Are All Persons Sleeping in Vehicles Homeless and Should They Be Included in Homeless Counts?

Are All Persons Sleeping in Vehicles Homeless
and Should They Be Included in Homeless Counts? 

Joe Colletti, PhD
Hub for Urban Initiatives
January 2018 

The lack of affordable housing has resulted in more persons living in vehicles according to recent media reports. As rents have increased, so has the number of persons who are sleeping in vehicles. 

With the next nationwide homeless count just a couple of weeks away, the number of persons counted as homeless may increase significantly if everyone who is sleeping in a vehicle other than a car is counted as homeless, especially on the west coast (see media reports noted below). Most vehicles are not designed to be a place to sleep overnight. However, more and more people are designing a vehicle to be used as a place to sleep overnight as reported by the media.  

            Defining Homelessness 

Designing a vehicle as a place to sleep overnight brings into question the phrase "meant for human habitation," which is part of the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) definition of homelessness that is used to determine if a person is chronically homeless and included in the nationwide count. The definition for chronically homeless includes an individual who "is homeless and lives in a place not meant for human habitation."  

HUD's definition of homeless has included a "place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings, including a car . . ." as noted below: 

"Homeless means:

(1) An individual or family who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence, meaning:

(i) An individual or family with a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings, including a car, park, abandoned building, bus or train station, airport, or camping ground;"  

Thus, persons living "in a place not meant for human habitation" and a "private place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings" should be counted as homeless. 

            Persons Sleeping Overnight in Cars Are Homeless 

HUD has provided guides to counting unsheltered persons and has stated that persons sleeping in cars are homeless, as noted on page 55 of the 2006 guide and page 56 of the 2008 guide. Cars are "not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation" as noted on page 18 of the 2014 guide

In addition, they are not conducive for redesigning as a place to sleep. 

Persons Sleeping Overnight in Vehicles No Longer Designed or Not Redesigned Are Homeless  

Persons sleeping overnight in vehicles once designed but no longer intended to be a place for human habitation are homeless according to HUD and should be included in homeless counts. These vehicles have not been repaired or redesigned for human habitation. 

Page 55 of the 2006 guide and page 56 of the 2008 guide state that  

"If, however, the trailer was simply abandoned on its site and people are occupying it temporarily and without permission, they are probably literally homeless. Substitute an unreconstructed school bus for the trailer-that is, a school bus that has not been stripped and remade as a dwelling-and the occupants are definitely literally homeless. There would be no difference between the school bus in a rural area and squatting in an abandoned building or living in an abandoned car on the streets of a city-both are situations of literal homelessness." 

            Are Persons Sleeping Overnight in Redesigned Vehicles Homeless?  

Variations of vans, trucks, and RVs can be conducive for redesigning as a place to sleep. They generally have larger interior space that can be designed to sleep on an on-going basis. In fact, according to recent media reports, owners of such vehicles are redesigning interior space to make it livable for them or doing so in order to charge rent to occupants.  

One media story noted that there were an increasing number of persons buying motor vehicles and trailers equipped with living space and amenities found in a home and parking them along streets in Portland. The typical asking price is under $10,000. 

Los Angeles vehicle-owners renting a growing fleet of box trucks and RVs after cleaning them up was the focus of another recent story. A "bunk in the RV goes for $200 per week, a whole RV goes for $1,000 a month, and box trucks for $500 per month." 

Thus, counting people sleeping in a vehicle as homeless, according to the HUD definition noted above, is becoming increasingly questionable as the size of interior space increases because the redesigned vehicle: 

  • is intended to be a place for human habitation; and
  • is designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings. 

Deciding If Persons Sleeping Overnight in Redesigned Vehicles Are Homeless 

The HUD guides to counting unsheltered persons have been consistently clear that each jurisdiction (continuum of care)1  must have a homeless count plan and a homeless count committee to effectively plan and manage their homeless counts as noted on pages 21 and 22 of the 2014 guide.  

                        Gleaning Guidance 

The HUD guides also provide guidance to help decide whether to include persons sleeping overnight in redesigned vehicles in a homeless count. A car is one type of vehicle. Other types of vehicles include variations of vans, trucks, and RVs, which have more interior space to redesign as a habitable place to sleep overnight.  

                        Cars and Vans 

In the HUD definition for homeless, cars are "not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation." Though vans are not mentioned, generally speaking, they are "not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation." Thus, persons sleeping overnight in cars or vans are homeless. 

                      Trucks and RVs 

Trucks and RVs have more interior space than cars and vans and the space can be designed, or redesigned, as a habitable place to sleep overnight. RVs are larger than trucks and are more likely to have interior space that include core elements of habitability like access to electricity, running water, plumbing, and heat. Thus, persons sleeping overnight in a habitable RV are not likely to be homeless. Conversely, persons sleeping in an RV without core elements of habitability are likely to be homeless.  

Trucks, however, have not been historically designed to be habitable like RVs. Nevertheless, they often have large interior spaces that are being redesigned as a habitable place to sleep overnight, according to recent media reports. Thus, whether to consider persons sleeping overnight in such vehicles as homeless is becoming increasingly questionable. Do some of the trucks include core elements of habitability or not?  

Including persons sleeping in trucks in the jurisdictional counts this January seems like the prudent thing to do. This issue, however, should be revisited well before the 2019 homeless count. 

 

 

 

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1. Continuums of care are the planning body responsible for meeting the goals of the continuum of care program as outlined in the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing: Continuum of Care Interim Rule.

 

Comments

I think the above article makes this determination seem more complicated than it needs to be. If the RV or retrofitted truck/van/tiny home etc. has all the basic requirements of a dwelling unit (bathroom, cooking facilities and sleeping area), that is the first requirement for it to be considered housing. The second requirement is two-part: the RV or habitable vehicle should be located on land that the occupant has enforceable rights to occupy long-term (30-days or more), with standard tenancy rights, such as in a state-permitted RV or mobile home park, on a legal RV or MH space the occupant has a lease for; or on land the occupant either owns, leases, or, in the case of farm worker housing, that the farmworker is allowed to reside on by the landowner/employer. The second part is that the RV should be legally connected to code-compliant utilities (water, sewer, trash, power, etc.) on the space or land where it is located. If all three of those components are present (home is habitable, they have tenancy rights to the site, and full legal utility hookups), it is a standard dwelling and the occupant is considered housed. If they don't have tenancy rights or utility hookups, I would consider them homeless or at least unstably housed. For example, any vehicle parked on a public street has no enforceable tenancy rights (ie a written lease) and also has no utility hook-ups, so they are generally considered homeless in CA, even if under the subcategory of "vehicle dwellers".

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