'I Used to Be Normal'

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.

'Not Epidemic'

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."

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