tells me an elaborate story he'd made up for his kids while they were in the homeless shelter. The lights there didn't go out until 9 p.m., and the kids were in the upper bunk, so they couldn't fall asleep before then. He'd climb up and tell them stories until the lights were turned off. Soon it was just variations on one story, about a guy named Hippie Bob, who lived on a beach in Hawaii and made bonfires and rode sharks. When the kids asked what the shark's name was, "Jabber Jaws" popped into Kennan's head. Hippie Bob would ride out to a buoy on Jabber Jaws, put on his scuba gear, which was stored there, and Jabber Jaws would take him down to the land of the Snorks, who gave Hippie Bob all the gold they'd amassed from sunken pirate ships. Hippie Bob didn't need the gold, but they insisted he take it, so whenever he visited the Snorks, he brought them beautiful rocks and minerals. Before long, Kennan and his kids made up a theme song to go with the story: "Come along with the Snorks!/So happy to be when we're under the sea..." Now, whenever Kennan begins to talk about Hippie Bob, his kids immediately go silent.

One chilly, rainy morning, I meet Janis Adkins shortly after she's woken up outside the Santa Barbara Community Church – the church to which Curtis and Concita Cates had been assigned. Adkins had parked in the overflow lot on the sly, as she sometimes does, to enjoy the view of the mountains. Wearing a purple shawl and blue Patagonia fleece vest over a fleece shirt, she was beginning to straighten the back of the van. It had been so cold she'd had to sleep in her clothes, and I express surprise that they are unwrinkled. She laughs. "Fleece doesn't wrinkle," she says. It was a valuable trait.

She suggests that I sit in the driver's seat while she finishes getting ready. "What's a common denominator for all of us is we can't use the passenger seat, because it's so full of stuff," she says. I climb in. A shoulder bag holding her résumés is slung over the headrest. Scattered across the front seats: a CVS "Interdental Brush and Toothpick," a bottle of Wellness Formula, a bottle of Wellness Herbal Resistance Liquid, a bright-orange plastic box with a snap lid that reads "Homeopathic Emergency Kit Remedy List" and a nylon pouch full of more supplements and remedies.

She nods at all the homeopathic stuff. "It's hell getting sick in a car," she explains. "So I have an arsenal of things to keep me healthy." The homeopathic emergency kit had been sent by a friend, whom Adkins calls whenever she feels like she's coming down with something.

She begins to brush her teeth, excusing herself a few times to go spit at the edge of the lot. When I ask about water, she says, "Because I was a river guide, you really get used to brushing your teeth without water – you have enough saliva in your mouth."

The weather clears momentarily, and a half-rainbow appears over the hills. I ask if she uses a camp stove. "No," she says. "I'm very afraid of fire – paranoid of fire. I'm scared to use it in the van. And outside – there's no table for it." Because she doesn't cook, she relies almost exclusively­ on three places for a full, hot afternoon meal: Panda Express, In-N-Out Burger and Taco Bell. They're the only sufficiently cheap places, and to save gas, she goes to whichever is closest.

"I had a cooler, but I needed block ice, and there's only two places to get it," she says. "Cube ice is more expensive and doesn't last long. Block ice lasts two or three times longer, but the gas to drive to get it is expensive. It's all a balancing act. Everything is done on faith and trust – and that's not a religious thing. You know that you're a heartbeat away from the bush. I have to be able to say to myself, 'OK, you're on "E," you have $5 in food stamps, and you have a dollar. You're OK.' I have to trust that if I lose 50 pounds I'll still be OK. Something happened to me when I was a little kid and I started saying, 'I'll be OK, I'll be OK.' And I've said it ever since. It's constant in my head."

I get out of the driver's seat and climb into the back. Adkins gets behind the wheel and we head south, to Whole Foods, which has a breakfast bar that can be exploited. "Having a hot meal early is essential when it's this cold," she says. On the way, a sudden anxiety seizes her. "If we see a cop, you lie down," she says sharply – the only time I would hear this tone in her voice. Tickets for seat-belt violations in California start at $142 – the equivalent of about 28 meals.

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