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    Dr. Graham Pruss
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  • Antoine Lovell
    Antoine Lovell
  • Jennifer Hark Dietz
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  • Dr. Madhavi Menon
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    Marybeth Shinn
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  • Antoine Lovell
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  • Jennifer Hark Dietz
    Jennifer Hark Dietz
  • Dr. Madhavi Menon
    Dr. Madhavi Menon
  • Dr. Graham Pruss
    Dr. Graham Pruss
  • Marybeth Shinn
    Marybeth Shinn
  • Bill Kirlin-Hackett
    Bill Kirlin-Hackett
  • Antoine Lovell
    Antoine Lovell
  • Jennifer Hark Dietz
    Jennifer Hark Dietz
  • Dr. Madhavi Menon
    Dr. Madhavi Menon
  • Dr. Graham Pruss
    Dr. Graham Pruss
  • Marybeth Shinn
    Marybeth Shinn
  • Bill Kirlin-Hackett
    Bill Kirlin-Hackett
  • Antoine Lovell
    Antoine Lovell
  • Jennifer Hark Dietz
    Jennifer Hark Dietz
  • Dr. Madhavi Menon
    Dr. Madhavi Menon
  • Dr. Graham Pruss
    Dr. Graham Pruss
  • Marybeth Shinn
    Marybeth Shinn
  • Bill Kirlin-Hackett
    Bill Kirlin-Hackett
  • Antoine Lovell
    Antoine Lovell
  • Jennifer Hark Dietz
    Jennifer Hark Dietz
  • Dr. Madhavi Menon
    Dr. Madhavi Menon
  • Dr. Graham Pruss
    Dr. Graham Pruss
  • Marybeth Shinn
    Marybeth Shinn
  • Bill Kirlin-Hackett
    Bill Kirlin-Hackett
  • Antoine Lovell
    Antoine Lovell
  • Jennifer Hark Dietz
    Jennifer Hark Dietz
  • Dr. Madhavi Menon
    Dr. Madhavi Menon
  • Dr. Graham Pruss
    Dr. Graham Pruss
  • Marybeth Shinn
    Marybeth Shinn
  • Bill Kirlin-Hackett
    Bill Kirlin-Hackett
  • Antoine Lovell
    Antoine Lovell
  • Jennifer Hark Dietz
    Jennifer Hark Dietz
  • Dr. Madhavi Menon
    Dr. Madhavi Menon

Homelessness was on the rise prior to COVID-19, but the pandemic has contributed significantly to the increasing numbers of people who have found themselves unable to continue to afford their homes. For some, living out of a vehicle is a last-ditch effort to retain a semblance of shelter. However, this comes with unique challenges, including legal implications.

If you consider your vehicle your home and you'll be inhabiting public spaces while living in your car, you need to be connected with resources to access social services and support. Additionally, it's crucial that your vehicle is registered correctly and that you're aware of the laws and regulations around parking in public spaces. There are resources available to keep your car safe and legal to live in until you're able and ready to transition into a home. In this guide, you'll find valuable information on maintaining independence, getting and keeping car insurance and registration and building a plan for moving from your vehicle back into a home.

Why Are People Living in Their Cars?

People live in their vehicles for a variety of reasons. Maybe they’ve already sought out social services and believe it’s not an option for them, they may think their family might be disrupted if they enter a shelter, they may have a criminal background and get denied services or they may just choose to live in their vehicle because it’s more affordable.

“All people choose to live in their form of housing from their perceived options,” says Dr. Graham Pruss of the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative. “People who choose to live in their vehicles do so for many different reasons. Whether it's affordable housing, snowbirds, or a temporary way to avoid homelessness, there are ways you can avoid being criminalized and avoid harm when sleeping on public streets.”

An illustration of a man sitting on the rear bumper of his car with the trunk open.

There are several serious and compelling reasons why people live in their cars, including the following:

1

Increased rental rates

Rent continues to rise in most of the U.S. The average rent has increased by 3.2% in the last five years, which has led to 29% of renters paying more than they initially budgeted for housing. Nearly two-thirds of Americans reported being stressed out about paying rent each month before the pandemic. In 2019, Americans earning the federal minimum wage amount would need to work 127 hours a week to afford the average national rent for a two-bedroom apartment.

2

There’s an income-rent gap in the U.S.

