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By the author of Street Survivalism: A Practical Training Guide To Life In The City and The Ultimate Survival Gear Handbook.
I’ve discussed the role of the economy in SHTFs on T.O.P. innumerable times, even examining parallels between historical and contemporary occurrences. One of the subjects addressed in said article was homelessness, both during the Great Depression of the 1930s and now.
Nearly one in 500 Americans live in poverty, with roughly 570,000 experiencing homelessness, as indicated in a January 2019 gathering by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. According to a 2021 study by the Economic Roundtable, a nonprofit urban research organization based in California, the pandemic’s effects are predicted to result in a 49% increase in chronic homelessness over the next three years, peaking in 2023 when 603,000 more Americans will be without a roof over their heads.
Other projections portray even grimmer pictures, with far greater crowds taking to the streets in the coming months and years as the economy slips into recession. I don’t want to sound negative, but living in a nation constantly struggling with a roller-coaster economy, high poverty levels, and substantial social gaps, I tend to concur with more dire projections.
The writing is on the wall, and in times of crisis, the fragility of the system is laid bare. As the economy collapses and thousands of people lose their homes, living in a car becomes an alternative for many. Estimates point to 30% of the homeless populace residing in cars, vans, R.V.s, campers, and other vehicles in both urban and rural regions.
As a side note, residing in vehicles seems much more prevalent in the US, Canada, and Europe compared to South America. That’s anecdotal and based on my observations abroad and here in Brazil, where only a few homeless reside in cars, vans, or other vehicles.
No studies provided data or explanations for that when I looked into this issue for my street survival training ebook. Two reasons that come to my mind are the high price of vehicles here and the fact that streets in third-world and developing nations are considerably more dangerous.
My experience as a car dweller.
During my street training journeys, I met and conversed with individuals living in automobiles. Most had fixed homes in a distant town or district and chose to reside close to work on weekdays to save money while doing some temporary job or contract. That’s more common here than the “definitive” vehicle dwellers in more developed countries.
During various periods between 2021 and 2018, I lived in my car and a borrowed transport van for a few weeks to learn about and experience it directly to develop a “best practices” guide for my book. In the following paragraphs, I relate what I discovered. Please be aware that regulatory, cultural, and societal variances could be present, depending on the location you find yourself in.
What are the benefits of living in a car?
First, it’s essential to recognize that living on the streets is hard, precarious, and risky. There is no getting around it, and the benefits of doing so in a vehicle are only relative. That said, “vehicle sheltering” may offer advantages compared to other options, such as a tent or improvised shelter.
Keeping mobile is beneficial despite the costs (fuel, maintenance, taxes, etc.). Mobility allows us to have our belongings always with us, keeping our stuff safe while we search for work, food, amenities, or other tasks. That’s a big deal, considering how restrictive it can be when you’re living in a fixed shelter.
Another advantage is staying more shielded from the environment and other people. I felt much safer sleeping in the vehicle (and much more so in the van) than in my tent or hammock. I could drive instead of walking if I had to get away for some reason. Even with crime on the rise, streets in the US, Canada, Europe, and Australia are safer than ours, so things should be even better there.
What are the drawbacks of living in a car?
In addition to the expenses mentioned above, other difficulties include discomfort, lack of space, and parking restrictions. Extreme weather presents a challenge, and maintaining good hygiene and sanitation is a constant battle. Safety is always an issue, not only from thugs and other homeless and dangers that exist on any street in every city but also from authorities.
Most towns and localities have laws against city and road camping. Private structures also forbid automobile camping on their grounds. Because of this, almost every urban car dweller is constantly engaged in a covert game of cat and mouse with the law, a.k.a. “urban stealth camping.” The police aren’t exactly cordial towards the homeless, either.
Private campsites and R.V. parks provide greater security and comforts like restrooms, clean water, and electricity – but at a cost. Free overnight parking lots with toilets and showers for vehicle dwellers and the homeless are popping up in some states and municipalities. It’s an initiative of churches, nonprofits, local governments, and even companies and businesses to provide assistance.
What are the best and worse vehicles for living in?
If, by chance or choice, you find yourself in the streets, here are the best and worst vehicle options:
- Windowless vans are best: they have more space, privacy, and adaptability and are also more inconspicuous.
