Without Parking, Thousands of Americans Who Live in Vehicles Have Nowhere to Go

A trailer and RV park in California.

A trailer and RV park in California. Inna Poka/Shutterstock

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

COMMENTARY | There is no official method for counting people who live in their vehicles.

My neighbor, Billy, has lived for 17 years in a 20-foot-long recreational vehicle parked within a mostly industrial, but now gentrifying, neighborhood in Seattle.

A 68-year-old former carpet layer and handyman, Billy says he wants to move out of his RV, but he doesn’t have the income, savings and credit or rental history to rent in Seattle’s expensive housing market. The lack of off-street space for his vehicle and city parking restrictions offer few options for leaving his home unattended while he finds employment, housing or social service assistance.

I asked Billy once if he used services designed for the homeless. He paused, then answered, “I’m not homeless. This RV is my home.”

During the last decade, I have studied how people use vehicles for shelter in Seattle. I found that a growing number of Americans, like Billy, value these mobile shelters as a form of affordable housing.

An RV parked on Washington State Department of Transportation property in South Seattle on May 25, 2017. This RV was part of an encampment of at least 30 vehicle residents protesting relocation and ticketing in public parking. Graham Pruss, CC BY-NC-ND

Representation Needs Recognition

Since 2005, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has asked communities throughout the U.S. to report the number of people who sleep in shelters, transitional housing or public spaces on odd-numbered years, as part of a national count of the homeless.

However, there is no official method for counting people who live in their vehicles. Some cities’ counters simply look for condensation on windshields early in the morning, while others suggest that “you’ll know it when you see it.”

With no way to distinguish “the homeless” from seniors and retired “snowbirds” who vacation in an RV, San Diego removed RV residents from their 2019 federally reported count of all people who sleep in public spaces.

News reports from across America tell of vehicle residents from virtually every background attempting to settle in cities. They find themselves essentially blocked from local communities and social services, because there are few parking spaces to leave their home where it is safe from tickets or from being towed.

Without official recognition, there is little political representation to protect these communities from legal discrimination, such as signs that banish them from public spaces, as well as private property seizure.

As Billy once told me, “You can really feel the squeeze out here. There’s no way out.”

‘J’ displays a small portion of his 72-hour relocation sticker collection, each warning of an impending impound. J is a vehicle resident and ‘car rancher’ – a person who lends or rents multiple vehicles to otherwise unsheltered people. April 29, 2014. Graham Pruss, CC BY-NC-ND

The Science of Settlement

In Seattle, during the last 25 years, an economic boom has driven up housing costs to unaffordable levels and, consequently, homelessness has increased.

The scale of vehicle residency in King County has nearly quadrupled in the last decade, from 881 to 3,372 people sleeping in a car, RV, school bus, truck or van. Vehicle residency was the most common form of shelter for people who lived in public space during this time, used by at least 30% of the local unsheltered community.

For two years, I worked for a nonprofit as the only street outreach specialist funded by the city of Seattle to connect approximately 1,500 local vehicle residents with social services. These individuals and families relied on vehicles to survive unaffordable housing markets, labor and industry shifts, and natural or personal disaster. I have known hundreds of people who moved into vehicles in public parking lots as a way to stay connected to familiar neighborhoods. Some slept in an RV even while employed at well-paid, high-tech jobs to avoid paying punishingly high rents.

The home of ‘Mike with the Bikes’ in North Seattle. After the vehicle was impounded, Mike moved under a tarp on a nearby sidewalk for two years. February 2, 2015. Graham Pruss, CC BY-NC-ND

As my study progressed, I led teams of researchers to develop a method to count and map anonymous vehicle residences in public parking. We looked for at least three out of six basic characteristics of residency:

  1. The view through windows from front to back is blocked.

  2. The view through at least one side window is blocked.

  3. There is unfrozen condensation on the inside of windows.

  4. At least one window is partially open.

  5. Items that indicate residence are attached to the outside of the vehicle – such as generators, bicycles or storage containers.

  6. A large volume of items are stored in plastic bags inside or next to the vehicle.

Seattle and King County adopted this identification process for its annual estimated census of the homeless in 2017 and 2019.

Our standardized method enables volunteers to document a vehicle used for primary residence without disturbing occupants during the early morning counts, improving the accuracy and confidence of vehicle counts. These annual counts are followed by surveys that determine the average number of occupants per vehicle.

By 2018, with the help of our improved counting methods, we found that at least 53% of people who slept outside throughout King County were in a vehicle.

These reports are vital to develop appropriate funding for services to assist all unsettled, unhoused and homeless neighbors. Without an accurate count, cities around the U.S. are unable to appreciate how many vehicle residency they have – or what sort of services they may need.

‘Interbay Safe Zone’ in North Seattle, shortly before its closure. May 27, 2016. Graham Pruss, CC BY-NC-ND

Turning RVs into Private Shelters

In my view, recognizing local vehicle residency is the first step to representing these communities in social services. The next step is to provide a safe space off public streets for vehicle residents who need to connect with these systems of care.

Many cities have forced vehicle residents to move around within or between communities and out of public spaces. This approach increases law enforcement and social service outreach costs, while further destabilizing vulnerable and isolated neighbors.

Like many American cities, Seattle offers few off-street parking spaces connected with social services. Assistance typically funnels through brick-and-mortar shelters, which often lack parking space for vehicle residents.

A sign in a school bus parked in one of Seattle’s southern industrial zones. August 27, 2015. Graham Pruss, CC BY-NC-ND

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.

While many communities across the U.S. struggle to develop brick-and-mortar shelters, vehicle residences are privately owned and occupied throughout American streets now. I believe that cities need to do more to assess the true number of local vehicle residents, to provide them with a place to park and access vital social services.

Without professional assistance, vehicle residents have no option besides public parking to survive. Billy, and thousands like him, could use a home for their homes.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Graham Pruss has a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology from the University of Washington.

FEATURED CASE STUDIES
Powered By The Atlas
Erie County, PA offers all local restaurants free digital tools to plan for safe COVID reopening
Erie County, PA, USA
Online permitting and approval process during COVID-19 exceeds in-person performance numbers
Markham, ON, Canada
Chula Vista creates a Digital Equity and Inclusion Plan
Chula Vista, CA, USA

NEXT STORY: The Detested Bradford Pear Tree Is Coming to a Forest Near You

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.