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Living off the Grid 

When life takes you out of your house and into your car

Thursday, Jan 28 2010

You've seen them. Maybe one has even parked on your street: a conversion van, curtains drawn, or a camper with signs of everyday life. They are so ubiquitous in Venice that some locals have been trying to turn the onetime hippie enclave into a parking-permit-only town as a way to ward off these "undesirables." Who are these people who can live in a van? Some have made the choice to downsize their lives, not wanting to live conventionally or pay rent, and some have been forced to scale back their lives due to losing their job or their home. Either way, it takes a certain kind of person to give up the trappings most of us have become so accustomed to. Living in a van is not just a lifestyle but a state of mind. Many thousands in L.A. are living in their vehicles or in tents or some other temporary shelter. Four of their stories follow.


It's a rainy day and Exile has been holed up at home, a faded blue and rust-specked 1969 Econoline conversion van. He's sitting cross-legged, dressed in layers, baggy cargo pants and a T-shirt over black thermals. His soles, thick with calluses, are black from the miles he's walked barefoot. Exile has the look of a castaway — long, graying, stringy hair tied in a ponytail, several days' worth of stubble, and intense, yellow eyes.

click to flip through (3) PHOTO BY ORLY OLIVIER - Exile, living the anarchist's dream

He moves around a lot to avoid overstaying his welcome. Sometimes he spends a couple days out by the beach, or he heads up to Santa Cruz, but lately he's been parking at a secluded spot by the L.A. River, where no one seems to notice him. That's a good thing.

At one time Exile was known as Steve, an accountant working for a dot-com company, living in apartments in Culver City and later in Sacramento. Steve had short hair and glasses, wore button-down shirts and khakis, ate meat and drank bottled water. He drove a Honda Civic coupe with a sunroof.

But Steve was also a budding anarchist, and he found it increasingly difficult to avoid hypocrisy in his own life and harder to live among what he calls the "gen pop," or general population. "For brevity's sake, I'm an anarchist," he explains, "but I generally don't follow the anarchist line, 'cause a lot of anarchists are anarchists in label only. They talk a good talk, they advertise all their causes in patches and walk around looking like a marketing campaign. But what are they really doing to provoke change?"

Steve had always been an activist, but as he grew older, he became more a weekend warrior.

"I was going out there and challenging authority and challenging the system directly," he says, "then having to go back to the office on Monday, to this dreary, humdrum lifestyle I had adopted for myself, for the sake of creature comforts. It felt foreign, and I felt so absent from it all."

Six years ago, fully committing to his beliefs, Steve quit his job and began to shed the layers of his life: He gave away furniture to friends, sold his car, pared possessions to whatever could fit in his van, and then he moved in. Steve became Exile.

"I made a choice to live in my van, so that I don't have to work at a job I don't like or to limit my speech to that which is comfortable for people," Exile explains, as he prepares lunch with raw sprout wraps that have been "liberated from Whole Paycheck."

"The status quo dictates that if you don't live by their standards, you're considered homeless or a social pariah or whatever critique they want to throw at you," he says. "My van is different from other people's homes, but it's a home. I'm not paying rent on a place I don't own. I think it's comfortable, I like it."

He surveys the wooden-paneled van, rain falling gently on the roof, and points to some speaker parts he's about to install. "Plus, it's about to have a bomb-ass stereo."

Exile spends most of his days as a full-time activist, living months at a time on the Cal/Mexico border, in what he calls "a low-intensity warfare state" with the Border Angels, bringing food and water to dying, dehydrated immigrants. Don't get him started on animal rights, especially the "number of animals who die in laboratories at UCLA, Davis, Berkeley, Arizona State; animals that don't have the luxury of escaping the torture and horrors inflicted upon them."

Protesting has not been entirely peaceable for Exile. He has felt concussion grenades, tasted tear gas; he's been beaten up and thrown in jail. He was hospitalized after fighting for the South Central Farm: A security guard broke his nose in two places and the bones in his face below his left eye socket, crushing his maxillary sinus cavity. "A nurse told me not to sneeze or my eye might pop out," he says, almost laughing.

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