Along with the fact that rents are going up, the average household income has not increased enough to keep up with inflation. Between 2001 and 2018, household income rose .5%, but rent rose nearly 13%, leaving renters struggling to pay for housing.

3

Lack of affordable housing

There is not enough affordable housing to go around for all who need it. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), only 36 affordable and available homes exist for every 100 extremely low-income renter households.

4

Social services are underfunded

For families that are facing homelessness, seeking assistance from social services is a natural step. However, continued budget cuts and the repercussions of COVID-19 have left social services organizations severely underfunded and unable to help.

5

Social services are not available

Some people living in their cars have looked into social services and don't find them a viable option for various reasons. For example, individuals with a criminal background might not qualify for services. Families might not want to go into a shelter if it requires them to live apart from each other. Senior citizens may not want to leave their community or face increased health risks from living in a group setting.

6

Unexpected evictions

Through job loss, illness or other serious reasons, people may end up evicted from their homes through no fault of their own. Many people who had steady jobs and were able to pay their rent or mortgage before COVID-19 have lost their jobs since the pandemic. While the government has placed a moratorium on evictions through the end of 2020, this is expected to expire. Once it does, millions of Americans will be in danger of losing their homes.

7

Some people want to

Not everyone who is living in their car has been forced to do so. Some people choose to live in their vehicles to save money and travel easily. This is especially true for individuals who live in RVs.

How to Keep Your Car Compliant for Vehicular Residency

An illustration of a young person putting personal belongings, such as luggage, blanket and boxes, in the car's trunk.

Whether you're living in your car for a week, a month or for the foreseeable future, there are a variety of things you can do to keep your vehicle compliant with local and national laws and maintain your independence. Ensuring you obtain and keep adequate car insurance and self-identification while assuring your vehicle is registered correctly is an excellent way to stay safe and legal while also serving as a good step toward finding a home.


Why is auto insurance so important for people living in their cars?This is an icon

Car insurance is required in every state except for New Hampshire. However, even in New Hampshire, you have to prove that you can afford any damages that might result from an accident out of pocket. If you're caught driving or living in your car without car insurance in the rest of the country, you could be fined, or your vehicle could be taken away.

Every state varies on their laws regarding insurance, but being caught without it could result in fines of several hundred dollars up to several thousand dollars. Ultimately, being caught without insurance will most likely cost you more than having the minimum amount of coverage on your vehicle.

What kind of insurance should you get?This is an icon

Every state has a minimum requirement for bodily injury and property damage liability coverage. The amount of mandated coverage varies by state. For example, in Arizona, you must have a $15,000 bodily injury liability limit per person, a $30,000 maximum for all bodily injuries to be paid for any one accident and a $10,000 maximum for property damage per accident. In some states, these numbers are much higher.

If you are still making car payments on your vehicle, you are required by law to have collision insurance. In some states, you're also required to have uninsured motorist or underinsured motorist coverage.

  • Bodily injury liability insurance: Pays for any medical bills and lost wages for a third-party if you’re in an at-fault accident.
  • Property damage liability insurance: Pays to repair or replace a third-party vehicle, building or structure if you’re in an at-fault accident.
  • Collision insurance: Covers any repairs or damages to your vehicle due to a collision with another car or object. It does not cover an encounter with wild animals.
  • Uninsured motorist/underinsured motorist coverage: Covers the cost of damages and repair to your vehicle if you’re in an accident with an uninsured motorist. This coverage is only required in Connecticut, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Caroline, North Dakota, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
How can you get insurance?This is an icon

Obtaining insurance when you’re living in your car presents some challenges. For one, some insurance companies require a permanent address. Here are the steps you can take to obtain car insurance while living out of your vehicle.

