Today I would like to discuss the difference between the homeless person who ends up in their vehicle versus the person called a “nomad” who very deliberately becomes a vehicle dweller. The recent Best Picture of 2020 at the Academy Awards went to the movie “Nomadland.” And while Fern’s character is highly relatable to van dwellers, regardless of whether they are deliberately living the lifestyle, this movie only helps fuel the confusion. There is a profound difference, and it is causing some confusion in the housing discussion.
Don’t get me wrong; there is a vast gray area and a lot of overlap. But there is also a fundamental distinction. I should write about it because lack of understanding and misconceptions can be detrimental to the fight for homeless people. The public often cannot distinguish between the two situations. It can cause the erroneous conclusion I have seen recently: that everyone living in their vehicle chooses it over living in a house. This is not the case.
Some people indeed choose to live in their vehicles. For many, the decision is based on economics. They are usually self-employed or travel from place to place to find work. They are usually interested in traveling the country, and they are not disabled. Some will do this for a preplanned amount of time. Some just go with the flow and see where the road takes them. This is not the same as those who become homeless and end up in a sedan, unprepared for vehicle dwelling.
For one thing, vehicles are not generally built to be lived in unless they are specialty vehicles, such as campers or Recreational Vehicles.
There was no time for most homeless people who end up in a vehicle to make the elaborate preparations needed to prepare for vehicle dwelling. All too often, there was little warning before life imploded. The loss of a job or a divorce could land someone in a vehicle. Right now, many people are only one paycheck away from homelessness.
I have been floundering for years from situation to situation without a place to call my own. My vehicle is as close as I can get to a home. Out at storage, I have an RV that I cannot live in. It is not mobile, and I don’t even know how many of the systems work or not. At one time, I cared for a lady, and I parked it outside her home. But when she died, I had to move it, and it ended up in storage where the lease is particular that no one may live in their stored RV or a storage unit.
That RV does provide me a place to store belongings and a place to have some peace and privacy here and there. It is cheaper than a storage unit, and I am eternally grateful for it even though I cannot live in it. To live in it would require a place to park it that allows living, which is extremely hard to find.
I’ve also stayed at a disgusting old warehouse with filthy floors and a foul, musty stench. That situation is no longer available because of a greed-driven individual bent on a personal agenda. Then there is couch surfing among friends, except that I only have one friend left alive in my area, and that place isn’t available all the time. Hotels are too expensive.
That leaves my van.
There is also the never-ending anxiety and fear of being harassed by police. Or scary strangers are knocking on your vehicle in the middle of the night. Trust me, this isn’t something I’d intentionally have signed up for.
Sure, if I had lots of money and my RV was fixed up and road-worthy, then I could use that and be much more comfortable. But it isn’t road-worthy, and it would cost too much to make it so. I am a disabled woman. I cannot rebuild it, and I know nothing of building or tools and physically couldn’t do the work, which means hiring somebody. Also, it is stored outside, and I live in an area where nearly every day, the weather app says, “chance of afternoon shower” from May until September when work could be done.
Nomads who take to the road are usually prepared for it. They get a vehicle with fewer windows and add insulation to the walls of the van. People preparing for life on the road will stock up on batteries and solar panels, which are all quite expensive. They build little sink areas and even showers in the larger vans, essentially turning them into class B-style RVs. Some who choose #vanlife are people who save up money first, get an actual RV (of any class style), and hit the road in luxury. Usually, that would be young, healthy people who have high-end cameras and upload incredible nature videos or do travel logs online on YouTube or Instagram, receiving donations from the public or money for being spokespersons for products.
The grey area is where we both meet.
You see, some homeless people conclude that living this way is better than the street. So long as they can maintain their vehicle, it is better to be in the vehicle than not. In my case, being in my van is better than the street. It is also better than being in unacceptable housing that would not meet my special needs as both an autistic and physically disabled person. The so-called “freedom” that nomads talk so much about is entirely dependent on one’s ability to maintain life in a vehicle. While it may be cheaper than keeping a house or apartment, it is by no means cheap.
Next time you see someone living in a van, don’t assume you know what’s happening just because you watched “Nomadland.” Yes, it deserved all its awards. But ignorant people are now using it to fuel the “they want to live like that” argument.