Bridging the Opportunity Divide

This Yellow Bus Isn’t Taking Children to School — It’s Taking Families Off of Streets

September 24, 2019
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This Yellow Bus Isn’t Taking Children to School — It’s Taking Families Off of Streets
school bus, homeless family, homeless
The inside of a “skoolie,” which is a bus converted into a home. Photo courtesy of Vehicles for Changes
Whether it’s tiny homes or in-law suites, people are creating innovative ways to house the homeless. This woman’s solution is inside a school bus.

A school bus is typically full of eager, excited kids.

But for the Flood family, a school bus is home. It’s a place full of the essentials: food, hot water, clothes and a place to rest.

During the summer of 2018, David Flood, who was working as a substitute teacher and studying for his master’s, had to quit his job. He needed to take care of his three kids and his wife, Jennifer Flood, who was too sick to work. Rent payments, student loans and hospital bills piled up, and the family was evicted from their home. They were left with only their car and a tent to sleep in.  

“We didn’t think it would happen to us—but it did,” David Flood told Julie Atkins, the founder of Vehicles for Changes. “It’s not just the uneducated. I’m finishing my master’s degree. I had nowhere to work, so the skoolie enables me to get it done. I’m so relieved.”

In November 2018, their precarious sleeping situation changed, thanks to Vehicles for Changes, a nonprofit that outfits retired school buses for families experiencing homelessness.

The family moved into a “skoolie,” a term for a bus converted into a home. After being cramped in their car, the family had a chance to stretch out for the first time in months. 

Vehicles for Changes launched in May 2018 by Julie Atkins, a journalist covering homelessness in Oregon and up and down the West Coast.  

Oregon, like the majority of the United States, has seen its homeless population rise over the past few years. More people are living on the streets, in encampments and in their cars. During the 2016-2017 school year, nearly 23,000 Oregonian students experienced homelessness, according to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. 

There are a variety of reasons why more families and individuals end up without a place to rest their heads. The cost of living has risen dramatically while wages haven’t, shifts in the economy can create gaps in job opportunities and sky-high medical bills, even with health insurance, can send a family spiraling into debt.

Atkins started investigating solutions outside of homeless shelters and tiny homes, which each have their strengths and weaknesses

“We wanted to create a home that would last 30 years, that would truly be mobile and would take homelessness off the table for a child for the rest of their childhood,” Atkins told NationSwell. 

She found a solution inside of a retired school bus. 

“There are a lot of reasons why buses just make for a great canvas,” she said.

School buses go through rigorous safety inspections, have features like windows and roof exits and, at 240 square feet, provide a decent living space. The biggest bonus is that they’re drivable. 

If a family can pack up and move without leaving their home behind, they’re able to find more job opportunities, Atkins explained. Low-income families often rely on temporary jobs, which means they move more frequently. But the costs of moving from place to place frequently can quickly drain a family’s savings; a bus provides more flexibility without the financial burden. 

However, moving has its drawbacks. Children who switch schools are more likely to disengage and fall behind. A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found a link between moving frequently as a child and higher risks of criminality, suicide and drug abuse. But many homeless children have already moved multiple times. It’s possible that not having to start over with a new living space holds an added benefit.

After writing a blog about her idea to convert buses into homes, a reader offered to fund Atkins’ nonprofit for the next five years, donating $25,000 each year. So, she got to work.

Each home costs about $25,000 to buy and build. Atkins works with a contractor to turn the buses into skoolies, adding a full kitchen, bunk bed, master bedroom and living space to each. 

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The Flood family poses inside their home.Photo courtesy of Vehicles for Changes

From there, the bus is leased out to a family, for free, for one year. Atkins will help the family find a place to park the bus, whether in an RV park, a designated safe parking lot or on private land. If the family wants to keep living on the bus, they have the chance to purchase it using a sliding scale, interest-free payment plan through the nonprofit. 

For the Flood family, their bus has been life-changing. As they approach one year of living in their skoolie, they’re hoping to buy it, Atkins said. The family has found a community at the Jackson Wellsprings RV park. Since moving in, the three children have made friends, grown an herb garden and gained a sense of permanency. “Their life has changed dramatically as a result of this,” Atkins said.

“It made the little money we had stronger,” David told People. “It took the stress off of our lives. It allows us to breathe for a moment.”

Atkins understands bus life might not be for everyone. For some, it can act as a safe stepping stone back to living in a house or apartment. For others, if the space is manageable, it could serve as a permanent home. 

Vehicles for Changes is currently finishing up its second bus and accepting applicants. It already has a third bus ready to be refurbished, but the nonprofit is in need of financial support.

Their goal is to finish two additional buses by the end of this year and complete five in 2020. Atkins said she also hopes to add solar panels to the roof to decrease energy costs and make the homes carbon neutral.

She sees buses as one simple solution to ending homelessness and hopes to see other communities replicating her work so more families can get off the streets.

“We know the buses exist. We know the need exists. We know that the money, $25,000 for a house, is a lot cheaper than any other option that anyone else has come up with,” she said. ”The goal is that every community out there who sees this as viable jumps in and starts this process themselves.”

More: These Austin Tiny Homes Could House 40% of the City’s Chronically Homeless Population

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