  1. Understand your states’ insurance requirements. Every state has a minimum insurance requirement. Knowing this number will help you understand what type of insurance you need and how much you need. Obtaining the minimum required amount of insurance can save you money on your insurance premiums. You can learn what your state's minimum requirements are through the American Insurance Institute, or speak with a local insurance agent.
  2. Educate yourself on the cost and factors that affect insurance rates. Insurance companies look at a variety of factors when determining insurance premiums. Age, gender, driving record, location, vehicle make and model and even how often you drive can all impact how much you’ll pay.
  3. Determine how much coverage you need: Understanding your state's requirements and the factors that affect insurance should determine how much insurance you need. From here, you can start by shopping for the minimum amount of car insurance coverage you need for your state and get an idea of what it's going to cost you.
  4. Get a copy of your driving record. You can obtain a copy of your driving record by going to your local DMV and requesting your records or requesting them online through a DMV online portal.
  5. Obtain an address. If the insurance company insists on a permanent address, reach out to friends and family to see if you can use their address, see if local churches and social service organizations can offer assistance, or pay a small fee to the U.S. Postal Service for a mail address.
  6. Shop for low-income insurance: Some states offer low-income car insurance assistance for individuals and families who meet earning requirements. This can help you find an insurance premium you can afford.
  7. Get Quotes from at least three companies: Use an online quote tool to quickly and effectively shop for the best and cheapest car insurance that meets your needs and your state’s legal requirements.
Car Insurance Challenges and Solutions
  • Challenge
    Solution
  • Obtaining a permanent address
    Pay a small fee to the U.S. Postal Service to receive a dedicated mailbox where you can receive mail and have a verifiable address.
  • Finding an affordable rate
    Ask auto insurance providers what discounts are available to see if you are eligible for any premium discounts.
  • Meeting state requirements for insurance minimums
    Every state has a minimum requirement for insurance. You can use the Insurance Information Institute to determine your state's requirements and ensure you have the coverage that fits.
  • Getting multiple quotes
    If you have internet access, you can get multiple insurance quotes to shop prices. If you're living in your car, you're in exceptional circumstances and may want to seek out an insurance agent to explain your situation. They can help you shop for different insurance options.

Getting a Driver's License

Obtaining a driver's license while living out of your car may seem like an inconvenience, but there are a variety of reasons why you should keep your license up-to-date or get one if you don’t have one.

Why should I keep my driver’s license or get one?

It's illegal to drive without a license, so if you plan to move your vehicle or use it for transportation, you want to make sure you're not breaking the law.

Your driver's license also serves as a form of identification, which you'll need when trying to obtain insurance, purchase a new vehicle or register your vehicle. Proper identification is critical in accessing services and benefits that can help you transition back into a home. Without identification, it's more challenging to get a job, find a place to live, open a bank account, get food stamps and disability benefits or even move into a homeless shelter.

Massachusetts is just one of the states working to make it easier for those living with homelessness to obtain an ID, but it's best to call your local DMV to understand the identification laws in your state.

Driver’s License Challenges and Solutions
  • Challenge
    Solution
  • You need to provide a physical address to obtain a driver’s license.
    Some states offer a "no-fixed address" option where you can use additional information to obtain a driver's license.
  • You need proof of residence at the address you provide to the DMV.
    Often, you can use a bank account statement instead of providing a utility bill or rental agreement.
  • Obtaining a photo ID or driver's license costs money.
    Speak with your local DMV to see if they have programs in place to waive the fees for those living with homelessness. You can also seek local shelters to get resources for assistance.
  • You'll need multiple forms of identification to get a driver's license.
    You can obtain a copy of your birth certificate from the state in which you were born.

Steps for Registering Your Vehicle

If you live in your car, you want to register it so that you aren't punished for owning a vehicle illegally. You most likely need a permanent address to register your vehicle, but here's how you can register it even if you don't have a permanent address.

1

Obtain the title of the vehicle

Make sure that the vehicle title is in your name and no one else's. Suppose you purchase a car from a private party. In that case, you can ask for the paper title and take it with additional documentation such as proof of insurance and the transfer of title form to your local DMV to get the title in your name. If you move to another state, you’ll need to contact your insurance provider to get your insurance transferred to your new state. States require different documentation, so it's best to look into what your local DMV requires before heading in.

2

Pass a safety and emissions test

You cannot register a vehicle if it has not passed a safety and emissions test. You can get this test done at local car shops for a reasonably low price.

3

Have proof of insurance

You will need proof of insurance to register your car. You can get this from your insurance provider.

4

Fill out vehicle registration forms

Each state will have a set of vehicle registration forms that need to be filled out. These can be found online or directly at the DMV.

5

Find a local DMV

You can locate your local DMV by doing a quick online search. You can also find a list of DMVs across the United States on the DMV website.

6

Use temporary license plates

The DMV may provide you with temporary license plates while your permanent plates are being processed. Make sure to use these plates so that you are not pulled over for driving without an adequately plated vehicle.

