Homeless On Wheels

More people, including families, are living in their vehicles around Portland.

Chris Nguyen is a Lincoln High School sophomore who wants to be a civil engineer. He likes to make bows and arrows, scale models of catapults and other medieval weaponry—it helps teach him about how physics works.

But for five months this year, he had no place for his hobby. Chris, his mother and his older brother lived in the family's 2002 Ford Escape. They had lost their Southwest Portland apartment when his mother, Edie Richards, couldn't afford rent increases after one of her two jobs cut back her hours because of the slow economy.

During the day, Chris went to school. At night the family parked outside 24-hour businesses—the Tigard WinCo or the Shari's in Hillsboro. And they moved each night unless they ran out of gas money. 

"It's embarrassing to live that way as it is," Richards says. "But when cops come up and put a spotlight on your car and everyone's looking at you, it's just downright awful."

Across the city, more and more people are living in their vans, campers, trailers and RVs, shuttling from parking lots or hoping they go unnoticed on city streets. Portland city records show that the number of trucks, trailers and RVs ticketed for parking too long in one area has jumped 38 percent since 2008-09.

City officials say they can't tell how many of these vehicles are being used as makeshift homes. But housing experts say they're seeing far more people living in their cars, campers and RVs on the streets.

"We have definitely seen more individuals and families who are sleeping in their vehicles," says Marc Jolin, executive director of JOIN, a nonprofit with a city contract to help the homeless find housing. "More families are losing options and ending up on the street, so we're getting more referral calls from counselors and the police."

City parking rules prohibit storing a vehicle on the street or public property for more than 24 hours, and you can't park an RV or trailer for more than eight hours in residential neighborhoods or four hours in commercial areas.

JOIN's outreach workers patrol areas known for vehicle camping—typically industrial areas with empty lots, and large businesses.

Larry Jasper, 72, lives out of his 1973 RV that slouches on an industrial stretch of Northwest 22nd Avenue. He's done so for more than a year—he even has a lawn chair out front.

"It's not residential," Jasper says of the neighborhood where he's camped. "Not a place where I'm going to be a nuisance to anyone, as long as we keep the place clean."

While Jasper is breaking city rules, his RV is parked outside the central city area where the Transportation Bureau routinely enforces long-term parking rules. As many as four other RVs park next to Jasper's rig.

Jasper says he lives on Social Security disability; he has a history of substance abuse and a long criminal record, but says he now tries to stay out of trouble. He also says he sees more people—including single mothers and couples—living out of cars and vans. "There's a freedom in living like this," Jasper says, "but not the kind that anybody would really want."

Richards, 39, and her sons didn't want that life either.

They kept moving to avoid drawing attention to themselves. She would sleep in the driver's seat with the back seats laid down for her boys. Richards says the nights were "stressful and uncomfortable."

"With three people it was kind of tough. It's not a big van, so we had to squeeze since we had some food rations and supplies with us," her son Chris, 14, says.

Richards says that the state Department of Human Resources revoked her Oregon Trail Card after she was evicted; she says that when she stopped paying rent, the state's calculation of her monthly expenses made it appear she no longer needed assistance. "I was told to go to food banks, but I can't cook from my car," Richards says.

Richards says the nurse at Lincoln High School alerted the school's Parent Teacher Association after they talked about finding a place for Chris to shower. The PTA rallied school families to provide new clothes for Chris, two weeks in a hotel and money for gas and food. Two social service agencies, Human Solutions and Friendly House, helped secure an apartment. They moved out of their van and into their new place Aug. 1.

"We have a huge rush, with people on the wait list," says Mya Chamberlin, director of services for seniors and homeless families at Friendly House. "The people that we're seeing now are from slightly different backgrounds than before—[homelessness] is new for a lot of them. Unfortunately, the need is increasing, but the dollars aren’t following.”