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A Man, a Van, a Plan

'Stealth camping,' 'van life' and the realities of homelessness

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#VANLIFE Kie Chesley outfitted his van as a moveable home.
  • #VANLIFE Kie Chesley outfitted his van as a moveable home.

It's just after midnight, and somebody is pounding on my window so hard I think it will shatter. I creep to the front of my stealth van and the security guard stops hammering at the glass with his flashlight. He says "you can't sleep here" and finishes writing down my license plate number.

There are a lot of reasons I feel like I should be able to park here. I'm a member at this 24 Hour Fitness. It's the middle of the night and there are plenty of spaces in the nearly empty lot. I'm inside my vehicle keeping quiet and bothering no one. As soon as the grocery store here opens I'm going to go inside and get breakfast, then go to the Starbucks across the lot for coffee. I'm giving money to three of the businesses this parking lot services.

But I know this security guard doesn't care about any of that, he's just doing the job required of him by another person who is also just doing their job.

More importantly, if I make it an issue and the police get involved, my only home could be towed or impounded, held hostage for amounts of money I don't have—despite being employed. I have to get up and go to work in the morning. I'll be back in a few hours to use the gym here, but will my license plate number be on some kind of list? Will my van get towed while I'm in the shower?

To be safe, I'll have to park nearby and walk an extra block to the gym in the morning. These are my thoughts as I drive my stealth camper out of the Rohnert Park shopping center and look for a new place to sleep.

A stealth camper is a vehicle designed for living on the inside, but with the exterior of a "normal" vehicle. Mine is a minivan. It sacrifices living space for maximum ability to blend in with other cars on side streets and in parking lots. Even so, if you know what to look for, you can still often tell when someone's sleeping in their vehicle. That's why the security guard was able to single me out. It's also how I know that every single parking lot I've hit up between San Rafael and Santa Rosa has had at least one other person sleeping in it, usually more like three to six. There are a lot more people living this way than you might suspect. For me, it was the best of a bad choice, and I choose to see it as an adventure. For others, it's a hardship they cannot escape.

I grew up in Kenwood and Sonoma. I've attended school in Napa and Santa Rosa, I've worked in Novato and Yountville, and I've lived in Suisun and Rohnert Park. I'm a North Bay human, through and through. I watched the number of people living in their vehicles explode during the years I lived in San Francisco and Oakland, and now I'm seeing it happen in the North Bay, too.

According to the Public Policy Institute of California, more than a third of all California residents live in, or near, poverty. The situation in California continues to worsen, as more and more people with good jobs can't afford to buy a house, lack the finances to raise children and struggle to pay rent.

During my first nine months in my current vehicle, I worked as a restaurant manager in Novato. I put in 65-hour weeks, and I couldn't afford my own apartment. Let me clarify—I had the money to pay rent, but not enough to also pay the rest of my bills and eat. I've learned from experience: a rent situation like that leaves you one bad month away from homelessness. My opinion is that it's better to be homeless on purpose, with a workable plan, than to wind up dealing with it unexpectedly. And I have reason to know.

About 15 years ago, I became homeless in Santa Cruz. I'd been working a job that barely covered my expenses, then I lost some hours one month—I got sick one week and a couple of weeks later they closed for a few days for repairs—and that's all it took. Trying to play catch up for the next couple of months while late fees exploded throughout my budget was a losing proposition; I lost my room in the house I lived in the same week I picked up a second job. I spent that winter homeless.

It was a serious situation. That year was a cold one, and we lost a couple of people to the low temperatures. I still think about one old man in particular, who died of exposure halfway through the season. I struggled. Even with two jobs, I couldn't dig my way out of my situation. Living functionally while on the streets can actually cost more money than if you have a home. Without a kitchen, I spent hundreds of dollars more per month on food, and still got less nutrition. It cost me a couple hundred dollars a month in random purchases to access "customers only" bathrooms, just so I didn't have to urinate in the streets like a dog. It was an impossible situation. I finally moved back to Sonoma County, where I had a better support system and, with significant help, was able to get back on my feet.

