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Photo by John Darling

Julie Akins gives a tour of a bus being renovated so it can serve as a home to a homeless family.

Nonprofit converts used school buses into housing for homeless

Local nonprofit Vehicles for Changes is revamping its first school bus into a comfortable home, with kitchen, bathroom, shower and bedrooms, which will be given to a presently homeless family with children — with the main goal of assuring young ones a healthy lifestyle to get an education and a future.

Used school buses — they must be retired after 12 years — are spacious, well-built and affordable, a couple thousand dollars, says VFC founder Julie Akins, and can be insulated, internally framed, paneled, floored and outfitted with beds, cabinetry, wood-burning stove, plumbing and appliances in a few months.

“This one is going to be really cute, trust me,” says Akins, a volunteer who makes her living as a writer and freelance journalist. “It’s a 1992 Carpenter bus, has 240 square feet, almost twice the size of tiny homes, has solar panels and we require the family parks in an RV park locally.

“They’re going to be living safe, warm, clean in a fully functional home. It’s going to be beautiful because it’s a home.”

Builder Cody Armond, who has been homeless and earlier created his own “skoolie,” (converted school bus), says, “It’s been a tough run trying to find permanent housing, but since I got my own bus, it’s my own little piece of heaven.”

He’s at the stage where he is framing the inside of VFC’s bus with 2x2’s and shielding it from the elements with both foam and sheet insulation. It should be done in a few months.

The family that gets it will be well-vetted: they must have at least one child under 18 in school, have a valid driver’s license, no serious criminal record and steady income, enough to pay RV park rental of about $450 a month, she notes.

“It’s a path out of homelessness,” says VFC Development Director Leo Gorcey, an Ashland marketing consultant. “Many homeless people out there have money, just not enough to rent,” so the skoolie represents a path into the housing market that doesn’t involve a tiny house that has to be wired and plumbed on a lot where you own the title.

VFC operates as a nonprofit subset of Southern Oregon Jobs with Justice. They get an annual $25,000 grant from an anonymous family donor and are forming a board to connect with other foundations and grants, says Akins.

“Every time we need help, it appears. When we need money, someone shows up with a donation,” says Akins, who has been tearing pallets apart to salvage boards.

A former large-market TV journalist, Akins says she was drawn into the homeless challenge because it’s a series of solvable problems with the tragedy of struggling, school-age children at the center.

“We’re doing this for families,” she says. “It’s got to be families. Some have toddlers. Kids live on sugar out there. Try surviving with no place to live, eating cold sandwiches, no shower, no quiet place to read. How are you going to grow up with that? Then there’s sleeplessness, diabetes and all the other health problems.”

When the bus is done, VFC plans a tour of schools, churches and nonprofit organizations, both to educate on the problem of homeless youth and to show what’s possible at the community level, without waiting for big state or federal grants to solve it, she says.

Gorcey and Akins also plan a more “chi-chi” open house event with live music and similar goals: to wake up locals on paths forward for the homeless, to raise funds for skoolies and to show how action can be taken, here and now.

VFC is soon expecting their next two buses when they are retired from Ashland School District. Their workshop is a large vacant lot at Water and Van Ness Streets, the use of which is donated by property owner Gil Livni, “a staunch supporter.”

Akins says a used, discarded school bus can be found on Craigslist in the reasonable range of $1,500 to $5,000. The present one came from Grants Pass schools, with 124,000 miles and “is built so solid. They are well maintained by schools and are built, seriously, to go a million miles.”

Gorcey adds “There’s a lot of enthusiasm for this. Every dollar we get goes into the bus.” That includes paying the builder.

“This project solves problems on many fronts,” Akins said. “It’s an Earth-friendly vehicle, being recycled. It’s solar and doesn’t zap the grid. It puts people to work (building them). It lifts people out of poverty. It helps prevent another generation of homeless people and it gives children a chance to learn and grow. It gets people off the street and gives hope. Everyone who touches this bus benefits from it.”

For more information or to donate, go to www.vehiclesforchanges.com.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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