UNION CITY, Calif. - Tami Rossell has her schedule down.
"I mean, the dough, it takes about an hour to rise," she calculated. "I'll break it down into the separate pizzas, and then I'll cook that, and then I have to be out of here by 7:45 at the latest."
She knows she has to be done by then if she is going to get to the CAREavan site by 8 p.m. when it opens.
CAREavan is a Union City program that gives people a safe place to park and sleep overnight. Since its establishment in 2016, it has served 370 adults and 175 children. The program, which is a collaboration between the city, faith-based groups and the school district, averages about 13-15 cars every night.
Rossell knows the program well. In 2021, she and her four children were experiencing homelessness and spent their evenings at CAREavan sites.
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"I think people have this narrative that everyone that ends up homeless is a drug addict," Rossell said. "They think they made bad decisions, and now they're here. Like I was the victim of a crime and I ended up there."
For a year, her van was home, serving as her dual bedroom and kitchen.
"It completely lays down and goes into the floor," she said, gesturing to her van's backseat. "And then that's so the bed would go from here to here. And then our refrigerator was over here, and we had a pantry over there."
Having a safe place to sleep every night, she said, was a relief for both her and her children.
"CAREavan was so so so amazing," she remembered. "We would get out in the middle of the night and like, jump rope and we'd run and we'd skate every day after school, and it was just amazing. It was so healing, like, 'oh my god, this is what it's meant to be. We're meant to be free.'"
She said the program gave herself and her family a chance to get back on their feet. From the van, she sewed items to sell online, and she even cooked from the vehicle. But most importantly, she kept her family together in that van.
"Someone asked me what was the desire of my heart? And I said, my desire is to get my kids in a place," she said tearfully. "And that's the first time I ever said out loud, ‘this is what I want.’ It was like everything in the universe just moved to give me exactly what was in my heart."
With help, she moved her family into a home after a year, yet she never forgets where she's been. So most nights, she's at her new home, cooking and packing up the food before driving to a CAREavan site.
"I know that struggle, and the main thing was like I cooked when I was there. So I was like, who's cooking for them? Who's helping them?" she asked. "And there's a lot of older people. And that, like, crushes my soul because they should be somewhere having someone take care of them. They paved the way, and it’s not their time to lay in a car."
Until they're able to relocate, Rossell will be there with warm food made with love.
"I had to come back," she said. "I don't think I could sleep at night if I didn't. I don't know why. I don't know. I can't tell you why."
If you know someone in need of a CAREavan site, they can register or get more information by contacting Jesus Garcia at Jesusg@unioncity.org.