September 19, 2019

Finding Home in a Parking Lot

“Jamie used to wake up most nights with a flashlight in his face. From the backseat bed he’d winnowed into his SUV, he’d look up to see a police officer rapping on his window. Keep driving, they’d tell him. But Jamie didn’t have anywhere to drive. “I asked them repeatedly, ‘isn’t there somewhere I can go where it’s not going to be a problem with you?’”

For Jamie, who turned 55 last month, the car was his only destination: it’s where he’s slept for most of the past two years, he says, save a 6-month stint he spent “in the bushes.” After the retail music store he’d worked at for eight years went out of business, he got evicted from his apartment in San Diego, and crashed with friends and family until their goodwill ran out. Then he got a new temporary job as a flooring installer, and the job came with a car. When the gig was over, his employer let him keep the vehicle. And then it became his sanctuary.

Jamie is one of thousands of America’s homeless who, instead of turning to shelters or the streets, live in their cars, vans, and RVs. In many cities where housing prices are high, their ranks, too, are growing. Los Angeles, which reported falling homelessness rates this year, still hosts one of the largest populations in the country: Of the 50,000 total homeless residents, the majority are unsheltered, and about a quarter (or 15,700) are based in their cars. In San Diego County, where Jamie still lives, a January 2018 homeless count found that 1,262 residents lived in vehicles there, although the number is likely higher, because it didn’t include people living in RVs. And in the King County area, where Seattle is located, the entire unsheltered population increased by 15 percent between 2017 and 2018. In that same year, the number of those in their cars leapt 46 percent, to reach 3,372.”

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