- Hatchbacks, station wagons, and minivans are second best: roomier, uncluttered, and practical.
- Pickups can have the cargo bed covered to increase space and comfort, preferably with a rigid, reinforced top with locks.
- Sedans generally make for poor vehicle homes, mainly because it’s harder to access the trunk, and there is less space.
- A functional rooftop or rear window improves ventilation, clarity, and safety and adds a view.
Since there isn’t much room, organization is critical.
It isn’t easy to provide detailed guidance because it depends on the type and size of the vehicle. Being creative, versatile, and flexible is critical in these circumstances.
Look at it as a smaller version of a house or apartment. Using distinct bags for various stuff (clothing, food, cleaning products, first aid, medicines, etc.) work well, in my experience. Plastic containers are good for that, too. Keep blankets and clothes folded and protected.
Believe it or not, there are plenty of ways to misplace stuff and lose your mind in such a tiny space. Driving causes things to move and fall unless we maintain a place for everything. Use rubber bands, shock cords, hooks, and netting to bind and secure objects.
Keeping the car’s inside clean improves comfort and appearance.
Both are important: think of your vehicle as your home. Additionally, it is easier to maintain a car clean than a tent or other makeshift shelter, where it is hard to keep out dirt and insects.
Keeping the outside neat and well-maintained has several benefits as well, as explained in my book. This advice was offered to me by a man living in his car near my home. He worked as a contractor during the week, sleeping in his car with his items and working instruments. His old-yet-well-conserved Ford Escort was clean all the time.
He claimed increasing goodwill on the part of the neighborhood even if that doesn’t necessarily warrant better treatment from authorities or the local community (not much is warranted on the streets). While other elements are always at play, people judge on appearances, and they’ll believe an automobile in good condition belongs to a responsible and conscientious owner (and vice-versa).
It also promotes safety. Cars left abandoned frequently get broken into, trashed, vandalized, and scavenged for components. Any car, even one that is spotless, might experience that. If it occurs to a vehicle that looks like junk, nobody will give a crap.
Use your local resources if you’re living in a car.
In my street survival book, I recommend resource mapping as one of the most essential and valuable tactics. By “street resources,” I mean locations where the homeless may get the goods and services they require to be tidy, healthy, and secure.
Identify and list parking spaces (churches, universities, industrial and commercial parks, truck stops, gas stations, rest stops, etc.), day-use gyms, laundromats, public restrooms, and anything else you might need to groom and shower. Visit several locations around town to determine which are cleaner, safer, and more welcoming to the homeless (or less so), and utilize them to wash your clothing, keep yourself clean, or even charge your phone or access the internet. Talk to residents, employees, and other homeless people to gain knowledge and get advice.
When there are many things to worry about and take care of, it’s one less thing to worry about and take care of. The more options, the better, since switching between locations or even parts of town is wise to avoid being singled out and hounded by the police or neighborhood security guards. Make notes about every site to compile a thorough inventory of street resources.
Your car is your home.
Do everything you can to keep it safe: use wheel lockers, gear stick lockers, alarms, and trackers (I’ve found this device to work quite well, but there are similar options for even less).
Try to park with one side against buildings or walls to limit access, particularly in less friendly neighborhoods. That also improves privacy and facilitates pitching a tarp over the vehicle if necessary (be mindful that this draws unwanted attention, though).
Tinted window films also provide privacy. Some have anti-vandalism properties and can protect against impact and breakage. These are very common here in Brazil, where thugs can break into cars even in the middle of traffic jams to rob smartphones, backpacks, and other valuables (that’s why many drive around in armored cars).
It’s critical to stay protected from potential disasters caused by bad weather as well (tornadoes, storms, lightning strikes, flash floods, falling trees, landslides, etc.). I almost got caught by a flash flood during a summer storm that ruined dozens of cars in the area I was parked in. Keep a list of places where you can go and park with your vehicle sheltered until the worse is over.
(Check out our free QUICKSTART Guide to what to eat when the power goes out to learn more about living an off-grid life.)
It might be challenging to remain inside a car during a harsh winter or a scorching summer.
Both extremes can be problematic. Staying in a tent or other improvised shelter wouldn’t necessarily be better. However, this is something that must be taken into consideration and safeguards put in place.
