Call them homeless or “home free,” more folks, mostly men, are making the choice to live out of their cars.
It’s your average Sunday afternoon at Mar Vista Recreation Center, a 19-acre public park on Los Angeles’ Westside. A summer breeze cools the air as parents cheer their children to youth soccer glory and young professionals sweat in circles around the park’s shaded perimeter. Beyond the packed basketball court is a burgeoning birthday party. At a glance, the park appears to reflect the picture of middle class life.
Look closer, though, and you’ll see evidence of a growing trend. A brown Chevy van with furniture strapped to the back. A short school bus painted purple, parked in the shade. An old Geo Metro with its windows shaded by makeshift screens of clothing and towels.
These are the nation’s vehicular homeless.
One of these is John, an independent contractor in his late 50’s who calls the streets around Mar Vista Rec Center his home. John steps out of his squeaky clean Ford SUV, propping up a solar panel in a patch of daylight near his front bumper. After he lost his job in 2013, John moved into his Ford while he searches for work. He keeps his appearance and his Ford presentable, doing his best to stay unnoticed while he pinches pennies and awaits the next opportunity.
“We try to live as normal a life as possible,” John says, an earnest look on his face. “After a while it can get difficult to have a positive attitude out here.”
For most of his life, John has succeeded in living that “normal” life. Not long ago, he lived what he thought was the American Dream, sharing a condo in Culver City with his wife and kids. Now, John spends most of his time on a memory foam mattress in the back of his Ford, his windows taped with cardboard to maintain a semblance of privacy.
“Lord knows I’ve had all the toys,” John reminisces. “Where are they now?”
With the cost of housing rising precipitously across America, the number of people finding themselves in John’s position is increasing at an alarming rate. In Los Angeles alone, the annual LAHSA census of homeless individuals tallied over 6,000 vehicles being used as homes. Coupled with makeshift encampments, that’s an 85% increase over 2013’s count. And the trend is likely to continue. Cost-of-living continues to soar high above wages in many professions that once allowed social mobility–or at least stability. A recent UCLA study found that the median renter in Los Angeles spends 47% of his income on rent—the highest percentage in the country. Like many across the nation, this leaves those folks one unforeseen emergency away from losing their homes.
Not everyone is choosing to wait for that emergency.
Across the park from John’s SUV sits an off-white Volkswagen Type 2 Microbus, where inside a man named Lizandro emerges from the rear of the van and makes himself comfortable in the driver’s seat. He looks at home, as if sitting in a living room recliner. And in a way, he is. Lizandro has made his Volkswagen his home for nearly a year. He says that doing so was a choice, one that Lizandro says has vastly improved his quality of life.
“I cannot be stressing with money,” Lizandro says, leaning out of his driver’s side window. “I live simple. I don’t keep too much stuff.”
Lizandro works full-time at the local Whole Foods, spending his nights in an idle corner of the nearby community. His setup is simple—a bed, some cookware, a solar panel to generate energy for a small television. Lizandro chose to move into his van after the end of his last relationship, giving up their shared apartment in favor of a more mobile life. He says it’s a better option than the alternatives.
“I can go rent me a place and be accepted into society,” Lizandro says. “But why? For now, I don’t really care because society don’t pay my bills.”
More and more, people—predominately men, but some women as well—are dropping their costly lifestyles in favor of living simply. This is a growing movement called living “home-free”, featured in this June, 2015 CBS segment. It’s a term that evokes a more positive version of a lifestyle generally viewed as undesirable, drawing a distinction between those who enjoy living in their vehicles (or offices, or teepees, or dumpsters) and those who are doing so out of desperation or lack of options. It distinguishes between those who live independently and those who require much-needed assistance to improve their situations.
Lizandro embodies the essence of home-free, supporting himself through his work but choosing to forgo the burden of rent or mortgage. Instead, he spends his money on keeping himself healthy, eating well and exercising in his free time. He pays his taxes and registration with no stress, attends concerts, and takes occasional trips to see his brother in Santa Cruz. He even sends money home to help support his mother in Yelapa, Mexico.
“I can live somewhere else and pay more, but then I waste more on commute,” he says. “I love playing soccer, I love being outside. Everything for me is right here.”
Whether home-free or homeless, vehicular dwellers looking to ride out financial hardship in dignity often face ostracizing, harassment, even arrest.
According to the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, among a total of 187 cities surveyed since 2011, bans on sleeping in vehicles have increased by 119%. As the number of homeless increase, so too has pressure to push the homeless to the periphery. Here at Mar Vista Recreation Center, claims of disturbances and unsanitary conditions have led to authorities removing vehicular dwellers who break the written (and unwritten) rules of unsightliness and neighborly etiquette. Perhaps most frustrated by delinquent vehicular dwellers are the majority of homeless and home-free who practice discretion.
“For people like us, it ruins the image,” Lizandro says.
The vehement among those wishing to criminalize homelessness use delinquent vehicular dwellers as an excuse to agitate for removal of all the homeless—ignoring a solution for where they should go. Near Mar Vista Rec Center, this attitude has resulted in the erection of overnight parking restrictions and seizure of personal property, the latter of which will likely soon increase with the City Council’s recent ordinances designed to make it easier for police to remove homeless people’s stuff. In L.A., as in much of the country, local governments prefer a policy of “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” to proactive solutions for those in need.
Perhaps this is one reason many vehicular dwellers, like John and Lizandro, prefer to remain in the shadows, living as privately as possible and/or licking their financial wounds until the time comes to rejoin the ranks of traditionally housed residents.
As John does his best to keep to himself, he contemplates how close he recently came to improving his situation—after a four-month stint of work in the spring, he nearly earned enough to move out of his car. Then the work dried up. And with it, his aspirations of living more traditionally. Now John questions whether he can ever afford to live in a house again.
“Even if I got a job, full-time, and was making good money again,” John says. “I’d want an RV. Then I’d have the money to be comfortable again.”
John tries to remain optimistic, but the reality of his situation is making that harder to do.
So he is left waiting for the next opportunity, wondering how long his dwindling savings will last him. For both John and Lizandro, the future is filled with question marks. One thing is certain—without major changes, there will be many more Johns and Lizandros as the months wear on. As long as governments are choosing criminalization over incentivizing affordable housing, the vehicular homeless—and home-free—will continue to grow in numbers.
It’s a fact John knows all too well.
Photo Credits: Tim Maloney. Content Contributor: Michael Newton-McLaughlin.