For months, Nicholas Atencio and girlfriend Heather Surovik spent nearly every minute of their lives together in a 2000 Cadillac Escalade.
After Atencio, 33, lost his job as a plumber in May, he and Surovik, 36, delivered for Grubhub by day and at night curled up with their puppy on an air bed in the back of their car parked in a lot in Longmont, Colorado, dreaming of being reunited under one roof with Surovik’s teenage son who was living with his grandmother.
“I’m a mom, so I want to fix everything and make it better,” Surovik said. “It’s hard when you don’t have the means to do that, when you can’t do anything because you don’t have anything.”
Americans are being driven into their vehicles by pandemic-fueled woes. And their ranks are likely to grow as the government safety net frays and evictions and foreclosures rise.
“It’s in times of crisis that the fragility of our systems are laid bare,” said Graham Pruss, a postdoctoral scholar with the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative at the UC San Francisco Center for Vulnerable Populations.
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Even before COVID, millions struggled to afford a decent place to live. The pandemic has made the housing crisis even worse, says Pruss.
He expects a surge in the number of people without permanent homes taking refuge in cars, vans, RVs and campers – and not just in the nation’s most expensive regions such as the San Francisco Bay Area where vehicles have increasingly become a form of affordable housing, but all over the country.
“We have seen more people moving into vehicles and more restrictions on public parking for them over the last decade, and then COVID hit,” Pruss said. “I am concerned that we may be facing a population increase in mobile sheltering and vehicle residence at unprecedented levels.”
Nearly one in 500 Americans is homeless, mostly on the West Coast and in the Northeast, according to estimates. Homeless advocates say people without permanent housing are chronically undercounted. It’s even harder to track the tens of thousands of people living in their vehicles rather than on the streets or in shelters because they must move around so much.
“Vehicle residency is one of the fastest-growing forms of homelessness,” said Sara Rankin, associate professor of law and director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project at Seattle University.
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Like with every measure of homelessness and poverty, people of color are disproportionately represented among vehicle dwellers as the pandemic exacerbates racial gaps in financial and housing security, she says.
Black Americans, multiracial Americans, Hispanics and Latinos are far more likely to be homeless than the national average and than white Americans, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Last year, a Housing and Urban Development report found that Black people make up nearly half of the homeless population, yet comprise only 13% of the population.
‘The hidden homeless population’
“We call people living in vehicles the hidden homeless population,” said Joseph Zanovitch, executive director of HOPE Homeless Outreach in Longmont, Colorado.
For many who are experiencing homelessness, living in a vehicle is preferable to shelters or encampments.
Vehicles offer a greater degree of autonomy and privacy, not to mention protection from the elements. There’s also the comfort that comes with families staying together, including pets. And shelter curfews often make holding down jobs with irregular hours difficult, if not impossible.
Not only that, the isolation of vehicle living has helped many escape the worst of the coronavirus, with infection rates so far lower than feared in the homeless population.
Rusty old RVs and campers, the kinds seen lining city streets or stowed under overpasses, can be acquired for a few thousand dollars, but are not permitted in many RV parks.
With few alternatives, most vehicle dwellers park on public streets, often illegally. They have no running water or electrical hookups, which can create tensions with neighbors who complain of dumped trash and sewage and scarce parking spots.
Many jurisdictions restrict or ban RVs or people sleeping overnight in their cars. Violations can prove costly, even devastating. Parking tickets and towed vehicles can result in the loss of shelter and belongings, leaving people much more vulnerable than before and much less likely to recover financially.
Coronavirus is forcing hard choices
During the pandemic, Yesica Prado, a multimedia journalist who parks her RV in an industrial area of Berkeley, California, says she’s seen at least a 10% increase in vehicle dwellers as people lose their jobs and can no longer afford the Bay Area’s sky-high rents amid the decades-long regional housing crisis.
Their ranks are also growing as more people use pandemic unemployment benefits to move out of tents and into vehicles, said Prado, a first-generation immigrant from Nezahualcóyotl, Mexico.
“If you only have so much in savings, you can either spend that money on three months of rent or get a vehicle,” said Prado, who came to the United States with her family when she was 9 and began living in an RV while a graduate student at University of California, Berkeley. “A lot of people are having to come to those choices right now.”
Some private citizens have stepped in to help. Last year, a car dealership in Charlotte, North Carolina began offering people living in their vehicles a safe place to park at night.
James Charles, general manager of Kiplin Automotive Group in Charlotte, and his wife Haydee, who have six children, said they empathized. Years ago, they, too, hit a hard stretch and were in and out of motels for several months.
Not only did James and Haydee Charles provide overnight shelter, they raised nearly $35,000 to secure a more stable living situation for more than two dozen homeless families and individuals through their organization, HALO Now, (Helping and Leading Others Now).
“I think you could consider us the average American family who just thought about a way they could use what they had to make a difference,” Charles said.
Safe parking lots open up overnight
Charles says he got the idea from California and Washington state where churches, nonprofits and local governments have stepped into the breach, creating overnight parking lots with portable toilets and showers and caseworkers to help secure permanent housing.
Just as demand is increasing, funds are becoming scarce. Because of the way stimulus and other funds are allocated, many nonprofits like hers are ineligible for assistance, Schwarz says.
“Limiting funding for agencies like ours, on top of the increasing number of folks needing assistance – in particular those with more severe mental health issues – is going to have a significant impact on our ability to provide the essential and critical services for our community,” she said. “We are very concerned about what is going to happen when we deplete the financial assistance funds we have and don’t have access to additional funding sources. There is simply not enough financial support to go around.”
Not enough funding, support for vehicle homeless crisis
It’s the same story across the country in Rhode Island, where resources are being stretched thinner than ever by COVID.
Caitlin Frumerie, executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, says the state has more than double the number of people experiencing homelessness than last year, some of whom have moved into their vehicles.
Though more safe parking lots are popping up in Colorado and Wisconsin, Frumerie has not been able to persuade a single business to open its parking lot at night so dislocated residents have a safe and legal place to stay. Retrieving their impounded vehicles has become a line item in her budget.
In Longmont, the safe parking lot program has been a godsend for homeless families, Zanovitch says.
With a long waiting list, the SafeLot program in Longmont has grown since opening in June. By adding two auxiliary lots, the program can accommodate 19 vehicles. It has helped find housing for 11 people from seven households and in coming months will expand to Boulder.
Two years ago when Atencio and Surovik ended up in their car during another rough patch, they had to scrape the morning frost from the interior of the windows. The couple dreaded the prospect of bundling up for another winter under the roof of their car.
Today, they are counting their blessings. Right before the holidays, Surovik was hired at HOPE Homeless Outreach and she and Atencio moved into an apartment where her son has his own room and they could celebrate Christmas as a family. On Monday, Atencio started a new job as a plumber.
“I just love my job,” Surovik said. “It’s a humbling experience to be the one to hand out a coat, a pair of shoes or a hot sandwich.”