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School buses changing lives

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An estimated 24,000 children in Oregon are homeless, according to Julie Akins, an Ashland city councilor and founder of Vehicles for Changes. Between 500,000 and 2 million kids in the U.S. are homeless, and those are the low end of estimates, she said.

“I think a ton of people don’t know how many homeless people are working,” Akins said. “So many homeless people have children out there. Parents of young children who don’t have a house keep it on the down low because they don’t want to lose their children.”

She said she never realized how many homeless people have jobs until she took a tour of homeless camps across the West Coast while conducting research for a book she’s writing called “One Paycheck Away,” which she hopes to publish next spring.

Some of the people she met said they just wanted a bus or something similar to live in that could go wherever they needed. That gave her an idea, so she created the nonprofit Vehicles for Changes about two years ago, and it has been garnering national attention.

The organization takes recently retired school buses, usually donated from the Ashland School District, and converts them into fully functioning livable spaces to give to homeless families with children, including a contract to park it somewhere with utility hookups.

Akins and her husband, Leo Gorcy, have teamed up with tiny home builder Alex Daniell, who helped with the Emerald and Opportunity tiny home villages in Eugene.

So far, they have completed one bus, which was donated to an Ashland family with three children.

“They’re doing so good,” Akins said. “They love living in the bus. It could go either way. It might be transitional. Some people might want to stay in a bus for six or eight months to just save money and then move back into a house, and other people will love it and want to stay in it, and we’re good with either way.”

A second bus is being constructed in Eugene, and a third will be driven up to Eugene sometime in October, Akins said.

She said estimates of homelessness are low because there’s just one count a year for the homeless population — a point-in-time count — and it fails to reach many people.

“During my tour I started to think about these kids. Homeless children don’t get home-cooked meals,” Akins said. “What do they do about nutrition? How do they go to school when they can’t take a shower? How do they sleep at night? Imagine being afraid all the time as a little kid. I saw these kids express that in all kinds of ways.”

During her tour, Akins tried to give some clothes to a 9-year-old girl she met. The girl wouldn’t talk and wouldn’t accept the clothes. She just stood there, shaking her head no. The girl’s mother said she wouldn’t take anything, because she couldn’t bear to lose anything again.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Akins said. “There are single moms out there with children. It used to be mostly men, mostly people who suffered from mental illnesses or addiction, but homelessness doesn’t look like that anymore. It looks like you and me. It’s everybody.”

The cost to transform a school bus into a livable space is about $25,000, which is considerably cheaper than a tiny home. It’s transportable without needing a separate vehicle to tow it, and it only takes about six months to build, Akins said.

The buses are insulated, have hardwood floors, walls, electric wiring and running water, including a shower and toilet. She said school buses offer a 240-square-foot living space, a sturdy steel structure and are built to the highest safety standards because they’re built for school children.

Akins, a journalist, wrote an article about her organization titled “Next Stop for Retired School Buses: Tiny Houses for Homeless Families,” which was published in Yes! Magazine in January.

The article caught the attention of journalist Wendy Grossman Kantor, who wrote an article titled “Oregon Woman Turns School Buses into Tiny Homes for Working Homeless Families,” which ran Sept. 1 on People.com.

Akins said the organization received about $10,000 in donations after the spate of publicity. She said she hopes the attention and her book will continue to spread awareness. She said they’ve gotten calls from people wanting to start similar programs in other communities.

“We want people to know that homeless people are people who happen to be unsheltered, nothing more, nothing less,” Akins said.

“The more awareness we can bring, the more people who understand and want to help, the better it gets,” Akins said. “It doesn’t have to be buses. Whatever anybody wants to do to get children and families off the streets I’m in favor of.”

Vehicles for Changes is sponsored by the local nonprofit Southern Oregon Jobs with Justice, so all donations are tax-deductible. To contribute toward a bus home for a family, send donations to SOJWJ at 1360 Quincy St. Ashland, Or 97520 with a note saying it should go toward Vehicles for Changes.

During her research, Akins started in Seattle and ended in a homeless camp called “Slab City” near Palm Springs, California. She said she stopped in major cities and small cities that were known for their homeless populations. At each stop she asked people what they wanted, what they need, and how policies could change to help more people get off the streets.

“They want me to tell their stories,” Akins said. “People said to me, ‘Please let people know what we’re going through. Please help to humanize us, because we don’t want communities to fear us.’”

She was surprised at first to find that a lot of homeless people were working, but she said she also found a substantial number of people with medical problems trying to live off Social Security or disability.

“Most Americans, if they experienced an unexpected crisis of $1,000 or more, it would put them out,” Akins said. “I had this recognition that most people, myself included, are only one paycheck away. The current economic system is leaving millions of people behind, and we’re going to have more homeless children and more homeless people until we address this. There’s this divide, and it’s getting bigger.”

Most people overlook homeless people or fear them, she said.

“There’s this divisive effort to make it seem that homeless people are to blame for their situation,” Akins said. “Everybody knows that we don’t make enough money to cover our bills, that if anything goes wrong, we could easily get behind on our rent, and we don’t have enough housing, so there’s five people behind you ready to take your place.”

In the U.S., a person needs to make roughly $21 an hour to meet their basic needs, she said. The minimum wage is $11.25 in Oregon ($12.50 in Portland), and the federal minimum wage is $7.25.

“We’re in this capitalist consumerist society that says if you fail at capitalism, if you don’t have money, th en there’s some connection to morality,” Akins said. “Poverty has nothing to do with morality. It’s not immoral to be poor. It’s just the reality of an economy that leaves people behind.”

To learn more about the organization and to donate, see vehiclesforchanges.com.

Contact Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.

Vehicles for Changes has completed one bus so far.
Inside view of the kitchen.