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Before the pandemic hit, Natalie and Dustin Raschke worked bartending jobs that easily supported their family of six. They had money in the bank, two cars and spare cash to support their kids’ hobbies.

Now they are living a nightmare.

After losing their jobs in Sacramento as the world shut down, the couple decided to buy an RV and what they thought would be some time. They returned to San Diego where they had previously lived for years.

The Raschkes planned to stay in an RV park for up to nine months with their four children – then ages three to 13 – and save cash while they waited for reopenings and new jobs in San Diego.

Those plans imploded. After being forced to leave the RV park, the Raschkes spent months parking their makeshift home around Mission Bay and Clairemont, trying in vain to avoid tickets. Then, earlier this year, San Diego police made the call to impound the family’s RV after the city said they racked up eight unpaid parking tickets and failed to properly register the RV.

Waiting in the parking lot to hear which room they will be staying in for the night, Alo Raschke, 8, writes in his journal about his family's situation while his father Dustin Raschke leans against the family van on June 7, 2022. / Photo by Peggy Peattie for Voice of San Diego
Waiting in the parking lot to hear which room they will be staying in for the night, Alo Raschke, 8, writes in his journal about his family’s situation while his father Dustin Raschke leans against the family van. / Photo by Peggy Peattie for Voice of San Diego

In the months since, the Raschkes have poured Dustin’s paychecks from a six-day-a-week job at a Pacific Beach grocery store into hotel stays – when they can afford them. When they can’t, the family of six packs into a van for the night. That’s been happening more often as San Diego’s tourism season picks up and hotel prices spike. Occasionally, the couple and their four-year-old have slept in a tent next to the van where their other three children sleep.

“Every day, I’m like, how is this happening to me?” said Natalie, 44.

Natalie and Dustin are also devastated by how it’s worn on their children.

Lulu Raschke, 4, cries in the family’s hotel room in mid-April. Her mother Natalie tries to calm her down while older rother Ahanu, right, drinks a protein shake. / Photo by Peggy Peattie for Voice of San Diego

Fifteen-year-old Ahanu must attend summer school so he can continue playing football and wrestling at his high school after receiving lackluster grades this year. Estrella, 12, immediately retreated under the covers of the bed in her family’s van after school on a recent afternoon and spent the rest of the evening there. Alo, 8, has a new favorite song – Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Care About Us” – though he can’t articulate why. And Lulu, 4, is almost constantly attached to and calling out for her mother, even when Natalie is inches away.

Estrella Raschke, 12, finds privacy in a crowded hotel room by eating her afternoon snack of a bowl of cereal by facing a wall while sitting in one of the two beds in their Clairemont area hotel. / Photo by Peggy Peattie for Voice of San Diego

Dustin and Natalie are desperate to end the nightmare. They have searched for an apartment for weeks in an unforgivable, competitive housing market that requires them to regularly fork over application fees to potential landlords who never call back and to try to explain a rental history that has been non-existent the past couple years.

The Raschkes have had no luck so far despite the Housing Commission promising to help by providing a deposit and first month’s rent payment if they can find an apartment, or the three pay increases Dustin has received in recent months.

The Raschkes also recently applied for an emergency housing voucher that a commission official invited them to seek.

They’re trying to hold it together.

“Where we’re at today, we’re literally at our breaking point,” Natalie said.

For years, the Raschkes rented a home in Clairemont. Before they left San Diego in late 2017, they both worked at an Ocean Beach bar and restaurant.

Natalie, who once interned with the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program, and Dustin, a former college athlete, met in college working at Pizza Hut.

They eventually settled down and made a life in San Diego. They made a good living bartending.

Dustin worked days and Natalie worked nights, allowing them to keep their kids out of daycare. They had health benefits and a retirement account.

They ultimately had three children in San Diego and a fourth in Sacramento, where they moved for a time.

Before the pandemic hit in 2020, they were planning to return. After the pandemic shut down bars and restaurants, the Raschkes decided to buy an RV and take a scenic summer drive along the California coast on their way back to San Diego.

They secured reservations to park their RV at Campland on the Bay and settled there in late September 2020.

Then came the first shock. Less than two weeks into their stay, the RV park told the Raschkes that their family of six was too large to remain for the extended stay they had envisioned, something that hadn’t come up when they made reservations.

