Living in Your Car: No Longer Just for Bums

By most standards, Jessica Spaulding has a successful life and career. The 31-year-old Californian splits her time between Long Beach, where she runs fundraising drives for public radio station KJazz 88.1, and San Diego, where she’s pursuing her master’s degree in accounting at National University. Because of her busy schedule, she decided to give up her posh apartment in Santa Monica. “I work 50 to 60 hours a week and felt like I never saw it,” she says. These days, her housing is a little more humble. For the past five years, she’s lived in a 2007 Prius.
Her co-workers and fellow students have been mostly supportive, although they still occasionally offer to help her find a proper home. Spaulding recalls a recent conversation with a co-worker who offered to “ask around to her friends for a spare room I could rent. That’s somewhat common. People think I can’t find a place to live because of my strange in-town/out-of-town schedule.” She insists that she prefers this living arrangement to the alternatives. “It’s like traveling with your entire house with you,” she says. She realizes that public perception is that anybody living in a car must be doing so against their will, but she hopes that as upwardly mobile people such as herself increasingly go public, living in a vehicle will finally be seen “as a viable option.”
Being homeless and a working professional are no longer mutually exclusive. A recent census by the Coalition for the Homeless reveals that among the current national homeless population, approximately 44 percent have jobs. Although the U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t keep records of the so-called vehicular homeless, there are informal estimates that up to 59.2% of homeless are living in cars or vans, the biggest percentage since the Great Depression’s “Ford families.” The difference is, not all of them are victims of circumstance. For many gainfully employed Americans, a bed on wheels is a lifestyle choice.
For Glenn Morrissette, a 42-year-old professional musician, opting to live in his vehicle—he resides in a 21-foot Chinook Concourse, which he calls “a little bigger than an extended cargo van”—was as much about stress reduction as economics. “It really takes a ton of pressure off,” he says. “Even during slow months I still earn enough to survive exactly how I want to.” Not that he’s lacking steady work. Most recently, he has been employed as an orchestrator for the Fox sitcom Family Guy. “[It] basically entails taking the composer’s sketches and turning them into full-blown orchestral scores,” he says. He’s not eager to let his employers know that he essentially works (and sleeps) where he parks. “I certainly realize the potential for clients to feel uneasy about how my lifestyle might affect my work,” he says. But given that he keeps moving—he has lived everywhere from Los Angeles to New Jersey—and that he never needs to meet clients in person, as “everything is done either over the phone or via e-mail,” his RV home usually remains a secret.
“No longer does everyone associate frugality with poverty,” says Ken Ilgunas, who lived in a 1994 Ford Econoline while pursuing his master’s degree in liberal studies at Duke University (he graduated last May). “In past decades, if we saw someone growing their own food, sewing torn clothing, and living in some austere dwelling like a vehicle—doing things that poor people do—we might have felt sorry for them.” But now, he says, living in a vehicle is about independence and freedom, not financial hardship. Even celebrities are doing it. Last September, soul legend Sly Stone briefly lived in a van in Los Angeles, even though his attorney had rented a four-bedroom home for the singer in Woodland Hills. “I just do not want to return to a fixed home,” Stone admitted to the New York Post. “I cannot stand being in one place. I must keep moving.”
Mike Ekeler, the 39-year-old co-defensive coordinator for the Indiana University Bloomington football team, has been living in a 45-foot Holiday Rambler Navigator since joining the team in early 2011. (It’s parked near the south end zone of Memorial Stadium.) Joss Stone, a 2007 Grammy winner for Best R&B Performance, told talk show host Craig Ferguson in July that she’d lived in a van for four months during 2011 because she “thought it would be fun.”
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