Livin’ in between: where to park, how to pack, for a life on the road

Funny how you don’t notice something until you notice it. With the increase of homelessness here in Northern California, I have recently had more opportunities to meet and speak with folks living in their vehicles as a last (or only) resort. The first question I always ask is, Where do you park? The answer isn’t always straightforward; most of the time, people just shrug their shoulders and say, “Wherever.”

This saddens me, deeply. Long on enforcement and short on compassion, police and cities are making it ever more difficult for people living in their cars to find a safe place to parked undisturbed. Here in Sacramento, the police (Sac PD) routinely roust people for sleeping in their cars and always in the dark of night, it seems . It’s different in Sac County, where the Sheriff’s Department even has a homeless liaison. As long as you’re parked legally, they cannot and will not roust you from your much-needed slumber. This is a good thing, considering the alternative. But there’s a learning curve when it comes to knowing how to live in one’s car on purpose. Parking is only one of the issues. Self-care (hygiene, sleep, etc.) can be challenging but it’s not impossible.

8 Steps to Living in Your Car (If You Have To)

1. Keep it neat. It’s important to keep your car as clean and neat as possible. This makes it easier to find something, prevents nasty smells from building up and staying (get into the car seats, ugh), and folks in a neighborhood where you park at night might be less likely to call police if you don’t “look” homeless. Use a suitcase for a small amount of clothing; in warmer weather, it’s easier because lighter clothing takes up less room. You can hang a few nice shirts from pull-down handles in the back seat area; keep these for work.

2. Get a gym membership. If you work, you need a place to shower and dress. Most gyms now have affordable rates (some here are as low as $10-$15/mo.); don’t forget to check with your local YMCA, as they often will offer a discounted rate if you’re there only to shower. You can apply for a ‘scholarship’ which basically pays for your membership. Pack a gym bag with your toiletries (travel sizes in baggies are best), change of (work) clothes, a plastic bag for dirty laundry (to put in laundry bag in back of car), gym shoes/socks/outfit.

3. Keep a small amount of dried foods in a bag behind the driver’s seat. Cereal, cookies, snack/protein bars, crackers, peanut butter and other portable non-perishable foods can be kept on hand for light meals and snacks. Keep a jug of filtered water and a reusable water bottle to stay hydrated, especially in this warmer weather. Keep on hand in another small bag: paper towels (can double as toiler paper if needed), air freshener (sleeping in the car does cause smells to build up), sugar packets, and condiment packets.

4. Paper napkins, silverware (one set of spoon/paring knife/fork), and plates are handy (and cheap) for meals enjoyed al fresco. The paring knife is good for cutting meat, fruit, and veggies that you buy in the store.

5. Tea bags and individual coffee packets, along with a travel mug, are good for a hot morning/evening beverage. Just go to the local gas/mini-mart and get hot water from the coffee station, as it’s usually free. Store the tea bags in a large baggie with coffee packets and some sugar or honey packets.

6. Personal hygiene: You can go to any CVS or RiteAid and buy disposable travel wash/wipes (Dove, Yes!, and Burt’s Bees all have affordable options); use these to wash your face and private areas to stay clean and avoid unwelcome odors. Buy travel-sized toothpaste, toothbrush, shampoo, conditioner, soap/body wash, and razors and store in gallon baggies (protects them and if they leak, the baggie protects other items from getting ruined). Keep these in a gym bag in the back of the car/trunk and take with you when you shower. In a separate bag (in the area you sleep), keep any nighttime toiletries: face wipes, another set of toothbrush/paste, container for glasses/contact lenses, moisturizer, etc.

7. Find a safe, quiet place to park. I know, this is the hard part. Survey your area, look at maps if necessary, even talk with sympathetic folks. Maybe you have a friend whose driveway you can park in only during night hours, like 10pm to 6am. Be flexible. If you have to park on the street, make sure it’s a legal place to park (less likely to be rousted by cops). Once you arrive at your sleeping destination, stay in your car; make as little noise as possible. DO NOT leave keys in the ignition or you will invite a potential break-in; keep them with you at all times. Women should keep purses behind front seats at night, out of sight, to also prevent a break-in (or worse, an assault).

