Cooking in your car: The rise of the unhoused middle class

by Lisa ‘Tiny’ Gray Garcia

Salt, grease and fried meat filled the air with just a hint of burnt sugar thrown in. My mind wandered to breakfasts past sizzling in a greasy diner.

This time, however, I was on my bike, riding past an empty lot in East Oakland at 6:30 a.m. No houses or restaurants were remotely close.

Hillary-Barrow-57-broke-teacher-lives-in-car-because-shelter-wont-accept-dogs-by-Tony-Kershaw-SWNS-300x200, Cooking in your car: The rise of the unhoused middle class, Culture Currents
Hillary Barrow, 57, an unemployed teacher in Britain, lives in her (old) Alfa Romeo because the only available shelter won’t accept dogs. – Photo: Tony Kershaw, SWNS

And then I saw the smoke and heard the sizzle. It was coming from one of a long line of late model Subarus, Hondas, BMWs, Acura sedans and even a Mercedes, no car older than 2015, parked along this hidden street. This breakfast was courtesy of a tiny grill plugged into a cigarette lighter in a 2017 Honda two door.

This humble, quiet group of cars. Their inhabitants were part of a rising group of unhoused peoples, teetering on the edge of a fragile middle class, earning just enough to pay a car note but not the landlord’s gentrified rents.

“I work every day, sometimes 12-hour shifts, but I still can’t afford the rents in Oakland or San Francisco,” Malcolm, one of the unhoused parkers told me. “I originally got out here due to an Ellis Act eviction from my San Francisco apartment of 20 years. It costs too much to get back inside.”

Malcolm went on to tell me that he had always paid his rent on time and had dreams of buying a cheap home out of the county – and then the eviction happened. Now he is unable to raise the $5,000-$10,000 it costs to get back into an apartment pretty much anywhere in the Bay Area.

Malcolm is a 62-year-old Black elder and was really scared about his future. He is a contract worker – code for no health insurance, no pension, no security.

“I work every day, sometimes 12-hour shifts, but I still can’t afford the rents in Oakland or San Francisco,” Malcolm, one of the unhoused parkers told me.

On today’s bike ride, which my formerly unhoused, trauma-infused self calls My Bike Rides for Sanity, ‘cause without them I truly could not function with all of the PTSD triggers constantly rolling through my brain, I witnessed over 10 new cars added to the nine cars already there, all with folks of all colors and cultures and ages in different states of getting ready for work or school. My own past with homelessness and vehicle dwelling made me terrified for them and their safety against the police, politricksters and hater neighbors.

“I come from a working class family. I couldn’t afford rent and school supplies,” said Yesica, a UC Berkeley graduate and one of over 15 fellow unhoused folks who live in RVs in Berkeley that the City of Berkeley recently evicted from a parking lot in the Berkeley Marina for no reason but the fact that notwithstanding the veneer of political correctness oozing out of Berkeley, the city is full of anti-poor people hate.

“They have done nothing to change the laws. There is no way to legally live in a vehicle in Berkeley,” said revolutionary lawyer for the people Osha Neuman, who is working with the Berkeley RV dwellers to fight the anti-poor people hate of Berkeley and its politricksters. Emeryville repealed the law on the books specifically targeting vehicle dwellers, but Berkeley uses a law that says you can’t park a commercial vehicle between 3:00 and 5:00 a.m., targeting non-commercial RV dwellers.

“I come from a working class family. I couldn’t afford rent and school supplies,” said Yesica, a UC Berkeley graduate and one of over 15 fellow unhoused folks who live in RVs in Berkeley.

His words pierced my heart. I had been there for most of my childhood. We weren’t living in RVs or late model Honda’s; we were in hoopties, buckets, whatever me and my mama could buy with what we earned from a street based micro-business.

We parked wherever we could, working really hard to avoid people, upscale neighborhoods and police. Usually this wasn’t very successful and we were ticketed and towed literally all the time. Either it was parking tickets for sleeping in our vehicle or no current registration, taillights and other poor people crimes.

When the cars were towed, it was either sleep on park benches or doorways out of sight or unsafe shelter beds, where we were predated on. When I turned 18, I did three months in Santa Rita County Jail for the poverty “crime” of sleeping in our car.

Every Tuesday, myself and other Poor News Network correspondents go out to conduct poor people-led media and research – or what we call “WeSearch” – for RoofLESS Radio. We also prepare healthy hot meals that we serve to all who are hungry, along with hygiene kits as we have them.

Every week, unhoused poverty skolaz hiding in their hoopties, in parks and under tents report multiple stories ranging from “sweeps” of our unhoused bodies as if we are trash, being asked to move, having our tents and belongings stolen by Department of Public Works or just plain being told like the recent reports in San Francisco that we can’t sit down at all.

You could argue that the middle class car dwellers are better off because they don’t get this same non-stop hate and have a container for their belongings. But the harassment hits them too; it’s just more subtle.

“Parking enforcement was ticketing me literally every day. I’m parking here because there are hardly any residential homes here, so less people to call the police on us,” said an elder Latina who works at a hospital, speaking to me out of a 2015 Subaru.” I’ve got so many tickets I’m at risk of losing my car and ending up in a tent.”

