That's not a van, it's my apartment
Ever wonder how you shower if you live in your vehicle? Ask the 'stealth parking' set.
JULIA MCKINNELL | August 20, 2008 |
A man who lives in a van recently placed an ad on Vancouver Island's Craigslist. The man, who said he had a government-paying job, wanted to see if anyone had a spare spot on their property where he could park his vehicle and plug it in at night. In exchange, he was willing to do odd jobs. He said he'd take the van to work during the day but return it later to sleep in it. "It doesn't make sense to rent an apartment," he wrote.
Contacted to talk about life in his van, the ad placer didn't respond. It turns out most van dwellers, and there are thousands of them out there, like to keep a low profile. Anonymously online, however, they can be a vociferous bunch, firing emails back and forth asking advice such as "any of you get claustrophobic?" and "best way to shower?" ("$14 pump-up herbicide sprayer unit with wand," was the suggestion, but "smell inside of it first," the person wrote.)
In a recent seven-day period, the VanDwellers Yahoo group showed 49 new members exchanging 583 new messages. Altogether the website has 3,064 members. One of them is a 50-something, Ontario-born former engineer who goes by the name Urban Vandweller. He has a blog that is part memoir, part advice column, in which he explains that he started living in a van in Whistler and then moved his "mobile sleeping pod" — a 1989 Ford Aerostar — to Vancouver, where he honed his "stealth parking" skills. He is now temporarily on a Gulf island in the Georgia Strait insulating his van.
"Stealth parking" is a key talking point among van dwellers. Urban Vandweller lives in "a soccer-mom minivan — no one gives it a second glance. If I tried to sleep in an RV on the same street, the cops would be banging on my door in no time." Generally, Urban Vandweller finds a street in a suburb to park on. He goes to bed around 10 p.m. and gets up at six in the morning. "Most people are getting dozy that late in the evening, and they usually aren't up or wide awake that early in the morning. That way I slip in and out."
By the time he parks, he's ready to go straight to sleep. "Because of prying eyes, I don't want to give anyone a clue that I'm sleeping there, so I minimize any moving around or noise. I just read a little and fall off to sleep. In the morning, I take a quick peek around, then I get in the front and drive away."
On his blog, he describes his kitchen set-up: one medium saucepan with veggie steamer insert, one smaller cast-iron pan and one small T-Fal non-stick pot with lid. A cooler keeps his vegetables fresh. He has a two-burner Coleman propane stove, and favours boneless cuts of meat because they cook more quickly. Meanwhile, group members have been discussing whether anyone's tried making "dashboard jerky." One member happened on it serendipitously after he left grapes on the dashboard and they dehydrated. He's since experimented with sliced bananas and peaches. "Does leaving a Big Mac on the dash for three weeks count?" someone asked. Urban Vandweller, on the other hand, knows that grease smells stick around and boiling water steams up the interior, so he always cooks outdoors.
To avoid suspicion ("I feel it is only a matter of time before [the authorities] turn their attention to the folks who sleep in their vehicles," he's written on his blog), he keeps himself "meticulous in appearance." Unfortunately, many people stigmatize van dwellers, he says. They think "we are incapable of affording an apartment, or not able to work hard to support ourselves. What a load of crap! We are just different, and we live the way we choose."
"Why vandwell?" he answers in another blog entry. "You can work less, travel more, have more free time. I have no debts, only savings. Your personal freedom grows exponentially. If things aren't working out in one place, just leave. Turn the key and drive!"
For those toying with the idea of van dwelling, Urban Vandweller shares his monthly budget: food, $200; fuel, $250; entertainment, $200; auto insurance, $90; cellphone, $50; clothing, $50; haircut, $20. "I perceive our subculture to be intelligent, intuitive, creative, conversational, humorous and for the most part, law-abiding," he writes. "Why people wouldn't want to know us is beyond me." Still, "living in a van and wooing the fairer sex requires diplomacy and tact," he cautions. "I believe you need to be honest and portray yourself fairly. But until a potential date shows you some interest, why play your cards too early?"