Home on the Road

In my younger days, after working a variety of odd jobs and building up a a bit of savings, I set out with my dog in a little red truck with a cap on the back to travel across North America.  I didn’t really know the term “gap year” at the time, but that’s kind of what it ended up being, tucked between my undergraduate degree, a little more schooling, and a lengthy career as a graduate student.  I enjoyed life on the road, often pulling up and sleeping in the back of the truck at campgrounds and out-of-the-way parking lots across the USA.  I had a campstove for cooking and carried plenty of water.  Whenever I wanted, I could roll out my sleeping bag in the back, with a pad beneath it, and I slept reasonably comfortably.  At least once I was asked to move along by concerned police officers.

Some years later, a good friend of mine took up much the same lifestyle, living out of his van.  But he remained mostly in place, in Seattle.  He did it to save money.  Later, he also lived out of an office space for awhile.  Both arrangements, of course, were illegal according to municipal codes.  We actually  had several conversations (and put together a presentation for a sociological conference) concerning how we understood his arrangements vis-a-vis homelessness.  Certainly most people working homeless counts would readily have counted my friend as homeless (and might also have counted me as homeless had I passed through town during my truck-living days).  Below is the City of Vancouver’s 2016 Homeless Count definition (see here for the last Metro count):

The 2016 Homeless Count uses the same definition of homelessness used in previous City and regional homeless counts. Someone was considered homeless for the purpose of this count if:
* they did not have a place of their own where they could expect to stay for more than 30 days and if they did not pay rent.
This included people who are:
* without physical shelter staying on the street, in alleys, doorways, parkades, vehicles [my emphasis], on beaches, in parks and in other public locations
* temporarily accommodated in emergency shelters, detox facilities, safe houses or transition houses for men, youth, women, and families with children
* staying at someone else’s place (friend or family) where they did not pay rent (i.e.couch surfing)
* in hospitals or jails and had No Fixed Address (NFA)
For example, someone who stayed in a garage would be considered homeless if they did not pay rent, even if they considered the garage to be their home. Emergency shelters are not considered permanent housing, thus shelter clients are included in the homeless population. Someone who stayed at a friend’s place where they did not pay rent (i.e. couch surfer) is also considered homeless as they do not have security of tenure.

Seems pretty clear: living in vehicles = homelessness (especially without paying rent).

So what to make of the many folks who live in vehicles that were built for living?  They don’t fit well into municipal definitions of home, but in many cases they also don’t quite fit our preconceptions of homelessness.   My truck was admittedly borderline, but its little shell had windows and was made to support camping.  My buddy’s van was even better equipped.  Pieces in the Vancouver Sun and the Globe & Mail (the latter by a former student, Wanyee Li), both speak to the attractiveness of these alternative forms of living for some people.  But in many cases, these are folks who straddle the line between homelessness and home.

Strikingly, it doesn’t take all that much more, symbolically speaking, to shove people more clearly into the “home on the road” camp and out of the “homeless” camp.  My wonderful sister and her family (including husband, two girls, and two dogs) recently embarked on an adventure, buying a 31 foot Winnebago Vista.  They were written up, together with two other intrepid families, in this piece in the Baltimore Sun (Permanent copy complete with photos archived here).

Screen-Shot-2016-08-08-at-10.24.27-AM-730x430

Pretty awesome.  And ok, I’ll admit it: mostly I just wanted to blog about my sister.  But there’s also an interesting point here: I don’t think any observer would reasonably consider my sister and her family homeless.  Yet note how they’re coupled with a family living in tighter and somewhat cheaper circumstances.  Does the boundary grow fuzzier again when we move from RVs to Vans?  Does it matter that it’s a touring van attached to a band?  Or if van residents only become homeless when their vans become mostly stationary, like the one my friend lived in, then how should we think about the greater stability of a stationary residence contributing to a definition of homelessness?

These are all tricky questions, and they occur mostly at the margins.  To be very clear, in raising these questions I’m not doubting the problem of homelessness in Vancouver or expressing skepticism concerning local homeless counts.  We’ve got real problems here.

BUT, all that said, we also have a problem in restricting what we consider decent housing and thereby diminishing diversity by legal fiat.  To return to a major theme: this is a BIG problem when it comes to locking away land for single-family detached houses and such houses alone.  But it’s also a problem when we fail to consider and make room for alternative forms of homes that people might want to try, including life on the road.

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