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How to Live in Your Car, Legally


living_in_carBy Aaron Crowe

It’s impossible to know how many of the more than 600,000 homeless people in the United States live in their cars, but those who do may want to be thankful for at least having that much shelter.

Sutton Parks is. Now the owner of an office cleaning business in Franklin, Tenn., Parks, 46, lived in his 1993 Chrysler New Yorker for much of 2005 when he was 37 years old and was evicted from his foreclosed home in Spring Hill, Tenn. He had lost his job as a computer operator.

Just having a roof over his head — even a car roof — kept him out of the rain and safe, giving him something he says he was thankful for as he tried to find work.

“My mindset was, ‘I’m not doing this for the rest of my life. I’m just doing this tonight,’” says Parks, who wrote a book about his ordeal for nine months.

While Parks says he wasn’t harassed by police or anyone else while parking overnight in parking lots at a truck stop diner or Walmart, he realizes he could have been told to move along.

Don’t trespass when living in your car

Living in a car is legal if it’s parked in your driveway or a private property owner has granted permission. But a private lot owner, such as a grocery store or shopping mall owner, can have the person arrested for trespassing.

A 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down a Florida municipal vagrancy law for vagueness has resulted in most cities abolishing their general vagrancy laws.

Parking on a public street or in a neighborhood, however, is subject to a jurisdiction’s parking laws. If there isn’t an hourly limit, a car parked long enough could get the attention of police and at least lead to parking tickets.

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no_parking_signEven with permission to park, some cities have laws against “vehicle vagrancy” of people living in cars. The City Council in Palo Alto, Calif., passed a law in August making living in a car illegal, citing safety concerns over too many vehicle dwellers in a community center parking lot.

Violators could be charged with a misdemeanor and up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Vagrancy laws may no longer be around, but changing clothes in your car could lead to an indecent exposure citation.

Anti-loitering laws could also be enforced, meaning it’s illegal to be in one public place for too long.

Adequate sleep, safety a concern for car dwellers

After being evicted from a house he could no longer afford, Parks’ first plan was to sleep in a tent in a state park, but the park he wanted to stay in was closed for the winter. Instead, he moved into his car, showered at a county recreation center, and spent many afternoons at a library reading and applying for jobs.

One of the most difficult parts was falling asleep in the car, he says, even with ear plugs and a sun shade to block out light from the windshield. It was always too cold and Parks kept waking up, he says.

“The thing with sleeping in your car is you don’t really sleep in your car,” Parks says. “You take naps.”

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When visiting a local book store, he’d sometimes fall asleep in the big, comfortable chairs.

“You’re always tired during the day,” he says. “You just can’t get a good night’s sleep.”

For safety, he’d often park near a restaurant at a truck stop where salesmen or others would spend the night in their cars. “There’s always people sleeping in their cars in truck stops,” Parks says.

Another safe option was the parking lot at Walmart, which allows RVs to park overnight on its property.

For Parks, one of the best attributes for living in a car was having a positive attitude. He knew he’d get through it and would get back on his feet, and kept being thankful that he at least had a roof over his head.

“If you’re going to be homeless in a car, the U.S. is the best place to be,” he says.