I work at a climbing gym in South Seattle. Most days, as I ride my bike into work, I first pass some people living in their cars just down the street from the gym. Occasionally they have a fire going if it’s cold. Some live in cars, some in tents. Some have created dwellings out of wood pallets and scrap materials. There is usually a pile of their belongings and trash outside, often getting soaked in the persistent Seattle drizzle. I bike a little closer to the gym, into the parking lot, and there are more people in their cars. Some people are in utility vans, some in trucks; I used to see a blue mini-bus complete with a stove pipe coming out the roof. Many of them pee in the grass next to the parking lot and some throw their trash there.
There are many similarities between these two communities of car dwellers, separated by just a few hundred feet, but they ultimately live in two different worlds. The former are those who are homeless by circumstance. They may not choose to live in cars or outside, but they don’t have the means to live inside. They have fallen into homelessness, for so many different reasons, more and more as Seattle’s affordable housing crisis balloons. For many people experiencing homelessness, living in a vehicle can be preferable to often cramped homeless shelters. The second group of car-dwellers are homeless by choice. Living in their vehicles gives them freedom; they can work less to afford cheaper living conditions. Maybe they can leave town when they want to go climbing, since they have less demanding jobs. Or maybe they work remotely, living on the “road,” stopping over briefly in Seattle to visit friends or see the city. Even if they are not gym members, they probably will be able to go into the gym to take a shower, because they are part of the in-group. I know, because I’ve been there.
In the climbing and outdoor community, homelessness by choice is often glorified, something to which people aspire. There are podcasts named after it – “The Dirtbag Diaries” is popular among the latter class of car-dwellers. Inside the gym, I once saw a sign posted on the community board asking for advice on building a home in a van. “I want to join the elite ranks of dirt-baggers,” it read. Another climber wrote on her profile on a networking site that she “dreamed of being homeless.” My community romanticizes living in a car, while the city sweeps homeless encampments and displaces folks from their communities and homes. One group is held on a pedestal as upholding a freer way of life, while the other is trapped outside, and both are peeing on the ground in public areas.
The privilege of my own “dirt-bagging” struck me a couple summers ago. At that time I was among the ranks of the car dwellers living in the parking lot, saving rent money while I worked leading extended outdoor trips much of the summer. One night I parked outside my friend’s house in Leschi, a fairly upscale neighborhood in Seattle. Without fear, I brushed my teeth outside my car and climbed in to sleep, while late night dog-walkers passed by me. To sleep there without fear was only possible because I am white, pass as middle class, and climbed into my Subaru Outback. The neighborhood residents would have been much more likely to call authorities if they saw folks that did not look like me sleeping in their cars on that street.
For a while I couldn’t put my finger on the problem with this dynamic; it just didn’t feel right. I don’t think there is anything wrong with living in your vehicle, even if you can manage to afford housing in Seattle. I have had several periods when work has required me to be in the field for weeks at a time, and living in my car has been financially and logistically the best option for me. I have spent several incredible months living out of my car in the desert southwest, camping and climbing in some of the most spectacular climbing areas I have visited. This was possible for me financially because I spent a couple summers in and out of Seattle living in my Subaru. For me this temporary housing option has brought great freedom at certain times in my life.
But I am allowed to go back and forth. That is the difference. I have the power and class privilege to go back inside when I choose, while others are trapped outside. Because of my class, I can go from living in my car one day, and present as a professional the next (okay, semi-professional at best, but definitely as middle class). And the system helped me out; I was not evicted, subject to police raids. I could go into my gym and take a shower. My experience is subsidized by my community, while others are kicked out, arrested, and slapped with big parking fees.
The homelessness and housing crisis is so big and complicated. I don’t pretend to have all the solutions, and it feels increasingly overwhelming. In the last couple years, the visibility of people experiencing homelessness has been magnified in my neighborhood, after a large, nearby encampment called “The Jungle” was swept out by the city. Now, each season I watch the police periodically sweep people out of the tents, makeshift structures, or cars in which they are living outside the gym, only to have the same outdoor residents return 12-24 hours later. There’s a whole 70-person task force created by Seattle and King County that is struggling to come up with real, tangible solutions, eight months after convening. For a fleeting moment Seattle had the promise of funding for services for people experiencing homelessness through a new corporate tax, but that funding was quickly reversed. It’s apparently not easy to find resources for people with very little power.
Witnessing this crisis calls me to address my community and its glorification of #vanlife, while van-dwelling out of necessity is stigmatized and punished all around me. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate a high quality van build-out as much as the next canned-chili eating dirtbag. Give me a fold-down table or a convertible couch-bed, and I’m in pieces. But our experience of vehicle-dwelling is made possible by the resources that our community offers us and, for many, the privilege of a middle-class upbringing. We have access to gyms for showers or to dispose of our waste, we can get our mail delivered to a friend’s or parent’s house, and our educational background assists us with gaining employment. If these types of resources and safety nets existed for folks experiencing homelessness by circumstance, would they be stigmatized and pushed out? Would they be experiencing homelessness in the first place? With all of the resources and energy it has to create beautiful, space-efficient dwellings and to spend hours training to prepare themselves for physically and mentally taxing climbs, the climbing community must have the capacity also to be a part of the solution, or a series of solutions for our neighbors in the larger community. It’d be pretty sweet to see what we’d come up with.