Mobile Homelessness

Why Are People Living in Cars in the U.S.?

Mobile homelessness, a growing crisis in the U.S., refers to homeless people who live in their cars, rather than on the streets or in shelters, motels, campgrounds, parks, woods, and other public places. It is difficult to estimate how many people live in their cars. Cities such as Seattle, WA and San Diego, CA report that one-fifth of homeless people are living in their cars.

Why do people live in their cars? Consider these situations:

  • A mother of three lives in her car with her three kids. She has a job and does her best to get the kids to school every day. The local homeless shelters won’t take boys over age 12, and her son is 15. She refuses to separate her family, and so she considers her car the “least bad” option.
  • A young man lives in his car because when he told his family he was gay, they kicked him out. He had no other place to turn that felt safe. He parks his car in different locations every night. He’s nervous that someone will try to rob or hurt him, and it’s getting cold out, so he doesn’t sleep well most nights.

In some cities, living in your car is illegal. People try to find safe places to park overnight and get some sleep where they won’t get asked to leave or get robbed. Other cities—like Seattle, San Diego, and Santa Barbara, CA—allow people to park in designated areas run by the city or a non-profit organization. Some of these designated areas have additional services such as security and connections to social services; some do not.