If you live in an RV, can you still be “homeless”?

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by Deanna Tolliver

What makes an “RV community”? Ten years ago, you might have said meeting fellow RVers, impromptu happy hour get-togethers with the new neighbors, maybe potlucks and outside games. Really, it seems like an RV community evolves anywhere a group of RVers share the same general space and common interests.

These days, an “RV community” is no longer comprised of one group of people. It’s no longer just the new retirees who sell their homes and take off to see America. Or the 50-somethings who take their RV out as often as they can, sometimes for months in the winter. Or even the young family who takes a break from their hectic week by going “camping” at a nearby state park on the weekends.

An RV community can now be:


Homeless RV community in Seattle

–worker “bees” moving to where the jobs are, all around the country
–Millenials living fulltime in their RVs with online jobs
–families who have learned that an RV can be an inexpensive first home
–college students who find RV living cheaper than a dorm or apartment
–retirees who can’t afford a “sticks n’ bricks” home
–homeless people, still on the street, but with a roof over their heads

In the next few weeks, I’ll be taking a little closer look at these diverse groups, all who are technically “RVers.”

This photo (above right) is of an RV community in Seattle: RVs line the street on one side, Starbucks employees park their cars on the other.

The group getting the most press these days is the homeless, which begs the question: If you live in an RV, are you really homeless? If people are living in structures which they regard as their “homes,” then why do we refer to them as “homeless”?

I think the fine line here is crossed when the “RVer” can’t afford to pay for electricity, water or sewer at an RV campground, or doesn’t have the means to dry camp. These are the people paying a few thousand dollars for a motorhome that has seen much better days. It’s cheaper to buy a worn-out Class C than a towable because a trailer requires a vehicle. Besides, a motorhome has a higher “stealth” factor: Cover all the windows and no one knows if you’re “home.”

Homeless RV community in Los Angeles

A battle is being waged in many parts of the U.S. today and the battleground is your neighborhood, or one very like it. The homeless RVers must have places to park. Oftentimes a quiet neighborhood in suburbia is an enticing place. Homeowners in that neighborhood strongly disagree. There are stories of sewage being dumped curbside and garbage accumulating in yards. Often the police are called. If there is a municipal ordinance forbidding RVs on streets, the RVer will be given either a warning or a ticket or both and told to get out of the neighborhood. Many just move a few blocks away until they are told, again, to move on.

Seems straightforward enough. But when there are hundreds, if not thousands, of these homeless RVers, where do they all go? A recent headline in the Los Angeles Times said: “Faced with complaints of filth and blight, L.A. cracks down on overnight RV parking. Now, the homeless are scrambling”. (Click here for the full story.) The 2017 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count reports 4,545 “campers and RVs” on the streets that serve as makeshift homes.

Seattle has been dealing with this issue since at least 2008, when the city earmarked a $10,000 grant for a program to set up a “safe-lot” program for homeless people living in RVs and cars. The program didn’t start until 2011, and then, only one lot was available, with only ten spots. It still is the only safe-lot, and may be closed in July this year.

The idea was to get the homeless in a safe place and put on a list for affordable housing. Trouble was, only the car and van dwellers seemed interested. The homeless RVers, for the most part, just wanted a safe place to park. A recent headline in The Seattle Times reads: “Seattle still doesn’t know what to do with thousands of people living in vehicles.” RVs can park in industrial areas for up to 72 hours. Then, time to move on and find another place to park.

The Seattle City Council is looking into a proposal to fund more services for the homeless, one that would include RVs. It would cost roughly $1.15 million per year…or almost $12,000 per vehicle in the program.

Like other cities up and down the West Coast, home prices and rents are not affordable for many people. San Diego also has a homeless RVer issue. That city has tackled the problem by operating three safe-lots, with 150 sites each, but RVs are not allowed; only people living in cars, trucks, or vans are given permits to stay, and then, only until they move into affordable housing. The RVers are still on the streets. And a city ordinance bans them from parking on any public street from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m.

A spokesperson for the San Diego program said they don’t allow RVs in their safe-lots because “a different population lives in them, people generally more resistant to leaving their vehicles for housing.”

Don’t think this is only an issue on the West Coast.

In Colorado Springs, Colorado, the RV homeless are called “RV squatters.” Many have tried to take up residence in grocery store parking lots. In Longmont, the homeless in RVs are told to “move along.” So they ask, to where? No answer has been given. (Read the story here.)

Homeless RVers can no longer spend the night in Walmart parking lots in the mid-Willamette Valley, Oregon, with the threat of being towed away if they do.

