My crash course in van living

Unlike most people posting here I was not prepared for living in my van. Me and my partner had relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area to work for a dot com startup that seemed like a dream job. And it was, at first, until the dot com bubble burst and everybody was out of a job. We lost our house in Oakland and had no choice but to sleep in our van. Everything happened so quickly we didn’t have time to “prepare”. In fact we didn’t think we’d be sleeping in our van for more than a couple of nights, a week at the most. We had jobs lined up and an apartment in San Francisco that was nearly ready to move into, we just had to finish some drywall work, do some painting and we were good go. Right. None of that happened and we were suddenly homeless and almost broke. After the shock wore off we applied for General Assistance and started cleaning city buses for 75 dollars a week. General Assistance required entire days standing in line at the welfare office to meet with a social worker every other week. To collect the 75 dollar check meant standing in line for several hours at the main post office in the Tenderloin district with drug addicts and crazy people. Homeless people don’t have addresses so you have to get your mail at the post office, and everybody gets paid on the same day. To cash your check you had to go to a check cashing outlet and stand in line again. The outlet you had to use depended on the first letter of your last name so my check cashing outlet was in the Tenderloin but my partners was across town in the Mission district, an all day process. You were required to look for work , and we did , but it wasn’t easy. Fortunately  we found work doing odd jobs for people by word of mouth. We laid carpet, built decks, remodeled bathrooms, landscaped gardens and everything in between. It wasn’t steady but it got us off the welfare rolls. It also wasn’t enough to get us into an apartment so our few nights sleeping in our van became our life. Here’s what I learned during the three years we lived off the grid. Rolling up the windows and locking the doors was an invitation for someone to pop the locks and come on in. They left in a hurry when they realized the van was occupied but it was unnerving non the less. Roll down the windows, turn up the radio and nobody bothered us at all. Never stay more than two nights on a residential street, people notice. Organize EVERYTHING. If you don’t you will spend all your time looking thru duffle bags and storage containers. Keep toiletries in one container, first aide in another, electrical supplies in one, automotive tools in another. Keep one duffle bag for clean clothes and one for dirty. Get rid of trash immediately if possible, it’s amazing how fast it accumulates. If your in a city don’t look like your living in your van, people may call the cops and you will be hassled. When using public restrooms be quick and don’t leave a mess like water all over the sinks and floors. Most homeless people don’t push shopping carts or hold up signs asking for change, they blend in. Homeless people are targeted in big city’s so avoid areas where the vehicularly housed park at night, it can be dangerous. It’s OK to park overnight in upscale neighborhoods to sleep as long as you leave by eight the next day. The best part about living in your van is knowing that everything you need is parked right outside of wherever your at. Your always home.


Sami Syed

Published in January


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