It's A Nomad Mad World
In 2018, which feels like a lifetime ago and not just two years, it was reported that the number of Americans living in their vehicles was on the rise. Even though living in a vehicle is illegal in many states, that alone is not enough of a deterrent; drastic times call for drastic measures. A census in Seattle's King County, for instance, showed a 46 percent increase, year-over-year, in the number of people living in campers and vehicles. The rise was especially pertinent in cities with expensive housing markets, such as Los Angeles, Portland and San Francisco.
That was pre-pandemic. The unemployment rate in the States was 3.9 percent in December 2018, down from 4.1 percent the previous year. In April 2020, early in the pandemic, America’s unemployment rate was 14.7 percent.
After just six weeks of life in lockdown, Amy W was one of millions of Americans who lost their job. In her home state of Arizona, more than 470,000 citizens filed for unemployment in a six-week window ending in late April 2020. Amy and the State were hit hard by COVID-19. Since then, the mother of three and her two dogs have lived out of the family's 1998 station wagon.
The car has become “a new form of affordable housing,” that according to Graham Pruss, a researcher and former outreach worker for Seattle’s Road to Housing program. It’s not just the destitute or the unemployed who see their cars as their best option. Pruss says he has “met people who are working at Amazon and rent an RV to live on the streets of Seattle.”
It’s not a foreign concept; living in your RV while working. In fact, it is the subject of a 2017 documentary entitled ‘CamperForce’ by Brett Story. The film, adapted from Jessica Bruder’s book ‘Nomadland’, tells the story about workampers – older people who were bankrupted by the Great Recession of 2008 and decided to downsize their lives in every way they could.
In an article about the documentary, reporter Lori Dorn writes, “Living in RV’s, campers and vans, many of these workampers retired from well-paying jobs, only to find themselves thrust back in the workforce, doing physically demanding jobs for a lot less money.”
Dorn continues, “This new section of the workforce is very appealing to companies like Amazon because of low overhead.” Amazon has a recruiting plan specifically targeting workampers with the goal of “bringing in these modern migrant workers for seasonal warehouse fulfillment work.”
‘CamperForce’ one of two films based on Bruder’s book. This December, Nomadland starring Frances McDormand will be opening in theatres through Canada and the U.S., assuming theatres are open. This past September, ‘Nomadland’ won the People’s Choice Award at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival.
McDormand plays Fern, a woman from a Nevada town that all but vanished following the closure of its mine. Widowed and with no children, Fern buys a van and hits the road. To stay afloat, she picks up seasonal work where she can.
Fern’s story, while fictitious, mirrors the reality of Nomadland and life as a workamper.
When Robert and Jessica M told friends they were moving into an RV many questioned their sanity; were they mad and was this a midlife crisis. Robert and Jessica were doing it by choice, not financial desperation. In 2015, they joined a movement of people ditching homes that have long embodied the American Dream and embracing a life of travel, minimal belongings and working when they want.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Robert, age 45, said, “We’re a family of four redefining what the American Dream means. It’s happiness, not a four-bedroom house with a two-car garage.”
Robert and Jessica and others who spoke with The Washington Post about being modern day nomads said living in 200 to 400 square feet has improved their marriages and made them happier, even if they’re earning less.
Today, a million Americans live full-time in RVs, according to the RV Industry Association. Some have to do it because they can’t afford other options. Others do it by choice.
More than 10.5 million households own at least one RV, a jump from 7.5 million households in 2005.