Homeless People Living in Cars

Living in Cars

Is It Illegal to Live and Sleep in Your Car?

There are many reasons people who are homeless end up living in cars. Some people may have lost their home, but still have their car. Some people who experience homelessness prefer to sleep in their car rather than go to a shelter or spend the night on the streets. Shelters may turn people away if they’re at capacity. They may split up family members. And staying on the streets is not a safe option in most cases. Additionally, having a car may be a person’s biggest asset – it stores their belongings, helps them get to/from work and appointments, and provides mobility.

Others who lose their home may use what money they have to buy and live in a used car or RV. Some people choose to live in an RV or a van and have a minimalist, nomadic lifestyle. Often referred to as “full timers” or “van life”, this is not homelessness. People intentionally living off the grid can go to a hotel or rent an apartment at any time. Homeless people living in cars don’t have that choice.

Some courts have struck down laws that make sleeping illegal – stating that sleep is necessary to human survival. However, cities have skirted this by making it illegal to park cars overnight in areas where people may be inclined to sleep. (Read more about how Los Angeles has struggled with this issue here.)

Many advocates in the homelessness community argue this and other policies are criminalizing homelessness, which refers to laws that make basic life-sustaining activities (e.g., sleeping, eating, sitting) illegal.

Other cities have recognized that sleeping in a car may be a person’s only option before going into shelter. These cities have set up ways to make it safer for people to be in their cars overnight.

For example, Dreams for Change, a non-profit in San Diego, CA, operates two parking lots for people to park overnight. Roughly 70 families and individuals park overnight and have access to services that can help them find permanent housing and other needed support.

The program’s success seems to be due to some of its guidelines:

  • No alcohol or drugs onsite
  • Drivers cannot park all day (they enter at 6pm and leave by 7am)
  • The lot is secure and staffed
  • People cannot run their cars after 10pm

Seattle, WA and Santa Barbara, CA have similar programs. (Read more here.)

Sleeping in a car may be the “best worst” option for many people. While it may be helpful in the short-term, it not a good long-term option.


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C4 Innovations advances recovery, wellness, and housing stability for people who are marginalized. We are committed to reducing disparities and achieving equitable outcomes. We partner with service organizations, communities, and systems to develop and implement research-based solutions that are: person-centered, recovery-oriented, and trauma-informed.

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