7

Prepare to pay fees

Registering a vehicle is not free, so you'll want to be financially prepared to pay the associated costs. Fees will depend on your vehicle model, make and year.

Registration Challenges and Solutions
  • Challenge
    Solution
  • Presenting proof of auto insurance.
    Follow the recommended steps listed above for obtaining insurance when living out of your vehicle.
  • Accessing the internet to find proper forms and DMV locations.
    Head to a local library. Public libraries offer free access to technology and the internet.
  • Obtaining the title of a vehicle.
    Only purchase a vehicle that includes a paper title that can be transferred into your name
  • Presenting a permanent address.
    Obtain a mailbox from the USPS or ask a friend to use their home address so you can present a permanent address if necessary.

Expert Insight on Vehicular Residency

MoneyGeek spoke with industry leaders and academics to provide expert insight on vehicular residency. The answers below are from experts in academia and professional organizations that directly help those facing homelessness transition back into a home.

  1. How has COVID-19 impacted vehicular residency?
  2. What is the biggest challenge to overcome when people try to make the transition from vehicular residency back into a home? How can they overcome this challenge?
  3. What resources should individuals/families living in their car seek out in their home cities?
  4. For individuals and families living in their cars, what do you recommend for staying safe?

Dr. Graham Pruss
Dr. Graham PrussPostdoctoral Scholar at the University of San Francisco's Benioff Homelessness & Housing Initiative with the Center for Vulnerable Populations
Marybeth Shinn
Marybeth ShinnProfessor at Vanderbilt University
Bill Kirlin-Hackett
Bill Kirlin-HackettDirector at Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness, The Rev. (M.Div.)
Antoine Lovell
Antoine LovellSubject Matter Expert on Homelessness, Housing and Community Development
Jennifer Hark Dietz
Jennifer Hark DietzExecutive Director at PATH
Dr. Madhavi Menon
Dr. Madhavi MenonProfessor of Psychology at Nova Southeastern University

Where Can People Who Are Living With Homelessness Get Support?

An illustration of a young person putting a bag of groceries in the car's trunk.

There are many resources available to help individuals facing vehicular residency. It's essential to seek out local resources and organizations to learn everything you can about your options. The following resources can provide support right now.

  • Food Pantries: This site provides a list of more than 12,000 emergency food plans across the United States.
  • United States Department of Housing and Urban Development: HUD provides a variety of resources, including vouchers for finding low-income housing, rental information, subsidized housing and additional housing assistance.
  • Homeless Shelter Directory: This list offers information on homeless shelters located across the U.S.
  • Free Clinics: Visitors to this site will find a list of free medical care clinics in the U.S.
  • Job Corps: Job Corps provides educational and vocational training for youth and adults. It’s also a great source for beginning a career search.
  • PATH: This organization helps people find permanent housing and provides case management, medical and mental healthcare, benefits advocacy, employment training and other services in more than 140 cities in six regions.

How to Find the Right Assistance Program

Everyone's situation is different, and families and individuals may require different levels of assistance. Some people end up living out of their car because of income, others because of domestic violence or substance abuse. It can be challenging to know where to start for your particular situation.

The following are tips for finding the right assistance program for you.

1

Find local social services

If you’re unsure where to start, 211.org is a good place. This site provides 24/7 support to find local social services in your area. The organization offers assistance in finding services for the following needs:

  • Food and nutrition programs
  • Shelter and housing options
  • Disaster relief
  • Veterans services
  • Health care, vaccination and health epidemic information
  • Addiction and rehab programs
  • Reentry services for ex-offenders
  • Support groups for mental illness and special needs
  • A safe, confidential path for those facing physical or emotional abuse
2

Go to your local church

Not only do many churches offer food and even shelter, but they can assist you in finding other resources in your area to help you get back on your feet.

3

Utilize your free resources

Public libraries are a great place to get free access to the internet. Once online, you can research assistance programs in your area that fit your particular needs.

4

Access assistance programs

For funding needs, it's always best to start at Benefits.gov. On this website, you'll find access to government assistance programs to fit any situation.

5

Seek out local homeless shelters for additional assistance

If you are experiencing domestic violence or dealing with raising young children and living in a vehicle, the local homeless shelter is a great place to start. They can provide the necessary safety and connect you with additional assistance. If you're caring for a minor, they may be eligible to receive subsidized health coverage through Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

Advocacy and Support Organizations

There are a variety of organizations across the U.S. that advocate for the homeless every day. Through providing resources and funding to working with local governments to get laws and regulations changed. Many organizations are advocating for individuals already experiencing or about to experience homelessness.

