Estimates of how many people live in their cars are based on contacts with homeless advocates and the police. City officials estimate there are one to two dozen vehicle dwellers in Palo Alto; the dwellers themselves said there could be as many as 50.
Among the hardest hit by the recession were construction workers, Burnham said: "Those who were living paycheck to paycheck were quickly out on the streets."
But Burnham and others said the trend has not yet peaked.
"There are more people now on the edge. A lot of people who are fearful are coming to the church who say they can't make their mortgage," he said.
At a recent gathering of the Community Cooperation Team, a group of vehicle dwellers and supporters, none of the 20 or so people present who lived in their cars were under the age of 40.
Several of the vehicle dwellers said that being without a job for any length of time has made them unemployable and that their ages played a significant factor.
Burnham, who works with the homeless at the church, agreed.
"With the age discrimination that goes on, it's tough out there when so many people are looking for work," Burnham said.
Marie Baylon, 22, and Aparna Ananthasubramaniam, 20, Stanford University students who are part of the Night Outreach group, an organization of about 30 students who are reaching out to the city's homeless, said that while some vehicle dwellers have mental illnesses or might abuse substances, they have found many who have lost their jobs.
Baylon said she is working on developing demographic information so that organizations serving the homeless can target their specific needs.
One woman who identified herself as Shirleen and who lives in a motor home with her boyfriend said she was laid off more than 1 1/2 years ago from her receptionist's job at a construction company and hasn't been able to find work. Her boyfriend works piecemeal construction jobs as they become available, she said. Receptionist work has become more difficult to find, as companies switch to automation, she said.
But she wants people to know that she is still looking for work and that she does not use drugs or alcohol, is not mentally ill and doesn't have a criminal record. She wants to work, and she wants a home.
"I'm more hopeful than my boyfriend that this is just a temporary thing," she said.
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