top of page

Life Lessons Living In A Car

I’ve been homeless 3 times. The problem isn’t drugs or mental illness — it’s poverty.

Low income, combined with a perfect storm of unaffordable rent, incompatible roommates, non-living wages, and an inability to find full-time work, resulted in three bouts of homelessness that forced me to live in my car. In a few days, it will happen a fourth time for the same reasons.

I was born into a middle-class family, but I've hovered near poverty level all of my adult life because my line of work doesn't pay much. My career has consisted of administrative roles in high-tech offices and government agencies, with most of it contract work because it paid more and provided more flexibility and mobility than permanent secretarial work.

I attended college for a couple years while working, then left because I couldn't afford to continue and knew better than to take on student debt.

My moderate savings was destroyed in my 30s by health care costs that insurance wouldn't cover.

Within the past several years, full-time work that pays a subsistence wage has been hard to come by. I'm turning 50, and am aging out of a workforce that for the most part gave me a subsistence-level existence at best.

Three times within the past four years I've lived in my 36-year-old car that has more than 400,000 miles on it, because I could not find affordable rental housing or a job that paid a living wage.

Though I reside in the Pacific Northwest, the situation is the same throughout the States.

I never dreamed that

homelessness would happen to me,

let alone multiple times.

The first time I was homeless was in the winter of 2012. I lost my job and had to live in my car with my cat, spending one month, mid-winter, with $230 to my name.

My car heater broke years ago. I remember waking up at 2 am one morning and discovering my cat's water dish had frozen solid.

The second time I became homeless, in the summer of 2014, I was working a part-time, temporary job for a small municipality while waiting for a full-time position to open up. My roommate gave me notice to leave so her daughter could move into the room I was renting.

I had one thousand dollars in the bank at the time but couldn't find a rental situation I could afford. So once again, my cat and I lived in the car.

This time, we went to a small, wealthy, temperate-climate Pacific Coast town because the weather was in triple digits where I had come from, which turns the car into an unliveable oven.

Each day I was harassed by police and park rangers because of the town's aggressive policies that criminalize homelessness.

I became homeless a third time last summer — again with a grand in savings — and lived in my car for a month and a half when my part-time, low-paying, temporary job ended.

My cat and I moved more than 500 miles to a cooler climate in another state, and for a month and a half we spent our days at a state park that had free wifi, so I could look for work online, and inexpensive showers (50 cents for three minutes of lukewarm water).

We spent our nights in the car on residential streets in town or a couple of industrial parks outside of town.

Soon I'll be living in the car once again, due to the sale of my rental house to wealthy buyers from Silicon Valley. I still have a grand in the bank. I still can't find an affordable place to live.

Since more than half of all Americans have zero dollars in savings, for someone like me to thrice sock away a grand on a paltry four-figure income was no small feat.

This is what it looks like when you totally fall off the bottom of the economic ladder, and how it happens:

1) Homelessness is expensive

The longer you're homeless, the more basic expenses such as gas money, car insurance, storage unit costs, laundromats, and gym memberships or park fees for showering deplete your savings.

Without car insurance, your vehicle can be ticketed and impounded. Gas hovers close to $4 a gallon in the summer, so just driving around trying to find a safe place to park for the night, or to do routine things like laundry or going to a job interview across town, can rapidly burn up your cash.

Laundromats are expensive. So are storage units if you don't have enough room in your car for your belongings, especially the ones you might need again if you find a place to live.

”When you're low-income, you have to have excellent money management skills, because you have to survive on so little.

Everything is budgeted to the penny. Credit cards? A nonstarter if you're unemployed, low-wage, or homeless. So a simple problem — such as a car repair — that a higher-income person can eliminate with a credit card in five minutes can wipe out people living in poverty and put them on the streets or, worse, keep them there.

It is much harder to climb out of poverty than it is to fall into it.

2) People think if you're low-income or homeless, it's because you're lazy or uneducated

In 2010, more than a third of all working adults with jobs that did not pay a living wage had at least some college education or a degree. According to 2014 census data, the poverty rate for college-educated Americans jumped from 4.4 to 5 percent. And post-recession, many older workers were forced to take positions they were overqualified for at less pay than before.

People also believe if you're homeless, it's due to moral failure or "poor choices" on your part, rather than a broken economic system, as if nearly 40 years of stagnant wages in America were your own personal doing.

Blaming personal failures for your circumstances merely provides an excuse for not responding to the real causes of homelessness.

3) Lack of affordable housing is the leading cause of homelessness

After the housing crash in 2008, many people who lost their homes to foreclosure moved into rentals — and stayed. When fewer people buy homes, rental markets tighten. The number of renters across the United States grew by about 5 percentage points between 2006 and 2014, to just over 43 percent.

Tighter lending policies, student loan debt, and stagnant wages discourage renters from buying.