  • Volunteers of America: This organization works to prevent and end homelessness. They connect with people facing homelessness and provide financial support, service referrals, access to emergency and drop-in shelters and more.
  • National Coalition for the Homeless: This coalition assists those facing homelessness to stay in their home and provides emergency assistance for those without a home.
  • National Health Care for the Homeless Council: The NHCHC comprises volunteers, donors and board members who offer training, research and advocacy towards the movement to end homelessness.
  • Community Action Partnership: This nonprofit membership organization is dedicated to providing technical support, training and other vital resources to community action agencies, which are public, nonprofit groups funded by the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG).
  • National Homelessness Law Center: The Law Center is a nonprofit organization that advocates for homeless rights, including adequate housing, healthcare, food and education.
  • National Center for Homeless Education: This center is operated within the U.S. Government’s Department of Education for the federal Education for Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) Program.

Getting an Address

Many of the steps an individual needs to take to transition back into a home require having a physical address. From applying for jobs to registering your vehicle, insuring your car, and obtaining a driver's license, an address is needed to complete all of these things. The following organizations can help those facing vehicular residency obtain a physical address.

  • USPS: You can apply for a P.O. Box from your local United States Postal Service office.
  • Coalition for the Homeless: The Coalition for the Homeless’s emergency mail program provides homeless New Yorkers with a mailing address for receiving important documents and information.
  • General Delivery Service through USPS: For individuals who don't qualify for a P.O. Box, you may qualify for general delivery through your local USPS office. General delivery is a service provided for those without a permanent address.

Safe Parking Programs

Many cities facing increased homelessness have implemented safe parking programs that allow people facing vehicular residency a safe and legal place to park their car overnight. California and the Pacific Northwest are paving the way in safe parking programs, with the following cities all offering safe parking programs.

There are additional cities that offer safe parking programs. Consider researching options in your area.

Housing Programs

Housing assistance exists in many forms. Depending on your situation, you may be able to find emergency shelter, drop-in centers, subsidized housing or even temporary housing and hotel and motel vouchers. The following organizations can help connect you with the proper services to find these options or directly provide housing assistance.

Road to Housing
  • Homefirst: Homefirst assists individuals and families in finding transitional and permanent housing.
  • HUD Family Unification Program: This program helps families at risk of being separated from their children because of a lack of adequate housing found a safe place to live.
  • HUD Title V: Allows organizations to use underutilized and surplus federal properties to provide housing to the homeless.
  • Rental Assistance Guide from HUD: This guide can help you find privately owned subsidized housing, public housing, voucher programs and more. It’ll also guide you through your legal rights.
Transitional Housing
Motel Vouchers
  • Salvation Army: The Salvation Army offers local motel vouchers for those facing homelessness.
  • Catholic Charities: The charity is known for providing shelter relief to those facing hardships. Catholic Charities does not offer shelter, but many locations will offer hotel and motel vouchers. You can search for your local Catholic Charities to contact them.
  • 211: While 211 does not directly provide motel vouchers, they do offer the ability to search for emergency vouchers in your area.

Crucial Needs Services

People living in their cars need access to the internet, computers, showers and other resources to stay safe and work towards moving into a home and keeping or finding a job. The following organizations provide crucial needs services to those experiencing homelessness.

Showers
  • Streetside Showers: Provides mobile hot showers and personal hygiene to those in need. On their website, you can search for streetside shower locations.
  • Public Shower Directory: Use this directory to find public and free showers available to the homeless.
  • YMCA: Similar to YMCA in Los Angeles, California, you can find multiple YMCA locations across the U.S. offering free showers. Do an online search to see if your local YMCA has showering options.
Access to Technology
  • Public Libraries: Public libraries offer free internet access and technology training. This site provides a list of public libraries across the U.S.
  • Homeless Encampments: Some homeless encampments have been granted free or inexpensive access to Wi-Fi.
  • Link-SF: A mobile-optimized website that connects users with providers of technology and other services.
Nutrition
Clothing, Blankets and Necessities
About the Author

About the Author


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Sara East is a freelance writer and content marketing professional based in Reno, NV. She specializes in content on insurance, mortgage, business and travel.


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