The month I moved to Los Angeles felt apocalyptic, even by the standards of a city forever being destroyed in film. It was the end of the summer of 2020; stores were closed, streets empty, and wildfires had enveloped the region in smoke, turning the sky orange. Yet after I parked the U-Haul, things got even bleaker.
Walking to my new apartment, I passed a car where a 20-something had passed out with the engine running. Folks, I noticed, were sleeping in nearly every car on the street–a mix, I would later learn, of UCLA students and construction workers.
I had never encountered vehicular homelessness before moving out West. Indeed, it hadn’t even registered to me as a possibility, as a thing one might do to avoid sleeping on the street. In New York City, most homeless people don’t own cars, and in any case, the city has a legal obligation to provide shelter. This is not true in California.
Nearly 20,000 Angelenos live in RVs, vans, or cars, a 55 percent increase over when the count first started, in 2016. As the housing shortage deepens, thousands more will likely be forced into this lifestyle. Many of these people do not have the mental-health or substance-abuse issues eagerly trotted out to dismiss the homelessness crisis. A significant minority have jobs–they’re people who stock shelves or install drywall but simply can’t afford a home.
Like most Angelenos, I was repulsed by the homelessness crisis, vehicular or otherwise. Early in the summer of 2021, I temporarily joined the 20,000. Amid COVID-19 lockdowns, I was paying half of my income for a bedroom in a shared student apartment furnished like a doctor’s office waiting room. My lease was set to expire, and I had to travel for work, anyway. Moving into my Prius seemed like the best bad option.
Angelenos love their cars, the stereotype goes. Our city’s distinctive natural wonder is, after all, the tar pits: Los Angeles wants to be paved over. And many see a certain American romance in a stretch of living, free and unencumbered, on the road.
Search YouTube for living out of a Prius and the first thing you’ll find is a former Bachelor contestant and NFL cheerleader who has pulled in millions of views for her travels in a mint-green 2006 Prius. Hundreds of social-media accounts offer similar adventures. Their styles vary, but the pitch is consistent: Save money; see the country; live your best life.
Why the Prius in particular? Unlike vans or RVs, the Toyota hybrid offers escape at rock-bottom prices. A 10-year-old beat-up Prius can run as low as $7,500. The car enjoys minimal maintenance and high gas mileage, and thanks to the hybrid battery, you can leave it running overnight for heat or AC.
Online communities such as the r/priusdwellers Subreddit celebrate novel builds–lifted Priuses, Priuses with solar panels, Priuses with more storage than an IKEA showroom. But my build was basic: Drop the rear seats, stack a 28-quart container on a 54-quart container on the floor, and put a pillow on top to create a flat, six-foot-long clearing. Lay down a yoga mat, a mattress topper, and a sleeping pad, and you have a bed more comfortable than any hotel mattress. You can add rods for hanging curtains and clothes, a sunscreen and rain guards for privacy.
On my first day living out of my Prius, I whizzed up the Pacific Coast Highway before hopping over to the 101, which runs through the sleepy Salinas Valley of Steinbeck fame. As the sun started to set, I realized that I hadn’t planned out where I was going to camp for the night and was forced to make my first rookie mistake: sleeping at a highway rest area.
The parking lot was packed with people living out of vehicles–truckers in semis, middle-class retirees in RVs, Millennials in tricked-out vans, and quite a few people in cars poorly suited to vehicle living, with stacks of luggage filling passenger seats and shirts pinched into closed windows to serve as curtains.
As I lay in the back of my Prius, reading by headlamp, I looked over to see a family of four sleeping in an old Honda Accord. A man slept in a reclined driver’s seat. A child stretched across the back seat. In the front passenger seat, a woman cradled a sleeping toddler. I hoped it was only for the night–some mix-up or scheduling mistake–but I suspected otherwise.
At stops like this, I often talked with fellow travelers, quickly finding a surprising degree of camaraderie among vehicle dwellers. Of course, many just want to be left alone, but others share food, jump one another’s stalled-out vehicles, and–most important of all–swap notes on where it’s safe to park.
The next day, I drove through San Francisco up to southern Oregon. Using Free Campsites, a peer-to-peer platform for finding and reviewing camping locations, I picked a patch of Bureau of Land Management property just off I-5. For people living out of vehicles on the cheap, BLM land is the gold standard of campgrounds–parking is free for up to 14 days, and the sites are quiet, safe, and at least vaguely scenic.
