Sunday, December 21, 2014     Volume: 29, Issue: 21
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The Homeless Project

At New Times, we believe that homelessness is not a problem that can be attacked with money or plans. When we think of homelessness, we don't think of statistics; we think of people. We think of people who've had problems in their lives, and they all have a story to tell. We believe that common sense is the only way we'll ever come close to ending homelessness. This is our common-sense approach, and these are their stories.

Brex Owen (pictured) and Velma Hunt

Following a brief four-day stint living at Sunny Acres, Velma Hunt and Brex Owen were told they’d have to leave when a judge ordered Dan De Vaul, proprietor of the sober-living facility, to clear the residents off his property.

Owen remembers it as evening, and Hunt recalls it as morning when De Vaul returned to the ranch and essentially condemned them to homelessness once again.

“He called us out,” Hunt described. “He just looked at both of us and it broke my heart. I knew we had nowhere else to go.”

After 10 months of homelessness, Sunny Acres had afforded them a glimmer of hope, Owen said. He believed they could save up some money while living there, and eventually move into an apartment of their own. More importantly, it was a place where Owen could work, could feel like he was making a positive contribution, all while Hunt had a safe place to stay.

“I would get up and go to work every morning. I worked my butt off,” Owen said proudly. “I enjoyed it.”

Steady work is one of the things Owen misses most about the life he and Hunt shared for nearly a decade. They lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Los Osos, along with Hunt’s mom. He went to work every day, and they were never so much as a day late paying their rent.

Then, last fall, the transmission went out in his truck. Owen took the bus to work. But without his truck, Owen was unable to help his boss haul tools and equipment. About a week later, he was fired. Hunt’s mom, who had been living with her daughter for as long as Owen and Hunt knew each other, was diagnosed with cancer and is now under hospice care in a nursing home in Morro Bay.

Without any steady income to pay their rent, their landlord gave them a few months’ grace period, then was forced to have them move out. That’s when the nightmare began.

They live in their car behind a convenience store. It beats sleeping in the bushes, which they’ve tried. And it’s one of the few places where no one harasses them to move.

“You just can’t park out on the street,” Hunt said.

“People see a strange car and they call the cops,” Owen added. “They don’t do it intentionally.”

Hunt even spent one night in a cemetery, near their parked vehicle. She just wanted to be able to stretch out and sleep with her entire body on a flat surface.

They can’t go to the shelter. Owen was kicked out for a year over a disagreement when his vehicle was involved in a fender-bender in the parking lot.

In a positive turn, both qualified for Section 8 housing, but without work they can’t afford the necessary credit check and deposit to secure a residence. It’s difficult for Owen to fill out required forms. He can’t read, but quickly points out: “I’m illiterate. I’m not dumb.” At the age of 50, he considers going back to school, but day-to-day considerations like finding food and caring for Hunt take priority. They go hungry for days at a time and speak glowingly of the few people who have given them food since their troubles began.

Hunt and Owen know they have it better than some—particularly those they call “the bush people” who set up tents in bushes, only to be chased away by the police and forced to relocate. They’re surprised at how many homeless people there are in the county, and the fact that they weren’t aware of the extent of the problem until they themselves were homeless.

But, for now, they just want to reclaim their former life. For Owen, who used to work as a painter and proudly proclaims that he can do any paint job, that means finding steady work.

“I just want to go back to work and have my life back,” he said. “When I was working I felt like a human being.”

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