People who can’t afford rent are living in their cars, and cities aren’t sure what to do about them

Posted: September 30, 2020 in General

An increase in the number of the “vehicular homeless” gives governments a dilemma: Should they provide safe spaces for car living or enact policies to discourage the practice? While they ponder, faith groups have stepped in.

woman_living_in_carWhat’s going on is that low- to moderate-income Americans who don’t own their own homes are being hammered by skyrocketing rents, stagnant wages and a shortage of affordable housing. Applicants for subsidized housing face years on a waiting list. Those in need of emergency shelter find beds are often full while people sleep in the streets.

No state has an adequate supply of affordable rental housing, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which recently released a report that examined the increasing gap between wages and rent. Moreover, the gap between wages and rent is expected to worsen in the coming years, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

“The median-wage worker in eight of the nation’s 10 largest occupations, including retail salespersons, fast food workers, personal care aides, customer service representatives, and office clerks, do not earn enough to afford a modest one-bedroom rental home,” the coalition’s report says, adding, “The number of low-wage jobs is expected to grow significantly in the next 10 years.”

This means that many people despite having a steady income and a job, either can’t afford to rent a place, or if they could, would have nothing left over for utilities and food, and sleeping in a car is more appealing to some people than going to a homeless shelter. Some are uncomfortable with the stigma; others don’t want to abide by a shelter’s schedule or prefer the privacy of their car.

Moreover, deciding to live in a car provides people with few options a sense of autonomy. “There’s a tiny minority who say I’m choosing to live in my car because that’s the only solution that works for me at this point. But most of these folks are desperately trying to get back into housing,” O’Malley, at Lake Washington UMC, said. “Folks don’t have a lot of great options, but there’s a sense of dignity that comes with saying what you’re doing is your choice.”

What cities can do

At the other end of the spectrum is Bob Wells, founder of the Cheap RV Living website and its corresponding YouTube channel, which has 339,000 subscribers. Wells, the author of “How to Live in a Car, Van or RV,” promotes what he calls “nomadic tribalism in a car, van or RV,” and his followers include people trying to get out of debt and those who embrace a minimalist lifestyle.

Because Wells is so well-known, he’s been approached by some government officials about how cities and towns can best address the challenges presented by vehicle dwellers, the most pressing of which is where they can park and where they can dispose of waste.

He urges cities to build a cooperative relationship with vehicle dwellers, provide parking and portable restroom facilities, and even a place where people can go to get temporary work. Such things would produce big results for a little money. “They’re going to have happier residents, and they’re not going to be dumping their tanks or sleeping outside people’s homes.” But some cities are doubling down on enforcement to try to get the car dwellers to go elsewhere.

In July, police in Fort Collins, Colorado, issued tow notices and tickets to more than two dozen people camping in their cars, the Coloradoan reported. And San Diego has enacted a new “vehicle habitation ordinance” that prohibits people from sleeping in their cars near residences and schools. At the same time, however, the city has expanded a Safe Parking Program that it operates in conjunction with Jewish Family Service of San Diego.

Pamela C. Twiss, a professor at California University of Pennsylvania and co-author of “The Homelessness Industry, a Critique of U.S. Social Policy,” said she applauds cities and faith groups that are expanding safe parking. “A car is obviously not a suitable home, but using a car for sheer survival shouldn’t be criminalized,” Twiss said. “People have to have ways to survive, and we don’t have enough shelter spaces for those who need emergency shelter.”

She also noted that there is a multiyear waiting list for subsidized housing in much of the the U.S. “We’re only serving about one-quarter of those who are eligible on an income-basis,” which means that three-quarters of people who qualify for government assistance won’t get it, Twiss said.

And there aren’t enough emergency shelters, either. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty estimates that there are 286,203 emergency shelter beds available for the 553,000 people who need them.

‘Not a solution’

Teresa Smith, founder and CEO of a San Diego nonprofit that helps the homeless, said groups that offer safe parking often are approached by people who are living in their cars happily but need a place to park for a few days. “I can’t tell you how many calls we get from people who want to urban camp,” she said. Smith’s organization, Dreams for Change, runs two safe-parking lots with a capacity of 30 to 35 vehicles, but they’re always full, and there’s a waiting list, so they can only accept people with the most urgent need, she said.

Also, Dreams for Change only accepts people who are actively looking for housing. “This is not a lifestyle for them; it’s a transition, and their goal is to move back into housing.” Smith said that 15-20% of the people living in their cars on Dreams for Change lots are 58 and older, and 20% are families with kids. And while most safe parking programs are on the West Coast, she said she has been contacted by people in North Carolina, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Colorado about how they can start similar programs there.

“It’s clearly not just a California issue. The problem is growing, very much so,” Smith said, adding that safe-parking lots are “not a solution, by any means.” “But they’re at least something that helps.”

MY NOTES: Some people are living in cars and vans because they want to, they want to have the experience and maybe even save some money, then there others who simply want a project to complete.

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