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Opinion

Opinion: I’m 73 and I live in a van. It feels like there’s no place for me in California anymore

A van, recently parked in Westchester, has served as a home for many years for Bill, in chair, who asked to be identified only by his first name.
Vans and recreational vehicles have become alternative housing for homeless people across California.
(Los Angeles Times)

I wake up early these days, when morning light outlines the blackout curtains and floods the skylight above my bed. After washing up with baby wipes and donning clean clothes, I slide open a curtain to reveal the front seats and windshield of the van that is my home, and check the back one last time to make sure everything is secure. Then I crawl into the driver’s seat and turn the key.

As soon as possible every morning, I move from my night spot. It’s important — I don’t want to draw police attention. Living in a vehicle is against the law in San Diego and a growing number of cities, including Los Angeles. Since the San Diego law took effect in May, RVers and van dwellers like me have been on edge, constantly asking each other what they know about the rules, where they park, have they heard that anything might change? No one seems to have a sure answer.

I’ve already received a warning in an Ocean Beach park that several other rigs also used. As I was pulling out, I looked back and saw the cop working his way down the line. I wondered where those people would go. Now that I’m in the system, a ticket may be next. I can’t risk having to pay a fine.

The officer gave me a flier with information about “safe” parking lots where I could stay overnight — as long as I enroll for social services leading to permanent housing. I consider signing up, until I hear from someone who did. He tells me a murder was recently committed across the street from the lot where he parks. I don’t sign up.

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The government has classified me and other RV and van dwellers as homeless, but that’s not how I see myself. When I started this journey nearly six years ago, the goal was to see America. But on my Social Security check, I couldn’t afford to both travel and pay rent. I chose travel.

I’m 73. I want to be on the road as long as my health holds out. I would travel more if I could stretch that monthly check further, which is one reason I keep coming back to San Diego. I have family here and a history, nearly 20 years as a resident of a traditional “sticks and bricks” apartment. I like knowing my way around, and the ocean breeze is cool in the summer. But each time I return, the vibe is a little less welcoming, a little more hostile.

I speak to a disabled vet who’s around my age and lives in a rusty extended Dodge Ram with a black tarp duct-taped to the leaky roof. He is a fixture in a little park near the water. He tells me he’s been given several tickets so far. The last time, he was warned that his van will be towed away if he stays overnight again. He says he now sneaks into a nearby private lot for the night. So far no one has bothered him. I decide to follow his lead.

This is how things are now, in more and more cities in the U.S. Homeowners see the growing influx of people living in vehicles and feel threatened. Not all of those people are respectful and clean, which colors how we are viewed, and laws get passed to keep us at bay. Otherwise law-abiding people like the disabled veteran and me are left with nowhere to go.

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I understand the frustration of homeowners. You see what you consider unsavory people in your neighborhood, and you just want them to go away. Aging vans and crumbling RVs are taking over your public spaces. You don’t care how that happens, or why they’re there in the first place. So you complain to the police and politicians, and they come up with a law that makes the way thousands of people live illegal.

How does that solve the problem?

Rents are skyrocketing while income stagnates, and evictions are epidemic, according to Matthew Desmond, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.” More and more families, seniors and people with disabilities are moving into their vehicles.

For many of us, vehicle habitation is not a problem — it’s a solution.

I’ll be back on the road soon, to visit friends and camp in nature. But many city-van dwellers don’t share my affinity for travel and are afraid to leave, fearing their vehicles will break down.

Those RVs and vans that litter your view aren’t going away, not until the people who live in them can find homes without wheels that are within their reach.

LaVonne Ellis is a former correspondent for ABC Radio News Networks.


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