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How do homeless survive a car?

Where Do Homeless People Sleep and Stay?

Someone making an offering at the church, one of the four types of giving according to the bible.

When thinking about the homeless, one of the first things people wonder is, “ where do homeless people sleep? “.

In popular culture, homeless people are often depicted sleeping under a bridge or huddled on the pavement. While there is some truth to this, it doesn’t accurately portray how homeless people live and sleep.

The truth is there are varying degrees of homelessness. So the sleeping arrangements of people experiencing homelessness can vary widely.

To give you an idea of how the homeless really live, here are some of the places where homeless people sleep.

Places Where Homeless People Sleep and Stay

As mentioned, there’s a wide variety of sleeping arrangements for homeless people. Some may have places to sleep in but are still technically homeless. While others have nowhere to go that they end up sleeping in unsheltered places.

That said, here are the most common places where homeless people sleep:

1. In Other People’s Homes

Most of us don’t really think of couch surfers as homeless. I mean, how can they be homeless if they have a place to sleep in, right?

Well, it’s not their home. Their staying there is contingent on the generosity of the people who own or are paying rent on that house. When that generosity runs out, they’re often unceremoniously kicked out. So technically, they’re homeless.

While you may think it is a good deal for people who can’t afford a place of their own, it actually puts them in a more vulnerable position.

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When having a roof over their head depends on the goodwill of another person, people become more prone to abuse. It can also mess up their sense of self-worth and destroy what little confidence they have in themselves.

2. In Their Car

Some people consider their car as their second home. But for some people, it can be their only home. They are what many people refer to as the “hidden homeless”.

While living in cars and RVs might seem cool on Tiktok, vehicle living isn’t always as glamorous as influencers are portraying it to be.

For one, most homeless people living in their cars don’t have ready access to clean toilets. They are also more vulnerable to crimes, with most cars offering very little in the way of security.

To top it off, maintaining a vehicle these days can be pretty costly, especially with gas prices skyrocketing. If the car isn’t well-maintained, they face a very real danger of freezing to death.

3. In a Public Park

We tend to associate homeless people with public parks, and for a reason. Many people who lost their homes tend to end up in local parks as it provides a safe sanctuary where they can rest and do some recreational activities.

However, more and more cities are now prohibiting people from sleeping in parks. This punitive approach often leaves homeless people having to choose between paying a hefty or getting carted off to jail.

4. In a Homeless Shelter

As its name suggests, homeless shelters are a sanctuary for people who have lost their homes or can’t afford a place of their own.

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Unfortunately, in most cities, there usually aren’t enough shelters to accommodate every homeless person. Plus, some of them only cater to women and children. So a homeless person who doesn’t belong to both categories often has a hard time securing a spot in the local shelter.

Besides, homeless shelters often have very strict rules and curfews. Residents have to be at the shelter after a specific time, or else they won’t be allowed in. This often poses a problem for homeless people who work night shifts.

5. In Motels

Motels are a go-to place for families who recently lost their homes. Though it’s relatively safer than the streets, it’s far from ideal.

For one, families are often cramped in one room with no kitchen, no privacy, and no place for the children to play or do their homework. In some cases, more than four people have to share a small dingy room with barely enough space to move around.

Plus, motels that are affordable enough for homeless families are usually on the outskirts. Everything from schools to supermarkets is often more than a mile away, making it difficult to access most basic public services.

6. Under a Bridge

There are lots of reasons why some people choose to live under a bridge.

Obviously, many people choose that location because it provides shelter against the elements. They don’t have to worry about getting soaked in the rain or their tents being blown off when the wind gets too strong.

Another reason why a bridge’s underbelly is a popular living space among the homeless is to avoid arrests. As mentioned, many cities are tightening their regulations on camping or sleeping in public areas. But the space under the bridge is usually not considered a public area so there’s less risk of being carted off to prison in the middle of the night.

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Homeless People Living in Cars

Living in Cars

There are many reasons people who are homeless end up living in cars. Some people may have lost their home, but still have their car. Some people who experience homelessness prefer to sleep in their car rather than go to a shelter or spend the night on the streets. Shelters may turn people away if they’re at capacity. They may split up family members. And staying on the streets is not a safe option in most cases. Additionally, having a car may be a person’s biggest asset – it stores their belongings, helps them get to/from work and appointments, and provides mobility.

Others who lose their home may use what money they have to buy and live in a used car or RV. Some people choose to live in an RV or a van and have a minimalist, nomadic lifestyle. Often referred to as “full timers” or “van life”, this is not homelessness. People intentionally living off the grid can go to a hotel or rent an apartment at any time. Homeless people living in cars don’t have that choice.

Some courts have struck down laws that make sleeping illegal – stating that sleep is necessary to human survival. However, cities have skirted this by making it illegal to park cars overnight in areas where people may be inclined to sleep. (Read more about how Los Angeles has struggled with this issue here.)

Many advocates in the homelessness community argue this and other policies are criminalizing homelessness, which refers to laws that make basic life-sustaining activities (e.g., sleeping, eating, sitting) illegal.

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Other cities have recognized that sleeping in a car may be a person’s only option before going into shelter. These cities have set up ways to make it safer for people to be in their cars overnight.

For example, Dreams for Change, a non-profit in San Diego, CA, operates two parking lots for people to park overnight. Roughly 70 families and individuals park overnight and have access to services that can help them find permanent housing and other needed support.

The program’s success seems to be due to some of its guidelines:

  • No alcohol or drugs onsite
  • Drivers cannot park all day (they enter at 6pm and leave by 7am)
  • The lot is secure and staffed
  • People cannot run their cars after 10pm

Seattle, WA and Santa Barbara, CA have similar programs. (Read more here.)

Sleeping in a car may be the “best worst” option for many people. While it may be helpful in the short-term, it not a good long-term option.

Invisible People

We imagine a world where everyone has a place to call home. Until then, we strive to be the most trusted source for homelessness news, education and advocacy.

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