Our CARE Homeless Outreach Team came to know Carol over the past few years while she was living in her van on a side street in Novato. A heavyset brunette of French heritage in her seventies who was wheelchair-bound due to severe osteoporosis, Carol had been living in the inoperable Volkswagen bus she’d owned with her late husband for three years.
“When I started working on the CARE Team there was a list of clients we’d see on a regular basis. Carol was one of those,” says Annie, one of the CARE Team members who knew her best. “She was living in her van in pretty bad conditions, with mice living in it, and no access to a shower.”
Our CARE Homeless Outreach team began helping Carol in simple ways, like bringing her to Costco to get groceries or taking her to lunch. “While she was happy to see us, she could also be the most difficult client we were working with in terms of accepting help” says Tom Clark of our CARE Team.
Carol had been devastated by the loss of her husband, and talked often about missing him. Suffering from worsening dementia, she held dearly to the old VW van packed with books and mementos that reminded her of their days together.
Most days, Carol would roll her wheelchair a full half-mile to the nearest Starbucks to get coffee and sit among people. “She would sit at Starbucks for hours, wearing a lot of floppy hats from the seventies, Annie says, “She was kind of a local fixture.”
While she had no permanent home, Carol had paid for two storage units full of possessions for years out of her meager SSI income. “She had so many issues not paying her storage bill for months but thinking she had paid it,” says Annie. “She was very hard to help. We’d go with her and she’d bawl out the storage people, and we kind of had to be the peace keeper.” Ultimately she missed too many payments and the storage facility put her belongings up for auction. With her deteriorating memory, Carol tended to forget her belongings in storage had been sold. She also believed she was supposed to inherit property in Oregon, but this couldn’t be confirmed.
As Tom remembers, “Carol was somebody that was really tough to work with…She was very curmudgeonly and could be very abrupt and temperamental. But she also had a great sense of humor and was very entertaining. She was always joking.”
In November, as winter weather set in, Carol received a formal police notice to move her inoperable vehicle within 72 hours. By that point, she knew she could turn to us for help. Our team put her up in a hotel room while they worked with police to tow the van to a shop and get an estimate to fix it. As it turned out the old VW van would have cost $900 to repair, yet was actually only worth $200, and Carol didn’t have a drivers’ license. Still, she held to the van, preferring to tow it to a new location where she continued to live in it. At one point, Carol’s name came up on a waiting list to get low-income housing, but she didn’t accept it.
“She was stubborn and cantankerous but she had a very happy humorous side, and we managed to have a relationship with her that was trusting,” remembers Annie. “We got frustrated and there were times when she was really irritable. And sometimes we kind of laughed to ourselves. She was just feisty. She was quite the character.”
Our CARE Team kept up their visits to Carol and continued to help where they could. “We just pointed out options to her and suggested ideas, but we don’t give advice or try to convince people,” explained Annie. “She had all this money in the bank that she had saved up – like, for a homeless person it was a lot – but we couldn’t get her to use it for things that might be more logical.”
Their balance of offering a consistent helping presence while respecting Carol’s autonomy characterizes our CARE Team’s unique approach, and we believe it was what ultimately enabled us to help get Carol into a great permanent housing arrangement.
Carol told us of a childhood best friend who lived in Oregon. They had grown up together and Carol had occasionally thought she might explore the possibility of living with her. Our team got the friend’s number, called, and brokered arrangements for Carol to live there. “We could see how excited she got when we mentioned the possibility of living with her friend in Oregon,” says Tom. “The friend was living in a house by herself and was happy to take her in.”
Our CARE Team worked with St. Vincent de Paul Society to get her a bus ticket to Oregon, and helped Carol pack her belongings to send to Oregon by UPS. They even arranged for her old VW Van to be towed to Oregon. “She was on cloud nine when we were able to arrange for the vehicle to come with her” says Tom.
“I went with her to the greyhound bus to make sure she got on OK. It was kind of sad to see her go. But Carol was finally in a new chapter in her life. Just being able to help someone who was in a really tough life situation was really really gratifying.”