Craig Miller left Florida this year with $3,000, a borrowed RV and a dream of helping people find meaning in their lives.
His savings may have struck some as a considerable sum. But for a family of four on their way to California, it wasn't even close to adequate. The family, once intent on selling the RV for the owner, now lives in it.
They rise early and drive to the beach for breakfast before Miller drops off his wife at her new job and heads to the library where the kids can play and read while he tries to rebuild his business. After he picks up his wife, they head out again, sometimes back to the beach for dinner before ending at the Santa Barbara, Calif., parking lot where they sleep for the night.
"You think you have everything," Miller said, "but you can lose income tomorrow."
Miller once had a four-bedroom home, complete with pool and spa, when he lived in Orlando and worked as a life coach and ran his business. He's now part of what appears to growing number of Americans who have been forced out of their comfortable lives and into their vehicles by the continuing foreclosure crisis and slumping economy.
They're the upper-class homeless, the middle-class homeless or the new homeless, depending on whom you talk to.
Michael Stoops, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said this group of people is different from what is considered the typical image of homelessness. They are generally middle-aged, have good educations, own their own vehicles and once lived comfortable and self-sufficient lives. Sometimes they still have jobs, cell phones, laptops -- just no place to crawl into bed.
"This is a way for people to cling on to a part of the life they once had," Stoops said. "And having a vehicle makes life easier."
Stoops can't say for sure how many of the upper-class homeless are living in their vehicles across the country. But his group's April 2008 survey of state and local homeless coalitions found that 61 percent of respondents reported an increase in homelessness since the foreclosure crisis began last year.
Two Foreclosures in Two Months
One woman, a 55-year-old grandmother who is also living in California, went from having two homes worth a total of about $2 million to sleeping in her rundown Jeep. She has asked that ABCNews.com not use her name because her real estate clients, co-workers and some family members don't know her situation.
"I never dreamed it would be like this," she said, breaking down in tears.
Raised in the Midwest, she moved to California in the1960s. By 2005, she was earning up to $75,000 a year as a high-end real estate agent and, that year, she invested in a $1.2 million home. She didn't sell her old $780,000 ranch some 30 miles away, figuring it would sell easily. Her plan was to flip the new house in two years and sell it for $3 million.
But then her eyesight deteriorated rapidly as cataracts left her struggling to read street signs and unable to drive at night. She stopped raking in the money needed to keep up on the $10,000-a-month combined mortgages she was paying while supporting her husband, a guitarist.
The houses foreclosed, one in September 2006, the other two months later. And, she said, her husband was found to have been living a double life as a cross-dressing meth addict, though she had suspected some drug use prior to the revelation. They are now divorced.
"I used to be normal," she said, continuing to cry. "And then everything was taken from me."
After bouncing from a friend's home to her sister's place, she drove two hours north to Santa Barbara in May for a fresh start and to rebuild her real estate career. But what she found was an $8-an-hour job in a coffee shop.
She pulls in a biweekly income of about $300 to $400, not including the $50 a week in tips she gets if times are good. She pays $43 a month for a gym membership, because it's a safe place where she can go 24 hours a day and take a shower whenever she wants.
Her Jeep, on which she's making $30 a month payments to a dealership that could have repossessed it for late payments, recently broke down, costing her $1,300 in repairs.
A Safe Place to Sleep
The woman and the Miller family park their cars in overnight lots dedicated to the homeless. There are only two communities that Stoops, the advocate, knows of that have such programs that cater to the homeless who prefer their cars and RVs to shelters or camps in the woods.
Several dozen homeless drivers in Eugene, Ore., and Santa Barbara are allowed to legally park overnight in lots owned by churches, businesses and the government.
"Eugene has had problems around homelessness for a long time, like decades," city Urban Services manager Richie Weinman said.
The city made a couple of unsuccessful attempts to set up a government-sanctioned parking program, starting in the early 1990s. But it was always too expensive, too rowdy.
But since 1998, the city has operated a parking program via contract with a local nonprofit agency. There are about two dozen legal parking spaces and the city also allows residents and businesses to provide parking to the homeless under strict guidelines.
