Van-life mantra: Tune out, drive off

No, it’s not a van–but Fortune magazine doesn’t know that, and there’s the rub.

These days, the LSD-driven urge of another age to “turn on, tune in, drop out” is being replaced, to a significant degree, by the sound of transmissions shifting into gear and the refrain “tune out, turn on, drive off.” Many of today’s RVers are the new hippies.

Fortune magazine this past week ran a somewhat whiny article under the headline, “Van life is just ‘glorified homelessness,’ says a 33-year-old woman who tried the nomadic lifestyle and ended up broke.” The photo that topped this angst-filled account is reproduced above, and as anyone who knows anything about RVing will tell you, that ain’t no van; it’s a small class C motorhome.

A trivial point? Perhaps, but it illustrates the bigger problem of mainstream publications writing about subjects they don’t really understand. It’s not just that the reporter and her editors don’t know the difference between one kind of RV and another–a difference, for example, that might confuse a reader about the story subject’s complaints about being unable to cook or wash-up while on the road–but that their ignorance perpetuates certain stereotypes. See all those RVs rolling down the road? Just glorified homelessness, they’re saying. Bums on wheels. Vagabonds.

To be fair, that’s not entirely incorrect–but it is enormously skewed. Fortune‘s story reminds me of the ‘Sixties and mainstream media’s coverage of the counterculture, which emphasized sex, drugs and rock-and-roll and largely skated by the deeper philosophical, political and cultural rift that was opening up in American society. Sometimes it seemed like an entire generation was being dismissed as either a dopey long-haired bunch of hedonistic parasites or as an addle-brained cadre of brainwashed Marxists fantasizing about overthrowing the system. Both were readily found, but there was so much more going on, with so much more meaningful commentary about U.S. society that wasn’t nearly as sensational.

These days, the LSD-driven urge to “turn on, tune in, drop out” is being replaced, to significant degree, by the sound of engaging ignition keys and the refrain “tune out, turn on, drive off.” Untold hundreds of thousands of Americans have piled into everything from rattle-trap conversion vans to skoolies to homemade teardrop trailers–as well as $200,000 class B “vans” and 40-foot motorcoaches–in search of, well, something: new vistas, new adventures, the freedom of the open road, movement itself. Or sometimes they’re just fleeing from rather than running to, be it cold winters or an accumulated burden of too much stuff or just a sense of staleness.

In that sense, the new nomads are not too dissimilar from the psychedelic voyagers of 60 years ago. Viewed from a different perspective, however, today’s voyagers are reacting to–are resisting–a greatly more circumscribed world. The ‘Sixties were a time of social wealth and endless possibilities; the ‘Twenties are an age of growing impoverishment and diminishing horizons. Hitting the road means fleeing the crime and economic privation so many people fear will claim them as their next victims, of getting out from under the oppressive reach of the government (“the man,” again) with its mask mandates and high taxes. The cultural rift threatens to be even wider than it was those many decades ago, leaving us all with no one to rely on other than ourselves. What better way to do that than in the seemingly self-contained little world of an RV?

It’s all self-delusional, of course. Taking a trip, be it to the land inside of your mind or to a boondocking site on BLM land, can last only so long before reality intrudes. Acid trips wear off. Road trips require state-maintained byways and highways, not to mention gas stations and replacement tires. And just as some acid-trippers crashed and burned, so too some modern-day nomads will discover they’re not really equipped for this new adventure on which they’ve embarked. They’ll have a bad trip. Bummer.

The mistake Fortune made, with its simplistic glomming onto a counter-narrative to demonstrate its supposed ability to look beneath the surface of a growing cultural phenomenon, was to stop there. It’s as though it were reporting on the excesses of Haight-Ashbury as a way of dismissing a huge cultural paradigm shift without saying Whoa! What’s actually going on here? What are these people saying about cultural expectations, the disintegration of authority, the relationship between individuals and their society?

The growing tide of today’s nomads represents a new critique of today’s society that might become just as disruptive as were those other voyagers of 60 years ago. Picking at the fringes of this phenomenon without digging past the gotcha headlines not only demonstrates a lack of insight and understanding–as evidenced by that non sequitur of a picture–but creates a false impression that we are now better informed.

Nope.

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A dystopian future, if you care to look

Part of the encampment of unhoused people under a freeway and railroad overpass in Oakland, Cal. that has been the scene of numerous fires, most recently Aug. 16. Copyright, David Bacon.

