Vehicle/RV ‘Camping’ for Survival Is Not a Vacation, Damn It!

What happens when lifestyles of the desperate become topics of clueless, comfy journalists…

No place like/for home. Photo Diane Nilan

Of course the reporter would be able to find people grateful to have a safe place to park in the LA area. The Christian Science Monitor story, “Car but no home? Safe parking lots spread across West Coast,” (July 1, 2019) seemed to extoll the latest trend in “housing” for homeless children and adults: Bring your own car, comfort optional, and good luck finding a parking spot.

California, particularly Los Angeles, represents the epicenter of our nation’s homelessness saga. An estimated 16,500 people in Los Angeles County live in their car, according to this article. I am bemused by the estimate — since no entity, national or local, seems to have anywhere close to an estimate of the scope of homelessness, especially those struggling to survive in vehicles — but I digress.

As a frugal full-time nomad who for the past 15 years has been chronicling homeless families and youth across the country for HEAR US Inc., my nonprofit, I know a little about finding a safe place to park. I, with modest resources, live in a relatively small, relatively comfortable van.

Some places it’s impossible to find a reasonably safe place to sleep. Even “Camp Walmart” has tightened their standards, in some places banning vehicle sleepers entirely. I’ve been rousted in the middle of the night by a minimum-wage security guard hired by one of the largest, richest corporations in the world, and told that I can’t park in their palatial pavement paradise.

Don’t stay long at Camp WM or you’ll wear out your welcome mat. Photo Diane Nilan

As Graham Pruess described in his article about RV “camping” in the Seattle area, “The lack of legal off-street space for urban vehicle residency means that most vehicle residents have no option but to survive in public parking, where they suffer through parking tickets, property seizure and instability.” Even that sounds benign, masking unimaginable angst and hardships that accompany the struggle for finding a safe place to park.

Let’s drill down a bit — and imagine what it was like for Anthony Flowers, his wife and their two daughters sleeping in a Chevy SUV from September to November in a Chicago area Veterans’ Administration parking lot as described in the CSM article. Having lived in the Chicago area for 50 years, I can vouch for the weather being a challenge. Good that they had access to a wheelchair accessible portable toilet, but the amenities in those vile plastic boxes, as anyone who has used one knows, leave a lot to be desired.

The CSM story doesn’t touch on the frustration, discomfort, alienation or any of the multitudes of grueling physical and mental challenges that accompany such unconventional lifestyles. It’s fairly easy to assume that the reporter never slept in a car by necessity. As this family tries to buy an abandoned house and fix it up reeks of another level of disaster.

Several questions lingered after I read about this “new” approach to homelessness:

  • What about school for the kids? By law, they have a right to attend, but where do they do their schoolwork? Do they get adequate rest? Food? Do they wear clean clothing?
  • When I do the math, I can’t help but see a substantial gap between those granted a sacred spot to park and those left to scramble on their own. We’re talking tens of thousands in LA County alone. What about those without vehicles? What is being done for them?
  • It seems that this is yet another makeshift approach to homelessness designed by those who have no clue about the many aspects of this growing lifestyle. Why did the reporter go soft on the concept of living in vehicles?

Good that media keeps the issue of homelessness on the table, but I can’t help but feel like I’ve slept on a gearshift knob after reading this account that normalizes this hellish condition.

For anyone who thinks this is anything close to a temporary solution to homelessness, sleep in your car for a week in an unfamiliar spot. Use a portable toilet. Then let’s revisit the topic of safe parking lots.

Founder/pres. HEAR US Inc., gives voice & visibility to homeless families & youth, ran shelters, advocate, filmmaker, author, 15 yrs. on US backroads.

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