When we think of homelessness we often picture an individual living on the streets asking for money, food, or some sort of assistance. However, there is a large community of individuals experiencing homelessness that are not as noticeable: those that live in vehicles. Sarah Rankin, director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project at Seattle University School of Law, says that those living in cars are the fastest-growing segment of the United States’ homeless population. While there is insufficient data to provide an exact number, it is estimated that about 100,000 individuals currently live in a vehicle throughout the nation.
Solutions to the problem have been scarce; many cities have implemented laws that criminalize living in vehicles, but in reality these policies just make things worse for those that must inhabit vehicles. Those experiencing homelessness can not afford to pay fines for living in their vehicle, and criminal charges could make it difficult to secure a job or even a bed in a homeless shelter. Criminalizing the act is simply dehumanizing and decreasing the chance of a better life for those affected. Tristia Bauman, senior attorney at the National Homelessness Law Center, says that vehicles provide those experiencing homelessness with security, privacy, storage, and a way to keep pets or a way to maintain family composition. For many, a car or a van is the best shelter available. Taking this shelter away will severely displace many.
While living in a vehicle does have many benefits compared to living on the streets, it can also be very dangerous. Experts at the National Health Care for the Homeless Council say that those living in vehicles are at a higher risk of developing severe health problems than those in shelters. Natural disasters also put those living in vehicles at risk: hurricanes, floods, and heat waves for example can easily kill someone living in a vehicle. In June of 2021, three of the six unhoused Oregon residents who died from a 116 degree heat wave lived in vehicles.
In recent years, the van-life moment has picked up. The movement has prompted an increasing number of people to quit their conventional 9-5 jobs and convert a large van into a livable, often glamorous, tiny home. Many so-called “van-lifers” have vehicles equipped with a kitchen, bathroom, and television.
Living in a vehicle is far less glamorous for those forced into the lifestyle. Most of these individuals can not go out and buy a large van to live in. Instead, they are stuck with the small car they already own. These individuals do not have easy access to showers, toilets, or kitchens to cook sustaining meals. When temperatures reach their highs or lows, those living in vehicles often do not have adequate heating or cooling systems to stay safe. As Insider explains, “like vanlifers, these houseless Americans live in their vehicles and travel the open road, but they’re doing it involuntarily and facing the dangers of the lifestyle without any of the luxuries.”
Nan Roman, the president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, says that the West coast in particular is experiencing a rapid increase in those experiencing homelessness and those being forced to live in a vehicle.
If you or someone you know is involuntarily living in a vehicle, use the resources below:
If an emergency or disaster has forced you out of your home: https://www.redcross.org/get-help/disaster-relief-and-recovery-services/find-an-open-shelter.html
Information on finding shelter, food pantries, health clinics, and clothing: https://www.hud.gov/findshelter