I Choose to Live in My Car in L.A.

I Choose to Live in My Car in L.A.
Photo by Ted Soqui

By The Office Hobo

It was our first trip together. My lovely travel partner, Ashley, and I had been asleep in the back of my pickup truck, surrounded by the bowl of muted, molten mesas above Lake Powell, Arizona. I rose quietly from the mattress, careful not to wake Ashley by once again slamming my head on the ceiling of the camper shell. I inched my way toward the rear tailgate and — smack! — knocked my head against the battery-powered light Velcroed to the ceiling. It fell, landing squarely on Ashley's shoulder. Whoops.

Ashley and I had met earlier in the year at my work, hitting it off after a conversation about our favorite authors. When I opened up to her about my lifestyle, I worried that her interest would wane.

For nearly two years, I've been what I like to call "home-free." Selectively homeless. Currently, I live in the back of my pickup. Not just when I'm on a road trip — full-time.

My truck bed has a cozy setup, built mostly with my own hands. Plywood panels line the interior, providing a complex system of storage and shelving, which keeps the essentials close at hand. A butane stove sits atop the passenger-side cabinet, hinged to fold into a table for work or dining. Across the centered memory-foam mattress is a driver's-side bookcase, housing a small library of my favorite titles — Jon Krakauer, Charles Bukowski, Aimee Bender — below a water jug and a paper towel rack. The truck/home includes a clothes hanger and a mini fridge. I plan to install a solar panel and a moonroof.

It's modern, mobile simplicity. Henry Ford meets Henry David Thoreau.

Despite my concerns, Ashley accepts this. I used to wonder why, but I'm learning to accept it, too. I think it started that morning on Lake Powell, my arm around her drowsy body, basking in the solar glory of the remote landscape. She felt at home with my home-free lifestyle. I asked her why.

"Human reasons," she said.

The scenery changes, but the reality of the lifestyle remains the same.

I moved into my truck this spring, overnighting on the streets of Los Angeles after I lost my job to companywide layoffs. By then I'd already spent the previous 500 days secretly living in my office (a story chronicled in the L.A. Weekly on Oct. 17, 2013).

In the summer of 2012, a series of financial struggles had forced me into a choice: risk personal debt by keeping my apartment, or find another way to live. When you are short on cash, throwing a healthy chunk of your monthly income away on rent is a sour pill to swallow. A thousand dollars per month could be spent on many an exciting adventure; trashing it in exchange for a few hundred square feet of walled isolation isn't one of them.

I wanted to prove that a young professional could thrive without keeping a traditional home.

After moving into my office and paying off my car loan and a costly medical bill, that's exactly what happened. I found myself building my savings again. My outrageous student loans seemed less crippling, and I was able to start taking modest vacations.

Lake Powell, here I come.

Then came the layoff — the great transition from the daily (and nightly) comfort of the cubicle to the nomadic anti-routine of the streets. It was something I had prepared for, saving up money to support time away from a traditional job to work on my writing. And so I'd started the construction of my truck/home months before I was summoned to IHOP for the bad news. (True story — I was laid off at an IHOP.) Once it was official, I moved what few belongings I had hidden around the office — duffel bags of clothing, a guitar amp, my bicycle — into my existing storage unit and said goodbye to the comfort of reliable electricity and climate control. Thus began my newest chapter of home-free living, this time on wheels.

After perusing the parking scene in the area, I settled on a nice plot of asphalt on the Westside for my usual base. I move around a bit — you can find me overnighting anywhere from Hollywood to Malibu to Long Beach, wherever the day's conveniences take me — but my comfort zone is near my gym (read: shower), just a bike ride from the coast. I wake up and head to the gym on my way to a library or café to charge my devices and work on my creative projects. Occasionally I stop by the post office to pick up my mail, or at my storage facility to replenish my clothes duffel or grab hiking equipment.

This is my routine now. No time wasted on emptying the dishwasher, no overspending on needless luxuries. And, most importantly, no rent. For the first time in my life, I can devote 100 percent of my energy to my art.

With a camper shell, even a regular-sized truck can have all the creature comforts.
With a camper shell, even a regular-sized truck can have all the creature comforts.
Photo by Ted Soqui

This lifestyle has its merits, but it has its flaws, too. Sanitation, food storage, safety. No high-speed Internet. You know, the essentials. Convincing the opposite sex that home-free living is sexy is one thing, but the real beast in the nomadic life is chasing conveniences.

Between writing these paragraphs, for example, I find myself closing my laptop many times over to leave the area and attend to personal needs. Such as gathering my belongings from my seat at the local library to use the restroom, or to walk to Which Wich for lunch. Or driving to Bourgeois Pig for late-night Wi-Fi. Or leaving all of those places to field calls from a slew of publishers and producers vying to showcase my work.

Well, maybe not. But you get the picture — getting stuff done without a home or office isn't easy. It's a small consequence of mobile living that leaves me lamenting my long-lost love affair with efficiency.

