Campgrounds have long been an economic melting pot in the U.S. You see million-dollar Prevosts parked near a pop-up, with a tenting family just down the road. The same held true for popular boondocking spots. Everyone was there to have a good time and, for the most part, everyone got along.
Lately, however, camping and RVing have taken a bit of a turn. Recreational vehicles aren’t just for recreation anymore.
The “rolling homeless”
In recent months we’ve seen an acceleration in the trend among the newly homeless to gather their meager resources and rent or purchase a broken-down RV. The trend is especially evident in the Northwest and down the Northern California coast.
Suddenly, city officials in several locations are faced with growing fleets of more-than-slightly-worn RVs setting up camp on city streets and parks. The “rolling homeless” often cause a mess, add to street crime, and are generally not welcomed by the locals. The trend has also spawned a new type of slum lord who purchase used-up RVs, park them illegally on city streets and charge the homeless a per-night rental fee.
It’s a conundrum for local officials and social service agencies. Those beat-up RVs are often the only major assets or option those newly homeless have left. To those unfortunate folks, a used-up trailer with nothing functioning but a door, a bed and a roof beats a cardboard box and blue tarp on the sidewalk.
Homelessness in general has spiked of late. There are currently almost 130,000 people experiencing homelessness in California alone. That’s nearly a quarter of the homeless population in the entire U.S. Los Angeles County has 16,500 people known to be living in their vehicles (RVs, cars, and trucks). California isn’t alone. Homelessness is on the rise everywhere. The gauntlet of pandemic restrictions has only added to the problem’s complexity.
Disasters waiting to happen
Living full time in an RV that has far outlived its expiration date is a dangerous game.
Every week there are dozens of stories from around the country featuring RVs bursting into flames. Nearly always, the aged RVs are parked in a friend’s back yard, along a city street, or in an abandoned parking lot.
The problem has exacerbated as winter weather forced occupants to run overtaxed electric space heaters or makeshift propane stoves to stay warm. The result has been numerous injuries and deaths. RVs were never intended as full-time abodes in winter climates.
The newly homeless RV dwellers are also easy prey for petty crime, theft, and assaults.
City leaders are placed in uncomfortable positions, too. For example Austin, Texas, voters reinstated the city’s public camping ban last May. Authorities spent the summer and fall clearing out large encampments and telling homeless RVers to move along when they had nowhere else to go.
Seeing an opportunity in beat-up RVs
Social service agencies like the New Beginnings Counseling Center in Santa Barbara, California, see those housing in vehicles as newly homeless, but not hopeless. People who live in their vehicles are more likely to have been recently living in permanent housing and still have some sort of income.
Agencies like New Beginnings see the rolling homeless as the easiest group to get back on their feet and back into traditional housing. They typically haven’t been homeless long and are motivated to get a regular roof back over their heads.
Cities up and down the coast are offering special overnight lots and “campgrounds” where those with RVs and other vehicles can safely stay and have access to social services. The goal is to get the broken-down RVs out of residential neighborhoods and into safe places where residents can have better access to services to get them back on their feet.
Similar “safe place” programs are in place in Eugene, Oregon, and East Palo Alto, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara, California, to name just a few.
The programs seem to be making a very small dent in a very large problem. The programs work on a small scale, but the homeless population living in vehicles is growing much faster than cities can build safe places to stay.
Why you should care
For openers, caring for the less fortunate should be part of the human condition. Homelessness isn’t “their” problem, it’s “our” problem. Beyond that, the homeless sleeping in old RVs illegally does have a direct-line impact on recreational RVing.
We all know that the huge influx of new recreational campers is stressing the supply of private, state, and federal campgrounds. Newbies are filling parks every day of the week, and many private campgrounds are forcing out long-term and residential residents to make room for the more lucrative transient camper.
Some of those forced out are those rolling homeless who were just able to afford a campground’s long-term fees but have no chance of paying the daily rate. So, back to the streets they go.
Next, law enforcement officers force the homeless to remove their RVs from city streets. With nowhere else to go, the homeless drag their old RVs to the very same boondocking havens frequented by recreational RVers. The next time you pull in to overnight at the local Walmart, look around at your neighbors.
Overnight camping at stores being banned due to “rolling homeless”
A growing number of retail boondocking havens like Walmart have begun banning overnight parking due in part to this homeless influx who roll from lot to lot every night. For the stores, restaurants, and truck stops, it just isn’t worth the problems.
The same is true for boondocking on public lands. If you haven’t noticed already, there are a growing number of folks now living day-to-day by boondocking on public lands. They aren’t there for the views or the recreation. They are trying to survive.
City residents are losing sympathy for the rolling homeless cluttering their neighborhoods and parks. But, unfortunately, many municipal zoning and planning boards see little difference between those living in their RV for economic reasons and big-money developers willing to add $20 million campgrounds to the local economy. Park developers are facing an uphill battle in many instances to win the hearts of the locals who equate new RV parks with the RVs they see on their streets, and they are often losing. That hurts the long-term prospects for easing the lack of available RV sites and adds to the overall degradation of what RVing actually is in the minds of non-RVers.
What can be done?
The traditional RVing lifestyle we all love is being affected by folks with few options other than to sleep in their less-than-ideal RV. The answer is to provide this group with more options.
According to the University of Southern California Homelessness Policy Research Institute, safe parking programs like those mentioned above can lead up to 70 percent of their homeless clients obtaining housing after using these sites.
These programs have huge potential to help, according to Gary Painter, director of the Homelessness Policy Research Institute. “It’s really an opportunity to have that first intervention for a large set of folks that likely won’t need a lot of services, but just a reconnection to job placement or something else that might be able to resolve [their lack of income] and move them back into permanent housing.”
This isn’t an easy fix, but one that every RV enthusiast can support on both local and national levels. Painter said any solution is going to require large-scale government intervention. “This is a massive problem that needs massive intervention,” Painter argued. “What hasn’t been talked about nearly as much is what to systematically do with populations living in their vehicles.”
What do you think about the “rolling homeless” issue? Share your thoughts in the comments below.