Campland told Voice of San Diego there also wasn’t space for them to remain beyond the 31 days they had initially booked. The campground said visitors have long booked extended stay spaces up to two years in advance, but that Campland broke historical occupancy records and saw unprecedented demand during the pandemic.

Frustrated, Natalie said they decided to request a refund and move on. 

They got a full refund, but weren’t able to secure a space at another RV park. 

They were left to fend for themselves on the street.

Natalie said they spent the next several months staying in the Mission Bay area, trying to avoid the tickets that soon began coming. The family also juggled challenges familiar to other parents: ensuring their three older children logged into Zoom for school and stayed focused. Natalie also tried to keep up with a college course she had enrolled in.

Natalie Raschke goes through the stack of parking tickets the family had accumulated on their RV as they sought safe places to park. / Photo by Peggy Peattie for Voice of San Diego

In March 2021, Natalie sent a desperate email to Mayor Todd Gloria after being repeatedly ticketed for parking an oversized vehicle overnight and violating parking signs.

“We are acquiring tickets weekly and have asked the police where we should park, some have told us here or there and yet, we still acquire a ticket,” Natalie wrote in a March email. “This past month I have received over 10 tickets.”

In the email Natalie and Dustin would later send to Gloria on multiple other occasions, Natalie also described meeting other homeless families as they moved from place to place trying to avoid police interactions.

“We are constantly judged, given looks, and harassed by police with tickets. There should be exceptions to the rule. A special tag for families that have children. Or maybe a place that families like us can park that is just for us, the families who (are) in our similar situation. We are not part of the boondockers who leave messes or disrespect our surroundings,” Natalie wrote.

The Raschkes say they never received a response from Gloria.

The lack of response stung.

For months, the Raschkes tried to hold on.

Dustin Raschke, center, talks with two of his children, Alo , 8, left, and Estrella, 12, right, during his break at the supermarket where he works. The family then headed off to a local park for the rest of the afternoon; they still hadn’t decided where they were going to spend the night. / Photo by Peggy Peattie for Voice of San Diego

Police officers repeatedly suggested that the family move their RV to a city-backed safe parking lot in Mission Valley far from the schools their children attended in Pacific Beach. The Raschkes had questions about who else might be staying at the lot and concerns that it requires families to leave by 7 a.m. each morning, meaning they can’t stay there during the day. They were also skeptical when officers told them they’d need to settle in by 7 p.m., which would be difficult since Ahanu’s football practices ran an hour later. (A city spokeswoman clarified that families are allowed to enter the lot between 6 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. each night.)

The Raschkes decided the city’s safe parking lot for RVs wasn’t workable even with the risk of more tickets.

Alo Raschke, 8, dribbles a ball in the cereal aisle of the supermarket where his father works. He and his family stopped by to see their father during his break. / Photo by Peggy Peattie for Voice of San Diego

In early 2022, Dustin got a job at a Ralphs grocery store in Pacific Beach. He got his first paycheck on Feb. 4 and the couple decided to splurge a few days later. After grappling with a faulty gas generator and the grind of regularly moving the RV to avoid tickets, they booked a room at California Suites Hotel across the street from Madison High School, where Ahanu was a freshman. They savored the opportunity to enjoy hot showers and a warmer space – until early the next morning.

City impound records show a San Diego police officer ordered the Raschkes’ RV, parked on the  street next to the hotel and across the street from Ahanu’s high school, to be towed early on Feb. 9. The RV was at a south Chula Vista tow yard by 5:25 a.m.

Ahanu recalled his father being shocked when he went outside to retrieve a phone charger from the RV early that morning.

“We didn’t know anything, or what happened,” Ahanu recalled. “It just disappeared.”

Eventually, the family realized their RV had been towed – and that the kids’ school supplies were in the RV. Two children’s bikes and a running stroller also adorned the RV by then parked in a tow yard more than 20 miles away.

“They took our home away. That was our home,” Ahanu said. “That was our living space.”

In April 2020, an assistant police chief directed officers not to tow vehicles with expired registrations or five or more unpaid parking tickets if the vehicles were “being used for habitation purposes.”

After questions from Voice, city spokeswoman Ashley Bailey said the Raschke’s RV appeared to have a registration that had expired in August 2020 and eight overdue parking tickets. She noted that no one was in the RV when it was towed.