“The Highwaymen,” a 2019 movie starring Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson as the lawmen who tracked down and ultimately killed Bonny and Clyde, is worth seeing (you can find it on Netflix), not just because it offers a less romanticized view of the outlaws than was served up by Arthur Penn’s 1967 film, but for the gritty glimpses it shows of life during the Great Depression. Among them: an almost casual drive-by of travel trailers jammed side by side in roadside woods, clearly not a vacation spot but an encampment of otherwise homeless people struggling to provide themselves with basic shelter.

Ninety years later, some things haven’t changed, as seen in the photo above. While the U.S. is not in a depression, and arguably not even in recession, its wealth gap is bigger than it’s ever been and the people at the bottom are being priced out of existence in the second-most expensive real estate market in the country. As the San Francisco Chronicle reported today, that city’s officials estimate as many as 20,000 residents “will experience homelessness” (the politically correct phrasing these days) at some point in 2022.

Some will be homeless for just a short while, even as others live on the streets for months and years at a time, but at any one moment the city can expect to be “home” to approximately 8,000 people without a home or apartment to sleep in that night. Small wonder, then, that the area also features scenes that would look remarkably familiar to Bonnie and Clyde’s contemporaries. These aren’t the homes merely of drug addicts–that’s a child’s toy in the foreground. Families live here.

In this case, “here” is an area known as the Wood Street encampment, located across from San Francisco under the Oakland approach to the Bay Bridge. More than 200 people have been camping there at any one time for the past seven years, living in an assortment of RVs, tents, plywood shacks and huts made from a mixture of straw, clay and sand called “cob.” Their hardscrabble existence is made even more precarious by the need to build fires for cooking and heat–fires that spiraled out of control more than a hundred times in 2021 and 48 times to date this year, including one just a couple of days ago.

Still, they persist, not just for lack of alternatives but because shared hardship creates a bond. “These are communities,” an encampment resident told a local reporter last month. “People stay at these places because they feel safe there.” 

Only thinly chronicled to date, such communities may start getting wider exposure through the efforts of non-traditional journalists like David Bacon, who has spent a lifetime photographing and writing about marginalized people, notably migrant workers and indigenous peoples of Central America. But from time to time he has focused elsewhere, and now he’s taken what I suspect will be the first of several extended forays into the Wood Street encampment.

More than a score of Bacon’s trademark black-and-white photos of the encampment can be seen in a photoessay on his blog, which also is an excellent introduction to an immense body of work by a passionate, principled observer of the human condition. I urge you to take a look. One can also hope–I hope–that his example will inspire others to follow suit, in the best tradition of advocacy journalism, so that the countless other Wood Street encampments around the country can be spotlighted for the rest of us to see.

Part of the reason Bonnie and Clyde were so hard to corner was because of the help they got from a public that viewed them as Robin Hood-type figures; the money they stole, after all, was held by banks–depositories for the rich–not from people just scraping to get by. These days we have a different criminal class, one that’s more politically driven, but its depredations are similarly abetted by those who have little to nothing of their own and few prospects of that changing. It’s time the rest of us started paying attention.

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First they came for the homeless . . .

No matter what metrics you examine, the national housing crisis gets only more dire with each passing month–yet the prevailing social response has been to make it ever harder for people to find a place they can call home. The predictable result: more people living on the streets, more rattletrap RVs heading for public lands and growing tension between those who own a home (or can afford rent) and those who don’t.

On the supply side, the latest news is that the average home price in the U.S. popped above $375,000 in March, a 15% increase over the past 12 months. This development came against a backdrop of mortgage rates nearly doubling in the same period, prompting headline writers to coo that an overwrought real estate market might finally be poised to cool down, as if that’s somehow meaningful. But unless they’re predicting an actual real estate downturn (they’re not), what the headline writers are saying is that housing prices will remain lodged at levels far higher than most working people can afford.

On the demand side, there simply isn’t enough affordable housing to go around, and the consequences are truly inhumane. Thomas Fuller, writing last week for the New York Times out of its San Francisco bureau, reported that Los Angeles last year averaged five homeless deaths a day, including 287 who “took their last breath on the sidewalk.” Overall, he added, “the epidemic of deaths on the streets of American cities has accelerated, as the homeless population has aged and the cumulative toll of living and sleeping outdoors has shortened lives.”

Austin, Denver, Indianapolis, Nashville and Salt Lake City are among the cities Fuller cited where officials and homeless advocates have been alarmed by the rising number of deaths–yet the public response to homelessness in these and other cities has been increasingly punitive. The Los Angeles City Council, for example, recently decided that starting May 15 it will again enforce parking restrictions for “vehicle dwellings,” which essentially means that derelict RVs will get towed away. There undoubtedly are numerous legitimate reasons for doing this–not least among them a marked upswing in RVs going up in flames on city streets–but without an offsetting effort to provide low-cost housing, this simply means the city will be pushing homeless people back onto the sidewalk.

