Column: Once middle class, she hung on as long as she could. Now she and her two dogs live in a car in Carlsbad
“Three straight nights I slept in the front seat,” said Edythe Russell, who is creeping up on 80. “My knees hurt so bad, I couldn’t do a fourth.”
That’s when Russell scrunched an air mattress into the cargo area of her scuffed-up PT Cruiser and began sleeping there, with one dog on either side of her for companionship and warmth. She avoids liquids in the afternoon to limit the number of times she has to crawl out in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom.
“I have the worst time trying to get back into the car,” said Russell, who tunnels in with her head against the back window, feet elevated to ease the swelling.
The battery of her Chrysler conked out in the parking lot of the Carlsbad Senior Center, where Russell dropped anchor almost three weeks ago. The gas tank is flat empty. One tire is low and the air mattress leaks. Russell falls asleep hoping she’ll be safe through the night, and trying to figure out how to get back to the life she had.
Eleven years ago I wrote about a woman named Lee who was living in her car with her dog, spending her days at the El Segundo library. She got some help and has been living in a motel for years now. When I heard about Russell, I drove down to Carlsbad to meet her, and found out she’s not the only homeless senior citizen in the relatively affluent San Diego County beach town.
“Right now I’ve got about a dozen women who come in regularly,” said Jack Risley, nutrition supervisor of the Senior Center.
Edythe Russell, 78, checks on her “children,” her dogs Tippy and Chloe, in the parking lot of the Carlsbad Senior Center, where she is living in her car.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Russell tries to fit all her belongings into her car before climbing in the back to sleep.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
A sticker adorns Russell’s window from her last job as a personal caregiver.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Russell walks Tippy and Chloe in the park. “It’s been a great life, if you can endure it,” she said.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Russell blocks out the windows and rearranges her belongings to make room for sleeping in her car at the Carlsbad Senior Center.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Russell packs her belongings to make room for sleeping on her air mattress with Chloe and Tippy.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
After the senior center closed, Russell puts on a sweatshirt on a cool evening before crawling into her car to sleep.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Russell pumps up an air mattress on which she will sleep.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Russell awkwardly climbs through the back door of her car to sleep in the parking lot of the Carlsbad Senior Center.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
After the Carlsbad Senior Center closed for the night, Russell, 79, tucks into the back of her car on an air mattress to sleep with her two “children” dogs Chloe, right, and Tippy.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Russell tucks into the back of her car to sleep in the parking lot.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
“About half of them live in their cars and half of them are living, well, there was someone living right there the other day,” he said, pointing through a window and out to the garden.
Risley retired as a Department of Defense statistician 14 years ago but wasn’t ready to rest, so he signed on at the Senior Center. Risley, 71, hits the treadmill at the center’s gym before starting his shift, and he runs all day.
The city delivers 40,000 meals each year to homebound seniors and hosts about 100 seniors a day for lunch, a massive undertaking. Risley has a small paid staff, but he’s blessed with a big dose of Carlsbad compassion. More than 150 volunteers, many of them seniors, prepare, deliver and serve meals, among other tasks.
Toni Marino, 24, whose dad owns Marino Italian Restaurant in Bellflower, loves putting her restaurant skills to work in the cafeteria. Margaret Massey has been volunteering for 15 years, just because. The National Charity League sends in teams of mother-daughter volunteers.
A free lunch is a big help, said Diane Likens, 64, who just landed an apartment after living in her car for several years and trading discount coupons for Jack in the Box tacos. Likens spends her days rounding up free clothing at church giveaways and distributing garments to needy folks at the senior center.
A woman named Delores, homeless for a couple of years, was neatly dressed and groomed. So were other homeless seniors, as if to blend in, unnoticed.
“You can have money one day and nothing the next,” Delores told me.
If you can’t afford to pay for lunch, Risley said, that’s handled discreetly by the staff. No one is turned away, and one homeless woman often buses tables after lunch.
Russell told Risley she’d be happy to do that. She grabbed Risley’s hand and pulled him toward her, asking if he could help her find work as a caregiver, maybe for one of the regulars at the center. She said she can cook, shop, clean house and do laundry, even if her feet swell and her back aches. That’s what she was doing before the worked dried up and the bills went unpaid.
In the telling of her story, Russell said she was married and divorced three times, had no children and has no family. She started work as a teen in Indiana and didn’t stop for 60 years, with stops in Colorado, Arizona and California. She studied business and psychology in college. She did everything from stenography to real estate sales to business management to jewelry making, but never stuck with any one job long enough to have a retirement income other than Social Security.
A little more than 10 years ago, she dropped her hard-earned savings into a pair of $150,000 homes in Arizona, lived in one and rented the other. Just in time for the housing crash. Her renter walked away, her mortgage rate spiked, her income nose-dived and she lost everything.
Russell packed up and headed west with Chloe, a Yorkie, and Tippy, a Yorkie-poodle, and bunked with a friend in California. But she got shoved out when the friend’s daughter and granddaughter moved back in.
Her latest ex-husband lent a hand, setting her up in a Vista trailer park, but then he passed. Russell’s work dried up and she lost the trailer. Her $932 Social Security check barely covered the space rental and utility costs at the trailer park, and it didn’t help that Chloe and Tippy ran up some big medical bills.
“I called 50 agencies trying to get some help,” Russell said.
The dogs complicate the situation by limiting her housing options, but there’s no way Russell is giving them up. They’re all she’s got.
“It’s been a great life, even though I’m in the dumps right now.
— Edythe Russell
Russell’s desperation must have come through in her last plea for help, because the person on the other end of the line called 911, fearing Russell might harm herself. Russell said a deputy showed up and she was carted off to the hospital for a week, but she didn’t need anyone to tell her she suffers from depression. She said she’d been taking medication for years.
Russell told me that if she can get the car cranking again, maybe she’ll move back to Arizona, where she has a few friends and the price of staying alive is a little lower. But she’d prefer to stay in Southern California and find a job that pads her Social Security income just enough to bring her back indoors.
Russell’s online search for work and/or assistance seems to have caught the attention of a European. It just so happened that a philanthropist was happy to lend her a hand and share his wealth, and all she had to do was wire $2,000 right away to set up the deal.
There is no penalty harsh enough for such a scammer, but Russell wanted badly to believe the promise was real. In the Senior Center computer room, we did a quick Internet search and dug up just enough information to crush that dream.
For all her troubles, Russell is not one to grouse or cast blame.
“I shot myself in the foot,” she said, meaning that the marriages didn’t work out, and her housing bubble investment was an unlucky roll of the dice.
But she traveled the world when things were good, she said. She sampled different jobs, lived in beautiful places, and has no major regrets at 78.
“I could write a book,” she said at lunch. “It’s been a great life, even though I’m in the dumps right now.”
In response to reader requests for information on how to help, those who wish to make a donation can make out a check to Edythe Russell and send it to Steve Lopez in c/o of Edie, L.A. Times, 202 West First Street, Los Angeles, Ca. 90012.
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