“In this instance, it was approximately 3 a.m. There was no one sleeping in the vehicle or anyone in or near the vehicle,” Bailey wrote in an email. “The existence of personal effects in a recreational vehicle is not unusual. People will store such things in anticipation of camping or while traveling.”

That explanation offers no comfort to the Raschkes.

“To them it was an RV,” Natalie said. “It was my kids’ home.”

Estrella missed three days of school after the RV was towed because she had walked into the hotel wearing flip flops and pajamas rather than clothes she’d feel comfortable wearing out. Ahanu and Alo went to school without backpacks and other supplies hours after their home was impounded. And Dustin had to call in sick from work.

That wasn’t all that was lost. The pet snake that Alo was especially fond of had also been in the RV – and for weeks, the Raschkes couldn’t find or catch it. The inside of their RV also looked as if it had been ransacked after a more than 20-mile trek to the tow yard that left toys, food and other belongings strewn about a space Natalie said was once far more organized.

Natalie Raschke talks with her daughter Lulu Raschke, 4, as she looks for personal items she wants to take with them while visiting their confiscated RV in a tow yard in Chula Vista in early April. / Photo by Peggy Peattie for Voice of San Diego

In the weeks after the RV was impounded, the family spent as much time as they could in hotels, leaving less money for other expenses.

“They pretty much put us back to ground zero again,” Natalie said.

Family members sometimes pitched in. The Raschkes decided a homeless shelter wouldn’t be a viable option for their four children, concerned about safety and how staying in one could further hamper their routines, among other issues.

Natalie spent the family’s income tax refunds on a camper van for her family to sleep in when they couldn’t afford a hotel room. 

Beyond that, Dustin and Natalie decided they’d focus on finding an apartment over retrieving the disheveled RV. After all, they learned in April getting it back would cost at least $4,800. It seemed like a better idea to focus on finding a permanent home. That goal also seemed more attainable as Dustin continued to get raises at work. Natalie learned the family’s RV was ultimately auctioned off.

Yet the Raschkes’ efforts to secure an apartment didn’t go as they hoped. They submitted countless applications to would-be landlords with fees of as much as $45 without so much as a response. Places they visited one day would be unavailable the next. Some apartments appeared workable until Natalie learned her family’s income would need to be 2.5 times the monthly rent to qualify – and they expect to pay at least $2,100 a month. Indeed, the family recently spent more than $2,500 on hotel stays during a single month.

“We can pay rent,” Dustin said. “We just can’t find a place.”

The struggle continued after the Housing Commission agreed to assist with the family’s deposit and their first month of rent.

As the search dragged on, Natalie decided she couldn’t continue until school was out for the summer. Living out of hotel rooms and the family’s van exhausted her.

Nearly every day when school was in session, Natalie hurried to pack up the family’s belongings so they could move elsewhere while Dustin and the kids focused on work and school. She also spent more than an hour each morning and afternoon picking up Ahanu, Estrella and Alo from three different schools in Clairemont and Pacific Beach. 

Four-year-old Lulu was constantly at Natalie’s heels trying to get her attention as she called agencies such as the Housing Commission and the 2-1-1 San Diego referral line, or tried to inquire with potential landlords. 

Losing the RV in February also meant losing a refrigerator where the family of six can store food, forcing Natalie to sometimes visit the grocery store multiple times a day and to spend more on food since she can’t buy in bulk.

Cooking the sort of healthy meals that Natalie for years enjoyed preparing for her family has become far more time consuming – and rare.

On a recent evening in a Clairemont park, Natalie spent more than 30 minutes cooking chicken breasts on a skillet. Alo and Lulu returned multiple times to check whether dinner was ready. It was dark and they were hungry.

So was Ahanu, who is trying to build more muscle like his fellow high school teammates. He sat quietly in the van while Natalie cooked but like his younger siblings, he quickly inhaled his piece of chicken.

After he finished it, Ahanu admitted he was still hungry and expected to “wake up more hungry” the next day.

These days, Ahanu said, he and Dustin often sleep in the front seats of the family’s van while the others sleep on the bed and floor. When they book hotel rooms, the Raschkes usually now get a less expensive room with a single bed. A good night’s sleep has become a luxury and Ahanu said he often struggles to fall asleep.

