He calls his car home
The back seat of Bleu Brewer’s 1985 Chrysler sedan is stuffed with his belongings. Underneath a mound of blankets, pillows and clothes, a camping stove jostles against soup cans and eating utensils.
Brewer calls his 1985 Chrysler sedan his “rolling home.” He’s been living in it since he was evicted from his Grass Valley apartment in August.
“Homelessness is having the cops roust you three times in one night, telling you to move,” said Brewer, his normally flat cadence quickening in a flash of intensity.
He described how, in the weeks following his eviction, when sleeping in his car on the streets of Grass Valley, he would set his tripod and camera on his dashboard so that whenever a police officer came up to his car and asked him what he was doing, he could say he was taking pictures of the moon.
After about two weeks, Brewer said, the police caught on and would ask him to move on.
Such tactics are survival tools for someone who is unsure where he will sleep from day to day. Now that the weather has turned cold, sleeping in his car is no longer an option.
One story of hundreds
Brewer is one of an estimated 500 hundred homeless people in western Nevada County, based on figures gathered by the Hospitality House Count Committee.
The Hospitality House has averaged 15 to 18 people per night seeking shelter since it reopened in mid-October. Because of his frail health, Brewer has not availed himself of the nonprofit’s services, although one cold night last week he got as far as the intake center.
“As I was filling out the application, I realized that my situation is so critical because of my back,” he said.
His degenerative disc disease – which leaves him hunched and in constant pain – would make it impossible for him to sleep on a cot or a makeshift bed without compromising his health. He also was leery about getting on a bus to travel from the intake center to the shelter for the night.
“There’s always a possibility that I could clip a nerve and be paralyzed,” he said.
Because he takes prescription painkillers and stimulants to offset drowsiness, Brewer also was worried about thieves. He carries eight different medications in a small black bag, without which, he says, he would be in excruciating pain. Without a locker or a place to safeguard his prescriptions, he’s leery about spending the night in a public shelter unless he finds himself in a real emergency.
So Brewer left Hospitality House. He drove to the Holiday Lodge in Grass Valley, where the manager gave him a special veteran’s discount of $270 a week, a savings of $150. Brewer had the money; his sister had loaned him $300 to stay in a hotel once the nights grew cold.
Run of bad luck
Brewer, 57, moved to Nevada County in 1993 from Oregon. He never married but has two adult children that he’s on friendly terms with. He had lived in the same house in Penn Valley for nine years before being evicted and moving into a small studio apartment Grass Valley in October 2005.
In September 2005, a car accident put him in an intensive care unit. His pelvis was fractured in five different places. The accident exacerbated Brewer’s disk disease, which he claims is a result of agent orange poisoning when he served in Vietnam in the 1960s and later when he worked for the United States Forest Service.
Brewer was evicted from the studio, as well, in August 2006. He decided his $836 monthly disability check was not enough to cover rents that start at $650 per month and also buy food and gas.
Small things take big effort
Living in a car is an exhausting way of life, more so for a person in constant pain who can’t carry objects easily.
He has spent two hours looking for a pair of socks or six hours unpacking and repacking his storage space to dig out his computer.
In addition to his other ills, Brewer suffers from asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. His hands are swollen and he breathes with difficulty.
“I’m never out of pain,” Brewer said. The feeling, he describes, is “like getting stabbed with an icicle.”
He works hard to accomplish the simplest of tasks that a person with a home takes for granted, such as bathing and laundry. He recently rearranged an appointment with a reporter for later in the day because he said he wanted to do his laundry and “clean up.”
Brewer arrived at the interview a few hours late, dressed in a vibrant purple turtleneck, with his long hair pulled back neatly into a pony tail.
During an interview in his room at the Holiday Lodge, Brewer fretted that his cat might be disturbed by the presence of a stranger. He lifted up the blanket covering the animal and made a quick introduction. When he sat down, he spotted a guitar pick under the bed and nervously grabbed it.
Eventually Brewer hopes to find an inexpensive apartment he could afford to share with another person. Once he finds a home, he said, he doesn’t want to move again.
A friend of his had once described Brewer’s determination using a car metaphor:
“I’ve watched you like a person who has run out of gas, pushing over speed bumps,” said the friend. “You slow down but you won’t stop.”
To contact Staff Writer Jill Bauerle, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 477-4219.
A June 30, 2005 tally by the Hospitality House during a 24-hour period put the number of homeless in western Nevada County at 238.
Using that figure, a formula issued by the United States Department of Housing and Development would extrapolate the area’s actual number of homeless to about 500 people.
Of the 238 homeless counted, 137 were single. There were 28 families.
Most of those surveyed were adults. Surveyors found 16 people 55 years old or over, 176 between the ages of 19 to 54, and 46 children, according to the survey report.
– Jill Bauerle
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