At a meeting in Missoula, Montana, a Ward 4 Councilman said, “If they are living in an RV, they are one step from probably being homeless. They shouldn’t be (parked) on the street.” To which a homeless RVer replied: “Why don’t you help us find a place to park…?”

Indeed…Why don’t we find them a place to park? An empty mall parking lot. Porta-potties. Maybe a honey wagon once a week. Water hydrants to fill holding tanks. Maybe even a program offering solar panels to keep batteries charged.

I can already hear some comments: “Tell them to get a job!” “Why should I support them? I don’t have enough money either.” 

Many of the RV homeless are families with children. (Click here to read one family’s story.) Some are disabled military veterans. Others have mental disabilities and are not employable.

What do YOU think? Please leave a comment.

##RVT851

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Ianto Jones
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Ianto Jones

I’ve typed this before, but – Some of us truly are just poor. My wife and I worked for decades, before becoming severely disabled (I worked for decades *while* severely disabled, but my condition is progressive). I have a small pension, and we both earned SSDI by regularly paying in over the course of our careers. She has MS, and requires a mild climate. Our apartment raised our rent by triple digits, annually, for seven years (doubling our original rent); this was unsustainable on a fixed income. We have been very fortunate. We were able to use Craigslist to trade… Read more »

Curtis Dowds
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Curtis Dowds

I just ran across this encouraging thread. It’s so long and detailed that I don’t have time to read it in its entirety. Much of what I write might have already been said and said better. But at the risk of repeating what others have said, I want to support those who are saying that the “homeless” RV’ers need the intense political support of those of us who aren’t homeless but who do own RV’s for travel and, in my case, traveling and sometimes also work. I’ve been nothing short of aghast at the almost universal response of California cities… Read more »

Chuck Woodbury
Guest

Curtis, good thought but there is whole lot more to it than what you sum up here. It costs a lot to put in hookups, showers, laundries, etc., and the homeless don’t want to be far away from services available in cities. Send them out to the farmland? How will they get back to town? These are not people who tow a vehicle behind their motorhomes. Oh, if they will form a co-op on that farmland and grow their own food, then great. But from what I have seen that just isn’t going to happen.

Sidney Peters
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Sidney Peters

Deanna, Thank you so much for this detailed story. It is heartrending and all too true. Recently I did some research about the Civilian Conservation Corps. During the great depression there were millions out of work. Farmers had to walk away from their shattered lives during the Dust Bowl years, and families had to turn out their own young sons because they couldn’t afford to feed them. They became the “hobos”, jumping trains for transportation and living in camps alongside the tracks. The CCC was created as a program to put young men to work. Unfortunately women were not included… Read more »

Nanci
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Nanci

I am so saddened by some of the mean and sometimes hateful comments above. What has happened to Empathy? Humanity? Caring and Concern? We are a nation that purposely established programs using our tax dollars to help and care for those who need our help. Who am I to find fault or worthiness of that help? Are we not our brother’s keeper? My husband and I are currently camping in a state park in Minnesota and I met a couple that are also full-timers. They however were doing it in a very, very old trailer without a bathroom and had… Read more »

Katalin Heymann
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Katalin Heymann

I’m one pf those homeless. I was living in my minivan until 2 months ago. I’m now in a 20 year old travel trailer with a leaky and disintegrating roof. I’m handicapped and living on Social Security and don’t have the financial resources to repair the roof along with all the other things constantly breaking. My sister bought the trailer for me to live in, but she doesn’t have the money to fix the roof. I’m really frightened that there will be a terrible rainstorm and the roof will fall in on me and damage all my belongings. Meanwhile, the… Read more »

Lorin
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Lorin

Understandably (and seemingly unrelated to RVing) it looks like everyone has an opinion on how we should combat homelessness and what’s wrong with how is handled from blaming the federal govt to the state. Personally I think local government needs to seriously get involved more too. It all starts at home. Our local communities need to create subsidies for low-income people, especially those who are medically fragile and in need of affordable housing. They also need to be recruiting landlords and apartment owners to work to place people in their units with these subsidies. Further steps include the removal of… Read more »

Lorin
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Lorin

We live FT in Texas and we have always homeschooled. One reason is simply because when being technical, the State of Texas considers students living in a campground or in a situation “not intended to be permanent” is considered homeless. In addition to many other reasons, we did not want to attach the stigma of being the homeless kid at school. We don’t care what people think but a kid in middle school shouldn’t have to deal with it. He’s 18 now and could care less what people think either. Are there “homeless” people living in RVs? Yes and there’s… Read more »

J. Cherry
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J. Cherry

Wow, I have learned a lot from reading this article and I have learned a lot from reading people’s comments too.

