Tom Piercey felt like he was in the “Twilight Zone” when he first started living out of his van nearly three years ago. It was November 2019 – the start of winter, right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“Bam. It was weird,” Tom said. “I’d never been homeless like that.”
Tom, 61, gets $800 per month from Social Security. He also earns money as a mechanic fixing cars and motorcycles. But it’s not enough to rent an apartment.
Before moving into his van, he and his girlfriend of 10 years, R.J. Piercey, whose maiden name has been changed for her safety due to past experience with stalking, lived in rooms and garages they rented on Craigslist. These rooms were not always safe. One was filled with drug dealers and infested with bugs, Tom said. “We were desperate to take it.”
Sometimes landlords on Craigslist scammed him. He recalled a time in Washougal when the owner took his money and told him to get out.
“I had no place to get out to, so I just stayed,” he said. When the owner started getting aggressive, Tom barricaded himself in the room and called the police. “I tell you, it was nuts on Craigslist.”
Craigslist rooms rented for about $600 to $800 for a single man, Tom said. Finding a safe and affordable room for both him and R.J., along with their cat — even on Craigslist — was becoming unaffordable.
In November 2019, after leaving a Craigslist room they had been renting in Portland, he and R.J. found themselves with nowhere left to go. So they moved into their Chevy van.
The space is cramped, and it’s difficult to keep their stuff organized, but it’s preferable to living in a tent, Tom said. “It’s hard to find anything when you’re laying always. I think I’ve had a bladder infection from always laying. And the air. The air gets dry and your skin dries out. You need air and water.”
During their first year in their van, Tom and R.J. parked in various spots throughout Portland and Vancouver — at grocery stores, hospitals and parks. If they stayed in one spot too long, they would often wake in the night to police officers shining flashlights into their windows and telling them to move.
“I have a lot of anxiety about police in general,” said R.J., who struggles with PTSD. “So that was very stressful for me. There was really no safe place to park.”
Residents nearby would sometimes harass them, they said. Tom remembered an incident when someone threw several bags of garbage at their van. “I think on some occasions, people take their garbage and throw it on homeless people to get them out of the area, to make them look like trashy people,” he said.
To avoid these types of incidents with residents and the police, Tom and R.J. switched parking spots every few days.
“Do the whack-a-mole,” R.J. said. “Go over here, and then when we’re harassed, you go over here, and then when we’re harassed, you go back over here.”
It wasn’t until Vancouver opened its first Safe Parking Zone at the Vancouver Mall parking lot in April 2020 that the couple felt secure in their van. The city’s Safe Park Program provides people living in their vehicles with a free, legal place to stay.
After hearing about the Vancouver Mall Safe Park from a police officer, Tom and R.J. applied and moved into an assigned parking space. But they had to leave again later that spring when the mall’s businesses began reopening and the parking lot was once again needed for customers.
The city then opened a new Safe Parking Zone in June 2020 at the Evergreen Transit Center through a contract with C-Tran. The contract does not have an end date. C-Tran said it will give the city several months’ notice if it anticipates needing the space back, according to Vancouver Homelessness Response Coordinator Jamie Spinelli.
The Safe Parking Zone has over 50 spots for cars and RVs, with almost 90 people living there. It has portable restrooms, handwashing stations and trash services. Nonprofit organizations XChange, Outsiders Inn and Council for the Homeless help with services.
There is a code of conduct that residents at the Safe Park must follow — no visitors allowed in the parking area, quiet hours begin at 10 p.m., residents must park only in their assigned spot, among other rules. Staff is on-site 24/7 with contracted security officers providing surveillance at night.
Tom and R.J. have lived in the C-Tran lot for about two years with their Chihuahua-terrier mix, Lulu, and their cat, Pookybear. Though Tom sometimes feels limited by the rules at the Safe Park, he appreciates the stability they provide. For starters, R.J.’s health complications require easy access to a bathroom. This was a constant barrier in their first year living in their van — but at the Safe Park, it’s not an issue.
R.J. said she feels “completely” safe in the transit center lot. “The security’s always been wonderful here,” she said. “It’s been sublime.”
The road home
For Tom and R.J., the road to a stable life has been long and winding.
Tom, who grew up with an alcoholic father, began drinking around age 10 and smoking pot around 12. He also dabbled with methamphetamine when he got older. “I never drank to enjoy a drink, I drank to get drunk,” he said.
