Despite rapid economic growth, homelessness has been on the rise and has, in fact, grown exponentially in the past few years. At any given point of time, over 600,000 people1 across US are homeless — yes, in the richest country on this planet. Many seek refuge in homeless shelters, some end up on the streets, and still others choose to live in their car or van.
Of the last category, there are many who opt to live in their cars out of choice, either for the sake of adventure or to save up on some extra cash. There is also a substantial percentage of car dwellers who are in the first six months of being homeless. “The chronically homeless don’t have cars,” says Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.1
As exciting and economical as living in the car sounds, there are various pitfalls and technicalities that warrant careful research and planning.
(i) How to live in your car or van? and
(ii) Where can you sleep legally in your car?
Let’s start with the first question.
How to live in your car or van?
If your car or van has enough leg room, you are probably good to go and may be able to live in your car to tide out a temporary difficulty (or passion for adventure). Not everyone folds up a sleeping bag in their car, though. Many have gone to the extent of buying a larger-sized van (an old one would cost a thousand bucks) and giving it a makeover with some basic amenities. That may not be an option for everyone, though, so we have prepared some tips if you need to live in your car during an emergency. We are not going into legalities yet, and the question “Where can you sleep legally in your car?” will be addressed in the latter half of the post.
There are obvious pros and cons to living in a car or van.
(i) Save $12,000 to $36,000 annually, especially if you live in an area plagued by escalating rents. If you live in Manhattan (average rent is $4,000 or $48,000 annually) or the down town area of a big city, the rent numbers would be much higher.
(ii) Have the freedom to move wherever you want.
(iii) Live closer to work (if employed).
(iv) Feed your nomadic cravings and change neighborhoods frequently.
(v) No leases, no landlord hassles.
(i) It may be illegal in your state or local area. It would be a good idea to get some legal advice on the legality of living in a car. If the legal fees are prohibitive, seek out a local non-profit legal help organization that might be able to provide some guidance, and, probably, safer alternatives.
(ii) Living in car may not be safe for obvious reasons.
(iii) The noise might be a big turnoff, especially if you are forced to park in a noisy zone.
(iv) Temperature extremes might be a problem.
(v) The lack of adequate ventilation (especially in winter) could be hazardous to health. This might be true even if you are cooking in your car.
(vi) You will miss the comfort of home and also experience difficulty with your social life.
(vii) The police might question you frequently and may keep a closer watch on you, especially if they suspect something.
So how exactly does one live in a car?
That probably is the most important question, especially if you are unemployed while car dwelling. Cooking on a budget may be a major concern, but those who live in cars do one of the following:
(a) Find a cost-effective way to eat outside. There are plenty of restaurants that provide economical meals or you can speak with the owner to check if she/he disposes a lot of meals every evening. They might be willing to pass on some of the “unspoiled food” they might have to waste anyway.
(b) Non-profit organizations. Check with a local shelter, food bank, or soup kitchen if you could avail of free or low-cost resources for healthy meals.
(c) Buy food that doesn’t need much cooking. Boiling water would suffice for an oatmeal-banana breakfast. Boiled eggs would work too. Cereals, food bars, pre-mixed soups, fruits, vegetables, and many other healthy choices require minimal cooking.
(d) Cook in the car. Yes, that would be an option (with discretion and caution, though). You can purchase a one-stove propane burner that could be used to cook basic meals. Be careful with the fire and ensure adequate ventilation before, after, and during your meal preps. You may want to drive to an area that will not draw much attention as well.
Many van-dwellers/car-dwellers opt to use fast food restaurants (and there are plenty of 24/7 food joints), gyms, college campuses (if you are a student), public libraries, and other public places to take care of personal business (especially showers and rest rooms).
Charging cell phone and other small appliances
You have the option of charging your phone using the car charger and if you want to conserve on your car’s resources, public libraries and many public places, such as airports and stations, allow patrons to charge cell phones, small rechargeable batteries, and other small hand-held appliances.