Mary Sparling
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Mary Sparling

There are a lot of abandoned military facilities that could be used for the homeless instead of just rotting away…. I’d like to travel with my rv but I’m alone and disabled and probably could not do it alone except for just going to visit family and have a place to park it… lets face it some of these rv parks have really jumped their prices

livingboondockingmexico
Guest
livingboondockingmexico

It’s a question most politicians don’t want to deal with as it will bring them unwanted negative press. Many people are homeless and in rvs for many different reasons. Hard times, divorce, layoffs, and when you’re over 50 it’s hard to get a job, and last but not least mental illness and drug addiction. We can’t lump eveyone together as they all have different needs. I agree with Dee on local and city governments being proactive by providing the most important of all services that have a relatively low cost to tax payers and that is fresh water, and dump… Read more »

Lydia
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Lydia

Well folks there are different “classes” of RVers. The streets of Seattle are cluttered with RV vagrants who have CHOSEN their lifestyle of drugs, alcohol, panhandling, cooking meth and dealing herion out of their RVs and committing petty crime and sometimes worse. These are the people who leave their used needles in the streets and defecate in the streets when the plumbing in their derelict motorhome fails. It is because of the RV vagrants that Walmart is banning camping in their parking lots. They are NOT “poor and down and out.” They are drug addicted vagrants.

Marcus
Guest
Marcus

The poor have always been looked down upon by those that are well-off. It was that way 3000 years ago and it will be that way 1000 years from now. There are compassionate exceptions, but they are in the minority. What are those individuals and families to do when they cannot possibly afford to pay monthly rent on an apartment and the utilities? They just might be able to scrape enough together to buy an old trailer or motorhome. The roof may leak when it rains and maybe the electric doesn’t work or they can’t hook up to a water… Read more »

Bill
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Bill

Unfortunately the reality of compassion comes with a price tag. In todays economy, the line between being compassionate and needing compassion is becoming thinner all the time.

John
Guest
John

You have to define “poor”. I would bet that a very small percentage of vagrant RVers are “poor” due to no fault of their own. Most of the ones causing the problems as Lidia said, is by choice.

Tumbleweed
Guest
Tumbleweed

To those who gripe about paying anything to help those who live in RVs due to homelessness, I ask if you’d rather pay to have them stay in subsidized housing and then pay for their other local benefits? It seems to me that it would be a lot cheaper to provide parking spots, water, and dumpsters for homeless RVers (who bought their “homes” on their own dimes) than to provide all the other benefits typically provided for the poverty-stricken. Aside from that, the problem isn’t just homelessness. The real problems are irresponsibility and thoughtlessness, two faults that are found in… Read more »

Orygun
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Orygun

Well said. I agree with you completely. Our economy is completely out of whack. How many of us oldsters remember when you were just out of HS and could get a ordinary job that would pay for an apartment, food and beer? You can’t live on a full time entry level job any longer. And inflation-adjusted salaries for production workers actually declined in the last year. “The rent’s too damn high”. RV’s don’t fix the core problem, but at least they give people a relatively secure place to call their own. We should provide them with affordable places to park… Read more »

Bill T.
Guest
Bill T.

Really? If we were to provide free parking, water, dump station and dumpsters for garbage for the “homeless”. Then everyone should jump on the utopian bandwagon and buy an old junker and we could all live for free. You think we are in an economic mess now. I can only imagine the chaos. Someone has to pay for it.

Lorin
Guest
Lorin

Define “we”? Homeless individuals within the United States are assisted through various Federal programs. Examples include the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSD) and the Social Security Supplemental Income (SSI) programs. Such applicants may qualify through their medical records. The Social Security Disability Insurance service extends benefits to families if they have earned sufficient work “credits.” The Social Security Supplemental Income service offers financial assistance towards individuals in need who are disabled, blind or elderly. All working Americans pay for these benefits. HUD estimates that it costs $60,000 each year to house a homeless family in a shelter. Because of this,… Read more »

rvgrandma
Guest
rvgrandma

Have lived in our MH for the last 14 years. Started when we lost our jobs and choose the MH over our stick home. We took up workamping to pay the bills until my husband got sick.

We are not homeless – just no ‘roots’.

