Homeless advocates in Walnut Creek are seeing more people, "ones who just fell out of the middle class."
They're often newly evicted or foreclosed, suddenly living out of their cars and "come here in a state of shock," said Bill Lunghi, executive director of Fresh Start of Walnut Creek, a charity serving the homeless and sheltered poor on Trinity Avenue.
They find it "harder and harder to get back into the mainstream," said Billy Lewis, a "residentially challenged" Walnut Creeker who volunteers at Fresh Start. Some are lawyers and some are engineers who are "stuck on the street," said Lewis.
Fresh Start's statistics for 2011 show 21 percent of the people they serve live in their cars. See more of the Fresh Start statistics at the bottom of this story.
Lewis advises people coming by who are suddenly residents of their cars on finding places to park. Some of his advice:
- Leave it cleaner than you found it.
- Don't make a scene.
- Be nice to everyone.
Lewis, age 48, in this most recent stretch has been homeless for a decade, half of it in his car. He grew up in Walnut Creek and has been off and on homeless since he was 17.
"It's hard to go indoors when half my friends are outdoors," he said.
Fresh Start, completely staffed by volunteers, is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, offering:
- A peaceful atmosphere in a living room;
- Showers and laundry facilities;
- Meals and food to take for later;
- A food pantry and a clothing shed;
- Financial support and motel vouchers (when available); and
- Job-seeking aid and case management.
Fresh Start's service area is Walnut Creek, Concord, Pleasant Hill, Martinez, Alamo, Danville, San Ramon and Lamorinda.
Fresh Start also sees the working poor. "We're a low-wage economy now," Lunghi said in a November interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. "The working poor have jobs that don't put them above the poverty level."
By the numbers
On March 24, 2011, Fresh Start (founded in 1998) set a record with 73 participants helped; on Feb. 17, it set a one-day record by accepting nine new participants. Fresh Start receives about 6,000 participants a year, which has been increasing about 20 percent each year for the last three years, Lunghi said.
The Fresh Start statistics of its current population:
- 3 percent are both mentally ill with a history of substance abuse.
- 46 percent are mentally ill only.
- 30 percent are neither mentally ill nor have a history of substance abuse.
- 21 percent have a substance abuse history.
- 82 percent are homeless.
- 21 percent live in their cars.
- 3 percent are seniors.
- 9 percent are veterans.
- 29 percent have been evicted or foreclosed since 2007.
- 63 percent have been unemployed or underemployed since 2007.
- 2 percent were released from prison or jail in 2010 or 2011.
- 9 percent of Fresh Start's active-status participants are working.