Mobile Homelessness: The Legality of Living in a Vehicle

Living in a Vehicle

Between the streets and a car, the choice is simple. But is it legal?

Living in vehicles is having a bit of a moment right now, with retirees setting off on the open road in huge RVs and #VanLife trending all across YouTube and Instagram. But for many people spending their nights in vehicles, the reality is not so glamorous.

Aside from the cramped space and lack of proper facilities, those who live in their vehicles also have to worry about the legality of their lifestyle – something that is frequently in flux as laws change.

A crucial determining factor is where you’re parking your car.

Parking on Private Property with Permission

Sleeping in your car is perfectly legal if it’s parked on property you own yourself, such as the driveway of your home. But if that were an option, most people wouldn’t be living in their cars in the first place.

It’s also legal if you’re parked on someone else’s property with their permission, like in the driveway of a friend.

Things get trickier from there.

It’s possible to pass a peaceful night in a privately-owned parking lot, say outside of a grocery store. In fact, many businesses such as Wal-Mart and Cracker Barrel have built up a reputation for allowing overnight parking.

But don’t get too excited. These policies are usually intended to accommodate RVers and other people on vacation with the hope that they’ll patronize the business during their stay. It’s a fragile agreement that can be broken at any time. If you can, it’s always best to ask permission first, since the owner of the lot can have you removed by police if they’re so inclined.

Parking overnight in private lots seems like a good solution, and it may be – if you can keep a low profile. The legality of it depends entirely on the continued permission of the lot owner, which can change in a moment, turning your attempt at shuteye into an act of trespassing.

If this does happen, the best-case scenario is you’ll be awoken by a knock on your window and told to move along and find a new place to park for the night. You may be ticketed, forcibly removed from the premises, or worse, depending on the situation.

Parking with the RVers

With the rise in popularity of the aforementioned RVers and “Van Lifers,” there has been a corresponding increase in the desire for safe overnight parking spots. As such, several apps, websites, and forums have been made for the purpose of sharing and reviewing these spots.

Suggestions are numerous, but again, they’re designed with leisure travelers in mind. If you come as a person not living in your car by choice, your mileage may vary. The other people staying in the lot may welcome you, ignore you, or be uncomfortable with you and possibly even call the police.

Use caution when staying in places like these. It may be legal, but other people can still make things difficult for you if they’re so inclined.

Parking on the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Land

Another favorite of car-campers, BLM land is available to all for dispersed camping, whether in tents or in vehicles. However, the very quality that makes it so attractive to temporary car campers – its remoteness – is often a barrier for homeless people living in their cars.

BLM land is typically far from cities and other amenities. And, there is usually a time limit on how long you can stay in one place. If you work within those time limits and respect the land, it’s a perfectly legal option.

Safe Parking Programs

Some people have seen the need for safe parking places for people living out of their cars. In Los Angeles, LAHSA has instituted a new program called Safe Parking LA that provides safe, patrolled parking spots that can be used overnight.

Safe Parking LA also provides access to bathroom facilities and social services.

There is no limit on the number of nights people can stay in these lots. In addition, one of the only restrictions on their use is that everyone who parks there must register with their HMIS program to get a better picture of homelessness in LA and what’s needed to alleviate it.

You must also have state-mandated vehicle registration and insurance, a driver’s license, and comply with the strict lot rules. Pets are permitted, but guns, knives drugs, and alcohol are not. If you don’t have insurance or a registration for your vehicle, staff can help you apply for them.

Vehicle Vagrancy

Even if you’re careful where you park, living in your vehicle may still be illegal in certain cities. In fact, bans on sleeping in vehicles increased by 119% in just three years, with 81 cities joining in. These policies are cruel and push people out of their cars and onto the street, which helps no one. You can hear a firsthand account of this from Sandy.

Luckily, some cities have recently rethought that policy, a trend that will hopefully continue.

Cities without bans may not necessarily be kind to vehicle dwellers, though. Some just get more creative by punishing people for indecent exposure if they change clothes inside their cars or using anti-loitering laws to fine people who stay in one place for too long.

Compassion for Vehicle Dwellers Costs Little

Just like other types of homelessness, vehicle dwellers face an uphill battle against the powers that be. Even in places where living in a vehicle is legal, authorities can make trouble if they want to.

Having a roof between yourself and the elements is a good thing, even if it’s a thin metal car roof. Being able to sleep in a vehicle can provide some small measure of safety and security to society’s most vulnerable. And it has little to no effect on the housed people who nevertheless seem to disapprove so strongly.

Safe parking lots are a welcome compromise to give vehicle dwellers a safe place to park overnight for as long as they need them. They should be implemented more widely. Maybe you could campaign for one in your city?

Kayla Robbins

Kayla Robbins


Kayla Robbins is a freelance writer who works with big-hearted brands and businesses. When she's not working, she enjoys knitting socks, rolling d20s, and binging episodes of The Great British Bake Off.

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