8. Window shades are necessary for privacy if you don’t have dark tinted windows. You can find them at Target, Wal-Mart, and automotive stores for around $10-20. Use one for the windshield (the reflective kind is good) and two small ones (sold together in a set, they pop open when you unfold them) for at least two of the side windows (especially since you need to crack the windows for ventilation).

Source: Amazon

Most important is attitude. As long as you tell yourself ‘this is only temporary, this is NOT my life‘ you have a better chance of moving out of the car/van/truck and into a new apartment/home. Think of this as a challenge, an adventure, and get creative. You might even find you enjoy some of the freedom that comes with this lifestyle; for example, when you’re not working, you’re not on a clock and are free to do anything (or nothing). Use your imagination, but do your best to not let any negative feelings immobilize you – or they’ll drag you down even further, making it all that much harder to get out. Stay strong, stay focused, you’ll get there. I have faith in you.


Kay’s Story

I Meet Kay

(Post Script: I recorded my interview with Kay but sadly I am currently unable to upload audio to this site. )

I noticed her truck on one of my forays to the local library. The back cover and tailgate of her truck were open so two cats can lounge outside their cages; the third, an orange tabby, reclines on the driver’s side floor under the steering wheel. She parks in the same shady spot every day in the library parking lot, where one can see her cats and personal items stowed in the truck bed and know her situation. The first time I saw her, she was relaxing in the front seat. As I walked past, I regretted approaching her to learn her story (some irrational fear on my part). I decided then that the next time I see her, I’ll introduce myself and find out her story.

Last week, while walking back to the house after buying an ice cream, I saw her truck again and decided to approach. I introduced myself and told her that I’m a writer. I asked if I could speak with her about her situation. My anxieties were unfounded; turns out she’s quite amiable and open about her situation.

Kay is 76 and has been homeless for four years. She lost her home yet manages to care for her disabled son (he’s 57), who temporarily lives elsewhere. She’s not mentally ill and has no alcohol/drug issues but she is elderly and that brings with it its own set of problems. She stays clean (best as she can), launders her clothes, and takes excellent care of her three cats. She is fortunate to have Social Security and a small pension; her son receives SSI. With their income, it’s still a struggle to save enough money to find a place where she can live with her son and her cats (living outside is pricey, having to buy meals and everything on the go). She is fortunate to have a place to sleep at night; a woman friend allows her to park in the driveway so she arrives there around 9pm to settle in for the night.

Not Alone in This

Kay’s story, I’m sure, is not a singular one. All over the U.S. and abroad many people are finding themselves in a similar situation. Instead of treating homeless people like criminals, society needs to show compassion. Each story is unique and until we know how that person ended up in a car or on the streets, we cannot judge, we cannot point accusatory fingers. These people are our neighbors, fellow members of our community, and we must work together with them to help them get back on their feet.

I have a 35-minute audio interview with Kay that I would love to upload here. However, WP only allows that option with a premium site (currently not in my budget). Too bad. She’s an interesting lady with a lot to say. I’m working on starting a YouTube channel so I can at least upload video (if they allow me to do video interviews).

Stay tuned.

The Stigma of being Homeless — From Homelessness to Happiness

As I’ve written before, EVERYBODY HAS A STORY. Homelessness has many causes, affecting many people, in many ways. Please click this post link to better understand and perhaps to judge less.

This post is going to brutally honest.
One of the main reasons I kept quiet about my experience of being homeless as a teenager for more than 2 decades is because of the stigma. I didn’t want to be judged because of it.
Let me explain to you how it feels to be judged because you are homeless. It is soul crushing. It makes you feel like you are nothing. Not worthy of anything. Of love. Of support. Of anything.