Sidewalk living, however, is increasingly criminalized. Austin, once an affordable city, has become the national leader in rising housing costs, with rents soaring 40% over the twelve months through February. Its residents nonetheless voted last year to reinstate criminal penalties against public camping, and the Texas legislature piled on a few weeks later by banning homeless encampments statewide and fining offenders $500. That’s called “squeezing blood from a stone,” but other states–including Florida and New Hampshire–have followed suit with similarly draconian bans.

Remarkably enough, some few landowners have tried to do what their public representatives apparently can’t, opening their private property to homeless campers. Unremarkably, mostly what they get is community pushback and official slap-downs. When one such private project, Camp Haven Sanctuary, became home to 19 otherwise homeless people outside Austin, local neighbors blasted the effort in online posts that were so vitriolic they had to be taken down. A similar encampment on private land in Akron, Ohio, was shut down by city officials who said it violated zoning restrictions–as were encampments in Salt Lake City, Morganton, WV, and elsewhere.

The housing squeeze is getting worse in other ways as well. Mobile home parks, frequently cited as America’s cheapest non-subsidized housing, increasingly are being sold either to developers who want the land for other uses, or to speculators intent on raising the rents. On those rare occasions when state legislators try to enact some kind of relief–as is happening currently in Colorado, where a House bill would cap annual rent increases–the real estate industry responds with cries about “rent control” and accusations of government overreach. Those may or may not be valid points, but they’re never followed by alternative approaches for dealing with a growing human tragedy.

Elsewhere, Tennessee earlier this month enacted a law straight out of a Dickens novel, requiring renters who want to appeal an eviction to first produce a year’s worth of rent. To break that down: if you’re a renter in Tennessee and can’t afford a rent hike, your landlord can evict you–and you’ll need to show a judge $15,000 or so before you can even file an appeal. Since for many people that’s even less likely than homeless people having $500 to pay a fine in Texas, the inevitable result will be even more people on the street.

Tennessee, to be sure, may be on the kook fringe. This is the state, after all, that made national headlines this past week when it also hopped onto the criminalization bandwagon, passing legislation that makes it a felony to camp or sleep in parks or other public property. Sen. Frank Niceley (see? another Dickensian touch, if rather sardonically so) backed the bill by telling his colleagues that in 1910 Adolf Hitler “decided” to be homeless. “So for two years, Hitler lived on the streets and practiced his oratory and his body language and how to connect with the masses and then went on to lead a life that got him in the history books,” Niceley recounted.

“So a lot of these people, it’s not a dead-end,” Niceley concluded, in the ultimate perversion of a let’s-make-lemonade-out-of-lemons sermon. “They can come out of this, these homeless camps and have a productive life — or in Hitler’s case a very unproductive life.”

Hard to know just what Niceley intended with that unfortunate digression, but one reasonable interpretation is that our treatment of the homeless is breeding thousands of potential Adolf Hitlers. Maybe that suggests we should get serious about finding alternative responses. Until that happens, however, we can expect more homeless people occupying state and federal land, and more of a jaundiced attitude toward RVers and campers in general.

RVs as homes of last resort

I was a reporter in Phoenix, several decades ago (!), when I first heard the term “SRO” while interviewing an anthropologist-turned-housing-advocate about the city’s sharply increasing homeless population. The growing number of people living on the streets, she said, was a direct result of the demise of Single Room Occupancy facilities–sometimes boarding houses, but more often aging hotels that had been converted into bare-bones living quarters at affordable rents. Now, she said, those faded properties were being bulldozed out of existence in response to the city’s exploding real estate market. Those who ended up being evicted? Collateral damage.

Phoenix was hardly unique. The U.S. once had enough SROs to house millions, but by the mid-twentieth century these cheap living quarters had become increasingly targeted by developers, by more stringent fire and building codes and by the moral rectitude of those living in more comfortable circumstances. Between 1955 and 2013, nearly one million SROs in the country were done in by regulation, demolition or conversion to condos. In Chicago, 81% of all SROs disappeared between 1960 and 1980. San Francisco, which today has one of the most expensive real estate markets in the U.S. coupled with one of its highest homeless populations, lost approximately 15,000 SROs between 1970 and 2000.

As SROs declined, however, an alternative form of cheap housing was on the rise, as mobile home parks swiftly became home to millions of mostly lower-income people. Tucked out of sight in the countryside or within industrial areas, such “parks” had the advantage of keeping the underclass out of the urban centers that had been home to SRO occupants. By 2001, more than 7 million mobile homes dotted the American countryside, with more than a third of them concentrated in mobile home parks–until the same forces that whittled away the SROs started working on them, as well. Earlier this month, Forbes magazine commented on how the number of mobile home parks has been “drastically reduced” each passing year, albeit without providing any hard numbers.

