Nearly seven years ago I moved out of my small San Diego apartment and into a van. I was sixty-seven, on social security, and decided to trade paying rent for a life on the road. When people asked where I lived, I made a point of emphasizing the travel aspect: I wanted to see America’s natural wonders while I still had good health. I’m not homeless, dammit, I’d think to myself. I’m an adventurer. I’d drive back to San Diego any time I missed familiar haunts, but my hometown has changed. Now there are laws against living in vehicles, often aggressively enforced by police. Housing costs have spiked since I left, far beyond what I can afford. The San Diego Regional Taskforce on the Homeless estimates there are more than 7,600 homeless in the metropolitan area; of the people they surveyed in January, about a third were living in their vehicles. Many have had no choice but to move into their cars, vans, and RVs. And what was once a choice for me isn’t anymore. I may have rejected the H-word in the past, but I can’t deny that I fit the description.
Maybe you find yourself in the same position. If you’re considering van-dwelling in the city, here are some of the rules I adopted over the years to make it work.
Rule #1. Cleanliness is next to godliness
My grandma used to say this all the time. Annoyed the hell out of me, but she was right. If you can keep yourself and your vehicle looking clean, people won’t give you a second glance. The laundromat is your friend. For weekly showers, get a day pass to a YMCA or rec center. You can get in a workout and a shower. Healthy! For the days in between, clean up with baby wipes. Use a DIY carwash now and then.
When it comes to trash, follow the guidelines for camping in nature: LEAVE NO FUCKING TRACE. Improperly dumped trash is a big reason residents call the police on us. Same goes for human waste—if you can afford one, get a camping porta-potty. For a cheap alternative, try a 5-gallon bucket and store it in a milk crate to keep it from tipping over. I learned this the hard way; one winter night, during a cold snap in the desert, I rushed to drive back to the warmth of San Diego. When a man with a gas can appeared suddenly on the dark highway, waving frantically, I slammed on my brakes, tipping the pee bucket over and spilling its contents over my carpet and purse. Lesson: empty the bucket before driving.
Rule #2. “Stealth” camp in the city
My current van is a total hippie van complete with hightop, solar panels on the roof, and a brightly colored, crocheted cover for the spare tire on the back. My stress level spikes in cities because I know I’m conspicuous, but it makes me happy to now have a van that says who I am. It also signals that I’m a woman. I play my “old white lady card” when needed—acting polite, slightly helpless, and endlessly grateful—and luckily my experiences with law enforcement have been mostly benign. To help avoid police attention, keep your vehicle unobtrusive. The more it looks like a work van, the better. It can be unsettling to be awakened in the middle of the night by The Dreaded Knock—an officer banging at your window.
Spend your days in scenic spots, running errands, or whatever you like—but don’t ever:
- park near single family homes, day or night,
- set up a little “patio” with chair and table outside your RV or van,
- or cook or eat outside anywhere other than at picnic areas.
Find seven or eight spots where you can spend the night without drawing attention and rotate them:
- industrial areas, hospitals, hotels;
- streets in front of apartment buildings or motels;
- 24-hour supermarkets and fitness clubs;
- Walmart, Lowe’s, and Home Depot may be okay for a night or two if you call and ask first;
- Cracker Barrel restaurants welcome overnight travelers;
- Designated Safe Parking areas with toilets and showers, which exist in some cities. To access them, you may be required to register for permanent housing and other services.
Or, you can do what I did: make friends with a security guard. My friend David, whom I met through another van-dweller friend, is a nighttime security guard for a large tourist attraction. BINGO! He let me park in the lot overnight while I was in town, and it was reassuring to know that he kept an eye on my van while I slept. (No, I can’t tell you where—you’ll have to make your own friends.)
Important: Wherever you spend your nights, go there only when you are ready to sleep—no lights!—and leave early in the morning before anyone notices you.
Rule #3. Stay comfortable and be safe
You won’t last long at this if you aren’t comfortable. Make sure you have a good sleeping space—in my first van, I slept in a hammock hung diagonally from front to back, and it was heaven.
If you feel unsafe at any time, drive away. That’s the beauty of van living—you have wheels and an engine. Use them. If you think you need a weapon, know the local laws first. I chose a dog instead. When my friend Lori’s dog gave birth in the Arizona desert one winter, she gave me a puppy. Scout is a natural guard dog: big, with a bark that booms at any unusual sight or noise. The road is the only life Scout knows, and she’s grown into the perfect travel companion.
Rule #4. Make friends
There are many online van-dweller communities where people provide support and share tips. When my first van broke down outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, then again later in Arizona, I thought I would wind up living on the streets. It was my friends from Facebook who bailed me out. And don’t be surprised when “homeless” people embrace you as one of their own. A couple of summers ago, I was startled when several self-described homeless van-dwellers at a park I frequented recognized me with a friendly welcome. It was unsettling; I thought I had been flying under the radar. But before long, they were petting my dog and sharing information about overnight parking spots and police sweeps.
This series was generously supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.