The time I spent homeless taught me something important; the experience itself can unbalance you significantly. It may be impossible to tell if a severely mentally ill person is on the streets because of their condition, or has become severely mentally ill simply because they are on the streets. That person you see yelling at the empty park bench might have been a normal, sane person not long ago. Living that life for those few months was mentally challenging in ways I had not anticipated.

Close to a decade later, unemployment was higher than it had been in almost 30 years. I was in Portland, failing to get more than a part-time job and facing a situation similar to my Santa Cruz experience. I knew I had to move before I became homeless again.

My move depended on some money I was owed; however, I found out I wouldn't be getting that money 27 days after I turned in my 30-day notice on the apartment. The result was that I spent that summer living in my truck while I saved up enough for a deposit so I could move back to the Bay Area.

Once again I faced difficult and frightening times. The back window on the camper shell door shattered just as it started to rain one day. Somebody tried to break into my truck while I was sleeping in it one night. Sleeping in my vehicle took a toll on my mental health. Still, having the truck made a huge difference, and my previous homeless experience helped me navigate this second round.

So in 2018, when I faced the fact that even with a decent, full-time job I couldn't dependably pay rent in my home state, I considered alternatives that might seem extreme to some.

Researching, I found a surprising number of people on "Van Life," "Stealth Camper" and "Van Dweller" forums online. As soon as I started actually living in my vehicle, I began noticing how many other people were doing the same thing. Some in old, busted-up vehicles, others in built-out campers, still others in brand-new SUVs. Clearly, several of them are doing what I am doing, staying homeless while employed. More so than people on the streets or in tents, people who live in their cars keep to themselves, which makes sense; alone we're often not noticed, but grouped together, we become a target for concerned citizens and the authorities—a fact hammered home with a recent boom in "shoppers only—others will be towed" signs in grocery-store parking lots.

But I became curious. How many people are living this way? Is that number going up as much as it seems like it is? Who else is living this way and why? Similar curiosity plagues me regarding the tent encampments we're seeing more and more of these days.

Search "homelessness in the U.S." online, and your first few hits might suggest homelessness is declining nationally. However, there are reasons to conclude this isn't true. For one, most of those homeless population studies and charts only take into account the last 10 years or so, which means the numbers go back no further than the Great Recession, when homelessness would have reached an all-time high. Naturally, there has been some decrease since then. On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence to indicate this is a serious problem with highs both before and after the recession.

According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the demand for emergency shelter in 270 U.S. cities increased 13 percent in 2001 and 25 percent in 2005. Additionally, despite what some statistics seem to indicate, homelessness hasn't progressively decreased since 2007; according to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, in 2017 the number of people experiencing homelessness in unsheltered locations increased for the third consecutive year. Steep increases in homeless populations in California seemingly indicate that U.S. homelessness is on the rise overall.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development reports that in 2019, 21 states reported increases in the number of persons experiencing homelessness, with California's homeless population increasing by 21,306 people, or 16.4 percent. That's more than the total national increase of every other state combined. The Golden State has the dubious honor of containing about half our country's homeless people.

Here, in the Bay Area, we are home to the third-largest homeless population in the country, surpassed only by New York and L.A. And our homeless crisis is moving from well-known urban centers such as Oakland and San Francisco to smaller communities such as Napa, Petaluma and Novato.

Santa Rosa, in particular, is facing homeless issues. And there may be far more people without homes than have been counted—homeless populations are notoriously difficult to track. It's easy to find interviews with experts who explain why official counts miss many people. HUD counts, for example, take place during one of the coldest parts of the year—early in the morning in late January, when anyone who can find a temporary shelter of any kind is hidden from canvassers. And there is virtually no way to count people who are in "couchsurfing" situations.

It is similarly difficult to accurately assess the number of people living out of their cars. To answer my questions about who is homeless and why, I've begun interviewing homeless people in San Rafael and Santa Rosa.

It's an emotionally exhausting exercise, but one I feel is important. In articles, talk shows and municipal propositions for homeless solutions, I almost never see any actual input from the thousands of homeless people themselves. And that is why, while I live in my little stealth camper and travel around the North Bay, I will be conducting more interviews and polls in homeless encampments and among vehicle dwellers.

I want to bring their points of view forward. We need to stop assuming we know any real information about these populations—who they are and what they need. I want to get information directly from the people experiencing it and bring it to the public.

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