Invisible People has released a short film about vehicle dwelling, and they’ve asked me to review it. After all, who better review a film about a homeless woman in a vehicle than a homeless woman who has lived in a vehicle? How close to home does this short movie come to reality?
First off, SPOILER ALERT! This review assumes you’ve already watched the film. If you haven’t, click here: watch it and then return to my review.
Set in California, the story opens with our main character, Lydia Johnson, sitting in her car. She doesn’t have a van. She has a sedan. From the driver’s seat, she lives much of her life. She must use it as a place to eat, sleep and conduct her daily phone calls and business (as a hired driver, such as for Lyft or Uber), and presumably most of whatever else she does, such as read or what not to pass the time. She brushes her teeth at the curb and must sneak out to pee, praying she isn’t caught. From this little bit of information, you should be able to appreciate the horrors of vehicle dwelling, especially for women.
In the next scene and perhaps one of the most important scenes, she is sleeping in her driver’s seat when a belligerent jogger comes by and takes offense to this. The jogger goes out of her way to bang on the window and yell at Lydia, threatening to call the police. She has absolutely no compassion or thought of what this unfortunate and harmless-looking young lady has been through. The jogger wants her out of her neighborhood. I have been treated like this more than once, and I can tell you, this overreaction is more common than you’d think.
Her next stop is to try to retrieve some of her belongings which have been moved to storage. The building manager tells her that he will take her to the storage unit, but they mustn’t get caught, or he could lose his job. It is clear that the landlord he works for has no compassion for people who he prices out of housing! Lydia loads the back of her vehicle with whatever she can fit.
She tries to find a place to sleep for the night. She calls a friend who tells her that she can’t have her stay because she has guests. The friend adds that she is confident that Lydia will figure out a “plan B” and that she isn’t worried about her because she’ll figure something out. Lydia doesn’t contradict her but agrees. This is shockingly common for homeless people to assure their housed friends and family that they are fine. It’s all no problem. Many of us have done this.
She picks up passengers and drives them to their destination. The passengers discuss life during the pandemic. We learn in this scene that Lydia has been driving during the pandemic to try to make money. While most of humanity tried to avoid interactions with strangers, she had little choice as her source of income required having strangers in her vehicle.
Later we see her trying to sleep in her car. She awakens with that all too familiar feeling we women know well and grabs a tampon and heads out of the car to take care of “business.”
I will not get graphic, but I will say that no male will ever truly appreciate the added layer of horror for women in their fertile years to be homeless. I have an entire hygiene system worked out for this issue and am lucky enough to have a van. While I don’t need to hop out of my vehicle, trust me when I say it’s not easy. Additionally, I’ve had conversations with older women who’ve gone through menopause while homeless. The horrors they have shared are downright frightening! I can only pray that by the time I reach that stage (assuming I live that long), I am no longer homeless!
Again, men who are homeless dodge another bullet. This scene is brief but vital to understanding what homeless women face.
In the next scene, the daytime has come. Lydia does my little trick – heads into a store with a big purse and locks herself into a single-person bathroom to wash up.
First, she wipes the sink. (I recommend using alcohol when possible, especially during the pandemic, to wipe sinks and faucets.) She brushes her teeth, her hair and does a quick sponge bath. While I can do the sponge bath in my van, I need the bathroom sink to wash my hair. Either way, having access to a single-person bathroom is critical to survival for homeless people. I, for one, am very glad the producer included this scene. You can also wash small clothing items by hand this way.
In the next scene, nighttime comes with another nightmare. I’ve written about this previously in my column. The frightening knock on the window by a stranger, be it a police officer, a belligerent citizen, or another homeless person.
In this case, an aggressive man carrying a brown paper bag with a bottle looks into her vehicle and tries to get her to let him in. He is presumably drunk or high or both, and Lydia is terrified.
Suddenly another man enters the scene. He’s our hero. Our good samaritan scares the “bum” off and then advises Lydia that she should not be parked where she is (a rather dodgy-looking street, for sure). He reveals that she is “lucky” because she has a car and adds, “Most of us don’t have a car.”
He then tells her where she can find a safe place to park for the night and recommends using contractors’ trash bags to cover the windows for privacy. When she asks why he is helping her, he replies, “We ain’t all crazy as shit, lady. Now you know,” as he walks away.
Lydia finds the safe parking lot and is informed that you must first register for space there, meaning she couldn’t stay that night. However, the attendant gave her the needed information and suggested a temporary place to stay until she qualified for safe parking.
Lydia promptly fills out the website and tries to get some sleep. The following day, a phone message wakes her. She picks up another passenger who happens to be wearing a hoodie with print on the front that Lydia points out, “that’s my school.”
It’s an important bit of information because it establishes Lydia did go to college, as so many of us who are priced out of housing did.
Finally, she receives a call from the safe parking program. They tell her they will help her with everything from getting a social worker, helping her with vehicle registration and insurance, and much more. Lydia is emotional as she feels a sense of relief wash over her. There is hope for her.
I don’t know of any such safe parking program in my area. I don’t even know if there’s one down in New York City. A quick search reveals nothing. I did find a website for a program in Washington state and various parts of California. This sort of program would be the answer to many people’s prayers.
Unfortunately, nothing like this exists in most of the country. If it does, it is not advertised. That said, it would be wonderful if more communities had places like this.
I recently visited the local agency that is supposed to help homeless people in my area. The counselor I spoke to knew of no such place when I asked if he knew a safe place to park for homeless vehicle dwellers. I was also informed that the section 8 voucher waiting list was closed. Eventually, there is a possibility of being placed on the waiting list for the Section 8 waiting list.
This film gives us insight into life as a homeless woman in a vehicle, but it also gives us a reality check of how much needs to be done to end homelessness. The one factor that Lydia doesn’t have to deal with is being disabled or chronically ill while homeless. This adds a massive complication to the equation for me. Also, being an adult on the autism spectrum makes everything more complicated still. I struggle with various sensitivities and issues connected to that.
All in all, I believe this is a very well made short. It was well-cast and well-directed. A longer film might have explored Lydia’s back story and how she ended up like this. Ultimately, however, it isn’t that important. What is important is the film established Lydia is not the typical homeless person stereotype the public so quickly pictures.
That “bum with the bottle” in the scene I mentioned earlier is closer to what the public tends to believe. Lydia represents the remaining 74% of homeless people who do not use drugs or alcohol or exhibit violent or anti-social behavior. We are just people who cannot afford to live. Please take the time to watch this short film. Then, contact your legislators and let them know you support Safe Parking Lots across the country.