6- What is roadsteading? how vehicle communities inhabit the commons

Bethany has lived in various types of living arrangements all over the US, including many different vehicles in all states of living conversion. Roadsteading has been her focus since 2015.

By Bethany Jolly

Although caravans have long existed, modern vehicle communities are new and growing. These communities are defined by their shared living style, one that includes those living in sedans, minivans, trucks, RVs, unattached trailers, homemade pods, and everything in between. They are taking up more and more space in the commons, a type of space that many places in the USA have in short supply. Since the population of humans without secure and stable housing is presently on the rise, so too will the number of vehicle dwellers and other non-traditionally housed individuals increase. Without different management of public spaces, this puts vehicle communities at odds with traditional homeowners and cities. Many see roadsteading as a step above pitching a tent when out of traditional options and some chose to live a roadsteading life purposefully, with plenty of others falling in between these two extremes. Indeed, the financial resources that a person has at their disposal determines major outcomes for comfort, safety, reliability, and location. Additionally, once exposed to the particular challenges of this type of living, people find there are skills and knowledge required that they might not otherwise know or need. This can be both an advantage and a drawback, depending on the resourcefulness, finances, and abilities of a particular individual, community, or location. Over time, people can also begin to realize the benefits of this lifestyle. However, the majority of these folks are living this lifestyle isolated from each other, bringing about the need for shared spaces and new types of community to replace or supplement traditional ones.

Americans are now less likely to move from their hometowns than ever, but with current events and policies, the financial realities of income inequality, and especially the climate crisis, this will be less and less true in coming decades. Climate change is already causing extreme fires, flooding, hurricanes, and other acts of nature. Existing homes are being destroyed or rendered uninhabitable at much faster rates than before. Building more homes isn’t the answer; according to the US Census Bureau, there are a current estimated 30 empty homes for every unhoused individual in the USA. Of course, counting unhoused people is difficult, and official numbers seem woefully low. Still, even with 3 times the official homelessness numbers, the math would show that lack of dwellings isn’t the root cause. Barring a radical approach to the ways in which all people live, some will continue to choose, or be forced into, alternate ways of life.

An increase in unhoused folks can be a crisis for everyone, including the cities and neighborhoods where they are from or live now, the services and governments that attempt to help and provide for them, and especially for those who are unhoused. Many people find themselves homeless after a series of surprise or unforeseen events. Others see it coming, and do their best to mitigate and prevent the worst of outcomes; families split up, no shelter of any kind, nowhere to keep their belongings secured. On the other end, there are some who transition to non traditional housing intentionally. Many do so with years of savings and planning, but also there are those who can afford very little and have less of a plan. Often, those who choose a vehicle dwelling lifestyle do so because of the ability to move easily, save the money they would otherwise spend on exorbitant rents, and experience something other than the traditional ideal of homeownership. The shape of these mobile dwellings is hugely varied. Vehicles of all ages and origins are represented as well. Though these folks can and do come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, all people who engage in a roadsteading lifestyle must deal with the realities of living largely in the commons. This highlights the need for a radical approach to space and how it is used.

In and around major cities, vacant or underutilized space is uncommon, and yet these are the places that necessarily have a higher population density, including those of curbside communities. Often, these communities spring up in any unoccupied spaces possible, such as large medians, the spaces between highway interchanges, parks, and other state lands. In the case of vehicle dwellers in particular, these occupied spaces most often are parking spaces and parking lots, land that is either owned by cities, companies, or private individuals. This leaves them vulnerable to cops, citations, unhappy neighbors, people who can’t find parking spaces as easily, and bad actors in general.

In fact, there has been a noted increase in terrorist attacks against curbside communities, in the forms of intentional fires set to tents and vehicles, improvised explosive devices thrown under RVs, and physical attacks on the humans who live in these situations. Additionally, neighborhood groups and municipalities have been creating lists of vehicles known or suspected to be homes. These lists often include personally identifiable information, such as photos of vehicles and people, license plate numbers, and locations they are known to park. Local governments, as part of their stated efforts to understand and combat the issue of growing numbers of vehicle dwellers in their cities have also been engaging in data collection practices, often going door to door and attempting to find where people are coming from, only to realize that many of the people they speak with live very close to the places where they were previously housed.

However, many cities choose not to support these folks and their requests for things like dumpsters, portable bathrooms, and parking spaces, though some locations have taken steps towards doing so. Recently, several cities are establishing sanctioned parking locations. However, there are lots of restrictions on who, what, when, and how these spaces can be used. Most only allow parking during overnight hours, only allow registered participants to park, disallow vehicles without current state registration or emissions certifications, and prohibit cooking, as well as other activities necessary for daily life.

Even with an increase in aid from local cities, towns, churches, and other advocates, the challenges of isolation are real. Especially for those who are newly houseless and just learning to live a vehicle dwelling life, it is hard to know where to be, where to park, who to avoid, who to talk to, and where to find resources. Learning from each other and trading skills and resources is common among those who do find a semblance of community.

While some physical roadsteading communities exist, they seem to be rare. In the ones that do, folks rely on each other for support. They facilitate collecting trash and running it to the dump together, can have shared contracts with mobile pump out trucks to empty waste water from RV septic systems, and maintain really really free market exchanges where folks can trade no longer needed items. They will also have potlucks, shared holiday celebrations, and child care collectives. Many engage is security watches and have text or phone trees for communicating vital safety information. They will help each other with vehicle sourcing and trading, offer mechanic help, or assistance in buying and installing solar panels, batteries and other electronics. They even attempt emergency aid for immobilized vehicles. These shared services can be invaluable for those living in poverty, which includes many of those who call a vehicle home.

There can be plenty of benefits to roadsteading. In the course of living this life, people often learn invaluable skills on their own or from each other. There is often a reduction in services needed and used by vehicle dwellers compared to those in traditional homes. Often they use less water, provide their own off grid energy, take up less physical space, and have the ability to evacuate quickly. Having people on the street can also provide neighborhood security. There is the potential for developing new types of collectives, and also connections with more traditional style curbside communities. For example, due to the availability of onboard solar panels and batteries, vehicle dwellers are in a unique position to provide power to charge laptops, cellphones, mobility scooters, and other essential electronics. They can also provide a feeling of more security by parking near these communities. Many of the challenges of living in a vehicle overlap with those of living in a tent or small shelter, and the burdens are made easier when shared.

Sharing burdens is what community is all about. While living on the road isn’t a new phenomenon, with a marked increase in people who do so in their own communities, there are many unanswered challenges to be met. With careful consideration, humane treatment, and sharing of skills and resources, these challenges can be overcome and may even prove roadsteading to be a viable way of life, not just for those who engage in it, but for the places they inhabit, as well.