Why Homelessness is So Much Bigger Than You Realize

In August of 2016, I drove a brand-new Mercedes-Benz Sprinter off a lot in Van Nuys with 14 miles on it; a month later, my husband and I were living in it. In the year-and-a-half that followed, we logged over 50,000 miles, driving from Orange County to Baja and back, to Texas and Florida and back, around the Pacific Northwest and back, and to San Francisco and San Diego and all the pristine “Sans” in between.

We made homeless jokes. Lacking a full-length mirror (or any mirror, save our rear-view), we would ask each other before stepping outside, “Does this outfit make me look homeless?” This was as insensitive to our external world as it was inextricable from our inside one; it was a joke we could only have made or tolerated amongst ourselves.

For, as you might imagine, certain real-life aspects of sharing a van full-time veered toward unglamorous, even as #vanlife enjoyed its Internet moment.

Hygiene was difficult to maintain despite an arrangement we’d made to cook friends dinner in exchange for showers. Other nights, we parked near the beach and showered outdoors — fine, except that showering in a bathing suit while menstruating felt gross. These sacrifices of privacy and, to some extent, health, were expected. We eventually adjusted to them.

Then came a different invasion of our space. While we were walking the dog one day in San Diego, someone found and stole a set of keys we’d unknowingly dropped on the sidewalk. Minutes later, they helped themselves to a camera and purse that were in the front seat — our own rookie mistake, to be sure. The worst part was that we couldn’t have purchased renters’ insurance to prevent another break-in even if we’d wanted to, since, duh, we weren’t actually renting. This is one example of the bureaucratic kinds of challenges that can accumulate when you don’t have a residential address, and there are many others like it.

Despite our self-mockery, being on the streets let us see others who were there in a new light. If things were hard in an expensive van, how much harder must they be without one?

Once, parked in Huntington Beach, we shared a steak out of a cast iron pan on a table fashioned from two stacked Tupperware bins full of clothes. The sunset over the ocean was so wondrously fluorescent that we left our side door open. One of us perched on the ottoman that stored our underwear, the other hunched on the cooler, and all the while a homeless veteran in a wheelchair lingered outside, sharing stories in a continuous way that made us understand he was quite lonely. After the amount of time it took us to eat about three quarters of a rib-eye using a butter knife, he gratefully accepted a gift of water and quarters and rolled away. I immediately wished we’d fed him, too.

What I didn’t know at the time of vacating our previous house, with its falling-down white picket fence, was that by 2018 there would be thousands, if not millions, of Californians living in their cars. Though the exact number is, for obvious reasons, difficult to assess, an estimated 8,000 reside in Los Angeles alone.

“Last year was the first year on record,” reported the New York Times, citing the National Low Income Housing Coalition, “that a full-time worker at minimum wage could not afford a one-bedroom apartment anywhere in the country at average market rates.”

Many have been forced into the precarious position of car-sleeping by rising rents and stagnant wages; of those, many aren’t residing in RVs or a camper van like ours — but occupy average sedans and SUVs instead. Most in this position are not there to travel or enjoy sunsets and steak dinners.

Referred to by the media as the “affluent” or “elite” homeless, “middle-class homeless,” “mobile homeless,” and other such descriptors, members of the workforce who can’t afford, or who otherwise eschew a permanent address, are as difficult for demographers to track as they increasingly are to ignore.

Jessica Bruder, author of Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, embedded herself in a group of mostly older people, past retirement age, who work long hours at Amazon fulfilment centers in exchange for $11.50 an hour and a place to camp in their homes on wheels. Upbeat brochures welcome them into this temporary arrangement during the busy holiday season, and then they are bid farewell — presumably onto their next gig — in what managers cheerfully call a ‘tail-light parade.’

In Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and San Diego, Safe Parking programs are transforming parking lots at places of assembly (like churches and gyms) into overnight pit stops where members of the community can register to park from 6pm to 6am each night. The programs also help participants find housing. In Silicon Valley, hospitality workers at major tech firms and their families are pooling money to rent RVs that remain parked on thoroughfares. And then there are those millennials like myself, who, either overwhelmed by student loan debt or allured by the possibility of working online from anywhere, are actually eager to get free from the housing market for awhile and experience life on the road.

All of these categories and populations can help us discern who actually needs help, who is merely a victim of wanderlust, and speculate how, as income disparities intensify, the normal order of things could continue to warp.

Recently, I stumbled upon a WikiHow article entitled “How to Live in Your Car” and marveled at how many of the boxes we’d unwittingly checked. Before we moved into our van, I viewed our house as formulaic, part of the trajectory young people are conditioned to follow all their lives: college, marriage, house, kids. But now I wonder if, in joining this trend, I’ve been sorted into and am giving power to just another formula, a strikingly well-worn path, one that happens to be less safe.

I’m glad that there is a middle ground between homelessness and unaffordable housing, that this option of car-dwelling exists along with the programs and communities that support it. I just hope that those programs, the how-to guides, the hashtag #vanlife, and the general let’s-see-what-happens optimism about this “movement” aren’t actually preventing the development of needed affordable housing in California.

Lara Wilson Townsend is a writer, dancer-choreographer, and brand designer. When she’s not directing @theassemblydance, she and her husband can be found manning their newly-opened art and event space in Yucca Valley, @compoundyv. Come visit!

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