Real solutions instead of more anti-poor people predation

From San Francisco to San Mateo, people are harassed ALL the time, and with the settler colonizer-anti-poor people laws on the stolen land books, legislators and politricksters support, promote and underwrite this harassment.

It’s why poverty skola elder Bobby Bogan and myself are calling for a Poor People’s Party. It’s why us po’ and houseless folks at POOR Magazine are building Homefulness, a homeless people’s self-determined solution to homelessness.

But more importantly for people reading this, it is urgent to understand and overstand we are in a different time. There is no room for the same old greed-filled, land stealing, wealth hoarding policies.

Mama Earth is weakening. Climate destruction is increasing. More and more of us are unable to afford the insane prices being falsely placed on Mama Earth.

For our collective survival and thrival as human beings, it is an emergency for us to listen and learn and follow the practices indigenous nations have been teaching and living and manifesting since the beginning of human-ness.

“San Diego has a huge lawsuit going right now on the right to sleep in their vehicles,” says Paul Boden, poverty skola and long-time poor people revolutionary and director of WRAP, Western Regional Advocacy Project.

No one owns these parking lots like the ones the Berkeley RV dwellers were parking on because no one owns Mama Earth. No one owns the public streets that peoples are parked on in San Diego just like no one owns the so-called public streets in San Francisco, San Mateo, Berkeley or East Oakland.

My proposal to conscious folks like Jovanka Beckles and Cheryl Davilla and Cat Brooks, who happen to be walking those politrickster halls, is to unearth the property first settler colonial laws and actually create space for us growing members of the Unhoused Nation. Decriminalize parking and sleeping, decriminalize sitting, standing, living and being while unhoused.

These practices aren’t logical in a 21st century reality and of course never were logical, but rather undergirded this culture rooted in scarcity models, crabs in a barrel survival models, racism, classism and greed.

Support indigenous women-led projects like Sogorea Te Land Trust and their fight to save, preserve, liberate and honor a 5,000-year-old sacred indigenous site, the West Berkeley Shellmound, from more developing and land stealing, profiteering and politricking.

Transform both private and publicly “owned” empty lots – like the thousands of acres of CalTrans-owned land – and privately speculated empty houses into collective land use not rooted in property values and more buying, selling and speculating.

And conscious folks reading this don’t have to wait for the politricksters or beg them to activate. You as the housed citizens are the ones the politricksters supposedly implement and enforce all these anti-poor people laws for and so it’s why I’m putting a call out to conscious housed people to stand with us po’ and unhoused people and say:

“No, we don’t want unhoused people incarcerated or criminalized. We don’t want vehicularly housed people to be police harassed.”

Poverty-Scholarship-cover-web-199x300, Cooking in your car: The rise of the unhoused middle class, Culture Currents
The “Poverty Scholarship: Poor People-Led Theory, Art, Words and Tears Across Mama Earth” Curriculum and Book Tour will launch at City Lights Books on Feb. 10, 2019, at 5 p.m., Feb. 16 at the Fruitvale Branch of the Oakland Public Library at 1 p.m. and Feb. 24 at the San Francisco Main Library Koret Auditorium at 1 p.m. The original art on the book cover is by Ace Robles. Copies are available at

And if you have inherited land or resources, please understand that projects like Homefulness happened with the redistributed dollars of decolonized young people who learned from poverty skolaz at PeopleSkool and the Stolen Land-Hoarded Resources Tour to redistribute to poor and unhoused folks for their own self-determined solutions.

These are the deep and life-changing lessons shared in “Poverty Scholarship: Poor People-led Theory, Art, Words and Tears Across Mama Earth.” We’re coming out with a radical book and curriculum tour in 2019.

Similarily, stop enabling, funding and building more and more highrises and rich people housing and liberate stolen indigenous territory to poor people-led projects like Homefulness. We poverty and indigenous skolaz at Homefulness are going through a long legal and ceremonial process to take our small part of Mama Earth permanently off the real estate snaking market, so it will always remain a space for people to live and learn and grow and heal without the threat of removal, eviction or displacement.

The four families who live here now (mine being one of them) are all formerly unhoused folks, don’t pay rent to anyone, aren’t trying to make a profit off of Mama Earth and only pay toward the taxes, insurance and utilities and don’t want to own any part of Mama Earth – but, like I always say to my son, I’m very certain we would be homeless if it weren’t for Homefulness.

“It’s not the best grill and sometimes the pancakes don’t get cooked all the way through,” Malcolm told me looking out his window “But it’s all I have and it’s better than nothing.”

To co-lead or walk with us in the next Stolen Land/Hoarded Resources Tour or book us for a reading or workshop on the upcoming poor people’s textbook, “Poverty Scholarship,” email us at   To register for the upcoming PeopleSkool DegentruFUkation and Decolonization Seminar happening Black August 25 and 26, go to

Tiny – or Lisa Gray-Garcia – is co-founder with her Mama Dee of POOR Magazine and its many projects and author of “Criminal of Poverty: Growing Up Homeless in America,” published by City Lights. She can be reached at Visit POOR at and Tiny at