While struggling with addiction, Tom spent some time in prison for felonies like driving while suspended, drunk driving and shoplifting. He even lost custody of his three children due to his addiction. “Everything I touched was destroyed,” he recalled.
One time while Tom was stealing beer, a man hit him over the head with a bat. “I got my head cracked open between my eyes,” he said. “I was so drunk and was hit so hard that he almost killed me.”
Tom was charged with attempted armed robbery and spent three years in prison. From that moment forward, he knew he had to turn his life around. “To get a grip on my disease, that was kind of the punch,” he said. “I prayed to God, ‘Hey, take this away.’ I didn’t think He was gonna have me hit by a bat and go to prison. I would have been more specific on that.”
Now, Tom’s been clean for 22 years. He met R.J. through Alcoholics Anonymous, whose meetings he still attends to make sure he doesn’t backslide.
R.J., 50, struggled with alcoholism for much of her life, as well. She had her first drink at about 8 years old. She’s been sober now for 11 years.
“Every day I wake up, it’s the longest I’ve been sober continuously since I was, like, 13,” she said. “It’s really nice to be sober. Although being sober means that you get to live with life, which always isn’t that wonderful, quite frankly, especially if you’re homeless.”
Through their years of addiction, neither Tom nor R.J. experienced homelessness like they have in the past three years. Sometimes R.J. would find herself without a place to stay, and she would couch surf for short periods. Growing up, she was in and out of shelters with her mom, a domestic violence survivor who had to get away from an abusive partner.
But these times without a home used to be short-lived. “We were able to find something a lot quicker,” R.J. said. “Now, it’s like because there are more people out there looking, the prices are different, the market’s different. I think people know that they can charge more for less. Because people are desperate.”
Since moving into their van, R.J.’s health has gone downhill. First, her legs and ankles began to swell. Then, she suffered a meniscus tear in one of her knees. The meniscus in her other knee tore shortly after. R.J. now walks with a walker.
“My body’s breaking down,” she said. “It had not broken down like this before.”
Doctors ran tests but couldn’t figure out what was causing the swelling. The tests did find, however, that a valve in her heart isn’t shutting properly.
Her knee issues made sleeping in the van impossible, she said. “When you’re getting out of the van, you need to be on your knees a little bit, and I couldn’t physically do that.”
Tom managed to buy an RV that had broken down in a nearby WinCo parking lot and got it towed to the Safe Park. The RV doesn’t run, but it gives them more space to live. They now use the van for storage.
Though the RV has made her medical needs a bit more bearable, R.J. and Tom continue struggling with their health. The Safe Park doesn’t have electricity, kitchen sinks or hot water, which makes it difficult for residents to cook their own food.
“I think not being able to cook is the hardest,” R.J. said. “I’m not supposed to have a lot of salt or a lot of processed food. And I don’t have a stove, I only have a stovetop. Which equates to a lot of salt and processed food.”
They get hot meals from a church twice per week. Living Hope Church also has a food truck that comes on Thursdays. Otherwise, they get a lot of packaged food from places like Starbucks.
Tom has diabetes and carries insulin with him. “Being homeless, it’s not good for my diabetes,” he said. “The packaged food, it’s killing us.”
He and R.J. have health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, but it’s sometimes difficult to find doctors that can treat their needs. Lately Tom has been waking up with blood sugar levels at 500, a dangerously high level.
He also has diabetic retinopathy, an eye condition that can cause blindness for people with diabetes. This means he’s going to have to stop driving soon. At that point, his van’s sole purpose will be to store his things and keep him out of bad weather.
Washing dishes is a hassle, too. The water at the Safe Park’s handwashing stations isn’t potable and can’t be used for dishes. Instead, R.J. heats up bottled water in a big pan with soap on the stovetop.
“We have one bucket for soapy water, one bucket for clean water. And we just use empty cat litter containers for cleaning. So it’s a whole process,” she said. “I don’t think people think about it.”
The couple are still searching for permanent housing. Residents are able to stay at the Safe Park for as long as they need, but the city sets a goal of six to nine months to transition to stable housing — a goal far shorter than the two years Tom and R.J. have lived there.
Tom thinks the country’s homelessness problems are getting worse. But his own faith and journey have given him hope.
“There are some people that won’t help you. But I’m all willing. If I see someone hurting, I sympathize. I’m gonna try to give them some pointers on how to avoid some problems,” he said.
In the meantime, he continues looking for his own place to call home. “It don’t have to be nothing fancy. I just need housing,” he said. “That shouldn’t be too much to ask.”
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.