Julie Akins’s life was changed in 2016. After living among homeless people, she had an idea, and its name was Vehicles For Change.
As a freelance journalist, she embarked on a road trip in August two years ago to study the working homeless, chronicling people’s stories for her book One Paycheck Away.
Amidst the faces, she met a family with seven children – living inside an old blue school bus. The seats had been ripped out and replaced with floors, with mattresses, tubs full of clothes and a stacked bookcase.
Akins, 58, told People:
It was in disarray. There was no toilet, shower or kitchen.
Akins met the family while the father was in hospice care; he had gotten too sick before he could complete the bus’s renovation.
This sparked the Vehicles For Change fuse: after meeting other families in similar situations, she decided to convert retired school buses into liveable spaces, with all the proper commodities.
They want to have a place to live that is their own, that’s safe – and they want to be mobile, so they can get better jobs.
The non-profit was launched around 18 months ago, and the first family Akins came across moved into a spruced up ‘Skoolie’ about nine months after.
Alex Daniell, 57, has spent years designing and building homes for the homeless Oregon – he helped develop Opportunity Village and Emerald Village.
But Daniell says converting buses into homes is a stroke of genius: it’s more cost-effective; and they’re mobile, allowing families to relocate with a hop, skip and a jump. He’s recently joined the Vehicles For Change team.
The idea of getting used, donated buses from schools and then converting them with volunteer labor – it’s very appealing to me. It’s so community-oriented.
Another family who have immensely benefitted from the new initiative are the Floods.
David Flood, 63, was working as a substitute teacher and finishing a master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies at Southern Oregon University – he also has master’s degrees in both language arts and mental health counselling.
His wife wasn’t working due to health issues. Thankfully, their landlord had been ‘very gracious’ about rent, but unfortunately there’s always a breaking point. After living in their two-bedroom, two-bath trailer for about 10 years, they were made homeless in June 2018.
Flood told People:
What people don’t understand, is that even if someone has a little bit of income, they can end up on the street – even families.
He and his 37-year-old wife, Jennifer, and their three kids – Raylee, 11, David Jr., 9, and Noah, 2 – managed to pitch up in a tent at a campground through the summer. However, the area was soon closed for repairs.
Alternating between Walmart car parks and rest stops, the family were forced to live in their 2006 Mercury Grand Marquis. As winter grew closer, Flood considered driving to southern California for the heat.
But then he remembered someone from a while back: Akins. After seeing her on the news talking about Vehicles For Changes, Flood remembered he had met Akins while riding a city bus with the family.
He applied for a converted home, and on Thanksgiving Day in 2018, the Floods moved in.
As a family, we used to always sing: ‘We all live in a Yellow Submarine’. And that came true.
It made the little money we had stronger. It took the stress off of our lives. It allows us to breathe for a moment.
David Jr, known to the family and friends as ‘The Private’, said: ‘On the outside, it looks very small – and just like a plain school bus. But it opens up on the inside. On the inside, it’s a mansion.’
Akins calls it the ‘magic school bus’. ‘They’re in there learning all the time. David’s always learning a new thing and teaching his kids.’
When Akins originally blogged about her Vehicles For Change idea, a Michigan woman emailed her for more information. Eventually, she funded the non-profit for five years, giving Akins $25,000.
Akins is pushing towards five new Skoolies per year, pushing to raise more money and awareness of the initiative.
Daniell plans to bring in volunteers from church groups to help with the conversions and artists to give the Skoolies a fresh look.
The end product results from keeping a family from breaking apart.
My experience with the homeless is: if the families don’t get split apart, and the kids stay in school, they don’t end up on the street. Once somebody’s been on the street for a while, it’s hard to find their way back in.
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After graduating from Glasgow Caledonian University with an NCTJ and BCTJ-accredited Multimedia Journalism degree, Cameron ventured into the world of print journalism at The National, while also working as a freelance film journalist on the side, becoming an accredited Rotten Tomatoes critic in the process. He’s now left his Scottish homelands and took up residence at UNILAD as a journalist.