Dave
Guest
Dave

My wife and I are 1/2 timers – vs – full timers. We have a sticks and bricks house in So Dak but can’t afford to heat it in the winter. (That’s our excuse and we’re sticking with it) We use Americas Mailbox for our mail and vehicle registrations if they come due in the cold months. But as far as expense we head for Quartzsite AZ and pull in to one of the BLM administered Long Term Visitor Areas. $180 dollars total cost for all 7 months. BLM provides water points, dump stations, and dumpsters for garbage. The sun… Read more »

Mark D. Hunsberger
Guest
Mark D. Hunsberger

That is what should be done by people who park long term
on city streets or in Parking lots. They should be given a coupon to pay the $180 for 7 months and maybe some gas money to get them to the BLM land where they can live permanently without causing us taxpayers the expense of building them affordable housing!

Tony
Guest
Tony

The trouble with that idea is that most of these “homeless RVers” in Seattle and the other large cities would not leave because the extremely generous governments prefer to offer plans (at taxpayer expense) that draw people from other less giving areas. Also, the people in BLM areas like to keep the areas well maintained for the most part. They would not like trash or bodily waste scattered around. Nor would they like panhandlers or untrustworthy neighbors. If they throw their trash on a street that has trash cans every block or so, why would they not throw their waste… Read more »

Linda
Guest
Linda

We live in our RV full time, but we stay at a campground. Illinois in the summer where our grandkids are and Florida in the winter. One of the problems with living full time in the RV is getting your drivers license renewed. They want a permanent address so you have to lie. If you could do something about this issue that would be great so we don’t have to lie about a permanent address. We currently use a PO Box for our mail in Illinois and it is forwarded to Florida by the post office to our park down… Read more »

Tumbleweed
Guest
Tumbleweed

Years ago I legally got an AZ driver’s license although I didn’t live there. I used the address of a friend who lived in AZ, after asking at the license dept. if I could do that. It was fine with them; they merely wanted an address if contact needed to be made. (This was the Yuma office.) It’s generally known that full-timers without a home can easily get a vehicle license in SD, but you can also legally get a driver’s license without living there. It’s a bit more complicated, but can be done. Call the state to find out… Read more »

Lynne
Guest
Lynne

St. Brendan’s Isle (SBI), https://www.sbimailservice.com/, in Green Cove Springs will help you establish domicile in Florida. Escapees, have information about making Livingston, Texas, your domicile: https://www.escapees.com/education/domicile/.
There is a process but it makes you legal and you don’t need to use other people.

orygun
Guest
orygun

Oregon has an address of “continuous traveler” that Oregon residents (i.e., taxpayers) can put on their DL. You still need a mailing address, but that’s pretty simple.

Dee
Guest
Dee

While I have empathy for the people who ended up living in their RV’s out of necessity, I believe there are also many that do not deserve our concern. When I lived in Central Florida (for 35 years) I witnessed panhandlers discard food given to them a soon as the car pulled away. All they wanted was cash. It was so bad that the Orlando Sentinel ran a series of articles in their Sunday paper. It detailed the number of homeless and discussed the different reasons for their homelessness. While a number, mostly families, were victims of circumstance; loss of… Read more »

Lorin
Guest
Lorin

I remember Dallas, TX doing a very similar article with the same results. There was “lady” who held a doll, pretending it was a child. She especially went out during the rain. She made $80k a year and this was in the ’90s. Makes you a little biased and think twice about handing out money at stoplights.

Bill
Guest
Bill

Sorry to hear of some of the commenters situations, but the bulk of the tax payers who are doing what they can to keep a roof over their own families heads should not have the additional expense of providing support for things like safe parking lots, dump stations water and electricity. I have to pay for those out of my own pocket and to prevent being homeless myself I have needed to relocate to a different town to find work. It is possible for us all to find ourselves falling on hard times, but it is up to us to… Read more »

Thankful for the little things.
Guest
Thankful for the little things.

My Husband and I became more – less homeless Caused by His job with one company Moved to Mexico. His second job laid him off as soon as he qualified for their Health insurance program!.. Why, I had suffered 3 strokes 3 days after he started that job, and they did not want me on there health insurance.. (long story, but the fasts was ovious) After suffering 3 strokes, I became disabled and cant work. took over a year and a good lawyer to help me get on disability. With the lay off’s, and health issues, we quickly depleted our… Read more »

John
Guest
John

That’s what we’re talking about, irresponsible people that choose to be “trailer trash” your words, than give up three dogs that you can’t afford to take proper care of so you can live in an apartment instead of on the street.

