How to Live in Your Car Legally
By Aaron Crowe
2020 has been a year full of challenges for many Americans. Not only have we all been trying to stay healthy, we have also been faced with extreme choices tied to our economic circumstances. Many people this year have been at least threatened with the prospect of losing their home, or getting evicted, leading us to wonder where we would go. One possibility, though temporary, is always to live in your car. This may sound horrible, but reading some success stories may just get you through, and remember, living in your car will require a current auto insurance policy.
It’s impossible to know how many of the more than half a million homeless people in the United States live in their cars or have done so for a period of time. While living in your car is usually not ideal, it can be necessary for survival, and those who resort to it are often thankful to have at least a semblance of shelter from the elements.
Sutton Parks, now the owner of an office cleaning business in Franklin, Tennessee, lived in his 1993 Chrysler New Yorker for much of 2005 when he was 37-years-old after being evicted from his foreclosed home in Spring Hill, Tennessee. He had lost his job as a computer operator, and his life took an abrupt turn for the worse that left him living in his vehicle.
Just having a roof over his head — even a car roof — kept him safe and out of the rain, giving him something he says he was thankful for as he focused on survival for the time being and 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 even wrote book about his nine-month-long ordeal.
Limited storage space, no way to prepare food, and finding a place to park his vehicle were all challenges Parks faced. And 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.
Anyone whose life takes them to survival on the road can benefit from knowing how to live in your car. If the time comes when living in your car is your only option, the following information and survival tips may come in handy.
Don’t Trespass When Living in Your Car
Is it legal to live in your car? Yes, but it all depends on whose space your vehicle is occupying.
While there was a time when living in your car was difficult to accomplish legally, a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down a Florida municipal vagrancy law due to vagueness resulted in most cities abolishing their general vagrancy laws. Now a life on the road can be easier to live, so long as you understand the laws around it.
Living in a car is legal if it’s parked in your driveway or if the owner of the private property where you have parked your vehicle has given you permission to do so. But a private lot owner, such as the owner of a grocery store or shopping mall, can have the person arrested for trespassing if they spend too much time off of the road and in the lot.
Parking on a public street or in a neighborhood is subject to a jurisdiction’s parking laws. Even if there isn’t an hourly limit, a car parked for too much time could still get the attention of police, which could at minimum lead to parking tickets.
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Even when you have permission to park, some cities have specific laws against “vehicle vagrancy,” or people living in cars. The city council in Palo Alto, California, passed a law in August 2013 that makes 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 even changing clothes in your car could lead to an indecent exposure citation. Also, anti-loitering laws could 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, Parks says, and he kept waking up.
“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.”
But is it legal to sleep in your car? A lot of the same laws mentioned above can apply. Some highways have a designated space for drowsy drivers to catch some sleep, but it can be different when you’ll be sleeping in your car for an indefinite period of time.
Survival is another concern. For safety, Parks would 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 to have while living in a car is having a positive attitude. He knew he’d get through it and would get back on his feet, and he 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.
Assessing Your Needs When Living in Your Car
If you’re going to be living in your car, it’s important to know what you’ll face and need in terms of gear, food, space and storage to stay safe on the road.
Food, shelter and water are the basic staples of life and survival. Living in your vehicle means you won’t have access to kitchen gear like a refrigerator, stove or microwave to keep food fresh and prepare meals. Eating at fast food restaurants can be expensive. Have a food plan in place to make sure you’re getting the nutrients you need to live a healthy life. Likewise, it can be difficult to have adequate space and storage to have lots of clean water on hand, which is also necessary for survival. Make sure you invest in the gear you’ll need to carry a clean water supply with you.
When it comes to shelter, it’s important to your survival that you avoid extreme temperatures. Your life can be in danger if your vehicle becomes too hot or cold while you’re sleeping in it. Make sure you have an alternate place to stay if inclement weather puts your life at risk.
Finally, make sure that while your basic life needs are being met, you’re also staying safe both on the road and off of it. Keep your vehicle in good repair. Park in safe places where you’re not alone. Organize your car so that it isn’t obviously you live on the road, otherwise thieves are more likely to break in when you’re away. Make sure that someone knows where you are and how to get in contact with you, and that you have the means to contact someone if you need help.
Preparation can be necessary to your survival, so make sure you take care of yourself out on the road.