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).
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.