Yes, home-free folk can be dorks, too.

Inconveniences aside, the real obstacle with this lifestyle is perception. Some assume a person living in his vehicle is some kind of social outcast, unable to fit in to the normal definitions of productive citizenry. I see my lifestyle as optional — one reason I insist on the term "home-free" — which is an admittedly nuanced way to describe a situation that can be interpreted in a number of ways, not all of them friendly. And not always legal, either.

Up next, more on issues of legality...

 

The truck bed is well organized, with homemade shelving.
The truck bed is well organized, with homemade shelving.
Photo by Ted Soqui

The legality of home-free life in a car in Los Angeles was muddied by an appeals court ruling, issued in June, which struck down Section 85.02 of the city municipal code banning people from living in their vehicles. On the books since 1983, the law became subject to vigorous enforcement beginning in September 2010, after citizens in Venice complained that people living in cars were illegally dumping trash and human waste on city streets.

The court found the ordinance unconstitutionally vague. As the ruling noted, the people affected by the city crackdown were left guessing: "Is it impermissible to eat food in a vehicle? Is it illegal to keep a sleeping bag? Canned food? Books?" Despite attempts to comply, the ruling noted, homeless people suffering under the crackdown found there was "nothing [they] can do to avoid violating the statute short of discarding all of their possessions, or leaving Los Angeles entirely."

The city could appeal, but City Attorney Mike Feuer has said he won't do that (see "Car Dwelling in L.A.: A Sizable Problem"). This has generated discussions over what the next steps might be. Some thoughtful suggestions have been made, such as providing secure, public parking areas with sanitation facilities for overnight vehicular dwellers. But there also has been plenty of angry rhetoric. People called folks like me human parasites or living garbage, and wondered if car dwellers might be "watching our patterns" — as if anyone other than the three people who liked that Facebook post about your homemade casserole cares about your daily domestic habits.

I saw evidence of this misunderstanding near my parking spot one Saturday morning. Two women dressed in yoga attire and matching sun hats walked their dogs past a Chevy Astro van with curtains blowing in its open windows. One woman turned to the other and said, "Why don't they get rid of these people? It's disgusting."

There was no trash in the area, no sign of pollution or unsightliness. Across the sidewalk from the van, the concrete culvert of the L.A. River trickled polluted water and refuse out to the Earth's farthest-reaching ocean. It was apparent to me that this woman and I had differing opinions on which held more contemptible implications for our city's landscape.

Twenty minutes later, I saw the sun-hatted women again. This time they were standing with a young woman and her Jack Russell terrier. The one in pink yoga pants knelt down, admiring the dog. "She's a cutie pie! You must take great care of her." An innocuous scene — until I realized that this young woman and her terrier had, just minutes earlier, stepped out of the Chevy Astro van across the way.

Is it possible that we might have something in common with our neighbors if we take a moment to get to know them?

Most of the car dwellers I see are respectful neighbors. We clean our vehicles regularly and keep quiet at night. We use the restroom in nearby parks and dump our trash in public garbage cans. We report late-night noise violations and keep an eye out for criminal activity. In the parking spot I use most frequently on the Westside, on the average night, five or six vehicles can be found parked in a line, taking up residence for the night. We stay out of direct view of any brick-and-mortar windows. A cinderblock wall, high shrubbery and public park land comprise our surroundings. It is residential and quiet, and we plan to keep it that way. We like to sleep soundly, too.

Our community is a friendly one. While we car dwellers mostly keep to ourselves, we acknowledge one another with a wave or a nod, and we look out for one another's belongings. Earlier this year, I thwarted an early morning break-in from a nearby van, alerting the police in time for them to make an arrest. I am as good a neighbor now as I was when I rented, and as I aspire to be when I own a home.

For the moment, living in your vehicle is legal. The people who are doing so are usually friendly and thoughtful — they just choose to live differently. Like the architecture student in his Dodge van, working his way through undergrad. Or the lighting technician in his Westfalia, paying off $60,000 of credit debt incurred during the worst of the economic downturn. Or the young photographer and his model girlfriend living out of their Volkswagen, surfing between auditions and gigs.

Or me, the writer working on the next book you might read before you fall asleep and the film you might watch on your next date night.

There are reasons we make sacrifices in our lifestyle, and they're far from malicious.

A few weeks ago, I was standing in the park with Ashley, showing her the area where I had been spending most of my recent nights. A group of young men walked by, having just finished a basketball game. They walked to their BMW, talking about heading to the driver's house for a dip in his pool. It reminded me how varied a person's lifestyle choices could be. And for a second, I questioned again what Ashley saw in me and mine. Before I could help it, I found myself asking once more.

"Why do you —?"

She didn't even let me finish my sentence before she put her arm around me and smiled.

"Human reasons."

The Office Hobo is the nom de plume of a guy who lives and works home-free in L.A. Check out his blog at theofficehobo.com.

See also: I Live in My Office

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