Ahanu said he’s trying to go with the flow. Everything is more difficult for his family right now – and he’s learned not to judge others without homes.

“They’re just like normal people like you and me. Something happened,” Ahanu said. “They’re people who don’t have a place to live.”

Natalie and Dustin have worried about what might happen if housed residents catch onto their predicament, leading Dustin to worry about leaving their belongings out where others might see them.

On his day off, Dustin plays basketball in a park at Crown Point in Mission Bay with Alo, 8, and Lulu, 4, while older daughter Estrella hangs out in the van, and his wife Natalie has gone to pick up Ahanu, 15, from after school wrestling practice. / Photo by Peggy Peattie for Voice of San Diego

And Natalie feared residents who visited the Clairemont park the family had been frequenting – a park just steps away from the home they once rented – might call the police or Child Protective Services on her family. 

Things have gotten even more difficult recently.

In early June, Dustin’s father was seriously injured in an out-of-state motorcycle accident and Dustin rushed to his bedside, meaning he couldn’t work for several days. 

The tragedy meant Dustin wasn’t drawing a paycheck. Natalie stressed about what it would mean for the family’s finances. It gutted her when she realized Estrella recognized what Dustin’s temporary departure could mean too.

More recently, the family has almost exclusively been sleeping in their van in Crown Point. It’s been excruciating.

After running around all afternoon with a friend in the park, then having some pieces of chicken for dinner, Alo, 8, falls asleep on the edge of the bed in the family van in a parking lot in Clairemont in early June. / Photos by Peggy Peattie for Voice of San Diego

Dustin sometimes escapes to the family’s car and Natalie said Alo, who is usually mild mannered, has been having daily fits. Ahanu has also had some outbursts. Estrella has remained quiet. Lulu now often pees in a bucket rather than make the long trek to a public restroom. All of the children are regularly putting off trips to public restrooms.

When Lulu needed to use the restroom in a public park, Natalie covered the seat with toilet paper and stayed with her until she washed her hands. / Photo by Peggy Peattie for Voice of San Diego

The Raschke’s apartment search also hasn’t been going well. One landlord recently responded to say their income wasn’t enough to qualify for a place they had eyed. Natalie is now convinced she’ll have to work to meet income requirements to rent an apartment without a voucher, a task that for now seems impossible given the time she spends shuffling the family from place to place. She’s still waiting to hear if her family qualified for the emergency voucher.

“I don’t know how long we can sustain,” Natalie said.

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

Peggy Peattie

Peggy Peattie is a freelance photojournalist in San Diego.

Join the Conversation


  1. I got to admire that he still has his family. My wife would have left us soon as this horrible ordeal started. I can’t trust the court leaving them with her for even a day so I put up with it.

  2. If I was faced with such a choice I would not move to a high cost place like San Diego. They would have been better off in NV, AZ, or TX where rents are far more affordable.

  3. I wish i knew where they are at id like to take the kids dinner or lunch or breakfast

    1. In the news article piece it says around crown point, mission bay parks… So , how much more of a possibility of where they’re at.

    1. A go fund me should be posted along with this story . I know so many people would gladly help.
      What is the purpose of this article if there is no positive outcome.

  4. This story is heartbreaking and so relatable. I wish I had some contacts to help them find a place to rent. I hope someone reading this article will have some insight.

    Yes, San Diego is expensive and it’s getting worse. Years ago when this family lived here, there were still affordable housing options inland and even in OB. The housing landscape has dramatically changed since the pandemic.

  5. I’m in the same predicament. I live out of my vehicle and door dash, I can’t make enough money for insurance, barely make enough for gas. I was employed full time before pandemic and am just like this family.

