Commuting kills. The loss of leisure time and the stress of traffic can take a multifaceted toll on our lives: long commutes have been linked to everything from respiratory issues to increased incidents of domestic violence. But it’s not like getting a new job is easy, and often, the decision to live far from work is strictly financial. And so, unable to relocate one’s career, some have found a compromise by living in their vehicles.
People living in vans normally seem to fall into two very different categories: Those who live in vans as an alternative to complete homelessness, unable to afford rent; and those who live in vans as a lifestyle choice, traveling the country and posting photos of their aesthetically pleasing journeys on Instagram. The van-living commuters, though, exist somewhere in the middle. While the value of the decision may be measured in time saved not driving to and from work each day, for many, it’s ultimately a financial decision, as well: Fifty percent of renters in the U.S. are “cost-burdened” by their rent, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Twenty-five percent of renters spend over 50 percent of their income on housing. While paying for an apartment might be doable, for some, it simply isn’t worth the cost.
“My wife and I live full-time in our Honda Element in the Bay Area. I work as an IT system admin and she’s a full-time student. It works,” writes redditor meh2280. “We save at least $1,800 to $2,000. Without rent we do go out to eat quite a bit but still doesn’t add up close to the monthly rent. We do cook a lot of meals as well when it’s nice out. I’ve been definitely able to save in the four figures a month without worrying about bills or anything because I have none besides car insurance and gym membership.” [sic]
YouTuber Foresty Forest describes a similar situation. “Last time I lived in the city, I rented a room in a basement for 500 bucks a month,” he tells his viewers. “I shared it with two other guys who never cleaned up after themselves and were noisy all night long,” he says when explaining his decision to live in a 2009 Chevy Uplander in an undisclosed city.
“I was working six days a week, 10-hour shifts and my commute one way to work was an hour and a half whether I rode my bike or took the bus, so I had no free time,” he continues. “What it boiled down to was, all I really needed was a place to sleep and a shower.” While he may have technically been able to afford his own place, the cost didn’t seem to make sense to him. “I looked at one-bedroom apartments, but it’s just ridiculous. I’d be paying 1,000 bucks a month at minimum, and that would come with roaches and bed bugs at that price,” he says. Instead, he sleeps atop a two-inch foam pad on a wooden trunk that stores his belongings. He’s blocked out the windows of his van with boards, and showers at his local rec center.
Unlike the well-documented bohemian types documenting their #VanLife on Instagram, the genre of “stealth” camping and van-living videos on YouTube demonstrates how one can live in a car undetected. In much of the country, parking a car in one place for more than 72 hours is illegal on public property — as such, people like Forest have to be careful to block out their windows and move their vehicles every few days (although Forest has found that he’s rarely bothered in large department store parking lots).
Some have figured out how to ease the burden of both their commute and living in a car by only doing it part-time. Hannah, a pseudonymous nursing student, lives 20 miles from her university and 40 miles from the hospital where she conducts her clinicals. On top of that, she works full-time overnight, and so, she’s pressed for time to sleep. Rather than wasting time driving back to her actual bed, she lives out of her van four to five days a week and rests in between school and work. All of her classmates and coworkers are aware of her situation. “They all think it’s kinda quirky. They just all offer me a place to stay and generally think I’m homeless. I assure them I’m not, but regardless, every week they offer me a place to stay,” she says.
Hannah manages to park her van at school and work without trouble, but for the majority of people living in their vans around the country, even if only part-time, the threat of harassment from police and parking enforcement weighs heavily. In August, the L.A. City Council unanimously voted to reinstate laws prohibiting people from living in their cars. According to LAist, the law specifically requires that, “Between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., a person is not allowed to ‘dwell’ inside a vehicle parked in a residential area; nor are they allowed to ever ‘dwell’ inside a vehicle parked within 500 feet of a park, licensed school, pre-school or daycare facility.”
In this case, “dwelling” is defined by either sleeping in a vehicle, or the presence of objects like sleeping bags, pillows and cooking equipment. Currently, there are an estimated 15,700 persons living in 9,100 vehicles in L.A. County each night.
These laws, however, are rarely enforced: Only 48 tickets were written for car-dwelling in the first six months of 2019, with fees ranging from $25 to $75 — by some perspectives, cheaper than the gas it would take to commute to work all week.