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Originally published | Page modified May 3, 2009 at 3:36 AM

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More seniors using vehicles as shelter

Seniors living out of RVs and cars are typical of what the state and the country will see in the future, as the numbers of poor elderly increase over the next several decades, say advocates for the homeless.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Senior population

According to the study "Quiet Crisis: Age Wave Maxes Out Affordable Housing, King County, 2008-2025":

• The number of poor seniors will double to more than 50,000 households by 2025;

• An additional 936 subsidized-housing units will be needed each year until 2025 just to maintain the current ratio of affordable housing for poor seniors;

• Those seniors will live longer, rely more on 401(k)s and less-reliable income, and will spend more years with limited mobility, requiring support services;

• A cooperative effort is needed to look at new housing options for seniors.

Source: Seattle/King County

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Sporting a black cowboy hat, Gene Sargent steps up to the microphone at Dave's Restaurant in Milton, Pierce County, launching into an old Sons of the Pioneers tune. It conjures up his memories of when he was married the first time, had a wife with long brown hair; was a new father and had a job in Modesto, Calif. — before everything slowly came apart like the seeds of a tumbleweed.

Sargent, 65, who most people know simply as "Sarge," has spent the past four years living in the cab of a pickup in South King County, pulling behind him a camp trailer packed with his life's possessions.

With a Social Security income of less than $700 a month, he can't afford an apartment; RV spaces are difficult to find and even state-park camping spots run $150 a week. So he drifts, parking along side streets in Federal Way, in department-store parking lots and rest areas until police tell him, and many others like him, to move along.

Sargent's situation is typical of what will be increasingly common in coming decades, say national advocates for the homeless.

"The homeless population is graying along with the general population, and we're seeing more elderly people living out their final ... years on the streets," said Michael Stoops, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.

A King County/city of Seattle study released in February predicted the number of poor seniors will double by 2025, said Stephen Norman, executive director of the King County Housing Authority.

The One-Night Count of the homeless on Jan. 30 showed parts of South King County's homeless population increased as much as 68 percent in the past year, compared with a slight increase in other parts of the county, said Alison Eisinger, executive director for the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness.

No statistics are available to tell how many senior citizens spend their last days living in RVs, trucks and campers or trucks and trailers, like Sargent does, moving from parking space to parking space, waiting for Social Security checks, fearful of having their vehicles impounded or being told to leave.

For the most part, they are an invisible group because they are unlikely to ask for services usually available to the homeless, say social-service providers such as those at Federal Way's Multi-Service Center.

"My whole world"

Sargent walks into a Wal-Mart store to wash up and have breakfast at a fast-food restaurant inside.

"I don't want to be a burden on anyone," he says.

He says he doesn't like staying away from his truck and trailer for long. And he never unhooks the trailer since it might be towed away — and with it "my whole world," he says.

Over breakfast, he talks about his frustration of being booted out of the ample lot where he usually parks next to a sign threatening the owners of unauthorized vehicles with towing.

The Wal-Mart Super Store manager, who refuses to be named, says there's never a problem with RVs or homeless people using the store's lot, and says if anyone was asked to leave it was at the police department's request. Police counter that there's no ordinance preventing sleeping in cars in Federal Way, and they only ask someone to move on when business or property owners request such action.

Although he now spends his days doing crossword puzzles, he once set sprinklers in fields, drove forklifts and loaded potatoes into boxcars. Then came night school and learning to paint cars.

In the meantime, his home life suffered as he tried to reconcile his rigid Pentecostal upbringing with his wife's refusal to go to church. His marriage soon ended. Before long, another began, but also ended. Then came another marriage and divorce. He then placed all that remained of his belongings in a trailer and hit the road.

As he sits in his truck whiling away the hours, he reflects on his life. "The church didn't teach us about married life or how to treat a wife," he said. "I've learned a lot since, I respect women a lot more."

At night, he's seen drug deals in the parking lot. He pulls a cloth over the windows of the truck and sleeps. He says he counts on and receives God's protection.