In the most desirable housing markets in the country (such as the West Coast, where the tech hubs are), population growth has outpaced new home construction, driving up housing and rental prices faster than gains in income can keep pace. When home prices rose, it priced people out of the market, keeping them in rentals. Rents then soared due to demand. All of this, in turn, made it even harder for renters to become homeowners, completing the vicious circle.

Poor households, naturally, took the brunt. I started feeling the rental squeeze in 2010, when at the age of 40 I moved in with a roommate to try to stay above water.

A $100 increase in rent

is associated with a

15 percent increase

in homelessness.

Simply picking up and moving to a state with more affordable housing isn't a solution. Many states with cheaper housing also pay lower wages, offsetting any savings and keeping the proportion of income to rent high. Low-wage workers in places with higher minimum wages, such as Seattle or San Francisco, earn far less than an affordable housing wage for their area, but the situation is similar in cheaper places, too.

Even if you find affordable housing and a job paying a living wage, you can still end up struggling: Affordable housing is often located miles away from the downtown business cores of major cities, resulting in long, expensive commutes each day that eat away at already sparse paychecks.

Plus, it's expensive to move to another state, given the cost of gas money, a moving truck, etc., so it's possible to end up trapped in a bad situation where you are if you can't afford to relocate.

4) Living with a roommate is the fastest but also the most problematic way out of homelessness

Living with a roommate will often cost far less than a private apartment or house, and will get a roof over your head for protection from the heat or cold. But you can end up scraping the bottom of the barrel as far as living conditions go. Not once, but twice, I was offered the "opportunity" to sleep on rugs and furniture reeking of pet urine for "only" $400 a month! No, thanks, my car is free and isn't nearly as disgusting and uncomfortable as that.

Also, living with roommates at middle age to escape homelessness is far different and much less benign than generally congenial and flexible college roommate scenarios.

5) People who are uncomfortable with homelessness in their communities want you to be invisible — and the penalties are stiff if you aren't

Seventy-one percent of San Francisco's homeless population were once residents with homes, but that didn't stop a young tech worker in the city, Justin Keller, from writing a brutally insensitive open letter to the mayor and chief of police about the "riff raff" homeless in his city.

Keller stated: "We live in a free market society. The wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city. They went out, got an education, work hard, and earned it. I shouldn't have to worry about being accosted. I shouldn't have to see the pain, struggle, and despair of homeless people to and from my way to work every day. I want my parents when they come visit to have a great experience, and enjoy this special place."

Homeless people are

13 times more likely

to be victims of violence

then housed people.

”Homeless people try to stay invisible to survive, because if someone complains to the police, the homeless risk being jailed or fined for violating "no overnight camping" laws or having their vehicle towed and impounded if they are living in it.

It's exhausting and stressful trying to find work, stay clean, and keep the car running, especially when many people don't want you in their neighbourhood, their parks, or their libraries, the last bastions of the homeless.

It's hard to sleep at night due to street noise, all while remaining vigilant that no one notices you are sleeping in your car (window condensation from breathing is a huge tip-off).

It's difficult to hide the fact that you live in your car, because people will see you come and go, and if have a pet with you, it's a dead giveaway when you take it out for walks. My old beater car doesn't blend in at all with nicer, late-model vehicles that line the streets of the neighbourhoods where it's safest to sleep.

Living in a car is a step up from street homelessness, but isn't much safer: Homeless people are 13 times more likely to be the victims of violence than housed people.

Society's message to the homeless is abundantly clear: You don't matter, because you don't have money.

There are so many ways to get down on your luck, or become homeless, and so few means to escape.

Economic inequality and a system built to perpetuate it is the problem — homelessness is the result for people without a safety net. A rising economic tide doesn't lift all boats — it merely drowns the poor.

It's understood that most people in life aren't going to be high-wage earners on par with doctors and lawyers, but that doesn't mean working people should have to live on the streets or in vehicles.

In a few days, I will yet again put the key into the car ignition and have no place to go, not enough money for housing, no job or prospects, and $1,000 in savings to survive on until it's gone or I somehow find a job and a place to live — whichever comes first. It looks like this is going to be the new normal for me in this economy.

It's not about the prime of life or possibilities anymore; it's about what will I have to learn to live with from now on.

Sadly, I'm far from alone in working-class poverty. Even more sadly, in one of the richest countries on Earth, some people are choosing suicide rather than enduring the oblivion of poverty. The poor and the homeless are not looking for luxury. This is about meeting basic needs. It's not living — it's survival, and it's miserable.

Adapted from

Homeless in America

by Veronica Harnish's author of Car Living When There's No Other Choice

First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at




Our Weather-Ready Care Kits

include items vital to surviving the extreme weather of every season.

From cold & damp to hot & humid.


Your monthly donation

means year-long support

for elder homeless men.


bottom of page