We chose our van for its comfort and mobility. Our snug living space makes the average tiny house seem excessive, but close quarters have allowed us to travel in places few of our brobdingnagian motor homies could navigate. Sure, their big rigs have multiple bathrooms, overstuffed recliners, and separate living areas with fireplaces (yeah, that’s a thing), but they also can’t get within 30 miles of a congested metropolitan area. We have what we need, and we can fit into a standard parking spot (sorta). So, we don’t always make reservations for the night. And that has made for some interesting evenings.
When we’re staying with a host, we’re usually sitting in their driveway or in front of their house. We’re there with permission. Neighbors have been notified. We’re totally legit…even if an occasional member of the homeowners’ association has given us the side-eye.
But, if we have a long drive to our next host, or we just need to quit for the day, we sometimes seek more unconventional options. It might be a Flying J truck stop, a Cracker Barrel, or a Planet Fitness parking lot, but often it’s urban street parking in neighborhoods like Los Feliz in LA, Wicker Park in Chicago, or Squirrel Hill North in Pittsburgh. Our RVer friends call it “boondocking,” or “stealth camping.” You’re off the grid and buttoned up tight, so no one knows you’re in there. In most cities, camping overnight on the street is illegal, and even where it’s not, it makes people nervous. What are you doing there? Why can’t you just park and go inside like normal people? We have had our share of security guards making extra passes by our location, and on more than one occasion, we have been the object of extended scrutiny that manifests in a “Can I help you?” Of course, these invitations aren’t offered as assistance, they are a polite way of challenging our transgression of a perceived boundary or codified behavior.
We have developed some urban street camping strategies. We look for a neighborhood that doesn’t look dangerous – we don’t want to be victims. But the area can’t be affluent single-family homes either, or we’ll be conspicuous. In one case we feel threatened, in the other we are the threat. Neighborhoods near college campuses with upscale apartments and a beautiful old church are ideal. Students are usually too narcissistic and face-in-their-phones to notice you. Besides, if the buildings are full of hundreds of renters, no one cares about a strange vehicle. I don’t know why old church buildings are helpful. Maybe we feel some vague sense of sanctuary. Mainline Protestant or Catholic is best. Hellfire and brimstone churches are less welcoming. In Moscow, Idaho we parked next to a police station. We figured, what better way to make it clear we’re not up to something?
I say this next part with a gigantic disclaimer: In no way do we understand what it’s like to be culturally or physically displaced. By some definitions we may be homeless, but we have no idea what it’s like to live with the daily fear and futility of someone who truly has no place to go. But, the hours we’ve spent searching for a decent parking spot has made us more empathetic to those whose lives are on the street…every night. I can’t imagine what that insecurity would do to your mental health, and how you would easily interrupt the cycle of despair.
We have managed all of our unconventional scenes with very little difficulty. Why? Because of what Peggy McIntosh called our “Invisible Knapsack.” White privilege. We’re white; we’re in a nice van; we’re wearing nice clothes; we have a cute dog who is generally well-behaved. But mostly, we’re white. I was talking about our street parking with an African-American friend of mine, who said, “You know you can do this, but I couldn’t.” He’s right. If we were black or brown, or if our clothes or our vehicle were older and less attractive, or if our dog was aggressive (but mostly if we weren’t white), we wouldn’t get an offer for “help,” we’d get a 911 call, or an act of violence.
Being displaced on the street while being privileged in life has made us think about this whole dialogue idea. What about the people who, by virtue of their race, gender, sexuality, class, etc. can’t even get into the conversation in the first place? Isn’t the whole idea of dialogue trapped in the context of white privilege? Betsy and I can always “stealth camp,” but for many folks, there’s no place to hide.