By Randall Brink
It has become a cliche to refer to that halcyon time “before the pandemic.” So much, in retrospect, seemed better then.
The RV travel lifestyle was different regarding things like access to RV parks and RVing costs. There was another different thing: There were virtually no daily news stories in local and city newspapers about RVing, or rather, the problem of RVs and people in homeless encampments and on city streets.
Fast-forward to 2022. The chances are good that if you read your daily newspaper or watch local news on TV, you will see a story segment about RVs and RVers. Chances are it won’t be a good story.
One of the biggest RV-related news stories during the last two years has been the number of new RVs delivered. The numbers for 2020 and 2021 far exceeded those for years before the COVID pandemic. It seemed like everyone wanted to get out of quarantine, get into RVing, and enjoy the freedom of the great outdoors.
There was much excitement for the RV lifestyle, even though space in RV campgrounds was rapidly becoming scarce. Yet, initially, positive stories emerged; many people adopted the RV lifestyle. They were learning to live in RVs full time, to boondock. Offices and “8:00 – 5:00” were becoming a thing of the past. People were working while on the road, taking advantage of new technology for internet connectivity. It seemed like, for the first time in two years, things were changing for the better—and fast. The new era of happy campers and sunny times were a constant theme of announcements from the RV industry about the sheer number of motorhomes and towable RVs manufactured and sold.
Upheaval and despair
The darker side of that storyline began to emerge fully in 2021.
- Squatters in Wichita Falls, TX, parked on Christal Dickerson’s property. She didn’t know about it because she resides in NJ but was informed of the squatters by a property caretaker. She had to file a lawsuit and pay $500 to evict them.
- The City of Seattle evicted 26 illegally parked RVs and other vehicles used as dwellings from a homeless RV encampment in West Seattle. City crews hauled away more than 50,000 pounds of refuse and debris.
- More than 2,700 people live in RVs and other vehicles in King County, WA. The number is increasing rapidly. The city has begun enforcing its 72-hour parking ordinance. They are forcibly towing RVs, and removing discarded detritus left behind by the homeless. One rousted encampment dweller said he had moved his RV “about a mile away.”
- Almost half of the U.S. workforce does not earn enough for rent.
- City-run “Safe RV Parking Lots,” such as the one established by the city of Oakland, CA, to provide a controlled encampment along with some city services, have been an abject failure due to the complexity of homeless issues and lack of mental health and law enforcement resources at the sites.
- The City of Denver estimates that more than 1,000 spend each night in vehicles on its streets.
Problems as a result of the pandemic
A wide array of social and economic problems resulted from the pandemic—the lockdowns, quarantines, and business closures, along with the sudden surge in the cost of everything, particularly housing.
Despite efforts at the federal level and in many states to enjoin landlords, banks, and mortgage companies from foreclosing on rent and mortgage delinquencies, those moratoriums eventually ended in mid- to late-2021, after which evictions and foreclosures escalated. Even when people could keep paying their rent, rents doubled once the federal and state officials lifted the moratoriums.
As housing evictions soared, other socioeconomic problems, unemployment, deteriorating mental health, drug abuse, and despair drove unprecedented numbers of people from their homes and shelters onto the streets or to find makeshift solutions to their housing crisis. Many turned to RVs as their ad hoc solution.
The unprecedented RV industry boom in 2020 meant plenty of older class A, B, and C RVs on the market. Cheap. Many older motorhomes and trailers were given away to eliminate storage and insurance costs by owners who could no longer afford to keep or use them. An RV could be bought in any metro area for a few hundred dollars. A major towing company in Spokane, WA, began selling RVs to the homeless for $1. They weren’t in great shape. Some of the engines barely ran. They leaked. Their chassis and drive trains were old and, in many cases, were worn out. They would make it a few blocks or across town to a residential or industrial side street, parking lot, or public property where other people in similar impecunious straits parked in what eventually became “homeless RV encampments.”
A spiral of diminishing choices
On September 11, 2020, Searchlight Pictures released “Nomadland,” a motion picture starring Francis McDormand, about a woman who, having lost her job, home, and anchor, began living full time and traveling throughout the Western U.S. in her camper van.
Stories of homeless RV encampments were suddenly news, reported nightly on local and national networks. They were becoming the subject of significant documentary films and major Hollywood features. The storylines depict people attempting to live their lives amid an unexpected and unplanned spiral of diminishing choices in jobs, homes, and locations.
Not in my back yard
Huge homeless populations have long existed in and around every major U.S. city. They are growing. The encampments they create to gather about themselves a sense of community and safety often spontaneously appear in locations inconvenient to municipal government, businesses, and residents. Calls for the public-sector establishment of homeless encampments are almost always conditioned by the cry of “anywhere but here.” Municipal efforts to deal with the camps have resulted mainly in epic failures. Now, those encampments include thousands of old, mostly derelict RVs. As one frustrated urban homeowner said, “These are not campgrounds.” However, they are still RVs and are viewed by many, particularly non-RVers, as a part of the RV world and the RV lifestyle.
The political, social, and legal issues posed by itinerant RV parking range from violations or local ordinances prohibiting parking of large vehicles on residential streets to civil law aspects of private property and public nuisance regulations, adverse possession, and the right of citizens to use public lands without unreasonable restriction. We will undoubtedly see even more significant reactions to homeless RV parking in the days and years ahead. Do not be surprised if the result is adverse actions affecting all RVers (e.g., retailers curtailing overnight parking).
Solutions to the problems created by itinerant RV parking have eluded large and small municipal governments and individual homeless persons. To arrive at meaningful, practical solutions, governments, charities, and all stakeholders must look to alternatives to moving the problem around within the towns and city limits. There will never be an urban idyll for homeless RV campers.
Hope for cities and homeless citizens to be free of horrid urban encampments
In Part Two, we’ll look at potential solutions to the problems and see some surprising possibilities hiding in plain sight—options not readily found in the City Council toolbox.