There's also a facilitator who acts as a liaison between residents, business owners and homeless drivers so the police aren't called as frequently to chase away squatters or drivers parked in illegal places.
But while Eugene has not been hit hard by the foreclosure crisis, it is a fairly poor area, Weinman said.
And their program served as the blueprint for the system set up in Santa Barbara, which the Miller family and the real estate agent are now a part of.
Hoping For a Fairy Tale
Miller, 36, his wife, Paige, 38, and their two elementary school-aged children left Florida at the end of May. By then, his business, Neverland Life Design, had filed for bankruptcy. Miller said his partner ran into financial trouble, and the house was on the auction block. Prior to the move, the couple had been making a combined $73,000 annually, with Miller's wife working as an elementary school teacher.
They sold what they could, got rid of their cars, piled into the RV with their three cats and headed for the Golden State, "not to be too fairy-tale-ish, but to follow our hearts," Miller said.
Out in California, Miller hoped to begin weekly retreats where clients could get away from their daily lives and find "the truth of who they are ... in a really luxurious setting."
Miller, who holds two master's degrees, still has money coming in from clients, and his wife's new job as an administrative assistant has eased the family's worries about having enough money for food.
Now they have enough money to pay rent on a place big enough for the family, between $2,200 and $2,600 per month in their area, but not enough to pay the deposit or start-up costs, which Miller estimates to be about $7,000. Compounding problems is that they make too much money, he said, to get help from traditional nonprofit agencies that are used to handing out a few bucks here and there for food or laundry.
There are good days and bad days. The family, Miller said, is "walking all over each other right now" in the 22-foot RV, which costs about $75 a week to keep fueled.
Their children, 10 and 8, don't fully realize the family's situation, but the Millers have already reached out for help from social services agencies in getting the kids into school in the fall in case they are still in the RV.
But Miller is not embarrassed by their living arrangement. The family has hopes and it has dreams. "We got stuck," he said. "We're trying to get out of it."
And they do have their fun. In addition to the trips to the beach, they sometimes watch movies on the television in their RV. But that TV runs on a generator and that generator uses gas, so movie night is reserved for special occasions.
New Beginnings Counseling Center, the Santa Barbara nonprofit that runs the Safe Parking Program, fronted the real estate agent the money for the Jeep repairs. Now, instead of saving her money for a home, she's paying the agency back, a little at a time.
The parking program started four years ago when the city outlawed homeless parking on residential streets. That legislation was challenged in court by a nonprofit social justice group, and the compromise was this program, which now serves about 55 individuals and families, said Gary Linker, the executive director of New Beginnings.
Residents of these parking spaces get permits that must be renewed monthly, giving social workers a chance to talk to residents about finding permanent housing. Some parking lots are reserved just for women, or other groups, and some are gated with homeless drivers entering and exiting with keys. Permit holders generally must be out by 7 a.m. and aren't allowed back in until 7 p.m.
Linker said that Santa Barbara has not been hit as hard by the foreclosure crisis as communities to the north. Only a few of the current occupants of the 55 spaces are out on the streets because of foreclosure or the economy.
"In the last few months, I would say we have seen more of them," he said. "But it's by no means epidemic."
The rest are longtime homeless people: combat veterans, people with substance abuse and mental health problems, people, Linker said, "who have pretty much been struggling their whole lives."
And the spots are safe, say organizers. Miller had tried to get into a lot with more families for his kids to socialize with, but there was a waiting list and they now live among mixed company. The real-estate agent, on the other hand, prefers to stay to herself, afraid of being harmed or getting mixed up with the "crazy" homeless people she sometimes sees.
Making Their Way Back
Stoops said that these people, the upper class or middle class homeless, usually claw their way back to where they once were, unless pre-existing substance abuse or mental health problems get worse, an unfortunately common side effect of homelessness.
"They have the education and the skills," Stoops said. "And they know how to get re-established."
That's the primary focus for the Miller family. And they know their positive attitude will help, especially after seeing so many others fuming at society, blaming the world for their misfortune.
"If somebody is facing this or in it, I would tell them not to be afraid of it," Miller said. "It's scary, but it's doable."