If you own a smartphone already (and many may not), you can access Internet from your phone. If that is not an option, fast food joints and some libraries offer free Wi Fi access (with restrictions).
Managing temperature extremes
If you live in a geographic zone prone to extreme temperature fluctuations, a small battery-operated electric fan could help you during the summer months. During harsh winters, car heating, portable heating devices, publicly-designated “warm zones”, and other similar areas might be a better option. Dress in multiple layers and do your best to stay warm. Never brave extreme winters, though. It could be lethal. You may want to contact a local shelter or non-profit organization to avail of a better option.
Is it legal to live in your car or van?
This is probably your biggest concern. Many have escaped legal scrutiny by constantly changing parking spots, but it would be a good idea to check local laws and ordinances. Some localities expressly bar car dwelling for a period exceeding a few hours, while others require you to live in a home or shelter.
Apart from the legality of dwelling in a car, there are other considerations. For instance, if you are changing in your car and someone files a complaint, you could be cited for indecent exposure, if the local permits such a charge. There are parking violations, trespass laws, and other similar concerns that merit due consideration as well.
If you cannot afford to speak with a lawyer, check with a local legal help society, bar association, or non-profit organization. Some state bar associations have pro bono programs that could address your question. Some law schools have legal clinics as well.
If you determine that is legal and safe to live in your car, here are some additional tips that might help:
(i) Find multiple areas to park your car. At least seven (and more, if possible) “safe spots” for you to pick and choose every single day. The key is to keep moving.
(ii) Don’t keep your engine running at all times. It is expensive and might draw undue attention to your lifestyle.
(iii) Don’t risk extreme temperatures. Have a plan for days when temperatures drop or rise to extreme levels.
(iv) Keep a radio and pay attention to news announcements, emergency announcements, and weather forecasts. Keep regular tabs on Internet weather reports as well.
(v) Seek help from non-profit organizations, places of worship, shelters, food banks, soup kitchens, government bodies, and other benevolent organizations.
(vi) Always have a flash light handy. Keep solar-powered appliances when possible. Solar-powered lights, flash lights, and other small appliances could be your best friend.
(vii) Never neglect your health. If you feel car-dwelling is taking its toll on your health, quit immediately and find an alternative. Life and health first.
(viii) Avoid altercations and confrontations. Being nice pays.
(ix) Keep in touch with your social circle. Let them know where you will be each day.
(x) Have a plan to socialize and stay in touch with your loved ones.
(xi) Find other individuals who follow a similar lifestyle and learn from their experiences.
(xii) Negotiate with local establishments to check if you can perform small services in exchange for permission to stay on their parking lot on certain days. Both parties benefit in this manner.
(xiii) Don’t hesitate to ask for help. People are often kind and will do their best to help out when possible.
Where can you sleep in your car legally?
There are many places where you can sleep in your car legally. The answer to this depends on our discussion on “is it legal to live in your car?” Notwithstanding your findings, many cities have specially designated areas for camps, excursions, RVs, and other outdoor activities. Subject to local restrictions and laws, these areas are generally safe bets for short-term stay overs. You may be able to park your car or van in these areas legally, if these areas expressly permit such activity.
Some other options that car dwellers have resorted to include:
(i) Parking on college campuses, especially if you are a student. Some campuses bar such activity so you may have to check with campus parking regulations.
(ii) 24-hour establishments, including gym parking lots, store parking lots, and other areas. If these places have a large area, you might be able to park your car for several hours without issues. You will have to be discrete, though, because security may patrol these areas on a regular basis.
(iii) Camp grounds and beaches (if allowed).
(iv) Shelters and tent cities.
(v) Highway stops and truck resting areas.
(vi) Public parks
(vii) Paid parking areas
(viii) Places of worship. In fact, you can speak with your local place of worship or church if they would be willing to permit you to stay in your car. You can offer to do small services, such as securing the area during the night or performing small chores in exchange for this favor. They may have you sign a waiver or other legal form for protection.