During the Great Depression, people who were forced to live in their cars were known as "Ford families." Today, they go by the far more impersonal name of the "vehicular homeless," and you can count 45-year-old Carey Fuller and her two daughters, 8 and 17, among them.
The Fullers (pictured above) became homeless in April 2004 when Carey lost her job in the financial services sector in Seattle. With the job loss came a move from a three-bedroom apartment into a two-bedroom -- but that wasn't enough to cut expenses. Seeing what was waiting for her around the corner, Fuller took her final bit of income, a tax refund, and used it to buy an RV that she and her girls could live in. After a while, even gas and maintenance on the Winnebago became more than she could afford, so she traded down for a minivan. Fuller takes whatever work she can find, often landing part-time jobs. She also blogs about her life as a homeless mother living in a van.
As the economy continues to circle the drain and the number of foreclosures rises, more and more people are following in Fuller's tracks. Some cities, like Venice and Palo Alto in California, have even created parking areas for people who live in their vehicles.
"Cars are the new homeless shelters," says Joel John Roberts, CEO of PATH (People Assisting the Homeless) Partners, the largest services provider for the homeless in Los Angeles County. Car and van dwellers don't show up in U.S. Census Bureau data because census workers don't knock on car windows, Roberts says.
How They Got There
How did so many families wind up sleeping in cars, vans and RVs? In most cases, they were hit with a job loss or health crisis that cost them their home. The move from roof to backseat is often swifter than expected, and in the case of those whose homes have been foreclosed, there is often a sense of disbelief that the actual day of eviction will come. Departures are often fast and furious, with things thrown into a van. Often, the newly evicted don't travel far; they camp out in the neighborhood where they lived. They quickly learn which public parks leave their restrooms unlocked and that joining the local YMCA provides access to a shower.
In some cases, it's divorce, not unemployment, that puts people in their cars at night. Rudy Salinas, director of outreach for PATH, recalls finding a man living in his car in a supermarket parking lot a few months ago. The man had a stack of neatly dry-cleaned uniforms next to him, which he wore to work each day. But at night, separated from his wife and unable to support two households, he slept in the market's parking lot.
Salinas said that PATH did its own census of the homeless population in Hollywood, Calif. They counted 748 people without homes; 151 of them were car dwellers.
"In my 19 years of doing outreach, I have never seen such a spike in numbers like the one in the past 18 months," he says.
Carey Fuller, the single mother in Seattle, advocates for the homeless while being homeless herself. She says that she parks "anywhere I can" at night, picking spots near foreclosed homes to avoid police detection. Her daughters do their homework in the school library and they do laundry in public laundromats. Meals are taken at church soup kitchens or purchased in convenience marts that have microwaves to heat things up. She lives on an inconsistent child support payment of $150 a month and $500 a month in food stamps for the three of them. Showers are taken at the community pool; on weekends, they hang out at the library where there are many free events.
She gave up trying to use the overtaxed housing assistance system, because of the long waiting lists for apartments.
Is she just a job away from being able to rent an apartment? Fuller says it isn't as simple as that. Landlords discriminate against the vehicular homeless, she says, and demand to see a current rental history. After sleeping in the car for nearly eight years, she doesn't have one.
She's been doing this for so long that it's become a way of life.
"My life feels normal to me," she said, "We live just like every other family except we sleep in the minivan."
A New Community
Car and van dwellers have formed a community of their own, often exchanging survival tips online. Fuller has taught people how to make a "coffee can cooker" on Facebook.
For a long while, the Wal-Mart Stores chain was known for its tacit willingness to let RV-ers use its parking lots overnight. In the evening, the campers served as a de facto security force, making sure that no one did anything to give the police reason to come calling. In the morning, the campers frequented the store, often buying their day's food and supplies there. Gradually, more and more Walmarts became less hospitable to the community. Word quickly spread among the van dwellers about which ones you could park safely in without getting in trouble.
Warm climates tend to draw those living in their vehicles, for the obvious reasons. Southern California, Florida, Arizona and Nevada are popular among the displaced, although many people initially try to stay close to the spot where they fell. They want to keep their kids in the same school, stay close to family and friends. And they lack the money for gas to crisscross the country without direction or purpose.
Salinas tells of the single mother who works at a minimum-wage job and has her 5-year-old son sleep in her sister's Section 8 apartment. She herself sleeps in the car out in front of the apartment each night, fearing that her presence inside would violate her sister's HUD-landlord agreement, which limits the number of adults allowed. She doesn't want to cause her sister to become homeless too, Salinas said. It's not illegal to sleep in your car, by the way, unless a municipality makes it so.
As for today's "Ford families," it's not without some irony to give them the moniker. Although Henry Ford did help a small number of distressed families by giving them loans and some land to work, he also laid off thousands more. And he deeply angered many with public comments about how the unemployed should do more to find work for themselves.
The Boston-Cambridge-Quincy metropolitan area’s greatest strength for those without an automobile is the prevalence of dense, easily manageable communities. This makes it exceptionally easy for residents to reach amenities such as groceries, restaurants, shopping and schools. The metropolitan area’s primary city, Boston, has the third-highest walk score in the country. The area’s public transit also has a relatively high service frequency rate, making its use that much more convenient for the city’s residents.
> Transit coverage: 96 percent (second highest)
> Service frequency (minutes): 6.2 (second lowest)
> Jobs reachable in 90 minutes: 25.6 percent (69th highest)
> Walk score: 65.9 (14th highest)
> Commuters who bike: 0.87 percent (14th highest)
Los Angeles is the second largest city by population in the United States, and its metropolitan area is fairly spread out. Due to its extensive public transit system the area has avoided a complete automobile-based culture. The metro area’s 19 transit systems have more than 500 bus routes. As a result, 96 percent of neighborhoods are within 0.75 miles to a transit stop -- the second highest rate in the country. Better still, commuters can catch a form of public transportation from their nearest stop every 6.2 minutes.