Deanna
Guest
Deanna

Really John? My take on this woman’s situation is that they are now fulltime RVers. Her use of the term “trailer trash” was a bit tongue-in-cheek, as if saying that’s what others may call us. Sounds to me like they’ve had a pretty tough go of things but they made some decisions that work for them. I think it’s unfair for you to call them irresponsible. How do you know they “can’t afford to take proper care” of their dogs? How do you know they’re “living on the street?” I think you’ve jumped to some conclusions that may not be… Read more »

DENNIS
Guest
DENNIS

Dicey question…When camping in a wooded area, the old adage is to leave only footprints. If this were true of Rver’s in parking lots or on the streets, this may not even be an issue, but it’s not. The truth is, if living in a RV for a long period of time, services are required. Water, sewage dumping, trash disposal, and battery recharging become essential. I am appalled at the mess some people leave behind in a Walmart lot. This business allows RV’s to park on their property without charge. True they hope you buy something while you are there… Read more »

James E.
Guest
James E.

I am currently in Amarillo, Texas and the Walmart parking lot has “squatters” all over the parking lot making it look less than an ideal place to do business. They all have signs begging for handouts so it is uncomfortable to even shop there.

Chuck Woodbury
Guest

James E. This is becoming a more common sight. If it continues, Walmart will put “No overnight parking” on all its stores. And then where will everybody stay when they can’t find an RV park with a space or can’t afford one? It’s a question that we are addressing at RVtravel.com

J.
Guest
J.

It’s important not to use classist distinctions between those with attractive, well-maintained RVs and those with older, cheaper, and perhaps less-maintained RVs. RVers are all in this together, and it only takes the blink of an eye (an accident, a natural disaster, or another financial crash) for someone in a fancy $250k class A to find themselves at the same “level” as someone in a beat up old class B. Criminalizing the use of public property with anti-homeless laws and anti-RV laws is something that should worry all of us. No one is completely self-sufficient. We all must rely on… Read more »

Deadbeats
Guest
Deadbeats

So YOU pay for it all.

Deadbeats have always existed and always will. Personal choices put most into their predicaments.

squeakytiki
Guest
squeakytiki

Your lack of empathy is sadly predictable in this day and age.

John
Guest
John

There is a difference in “lack of empathy” and being a sucker.

Tommy Molnar
Guest
Tommy Molnar

I basically agree with “Deadbeats”. All the empathy in the world doesn’t change those who choose this ‘lifestyle’. I think the term “most” pretty much covers it.

Suzan
Guest
Suzan

I didn’t CHOOSE my lifestyle, it was all I had left. After my office closed and my unemployment ran out (it always came 4 months late) and having worked for the better part of 45 years I lost my house. I now live in a 5th wheel, smallish and older. I volunteer for Habitat for Humanity and work for the ability to park for a small fee or no fee. When traveling from job to job I use Walmart, blessings be upon them. I think every one who ‘assumes’ homelessness is a choice is totally wrong. Shame on you.

orygun
Guest
orygun

Haters gonna be haters.

Benny H
Guest
Benny H

Like deadbeats there will always be lucky people who think they got hearth and home on their own. I realize without my family and friends, I could be looking for somewhere to spend the night. Our parents/extended family, mental aptitude, and where we are born are not choices. Yet I feel these facts have more to do with where we end up, after life knocks us down, than choices we make along the way. I am thankful for my luck in being born with two out of three, mostly my supportive family. After working continuously for 47 years we are… Read more »

Deb
Guest
Deb

I agree completely agree with Benny H….I just found out a week ago that my job is being “eliminated” after 16 years there. I am in two weeks going to be 58 years old. I have been working and contributing to society since I was 15 years old…I have never not been without a job I am very frightened of what is now in front of me…finding a new job at my age with no college degree is going to be challenging……. I have been divorced and raised my two boys pretty much on my own. Sometimes working two jobs… Read more »

Cindy
Guest
Cindy

Excellent response and the key to all our humanity concerns. No life should be valued less than another. Of course this subject goes deeper than the RV homeless issue. It starts tho by providing a safe place to live. In return, their help maintaining property and addressing what is necessary to improve their economic status. Then, move toward what is necessary to improve their situation. Give a fish or teach to fish. Some want or can improve. Some dont. That will never change. It’s just the right thing to do.

K Attaway
Guest
K Attaway

I once volunteered for Oregon City Parks. I cleaned up the city parks for a couple of weeks – picked up trash, raked leaves. I asked the supervisor why there weren’t more trash cans in the parks, noting I sometimes had to walk across a park to throw things away. He said If people are going to properly dispose of garbage, they will walk to the trash can just like you do. If they are the type to throw it on the ground, they will do so no matter how close the nearest can is. He was right. I found… Read more »

Bill
Guest
Bill

Here, here. 100% agree.