The couple sat on the floor among a roomful of toys Thursday night, eyeing the carpet as they traced their recent slide.
Two years ago, he was a Chevron fraud agent, paying off a student loan and working toward a teaching credential, he said. The company laid him off and they soon burned through their savings, then lost their Antioch apartment. They wound up in their Mitsubishi Gallant — the couple in front, their two young children sleeping in back. They swapped cans for cash and lay half-awake at night, he said. Police would point them to safer spots.
"I had to keep one eye open constantly. People out there are just really, really ruthless," said the man, who would only offer his initials — A.B. — because of his job as a substitute teacher. He worried how students would react.
"We were just a nice quiet middle-class family. We fell on our luck." They are among a fresh class of homeless that advocates, service providers and county officials say is growing rapidly from the dual declines in the job and housing markets.
First-time homeless arrive daily at shelters across the Bay Area, they say, as the economy and outdoor thermometers ice over in tandem.
But for a few spaces, the 530 shelter beds in Contra Costa County are full up, said Cynthia Belon, the county's homeless services director. The county just added 35 cots to its shelters in Concord and Richmond. They too are just about full.
The same goes for the 1,000 or so beds in Alameda County, including a winter shelter at the Oakland Army Base that sleeps 110. Solano County's 200 shelter beds are all but fully occupied as well, with several new clients and families. And in San Mateo County, the 170 shelter beds are full, supplemental motel vouchers are taken, and the shelter waiting list for families has more than doubled, from 50 at this time last year to 135 now, said Amanda Kim of the county's Human Services Agency.
"It's the economy and the cold," she said.
The teacher and his family now sleep on two thin mattresses behind curtains fashioned from plastic pipe and sheets. In October, they joined 11 other families who have escaped the cold through Winter Nights, a family shelter that rotates among churches through the Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County.
Here, between chicken dinner and chocolate cake, 20 children play, draw or catch up on schoolwork, while some of the 15 adults try to sort things out.
A.B. landed a shift Friday at an East Contra Costa elementary school. But the assignments are piecemeal, the paychecks irregular and small — too small for walls.
"This is not us," his wife said. "Most of the people here are used to this kind of thing. I'm not trying to say we're above anyone else. We just want to get back to where we were."
Many advocates call job loss the biggest factor in the wave of newly homeless. The state unemployment rate rose in November to 8.4 percent, up from 5.7 percent last year, the state Employment Development Department reported Friday. The foreclosure epidemic takes twin billing.
"We've definitely seen people one way or another affected by the mortgage breakdown. They were either renting from someone who went into foreclosure or they were the family buying more house than they could afford," said Wendy Jackson, executive director of the East Oakland Community Project, which runs a 125-bed shelter that had nine vacancies this week.
Sitting quietly in her small cubby at the rotating church shelter, Marie Propps said she was living in Pittsburg with her daughter and grandkids last year when the landlord's mortgage shot up and he raised the rent beyond their reach. Later, they found a townhouse for rent in Antioch, she said. "The person was in foreclosure but didn't notify us," she said.
"I'm just so bone-cold sometimes. I just want to be in a stable environment," she said. "It's so tragic. I see people so upset, so in a state of dismay about their circumstances. So many people are just two or three paychecks away. Before it was something people said. Now people realize."
The newly homeless can present a dilemma for the networks of services that are designed largely to serve a more entrenched homeless population, advocates say. They might be easier to help find jobs and places to live, but they may also qualify for fewer services and can tax a system stretched thin by state and county budget cuts.
"They have a better track record of staying in housing and being employed, so it's enticing for agencies to spend a lot of time on them — 'Look at our success rate, how wonderful we are,'" said P.J. Davis, executive director of Community Action Partnership of Solano, a joint city-county homeless services agency. "However, that could be detrimental to their normal population."
Unlike the chronic homeless, new clients may find far more despair than respite in the shelters, particularly during the holidays, said Elaine deColigny, executive director of EveryOne Home. The agency coordinates homeless services across Alameda County.
For A.B., his wife and their children, sleeping in their car and now searching for hope from a shelter has lent new meaning to the nuclear family, he said.
"What this situation has taught us," he said, "is it's just us four. We are the Fantastic Four."
Reach John Simerman at 925-943-8072 or firstname.lastname@example.org.