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.”
There are several serious and compelling reasons why people live in their cars, including the following:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Car Insurance Challenges and Solutions
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
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.
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.
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.
Have proof of insurance
You will need proof of insurance to register your car. You can get this from your insurance provider.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
- How has COVID-19 impacted vehicular residency?
- 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?
- What resources should individuals/families living in their car seek out in their home cities?
- For individuals and families living in their cars, what do you recommend for staying safe?
Part-Time Lecturer, School of City & Regional Planning
Professor of Psychology at Nova Southeastern University
Chief Executive Officer at PATH
Subject Matter Expert on Homelessness, Housing and Community Development
Director at Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness, The Rev. (M.Div.)
Professor at Vanderbilt University
Postdoctoral Scholar at the University of San Francisco's Benioff Homelessness & Housing Initiative with the Center for Vulnerable Populations
Where Can People Who Are Living With Homelessness Get Support?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Jewish Family Service Safe Parking Service, San Diego, CA
- Safe Parking LA, Los Angeles, CA
- Safe Parking Sites in Los Angeles
- San Francisco County Safe Parking Programs
- Beaverton Safe Parking Program, Oregon
- Eugene Overnight Parking Program, Oregon
- GoConnect SafePark Program, Clark County, WA
There are additional cities that offer safe parking programs. Consider researching options in your area.
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.
- TransitionalHousing.org: Find a list of more than 6,300 hundred transitional housing services located across the U.S.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's Housing and Shelter: Use this site to find resources and assistance for those who have substance abuse and mental health issues to find transitional housing options.
- Transitional Living Fact Sheet: Take an inside look at the Family and Youth Services Bureau program for funding transitional housing for youth facing homelessness.
- Transitional Living Program for Youth: Government-subsidized housing is offered for up to 21 months to youth facing homelessness.
- 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.
- 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.
- Child Nutrition Programs: You’ll find a list of programs that help with keeping children experiencing homelessness fed.
- Soup Kitchens, Food Pantries, Emergency Food Programs Assisted Through Food Banks: This is a list of food pantries and soup kitchens by state.
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP): SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, provides food for needy and low-income families.
Clothing, Blankets and Necessities
- American Red Cross: This organization provides emergency aid and supplies to low-income families and those in need.
- Blankets for the Homeless: A nonprofit that provides blankets, clothing, backpacks, tents, shoes, toiletries and more.
- Dress for Success: It provides support, professional attire and development tools to help women achieve economic independence.
- National Alliance to End Homelessness: An organization dedicated to ending homelessness across America.
About the Author
About Sara East
- Bloomberg. "Safe Parking Programs Help Homeless Sleeping in Cars." Accessed December 10, 2020.
- Governing.com. "It's the New Form of Affordable Housing': More People Are Living in Their Cars." Accessed December 10, 2020.
- iProperty Management. "Renting Statistics." Accessed December 12, 2020.
- National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. "Housing Not Handcuffs 2019." Accessed December 10, 2020.
- NPR. "Amid Homelessness Crisis, Los Angeles Restricts Living In Vehicles." Accessed December 10, 2020.
- National Alliance to End Homelessness. "Federal Funding for Homelessness Programs." Accessed December 12, 2020.
- National Low Income Housing Coalition. "The Gap - A Shortage of Affordable Homes." Accessed December 12, 2020.
- The Pew Charitable Trusts. "Without ID, Homeless Trapped in Vicious Cycle." Accessed December 12, 2020.
- The 191st General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. "An Act to provide identification to homeless youth and families." Accessed December 21, 2020.