He tallies the days until his next Social Security check is deposited in his bank account and he can go to his favorite karaoke bar and sing the old country songs he grew up with. Sometimes women ask him to dance. To them he's just Sarge, the man in the black hat who sings like an old-time cowboy. Few know he's homeless.

Running out of options

Federal guidelines say people aren't truly homeless if they can afford vehicles.

But, "in our view, someone in an RV who is moving place to place ... is homeless," said Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.

Homelessness, advocates say, often happens in steps.

"People who have never experienced homelessness before first downsize and move to cheaper accommodations," Stoops said. "That only lasts for a while. Then they turn to family and friends and when that runs out, cheap motels. Then they'll stay in cars or RVs. Their worst nightmare is having to knock on a shelter door and be considered homeless. But the reality is the shelters are full and we're not taking reservations."

St. Martin de Porres Shelter in Seattle, which takes only homeless men 50 and older, operates at full capacity of more than 200 men nightly, the staff says.

For more permanent housing, "there are huge waiting lists for the public housing that is available," said John Fox of the Displacement Coalition in Seattle. "From 2005 to 2007 we saw, just in Seattle, a loss of over 5,000 [low-cost housing units] to condominiums," he said. "The senior population is one of the first groups to be victimized by this trend" because older people are less likely to have other housing options.

Kamal Ali Khan, 62, lives in an RV, and often parks near Sargent. A veteran, former automotive worker, security guard, dollar-store manager and temporary laborer, he continues to look for work, determined his days dodging police and store managers who will force him to move will end. His daughter loaned him money to buy a motor home several years ago so he'd have a roof over his head no matter what, he said.

The refrigerator since has quit working, as has the toilet — requiring him to use facilities in public places.

Kay Curtis, 58, a Wal-Mart worker married to a disabled man in his 60s, doesn't make enough money to pay rent. So they, too, shuffle from a Wal-Mart lot to side streets, dreading the knock on the RV door telling them to move.

At a rest stop along Interstate 5, homeless seniors are common, say those who volunteer serving coffee. Roy Plunkett, with the Order of Eastern Star, Tacoma, has seen up to 20 RVs parked overnight, many filled with older people who "seem to have nowhere else to go," so they come up for the free coffee and cookies four and five times, he said.

On one snowy March day, an 82-year-old man from Yakima spent the night and the next day at the rest stop in the car in which he now lives. A former merchant marine, he lost his money to a bad investment and the out-of-pocket medical costs of a longterm illness, he said. He refused to give his name because he didn't want his children to know he is homeless.

Several churches in Ballard have been working to turn their parking lots into camping sites for homeless people living in vehicles. The project is delicate because many face opposition from neighbors, say members of the Ballard Homes for All Coalition.

"We tend to blame the homeless for their situation," Stoops said. "It's often a minority of people causing the problem. But there's a tendency to treat all homeless — including the older homeless — as criminals.

"People do make mistakes. The elderly should never spend their final days on the streets."

"It could happen to anybody"

Sargent and Khan were angry recently, when a manager of a fast-food restaurant near where they were parked in Federal Way summoned police to force them to move their vehicles — which had been parked on a public side street near the building overnight.

"It's social bigotry. You're a nobody. You're not even considered an American," Khan said.

"Nobody lives this way because they want to," Sargent said. "It's the last chance. ... It's survival. It could happen to anybody."

Just before Christmas, the alternator in Sargent's truck failed. Then came the heater fan and the starter. Next, his rig needed tires. One by one he got them fixed.

Whenever he thinks of the cost of an apartment, he figures it would buy a lot of gas. He plans to save up the gas money to get to Oregon, where there's no sales tax. Every penny he can save will help.

Karaoke is a luxury he allows himself once or twice a month, when he can afford the gas to travel to Milton. He parks his truck and trailer out back, and when he walks through the door, he leaves the world of homelessness behind.

"When I'm depressed I just sing a few songs and it goes away," Sargent says as he sits at a table, waiting for his turn.

"We've got Sarge, and he's in charge," the host says. Sargent walks up front, takes the microphone, then "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" begins.

"I'll keep rolling along," he sings, "deep in my heart is a song ... drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds."

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or nbartley@seattletimes.com

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