By David Abel | Globe Staff | 3/09/2003
SOMERVILLE - Under the sallow haze of streetlights, between a frozen river and an empty mall, a few working cars blend in with the rusting wrecks in the parking lot.
Inside these heaps of rubber and metal - the remains of decades-old cars, vans, pickups, and trailers - some huddle under heavy blankets, others hover over propane tanks, and a few live large, watching TV, cooking meals, and keeping warm with help of generator-provided electricity.
The score or more of the homeless people living here in the parking lot behind the old Assembly Square Mall have found what most of them describe as the best possible halfway house - a safer, more peaceful refuge than the shelters and a place of their own that is considerably warmer and more comfortable than sleeping on the streets.
"This roof has probably saved my life," said Siro Lopez Blanco, a 45-year-old father of four, pointing to the porous roof of a broken-down pickup he discovered here last fall after living in a nearby field. "It leaks when it snows and there's no heat, but it blocks the wind and nobody bothers me here."
That may change soon.
In a few weeks, this vast potholed parking lot may become part of a major building project: Last month, after years of wrangling with local activists, Somerville's Planning Board approved permits to allow IKEA, the Scandinavian furniture retailer, to begin building a large store in an adjacent field.
Though the construction could be stalled by appeals, the small homeless community, which has grown and bonded in recent years, is starting to feel the pinch of the coming development.
The owners of the lot, the Assembly Square Limited Partnership, have made it clear to the homeless they aren't wanted. In recent weeks, security guards have told some to leave or risk getting towed. They have recorded license plates, more than a few bearing New Hampshire's "Live Free or Die" motto, and told others that barriers will soon be built where many of the cars and trucks are now parked.
"We're trying to change the landscape there, and obviously, we want our patrons to feel safe and to go to the site," said Natasha Perez, a spokeswoman for the partnership, which owns the old, mostly abandoned mall, now with only two stores, a K Mart and a Building 19. "We're also concerned about the safety of the homeless, and we're working with the city to improve their situation."
But the homeless, many of whom have lived here on and off for years, say they just want to be left alone.
"We're not plotting any bad things, we're just people struggling to survive with nothing in our pockets," said a haggard 39-year-old man named Bill, who said he has been living in his still-mobile Chevy Blazer since he lost a $48,000-a-year job a few days after Sept. 11, 2001.
If crime is a worry of the property's owners, there isn't much evidence it's a problem. A spokesman for the Somerville Police Department said the force hasn't received a complaint from the area in the past two years.
But city officials and property owners are also concerned about the trash. Though the homeless acknowledge they've littered the area with beer cans, they say most of the garbage - the smashed TVs, the burned-out fridge, the old bathtub, and the kitchen sink - were discarded by nonresidents of the parking lot.
"The place has become a dumping ground," said Somerville Mayor Dorothy Kelly Gay, who took part in a homeless census late last year that counted 23 people living in their cars here. "It's becoming a health hazard."
But she and others in the city aren't sure uprooting the homeless is the answer. Local advocates for the homeless argue that people living in the lot - and the census probably missed many, they say - are acting reasonably. The city's homeless shelters, as well as those in Boston, are all already overcrowded.
They're also part of a broader trend: In a survey recently released by the University of Massachusetts at Boston, the number of homeless people who told researchers they were living in cars, among other outdoor locations, increased by 16 percent between 2000 and 2001.
"This is their creative response," said Gordon Calkins, director of First Step, a local outreach program for the homeless. "I recognize the property owners can do what they want, but these people are taking care of themselves - and it's just a car in a parking lot. If they're not hurting anyone, why does it have to be a big deal?"
Alby and Donna, who've been parking their "motor coach" here every day for the past three months, say if cities offered used RVs to the homeless and let them stay in parking lots overnight, there would be less of a homeless problem. "It would be like communes in the '60s," explained Donna, 44, who said she's a waitress and once served in the Navy.
And unlike most Americans, the couple argues, they're completely independent. If they have to, they can pick up all their possessions and move with the flick of the ignition. They also don't worry about having to plug into an electrical grid. For a few dollars, their gas-powered generator provides hours of power for their stove, their shower's hot water heater, a refrigerator, TV, and VCR, and other conveniences.
"The only thing we're missing is a washer and dryer, and maybe delivery of the Globe," said Alby, 43, an ex-convict from East Boston who became homeless after leaving prison.
Despite their mobility, the couple isn't eager to move. It's hard to find places to park their rusting trailer, and they've made friends in their new community. Next door is James Baker, or J.B., a 52-year-old former MBTA bus driver, who now drives a teal 1984 Mercedes and lives in a trailer formerly owned by a restaurant named "Mom's Ribs," which still has its logo on the side of his RV.
The neighbors share the cost of gas to power Alby and Donna's generator and J.B. often drops in to watch movies. Cooking chicken in his trailer this week, J.B. said he started living in his RV three years ago when his landlord began asking $1,200 for his one-bedroom apartment.
"This is one of the only places around where people leave you alone," said J.B., a Dorchester native who now lives off monthly disability payments from the government. "If they tell me to move, I have to move. But the questions is: Where else is there for me to go?"
Among his other parking lot neighbors are Bob and Sally, who found their Assembly Square hideaway after being kicked out of a hotel lot in Woburn.
Bob, a 47-year-old former metal worker, said they can't find a better place to park their 1990 Chevy van, which has carried them more than 360,000 miles. The couple has survived the winter by using a propane tank to keep warm at night (keeping the van on, they say, might put them at risk of inhaling carbon monoxide). "When we have propane, it's like Bermuda," Bob said.
They have a TV, a cellphone, and a queen-sized bed, and they bathe by using jugs of store-bought water to fill a kiddie pool.
As plumes of smoke drifted from nearby factories after midnight one recent night, Bob said: "I tell my family I'm having a great time, that it's fun living in the van. You have to fool people, and yourself, sometimes. That's about all you can do when it gets this bad."
David Abel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.
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