By Russ and Tiña De Maris
Across the nation, people are discovering just how much an RV can become a home. Full-timers have known this for ages, and snowbird RVers may spend months calling their RV “home.”
But a new breed of Americans is taking up RV living and, for them, it isn’t a life of sights on the road, visiting National Parks, nor spending a wonderful night around the campfire with new friends. For these RV dwellers, it’s $10-a-day to rent an RV on a back street, ducking police and angry neighbors, and fighting bedbugs and other vermin. These unfortunates are homeless people, in a strange, symbiotic relationship with a new breed of slumlords called Vehicle Ranchers.
Here’s how it works: A Rancher hits the abandoned vehicle auction where, for example, a broken-down RV can often be bought for as little as a dollar. He tows the dead rig out of the yard and onto a local street where he parks it. An advertisement on Craigslist offering a place to sleep out of the weather for $10 a night will soon put the “no vacancy” sign up.
In many areas, as long as the vehicle is moved every 72 hours, the Vehicle Rancher can keep the game going endlessly. Worst-case scenario, if the rig is impounded the Rancher will often just leave it alone until it goes back up for auction.
One Rancher in Seattle, Richard Winn, says he feels he’s providing a reasonable service. Since none of his tenants are required to put down a deposit, nor sign any kind of binding lease, if they fail to pay their $75 a week rent, they aren’t out anything when given the boot. On the other hand, the “tenants” don’t get a key, nor are they allowed to use the toilet in the RV. In some cases they can, provided they line it with a plastic bag and dispose of the waste on their own. Winn is considered one of Seattle’s biggest Vehicle Ranching landlords, but he’s certainly not the only one.
Down in Los Angeles there’s the man who calls himself Rob. He buys abandoned RVs from a tow yard. He, however, has an inside track – he works as a tow truck driver. His tenants pay $10 a day, and some of them get a bonus. They can use their rigs’ toilets, provided they pay a bit extra. Rob has a friend who’s a septic pumping business employee, and he’ll come by and pump out the holding tanks. In the San Francisco area the prices aren’t as easy – there RV renters are charged $400 to $500 a month.
Just how big the Ranching business is can’t be quantified. In a recent survey of Seattle homeless, there were about 800 RVs being occupied by what were identified as homeless people. Just how many were on the rent-by-the-day system wasn’t clear. But even if half were Vehicle Ranched, it’s easy to see how some sharp-eyed characters might find the business a hit.
IN SOME WAYS, living this way is better than a cardboard shelter or a tent. At least the weather is largely kept out, and once inside, a dweller can lock out the bad guys. But once inside there are other problems. Likely there’s no running water, and often no place to poop. One towing company said conditions in many of the rigs they tow are so bad they prohibit their tow truck drivers from stepping inside the rigs. That decision was made after a driver came out of one rig bearing a load of bed bugs. Trash, dirt and overall filth aren’t uncommon.
Not surprisingly, business owners and residents where Vehicle Ranchers set up shop don’t find having rundown RVs on their doorsteps pleasing. Temporary tenants often find themselves on the receiving end of verbal abuse, and frequent visits from law enforcement officers. It goes with the territory.
Seattle officials are now taking aim at the Vehicle Ranching practice. The Emerald City’s mayor has a $1.3 million budget earmarked to remove and demolish the worst of the street-parked RVs. She wants more regulations that would push hard to close down Vehicle Ranchers. Likely outcomes include pushing paying customers elsewhere, perhaps into worse situations. And for those who live in a rig they already own, a law targeting Vehicle Ranching will have no effect.
Where does the answer lie? One non-profit group in Sacramento is aiming to help “non-chronic” homeless people – ones who are temporarily out of homes. The group takes donated RVs, places them in RV parks so there will be full utilities, and rents them out for around $500 to $700 a month. Inexpensive, when compared to apartment rent, but certainly out of the reach of those without a job. But like so many of the other big problems facing not just the United States but humanity as a whole, there just doesn’t seem to be any easy solution at hand.
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