Out of Options

Out of Options

What do you do when you’re out of options? Or when your options are so limited that any choice is an undesirable one or puts you in dire financial straits?

This is often the quandary faced by the working homeless.

Meet Ella

I stopped to talk with her the other day, on my way out of the local library. She was parked in the lot, under the shade of a large tree, relaxing in her car with a book. Her foot rested on the open driver’s side door, a paperback in her left hand. I could see the clothing and supplies in her car and understood her situation immediately. I hesitated but decided to approach her. I introduced myself, told her that I’m a writer, and asked if I could speak with her about her situation. She was friendly and obliged; we had a nice chat, actually.

Ella told me she’s over 55 and has found only part-time work. Her savings has dwindled, having lived off of it for too long. There’s stiff competition for jobs out there and ageism is a reality in the job market. Here in California, Ella is part of a growing sub-culture of the homeless population: people who work but still cannot afford housing due to 1) a shortage of affordable housing and, 2) ridiculously high rents (for substandard housing), and 3) the availability of full-time jobs.

She has a car payment (that used to be affordable), car insurance, gas, food, plus a few small credit card and medical bills that she now struggles to pay each month and it’s getting harder. She doesn’t drink or smoke and she has no mental health issues (at least not yet; life on the streets can change that in a flash).

Our Chat

This was part of our conversation:

Me: How did you end up living in your car?

Ella: I was laid off (she didn’t mention the company and I didn’t ask) nine months ago and unemployment ran out two months ago. I couldn’t afford my apartment anymore. They kept raising my rent – last raise was to over $1150 for my small one bedroom apartment. I’d used up much of my savings after getting laid off because unemployment didn’t cover my rent and all my expenses (she mentioned she had some medical issues and that took some of her savings). I got a part-time job at a Walgreen’s (I won’t say where) but they can’t give me more hours.

Me: So I’m assuming you have no family here to rely on, to help you by giving you a place to stay?

Ella: Right. I’m divorced and my kids are grown; one’s in Colorado, the other’s in Florida with a family of her own.

Me: Do they know your situation?

Ella: Yeah. But I told them I want to stay here, it’s my home. My son in Colorado offered to take me in until I got back on my feet but I’m not leaving my home. Too cold for me there! And I got this part-time job, can’t just walk away. I don’t do that. I got bills to pay, gas for the car… still own some on that medical issue I told you about…

Me: I get it, I do. I’ve been struggling myself, in a similar situation. Lots of jobs on the internet but it seems like no one’s hiring. At least not us ‘old folks’, right?

Ella: (nods in agreement)

Me: So where do you park at night? Are there places that are safe? Are you harassed by police? I’m concerned because you’re a woman alone in a car and that can be a safety issue.

Ella: Oh, I’ve been lucky so far, I guess. I drive around the neighborhoods (Sac County), look for a street with some cars on it and park for the night. Long as I stay in my car, nobody bothers me. So far, anyway.

Me: Where do you clean up? For work, I mean.

Ella: I got a gym membership so I have a place to shower. I try to wear clothes that don’t need ironing but it’s hard in this heat!

Me: How long do you think you’ll be in this situation?

Ella: Who knows. I’ll keep working as long as I can. If I don’t find more work soon, I don’t know what I’ll do.

Solving the Crisis

Ella is just one of many experiencing a loss of home here in California. There is no single answer, no single resolution to this crisis but we MUST start somewhere. A good place to start is for the working homeless to have a safe place to park at night. We need to talk to city leaders, get them to understand that housing is a grand goal but it’s a long-term goal and we need short-term goals, like parking and restrooms. We need to help people on the streets (or in their cars) feel like they’re human, one of us – because they are.

Dispelling myths about California’s homeless

The following article highlights some important clarifications about myths and stereotypes that people too often assume about people without homes:


Sarah Backus lives in a tent on the streets of Sacramento. The 56-year-old mother of three said she hears these myths and stereotypes about the homeless all the time: “We’re the scum of scum

Myth #2: They’re homeless because they’re drug addicts or mentally ill.

