Ventura County's newest and most reluctant vagabonds are hidden in plain sight.
They pass the night inside aging recreational vehicles at busy shopping mall parking lots. For privacy, they hang bedsheets in windows. They rumble away in the morning.
A knock on the door brings a round of barking or a wary face. They're embarrassed -- and tired of being told to move along. More than anything, they want to be left alone."We've had some tough times," said Mike, an electrician parked with his girlfriend, Denise, in his 1973 RV at a Sam's Club in Oxnard. "We're just trying to make ends meet without getting harassed."
The couple, who didn't want to give their last names, said they've been cited by police three times for illegal overnight parking in the month since they left their Oxnard rental home after Denise lost her job as a home health aide.
"It's like, where do you go?" said Mike, who's found work on a freeway project. "They don't let you go anywhere."
The number of homeless families is on the rise, and many are living in cars and RVs, according to "Foreclosure to Homelessness 2009," a federal study released last month. The report found that 18% of the 1.6 million who were homeless in 2008 were living outdoors but not on the streets.
Housing advocates, social workers and police in Ventura County all say they've seen an increase in the mobile homeless. Their counterparts elsewhere in California are seeing the same thing.
"For many, it's their first venture into this land with no ground beneath them," said Karol Schulkin, a social worker who works closely with the homeless in Ventura County. "It's a shock."
The scope of the problem, homeless advocates say, calls for a different approach in how local governments regulate people sleeping in their vehicles. Cities, they say, should soften laws against camping on streets and in parking lots.
But municipal leaders worry about a backlash from angry residents who don't want strangers staying overnight near their homes. Business owners fear shantytowns on public and private lots.
The debate is playing out in Ventura County, where cities 12 miles apart have adopted starkly divergent policies.
After hearing heated comment on both sides of the issue last month, Ventura city leaders decided that people no longer will be cited and fined $125 for sleeping in parking lots. Police in the beach town will now give a warning before issuing a citation.
The City Council also agreed to create a safe sleeping program similar to one operating in a dozen lots up the coast in Santa Barbara. That program allows motorists with licensed vehicles to sleep overnight in designated lots, as long as they don't play loud music, leave trash and dump human waste.
Ventura City Manager Rick Cole said police and city staff started noticing an uptick about six months ago in the number of people bedding down for the night in mid-city lots. Cole said he knows a family that temporarily slept in a car while the husband, a Navy veteran, looked for a job.
"It's not an epidemic," Cole said. "But it's real."
In Camarillo, a 15-minute drive south on U.S. Highway 101, the reception was decidedly different. The City Council recently passed its first-ever ban on sleeping in vehicles, spurred by business owners complaining about RVs parked for days in shopping mall lots.
The city had occasionally received complaints, said Camarillo City Manager Jerry Bankston. But after getting two about RVs emptying septic tanks into planter boxes, city staff found that the problem was more widespread than they realized.
Four or five campers a night were parking across the street from City Hall. Another five or so were taking up residence for weeks at a time in a nearby Metrolink lot, Bankston said.
The city manager said it would be unfair to portray the well-tended bedroom community as coldhearted. "If someone is truly homeless, let us connect them to a resource that is safer than sleeping in your vehicle," Bankston said.
In Ventura, law enforcement backers say they are careful to draw a distinction between the drunks and panhandlers whom downtown merchants consider a menace, and those who have fallen on hard times.
"The idea is to help them get back on their feet before they lose that last resource: their car," said Police Lt. Mark Stadler.
Tony Rossi said the change is welcome. Every night, he moves his aging RV from a mid-city public parking lot to a nearby Carl's Jr. where he and his girlfriend can sleep undisturbed. Then he returns to the lot and moves his Ford Explorer. At 6 a.m., he does the reverse, moving both the RV and the truck back to the public lot.
It's a cat-and-mouse game that helps him avoid getting costly tickets, he said.
"We were living in an Oxnard apartment, but I couldn't afford the rent anymore," Rossi said. Buying the 1979 RV has saved the couple a lot of money that would have otherwise gone to rent, he said. "It's the best $1,000 I ever spent."
In other Ventura County cities, the mobile homeless are getting by under official radar.
Tess and Luke Larsen, both 19, chose a Simi Valley Wal-Mart parking lot to bed down in after getting rousted at other locations. Married in May, the Michigan natives are hunting for jobs and an apartment.
For now, they are living out of a faded red van on a hilltop lot with sweeping vistas of the city and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
"We like it here, but we were surprised at the rents," Tess, an aspiring nurse, said of Southern California's high housing costs. "We have money saved, but we can't get an apartment unless we have a job. So here we are."
Back at the Sam's Club lot in Oxnard, two middle-aged brothers pull a 1988 Suncruiser in for the night. Neil and Alan, who didn't want to give their last name, said they've been on the road since April, when they lost housing in Lompoc.
Neil said he owned an insulation business in Santa Monica for 25 years. But years of health setbacks for both men, including a recent back surgery for Alan, exhausted their funds.
"We want to get someplace where we can get some work," Alan said. "For now, this is home."