How to handle the heat if you’re living in a car
Park in cooler and shadier areas. If no protection from direct sunlight is available, pitch a tarp or cover the vehicle with open cardboard boxes fastened to the roof and windshield. Those reflective foldable blankets (also available in rolls) are even better.
For ventilation, keep the windows totally or partially open. Obviously, there are particular safety concerns here, but they must be addressed nevertheless. Using insect mesh gives some protection and aids in warding off unpleasant critters. It adds a barrier of protection against wrongdoers, though a vulnerable and flimsy one.
Summer can be hot here, and I kept all windows only slightly ajar to encourage cross-ventilation. I’ve seen people sleeping in the backseat with the front windows partially open (or vice-versa). One or two solar-powered car window fans can provide ventilation and maintain airflow without draining the vehicle’s battery.
Depending on the type of car and its characteristics, some might leave the sunroof or back window rolled down. The closed portion of the window can be covered with a blanket or something to increase safety and privacy.
How to handle cold if you’re living in a car
Neither cars nor vans have excellent insulation against the cold. When the outside temperature drops, it gets freezing indoors too. Depending on the type and manufacture, R.V.s and campers may or may not have additional insulation. Vans make it easier to add insulation by providing more room to build layers to the top, sides, and bottom. Cardboard and wood are easier to work with, less expensive, and often free.
Heaters use fuel or electricity, whether plug-in or powered by the car’s air conditioning system. The engine may get damaged if left running for long periods or days at a time, necessitating frequent oil and part changes. Most car dwellers advise against using it frequently, whether for warming or cooling.
Common strategies are looking for a protected/sheltered/indoor parking spot for the vehicle during snow storms and other bad weather situations (to avoid snow and extreme cold and heat and direct sunlight) and using blankets, sleeping bags, and various layers of winter apparel (always choose comfort over style).
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Other tips and ideas for living in a car?
Some items and practices can increase comfort, convenience, and also safety. Here are a few commonly adopted by vehicle residents everywhere:
- If you have any valuables or important documents, keep them in a safe deposit. If that’s not possible, ask for a close friend or relative to keep it stored for you.
- A good headlamp has many uses inside and outside the vehicle. Also, a rechargeable lantern can be used to save the car’s battery.
- Air fresheners are a car dweller’s friend.
- Paracord (or other high-strength cord) also has many uses: to improvise a clothesline, wrap and secure stuff, pitch tarps, and so on.
- Keep a stash of toilet paper, compressed towels, and baby wipes.
- Consider a Porta-Potty, especially if usable toilets are hard to find in your region.
- Use a cooler to maintain sensitive items better insulated from heat and cold (even without ice).
- An inflatable camping pad or mattress folds down compact and can greatly improve comfort, as long as there’s enough space inside the car.
- Keep dirty garments in one sealed bag and other goods in the other.
- Get a power inverter for the car outlet charger.
- Keep an eye on the battery’s condition to prevent a full discharge (and keep a jumper cable in the vehicle).
- Never store petrol or other flammables inside the car.
- I’ve prepared meals and boiled water in the van with a canister burner. Although there is plenty of room and no fabric or flammables in the trunk, I wouldn’t do it in a car – not even in a big S.U.V.
- Keep a map with places with free WiFi signals marked.
- Ask relatives or friends if you can park in their street or on their property, at least during the night. Try to rotate so as not to become a burden.
- You may also ask them to use their address for important mail and communication, as this cost nothing and helps a lot.
I’ve done it. I’ve lived in my car. This is what worked for me. What do you think will work? Let’s discuss below.
Fabian Ommar is a 50-year-old middle-class worker living in São Paulo, Brazil. Far from being the super-tactical or highly trained military survivor type, he is the average joe who since his youth has been involved with self-reliance and outdoor activities and the practical side of balancing life between a big city and rural/wilderness settings. Since the 2008 world economic crisis, he has been training and helping others in his area to become better prepared for the “constant, slow-burning SHTF” of living in a 3rd world country.
Fabian’s ebook, Street Survivalism: A Practical Training Guide To Life In The City , is a practical training method for common city dwellers based on the lifestyle of the homeless (real-life survivors) to be more psychologically, mentally, and physically prepared to deal with the harsh reality of the streets during normal or difficult times. He’s also the author of The Ultimate Survival Gear Handbook.
You can follow Fabian on Instagram @stoicsurvivor