Vehicular Homelessness and the Road to Housing During and After COVID-19

On any given night 567,715 individuals are experiencing homelessness in 2019. Fast forward to today, the novel coronavirus has heightened a housing crisis that was already exacerbated by compounding factors like rising housing cost, wage stagnation and racialized housing policy . Now with the added layer of the novel coronavirus, the housing crisis has reached an acute level. It is estimated 28 million renters, or 22.5 percent of all U.S. households, are at risk of eviction or foreclosure. More than 36 million residents have filed for unemployment since mid-March, placing households in a precarious position to face eviction, foreclosure, or worse – homelessness.

Since the outbreak of the virus, cities have been working diligently to keep families in their homes by passing ordinances to stand up rent, mortgage, and utility relief programs. Cites have also stepped up to assist individuals experiencing homelessness like increasing their shelter capacity by creating new shelters and recovery centers, and using hotel and motels.

In the midst of this response, cites have been approving or expanding overnight parking to support individuals experiencing vehicular homelessness.

Vehicular homelessness

Not a new occurrence, vehicular homelessness is attributed to individuals or families living and sleeping in their cars, vans, RVs or campers. A number of reasons can account for why individuals or families may be living in their vehicles. It may be due to job loss, loss of income, unaffordable housing, escaping domestic violence, evictions and/or not having options, or the lack of family and friends available to assist them.

Before COVID-19, vehicular homelessness was on the rise in United States. In 2019, more than 200,000 individuals experienced unsheltered homelessness. Although the Department of Housing and Urban Development does collect data on vehicular homelessness, vehicular homelessness represents the growing population of unsheltered people. Now with the current pandemic and the on-going crisis of constrained housing supply, rising housing cost, and wage stagnation, vehicular homelessness is poised to increase due to job loss, evictions, and foreclosure.

Responses from cities

Prior to COVID-19, cities had begun to pilot and implement the Safe Parking Program.  Originating in Santa Barbara, California in 2004, the Safe Parking Program’s goal is to offer stability to individuals and families that are making the transition from living in their vehicles into housing. In 2018, the city of Beaverton, Oregon deployed a Safe Parking Program to provide a safe, legal place to park for people experiencing homelessness and living out of their vehicles. Similar to Beaverton’s program, the city of Mountain View, California’s program provides parking spaces, hygiene stations and assist individuals and families to create a path to supportive permanent housing. The city of Oakland, in 2019, piloted Safe RV Parking Program. The Safe RV Parking program, similar to a safe parking program, is designed to serve individuals experiencing homelessness who resides in an RV. The sites are equipped with hygiene stations, electricity, drinking water, and weekly shower services.  Since COVID-19, cities, and counties have expanded their parking program, like San Luis Obispo, provided RVs and trailers, like  Sacramento and Oakland, or authorized the creation of parking programs, like Alameda.

A roadblock to housing

For people experiencing vehicular homelessness, a loss of a vehicle due to towing can cause tremendous strain.

Tows can happen for emergency and non-emergency reasons. Often used as a debt collection tool, towing can further exacerbate financial strain for residents. Unpaid fines and fees can quickly snowball, leading to escalated fines, driver’s license suspensions or even jail time – making it nearly impossible for a resident to maintain employment and sometimes shelter. Low income drivers are more likely to be assessed late fees and more citations related to their inability to pay. These challenges often have a disproportionate impact on residents of color.

As part of NLC’s Cities Addressing Fines and Fees Equitably Initiative (CAFFE), Saint Paul, MN collaborated with the Minnesota Justice Research Center (MNJRC) to understand the impact of towing on their community and the extracted wealth it causes.

From an analysis of towing and impound data the MNJRC estimated that a typical snow emergency extracts nearly $250,000 from local residents through city fines, towing and impound fees, and vehicle forfeitures, which is drawn disproportionately from low-income communities. In the long run, cities become responsible for making up for the extracted wealth. When a car is towed and someone loses their shelter, a city will pay for emergency services, shelter space, and support services for an individual or a family who is now experiencing homelessness on the streets. This is parallel to the significant cost a resident may incur, such as job loss, loss of shelter, and financial hardship due to the loss of their vehicle. As a result, this impact is heightened for individuals and families who are experiencing vehicular homelessness because even if someone can pay to retrieve their vehicle from the impound lot, they could be choosing between purchasing food, saving for a safe, quality affordable apartment or a house to live, and/or both.

Next for Cities

As cities continue to respond to the current crisis by providing essential services to its residents with projected revenue shortfalls, cities can be deliberate in their design to create both a pathway to house people without shelter and review policies that put individuals and families at risk for being homeless.

Cities can utilize CARES Act funding to provide both short-term and long-term solutions for individuals and families experiencing vehicular homelessness. In the immediate future, cities can provide hotel and motel vouchers to provide a safe, healthy, and quality shelter. As cities begin to look towards recovery, cities can establish housing navigation services, financial assistance, and rental assistance programs to permanently house individuals currently living in their vehicles.

To not further exacerbate vehicular homelessness, cities can remove barriers around towing through assessing their towing practices and providing more notice for towing, in multiple languages, with alternative options for parking in non-urgent situations. The City of San Francisco who took a deeper look into their towing practices and discovered that towing costs disproportionately impact low-income residents implemented discounts for those experiencing vehicular homelessness and in poverty for towing fees and create no-fee payment plan. Cities can also evaluate which fees are necessary and eliminate those that are not. Saint Paul, MN has taken this step and waived towing fees and storage charges for cars held at the city’s impound lots as well as halting vehicle auctions during the pandemic.

This pandemic has transformed cities’ response to the state of homelessness and as cities move from the response towards recovery, cities should take the lessons learned, prior and during COVID-19, to develop tailored interventions to assist the growing unsheltered, homeless population.

About the Authors

Mital Lyons-Warren is the Program Specialist for Economic Opportunity & Financial Empowerment within the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.

Lauren Lowery is the Program Director for Housing & Community Development at the National League of Cities.