  6. The Raschke family is brave and generous to share their story . And it is so true how quickly things can spiral-out-control until suddenly you are homeless. The resources cited in the article are only some of the agencies available to help – it should be noted that ‘safety net’ for San Diego is actually provided by independent non-profits : Jewish Family Services, Interfaith of North County, San Diego Rescue Mission and more. Jewish Family Services has a safe parking site, emergency case management to help link all available services and vouchers for meals.
    The Raschke family’s experience really showcases the need for easy access to services. Calling 2-1-1 may not give you the resources that are actually available. It’s probably way over-due to realize that a good portion of our San Diego families are struggling and that’s time for better, easier, more consistent and lasting solutions. We have our very good community college system – which along with education provides many support services- why don’t we look at that model? How can we build-out community support services that can easily be found in centralized locations- maybe part of libraries, or Recreation centers? What do you need- let’s just check-off the boxes on the form -and get you hooked-up TODAY.

    brella of social service

  7. Let’s see. Amazon, Costco, Walmart, Target, the supermarkets, fast food restaurants are hiring like crazy. I’m thinking the author of this article wants San Diego taxpayers to buy these two deadbeats a brand new home in La Jolla or Del Mar. Shame on them for putting their children through this chaos!

    1. This is probably the most hateful comment I’ve ever seen on Social Media. If you’d actually read the article you would’ve known that they do have an income, just not enough for what landlords now require for initial access to housing.

      Why would you deliberately kick people who are already down??

      You’re response to this story says WAY more about you, as a human being, and your lack of humanity.

      Do better.

      1. Why are you hating on landlords? What are you, some kind of communist? (Mao had most all the landlords and business owners killed during the Red Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960’s)… This is exactly why The 2nd Amendment was invoked.

        1. And what was the cost of living way back when you were starting out? Those good times created weak people like you.

    2. Were you holding your bible while you typed this comment? Bet good money she is christian!

    3. It takes a special kind of stupid to pack up your small children in an rv leaving behind any sort of stability to go on a road trip during a pandemic. Sure you “lost” your jobs but we all know each of you were getting that $600/week tacked on to whatever base unemployment you qualified for.
      So lets call it 1800/week to stay home with no chance of being evicted. You wouldn’t even had to pay rent if you wanted to be a real jerk. But you went ahead and did the dumbest thing imaginable by forfeiting your home, dropping your savings on a motor home and taking a beautiful drive down the coast to the most un affordable city in America. And not to be closer to some sort of family, but to go camping at San diegos premier campground. But now the vacation is over and everyone should feel bad for you because it’s hard to find housing in pacific beach.

      1. Yes, and at one point they were offered a chance for a spot in the Mission Valley RV lot, but they immediately started looking the gift horse in the mouth (because it wasn’t perfectly “convenient”), and decided to keep being scofflaws and ended up having the RV impounded.

  8. I call BS. I can’t afford insurance on a motorcycle so how was he injured while driving a motorcycle?

    1. He wasn’t his dad was and he had to go see him. This is a truly heartbreaking story about the pandemic and how tough it has been on people. Why be so negative.

    1. It looks like a go fund me was set up. If you search their names it will pop up

  9. Kids deserve to be kids, I want to take them to do something fun. They could use a giftcard for food too.

  10. Be nice, nin of the Parents have abandones their family. They havent given up. Woukd you want to live in AZ or LV??? Cps would be bad, seperated and with abused kids. Someone should help enroll the younger 2 in soccer. Especially the 8yr old. Soccer Shots is the best! Track them down they could use a small grill and mini fridge. Hope they get back stability soon.

  11. I don’t have much but I would really love to donate a restaurant/grocery gift card to this family. How can I find them? They need a go fund me stat.

  12. So, suggestions on solutions to this problem versus condemnation. We have all made mistakes. I too am unhappy that Newsom executively ordered (dictated) the economic shut down which is part of this problem. Anybody know of any rental possibilities with jobs that pay enough elsewhere than San Diego? Seems like the most practical solution.

  13. I’m sorry, but these people need a reality check. You brought 4 kids into the world and it is your moral imperative to get a roof over their head despite bad luck, poor choices and the pandemic. This is no longer a single income town. If you want to be a SAHM, there are many more affordable places to live without turning your kids into gypsies during their formative years. If you are determined to live in the least affordable town in CA, you both need jobs (and maybe more than 1). Having 4 children is a big choice and an expensive adult responsibility. Please step it up for your kids.

    1. It looks like they are trying pretty hard. How are they both supposed to work 2 jobs with little kids at home. Must be a nice privilege to be so judgy. Shame on you.

  14. Good on the people helping the kids.
    I hope the parents get it together , but based on their prior decisions ( 4(!!) kids on 2 bartending jobs ? ) + move to SD with no $$ – it doesn’t look promising.

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