> Transit coverage: 89 percent (eighth highest)
> Service frequency (minutes): 8.5 (11th lowest)
> Jobs reachable in 90 minutes: 58.9 percent (2nd highest)
> Walk score: 57.6 (29th highest)
> Commuters who bike: 0.78 percent (17th highest)
Utah’s population is expected to grow from 2010’s approximately 3 million to 4.4 million in 2030. Salt Lake County accounts for more than one-third of the state’s population. To accommodate this growth, the Utah Transit Authority has plans to add four more lines to its light rail system, TRAX, up from its current three lines. This investment is meant to improve transportation for the suburban and exurban population to the city. In the winter, the UTA runs ski transit lines in addition to its rail and bus services.
> Transit coverage: 83.7 percent (12th highest)
> Service frequency (minutes): 8.1 (10th lowest)
> Jobs reachable in 90 minutes: 47.5 percent (10th highest)
> Walk score: 60.4 (23rd highest)
> Commuters who bike: 0.79 percent (16th highest)
Denver has bus service, light rail lines and an airport shuttle service. The city is currently undergoing a multibillion dollar expansion of its transit system, called the FasTracks Expansion. This plan is meant to increase light rail, commuter rail and bus rapid-transit lines. The project, which is expected to be completed in 2019, currently faces a $2 billion shortfall.
> Transit coverage: 95.6 percent (third highest)
> Service frequency (minutes): 6.9 (fifth lowest)
> Jobs reachable in 90 minutes: 58.4 percent (third highest)
> Walk score: 54.5 (34th highest)
> Commuters who bike: 1.56 percent (seventh highest)
The San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara metropolitan area’s public transportation is overseen by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority. Like Los Angeles, the area relies heavily on buses, running about 100 routes. Public transit covers 95.6 percent of neighborhoods, the third greatest in the country. Public vehicles also run under seven minutes apart, the fifth smallest frequency. The metro area also has the seventh highest rate of commuters who travel to work by bicycle.
> Transit coverage: 85.3 percent (11th highest)
> Service frequency (minutes): 8.8 (15th lowest)
> Jobs reachable in 90 minutes: 33.4 percent (35th highest)
> Walk score: 73.6 (sixth highest)
> Commuters who bike: 1.07 percent (ninth highest)
Seattle’s public transportation system not only includes bus and rail transit, but a monorail in the city center, as well as ferries. The city also has the sixth highest walk score in the country, due to its high number of easily accessible amenities. According to Bicycling magazine, Seattle is one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country and “has a 10-year, $240-million bike master plan that seeks to triple the number of journeys made by bike and add 450 miles of bike paths.”
> Transit coverage: 97 percent (the highest)
> Service frequency (minutes): 9 (18th highest)
> Jobs reachable in 90 minutes: 59.8 percent (the highest)
> Walk score: 63 (19th highest)
> Commuters who bike: 0.95 percent (12th highest)
Honolulu currently does not have an urban rail system, but its bus system helps cover 97 percent of neighborhoods — the highest rate in the country. Additionally, almost 60 percent of jobs are accessible within 90 minutes to those who live in neighborhoods covered by transit. This is also the highest rate in the country. Nevertheless, the city is planning a $5.5 billion rail project called the Honolulu Rail Transit Project. This will include 20 miles of track, connecting East Kapolei with the Honolulu International Airport and downtown Honolulu and will end at Ala Moana Center.
> Transit coverage: 89.6 percent (seventh highest)
> Service frequency (minutes): 4.5 (the highest)
> Jobs reachable in 90 minutes: 36.6 percent (25th highest)
> Walk score: 85.3 (the highest)
> Commuters who bike: 0.52 percent (32nd highest)
New York City and its surroundings rank first in the nation for total number of passenger trips and government spending per capita on public transit, according to U.S. News. It also has the highest rate of service frequency. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s 2010 operating budget was $13.4 billion. The average weekday ridership for the city is estimated to be over 8.4 million trips. The city also has the highest walk score on this list, thanks to the ability of city dwellers to reach just about any amenity on foot.
> Transit coverage: 83.5 percent (13th highest)
> Service frequency (minutes): 7.4 (eighth lowest)
> Jobs reachable in 90 minutes: 39.9 percent (16th highest)
> Walk score: 66.3 (13th highest)
> Commuters who bike: 2.23 percent (second highest)
Portland is such a good place for people to live without a car due to both its public transit system and the ease of walking and biking around the city. The metropolitan area is served by TriMet, which in addition to other services offers a Free Rail Zone — a region that includes most of downtown Portland and where light rail and streetcar rides are always free. The city has a number of benefits for bike riders, including designated bike-only areas at traffic signals and free bike lights. It has the second highest rate of commuters who ride bikes to work in the country.
> Transit coverage: 91.7 percent (fifth highest)
> Service frequency (minutes): 8.5 (12th highest)
> Jobs reachable in 90 minutes: 34.8 (30th highest)
> Walk score: 84.9 (second highest)
> Commuters who bike: 1.65 percent (sixth highest)
San Francisco is held in high regard for its many successful transit systems, including the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority and the Bay Area Rapid Transit district. These systems cover nearly 92 percent of neighborhoods -- the fifth highest rate in the country. San Francisco also has the second highest walk score and is excellent for bicyclists. Commuter rails within the city allow bicyclists to mount with their bicycles, and there is a bike shuttle across the Bay Bridge to help cyclists during rush hour.