Here in my car … I feel safest of all … I can lock all my doors … It’s the only way to live … In cars
Gary Numan’s 1979 hit Cars almost seems prophetic. Life imitates art with tens of thousands of people living in their vehicles across the US. And while songs and movies often portray life on the road as romantic, a symbolic untethering from the confines of a fixed address, the realities of living in one’s car mark a significant departure from Numan’s idealized lyrics. A Walmart parking lot was clearly not part of the singer-songwriter’s vision.
Vehicle Residency – ‘A New Form of Affordable Housing?’
A 2018 study based in the Greater Los Angeles area revealed that nearly 16,000 people call their vehicle home. This number represents a significant percentage of America’s homeless population. Statistics from the UK reveal a similar trend with 12,000 living in their vehicles. These numbers are on the rise in both countries.
“I wasn’t surprised to see that more people are moving into their vehicles, because rents are growing faster than income,” recalls Va Lecia Adams Kellum, president of St. Joseph Center, a non-profit organization based in Venice, California. She notes that many of those living in their vehicles are “families who are still working but had to make the sad choice of moving into their cars.”
Living behind the wheel has become “a new form of affordable housing” according to Graham Pruss.
“I have met people who are working at Amazon and rent an RV to live on the streets of Seattle while they’re saving enough to get into their own place.” That statement is sobering, considering what Amazon is valued at compared with the compensation they give to lower level employees.
A specific demographic emerges from vehicle residents: usually employed homeless people with means to insure a vehicle, yet not enough income to sustain housed living. Low income and high rent costs result in razor sharp margins. A fixed address is a luxury that an increasing number of people can’t afford.
The unfortunate reality of this “new form of affordable housing” is that local governments have tried to make vehicle residency illegal. Slate.com notes that over the last decade, the number of bans on vehicle residency increased 143 percent in the 187 cities surveyed.
This puts Americans living in cars between the hammer and the anvil. Unsheltered life exposes people to the dangers of street crime. But if they call the police, they may end up with a costly ticket or vehicle impoundment. Other threats to well-being include extreme cold and hibernation, breathing in exhaust fumes, rogue shopping carts, and other vehicle residents.
Safe Parking Lots
To counter at least one obstacle, many states are instituting safe parking lots. These lots allow vehicle residents to have a secure spot to sleep. Safe Parking LA is one of those programs, which allows participants to park in security-protected lots with access to bathrooms and social service providers.
“We rent the spaces on the lots. We also pay guards $20 an hour to guard the lot for 10 hours a night, seven days a week,” said Pat Cohen, one of the program founders.
The program seems to be yielding good results. Consider what happened to Yunus Rajabiy. The 36-year-old air conditioning and appliance repairman had lived in his delivery van for nearly three years. He transitioned to a safe parking lot during the fall of 2018. Six months later, he was living in an apartment.
What made the difference for Rajabiy? A built-in social services program. Several safe parking lots require “an hour of intake to really drill down on what their current situation is and how they got to this situation and where they want to go in the future.”
Rajabiy says that this was a vital step in the process of getting out of his van and into an apartment. Speaking about his lot’s intake coordinator, he said: “She was making me do things that would help me, because otherwise I was very depressed.”
There are some inherent limitations within LA’s proposed expansion of the program. One is that only 300 “safe parking spots” will be provided. This is a far cry from the amount of people living in their vehicles that need to secure safe parking. “We have to start somewhere,” says Heidi Marston, the authority’s chief program officer. “We want to get a sense of what is actually needed so we can scale.”
Securing safe sleep and backing it up with social workers helped this man battle out of homelessness within six months. Could safe parking lots be the solution for the tens of thousands of vehicle residents found in America’s parking lots?