Reality: Martin said it’s often the stress and trauma of living without a home that leads to addiction and disease, or makes it worse.

“Many folks think that substance abuse and mental illness is a cause of homelessness, whereas it’s more of a result of homelessness,” he added.

The Los Angeles County study found 15 percent of the homeless people it surveyed reported a substance abuse disorder and 27 percent a serious mental illness.

Source: Dispelling myths about California’s homeless

Homeless — Poetry For Healing


Fatigued by a vagabond life
Bones weary from the weather
Clothes threadbare and worn
skin tough as hammered leather
A look unmistakable
with eyes forever distant
An existence not of choice
always socially resistant
Fame lost in history
and soon forgotten
family ties and love
now decayed and rotten
Tattered belongings
A bottle in a brown bag
A dirty old blanket
His only swag
The liquor warming
and a welcome treat
soon lost in a whisky haze
This sad life on the street
Christine Bolton - Poetry for Healing ©

Hiding in Plain Sight: The Not-So-Visibly Homeless

The Not-So-Visibly Homeless

I remember the first time I became homeless – it was on the heels of 9/11, and after quitting my NYC job as PTSD clenched me in its powerful grasp. No longer able to afford my condo, I moved most of my life into storage and the rest with me into my car. It was a tumultuous sixteen months and an experience I do not look back on fondly. It happened again many years later, after a string of bad decisions on the heels of the 2008 financial meltdown. Yet I was determined, in both situations, to not look homeless; that would have brought a rash of unwelcome encounters with the general public. I felt humiliated (mostly at what I believed was my stupidity for allowing this to happen again, as if I had control over outside forces like the 2008 crash) but did my best to stay clean (in hygiene and clothing) while I worked out a solution. It took four long, arduous months, but I managed to once again get back on my feet, find work, a place to live, and rebuild my life.

Of course, I never told my boss or co-workers. Homelessness was – and in many ways, still is – a taboo subject, especially when you’re the subject of that taboo. That is only part of what many working homeless must face on a daily basis: whether or not to tell their bosses that they’re living in their cars and risk losing their jobs.

Employer Awareness: Should You Tell Them?

This raises questions: Should you tell your boss you’re homeless? And once a boss/supervisor is aware of the situation, are they compelled in any way to help the employee? No, but many are generous enough to help in any way they can. National corporations  often have programs (like Home Depot’s Homer Fund, for example) to help employees financially. Smaller businesses may not have the same level of support available but the owners may be willing to help in some way, if they’re able.

U.S. workers have protections against race and gender discrimination, but there’s nothing on the books to protect a homeless worker here in California. While Rhode Island protects homeless workers as a protected class, California does not (a bill was introduced in 2012 but died in committee, thanks to strong oppositions). With the surge in homeless populations across the U.S. (due to job losses, natural disasters, etc.), this will become an important piece of legislation to pass.

The Struggle to Find a New Home

Finding a place to live that one can afford can also be a challenge; without proof of steady residence somewhere, it’s a lot harder for some working homeless to gain that foothold. Renting the occasional room when it’s affordable can help keep one off the street but it doesn’t supply a stable rent history. Social service programs that help the homeless can often help in this situation because they’ve built relationships with landlords, making the transition a bit easier. Full-time jobs are getting harder to come by, so saving up enough for the deposit and first month’s rent can also be a struggle. Car payments, car insurance, gas, portable foods (which are more expensive), cell phone, and other monthly expenses often eat up the income.

Everybody Has a Story

As a result of my personal experiences, I now look at homelessness and the people caught in its trap with a different set of eyes. After all, any of them could have the same story as me. Each homeless person has a story, a history, and it’s important to know that story to understand how a person ends up in such a situation. Every life has a story, and every story has a life. It’s that simple.


More information:



The New Face of Homelessness

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