After spending a few days with relatives in the Willamette Valley, I broke east toward Boise along Route 20, driving through a dust storm in the eastern Oregon Badlands. I stopped off in the foothills of the Boise National Forest, then beelined to a BLM campsite north of Yellowstone, where I spent a few days working off a mobile hotspot, free of distraction.
My experiment in vehicle dwelling was supposed to wrap up around this time. I had to get back to Los Angeles to help teach classes at UCLA. But the vacancy rate for apartments in the city was low, my Ph.D. stipend was paltry, and I was facing some unexpected debt. I realized I wouldn’t be moving out of the Prius anytime soon.
Sleeping in a car in the city is much grimmer than in remote areas. Many cities ban vehicle living entirely, though often a de facto ban is enforced through parking policies, such as permit requirements or limited hours.
Los Angeles deploys a zone system, dividing the city into a patchwork of areas where vehicle living isn’t and is tolerated. Places where it’s not tolerated tend to be nice and well lit–residential neighborhoods and parking lots. Streets where it is tolerated tend to be dark and isolated, the kinds of places where you risk being the victim of a break-in. Sleep on the wrong street at the wrong time, and you could be ticketed, towed, or woken by police officers knocking on the window in the middle of the night.
When I didn’t need to be close to campus, I often slept in the Angeles National Forest, just northeast of La Ca?ada Flintridge. Forest rangers there turn a mercifully blind eye to the dozens of families who sleep each night in dirt pullouts along Angeles Crest Highway. When I did need to be close to school, I slept among other UCLA students and construction workers a few blocks from campus–the exact scene that had so repulsed me when I first moved to Los Angeles.
There are three categories of vehicle living in Los Angeles. And thanks to citywide counts, we know exactly where each group clusters. Slightly more than half of the people living out of vehicles are in RVs. Large and conspicuous, RVs are typically tolerated only in industrial areas, where they line many streets. Roughly one in six live in vans. Thanks to the popularity of “van life” culture, they tend to concentrate in hip, beachside neighborhoods like Venice.
And then there are cars. By the official count, they house nearly a quarter of people who live out of vehicles, but this is almost certainly an undercount, because cars and their residents blend in. Relative to other people struggling with homelessness, they are more likely to be white, women, parents, and only temporarily homeless.
Of course, vehicle living can pose sanitation and public-health concerns. But criminalizing it, as so many cities effectively do, does nothing to address the obvious underlying cause of vehicular homelessness–a lack of housing. It just makes people’s already hard lives harder.
The good news is that some cities are reforming these policies. Starting with Santa Barbara in 2004, many cities have implemented “safe parking” programs, setting aside parking lots where people who live out of cars can park overnight free of harassment. The facilities are often hosted by faith groups, and the best ones provide security, bathrooms and showers, and access to case workers who can connect residents with social services.
Here at UCLA, where one in 20 students will at some point struggle with homelessness, administrators have rejected student-led requests for on-campus safe parking–a campaign organized in part by one of my former students who spent a few months living out of his car on the same Westwood street where I would occasionally sleep. Perhaps it would be embarrassing for the university to admit that many students live out of vehicles. But is the alternative any less embarrassing?
If the student-homelessness crisis has a silver lining, it’s that it seems to have created a generation of activists committed to reform. You can throw a rock at pro-housing YIMBY (“Yes in My Backyard”) gatherings and hit someone who has been forced to live out of a car. That includes Muhammad Alameldin, a researcher at the Terner Center for Housing Innovation. He was a student at Berkley when a snafu with roommates and a brutal Bay Area housing shortage pushed him into his Prius for three months.
Like Alameldin, I moved back into an apartment after three months of living in my Prius, a period made manageable by the occasional stay in a cheap hotel or with friends and family.
Ask anyone living out of a car how they fell into this life, and they will likely say: “I wanted to live free”; “I wanted to see the country”; “I wanted to go on an adventure.” But let the conversation carry on for more than a few minutes, and you will inevitably bump into a sadder origin story: a layoff, a divorce, a death, a foreclosure, an eviction.
The urge to roam is human. But roaming is a lot more romantic when it isn’t done out of desperation.
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