Rising real estate values are partly behind that reduction: many trailer parks that once were on the margins of metropolitan areas have become engulfed by urban sprawl, making the land more valuable for other uses. But there’s also the “loss-leader” problem for municipalities, as mobile home parks typically pay much less in local taxes than they soak up in public resources, particularly for local schools. And underlying all the financial dynamics is the whole class issue: with SROs, it was their depiction as “welfare hotels”–even though residents were predominantly unsubsidized. With mobile home parks, it’s the “trailer trash” perception. There is, unfortunately, little tolerance in a society that measures value in dollars for those who don’t have many.

The bad news today, as we head into a year in which remaining pandemic-driven moratoria on evictions are about to expire, is that the number of housing refugees–the people once most likely to need SROs or trailer parks–is about to soar. Meanwhile, low-rent housing–defined as $800 a month or less–declined by 4 million units between 2011 and 2017 and is in chronic short-supply. More than 20 million renters are paying more than 30% of their income for housing, and half of those are paying more than half–a level housing experts call “severely burdened.” Many of those people will soon find themselves on the streets.

What’s all that have to do with RVing and the splendid pursuit of camping in the great outdoors? Nothing, unless one realizes that “camping” isn’t only recreational–that it also defines one extreme of a housing continuum that stretches from gated communities at one end to improvised tents on the sidewalk on the other. And with SROs and mobile home parks increasingly squeezed at the bottom end of the spectrum, the dwindling number of cheap alternatives is making RVs look ever more attractive–for all their shortcomings as long-term housing–to people without other options.

What will be the social consequences? I’ll predict more friction within the RVing community itself, as those who spend big bucks for big fancy rigs used primarily for vacationing start bitching about the low-lifes in the battered travel trailer or class C next door. Look for more and more RV encampments to spring up next to tenting communities on city streets, parks and abandoned strip malls. And expect rising tensions between those who already own homes and those who want to build or expand existing campgrounds that will bring in more of the new transient class, regardless of how much money some of them might have.

History repeats

Public perception is a fickle thing, buffeted by changing circumstances and shallow emotions, and the RVing world is not exempt from its vagaries.

Back in the 1920s, for example, the growing affordability of automobiles resulted–among other things–in an explosion of car camping among the middle class. Unfortunately, the democratization of a previously elite pastime grated on the more affluent, who did their best to tamp down this encroachment on their turf. As quoted by Terence Young in his book Heading Out, from a widely circulated camping publication of the time, efforts to exclude “obnoxious” campers included instituting campground fees, “not because the camp managers need to raise any more money, but to keep out the ‘cheap camper,’ called by the Forest Service men a ‘white gypsy.'”

A decade later, car-camping as the epitome of camping convenience was surpassed by the size and amenities of camping trailers, which did away with the nuisance of having to set up a tent. But those same features also opened up the possibility of other uses, and as camping trailers became more affordable (as had automobiles before them), the Great Depression recast them as housing alternatives for those with no other options. With public perception of trailers shifting from cushy camping to inexpensive housing, officials overseeing the still fledgling supply of public campgrounds became increasingly alarmed. Camping trailers were “a highly objectionable and dangerous feature” in campgrounds, warned Emilio P. Meinecke, perhaps the nation’s preeminent architect of campground design. If not regulated closely, he warned, the trailers would create “a new type of city slum or suburban village with a floating population.”

Fast-forward nearly eighty years, and Meinecke’s fears–at that time on behalf of national forests and parks–are now applicable to the cities and suburbs themselves. Not just cars, vans and travel trailers, but tents and motor coaches have all become fixtures on streets throughout the United States, and especially in the warmer parts of the country. What just a few years ago was a “stealth” mode of creating shelter has become increasingly overt, culminating last month in the owner of a Class C parked on a Seattle street building a wooden second floor on top of his motorhome. (City authorities eventually made him remove the superstructure.)

City officials everywhere are struggling to cope with these incursions, which over the past 18 months have grown more pervasive due to the impact of Covid-19 on homeless shelters. Their efforts range from adopting draconian restrictions on who can park what kind of vehicle where and for how long, which doesn’t address root causes, to creating designated parking lots for RVs, which when underfunded and under-serviced simply concentrate the problem–again, without addressing root causes.

The general public, meanwhile, may end up viewing RVs with the same skepticism it had in the run-up to World War II. And that, in turn, may tarnish RVs as déclassé affectations, bastard children that are neither home nor vehicle, more public blight than private luxury.

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