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Nomads of the '80s : Living in Vehicles, Waiting for Their Lives to Pick Up

November 22, 1987|TRACEY KAPLAN | Times Staff Writer

She sounds like a typical hostess: "Please excuse the mess, I didn't have a chance to straighten up this morning."

But Nancy's home is not typical. She lives in a mud-streaked old Ford, and it's difficult to imagine that tidying up the green blanket on the back seat or rearranging the toiletries and papers on the dashboard would significantly improve the decor.

Nancy, who prefers to remain anonymous because she is embarrassed by her situation, is one of more than 1,000 people in the San Fernando Valley who wake up every morning in a car, van or motor home, according to authorities. Some, like Nancy, are driven to dwell in cars because they cannot afford a rental unit. Others adopt an itinerant life style by choice.

Dan Wakem, 53, became a mobile transient more than a year ago, saying he got tired of seeing $800 a month "go down the drain" for an apartment in Van Nuys. Since then, Wakem has been parking his spacious, $60,000 motor home at various spots around the Valley. He earns $50,000 annually as a machine maintainer for a Van Nuys aluminum-can company, enough to stock his vehicle with two TVs, a VCR and 300 videocassette tapes.

"I look at living in an apartment as a self-imposed prison cell," Wakem said. "This way, I get to drive down to the beach on my days off and watch the surf roll in."

Parking Overnight

Known by police as "mobile transients," people who live in their vehicles illegally park overnight throughout Los Angeles, in defiance of a city ordinance that prohibits using a vehicle parked on city streets or in city parking lots as living quarters. Many choose the Valley because they believe its many parks and residential side streets provide a safer haven than more urban areas of the city, said Vernon Windell, director of Cornerstone, a daytime drop-in shelter for the homeless in Van Nuys.

"Many of them have some kind of roots here," Windell said. "They used to have an apartment here, or they have friends and family in the area. They feel safer here because they can find a place to park and blend in."

The exact number of mobile transients in the Valley is unknown because no precise studies have been conducted. Estimates range from 1,400 mentioned by United Way to 5,000 by the San Fernando Valley Homeless Coalition. Officials believe mobile transients represent about half the homeless in the Valley.

Many mobile transients park overnight--sometimes for weeks or months at a time--in the Valley's public parks. The Valley contains 86 of Los Angeles' 385 parks, nearly a quarter of those in the city. All are closed to visitors from 10:30 p.m. to 6 a.m.

But many, such as the 2,031-acre Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area in Encino, are large and difficult to patrol, or have amenities such as restrooms that make them popular spots for car dwellers, said Hector Hernandez, chief security officer with the Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Department.

Minimal Patrols

The transients manage to stay overnight in the Valley's parks because they are patrolled by only three park rangers, whose duties also include coping with vandalism, drug trafficking and gang-related problems, Hernandez said. Although the parks are monitored seven days a week, the rangers generally do not work at night, when mobile transients arrive in the parks, he said.

"We're so pitifully understaffed that I can't be here every night to check out some guy's story and see if he's really left the park," said Tom Cotter, one of the park rangers who patrols the Valley.

John Kuhn, 24, a laborer, said he has been living in a Van Nuys park without drawing the attention of authorities since he and his wife separated in October. He said he drives around looking for work all day, showers at a friend's house and then returns to the park to camp in the bed of his 1969 Ford.

Even Kuhn, whose brawny arms flex as he adjusts a tarp over the bed of the truck, said he prefers to park in the Valley because he feels less vulnerable than in other parts of the city.

"Welfare gave me a voucher for a hotel in Los Angeles," Kuhn said. "But you couldn't pay me to go down there."

Like many mobile transients, Kuhn says he will sacrifice a meal or two to keep his vehicle running or to pay for gas.

But it would take a lot of skipped meals to pay for putting a nearby car owned by Robert (I.W.) Harper in running condition. The car, a 1977 Oldsmobile, has a dead battery, no brakes and no carburetor. Every time authorities tell Harper to move on, he has to ask a friend to tow his car.

A thin, 60-year-old man with rotting teeth, Harper began living in the car with his dog after his business manufacturing T-shirts failed four years ago. He said he was able to park for 10 months in a golf course parking lot, but that golfers complained to the management about his beloved watchdog and companion, a Doberman pinscher named Evita, during a rash of pit-bull attacks last summer. Harper said he had to have his car towed to other locations three times in the past month.

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