Homeowners are protective over their sidewalks and curbs. For those who have more cars than private parking spaces, street parking can become a valuable commodity — and people who infringe on this holy ground are viewed as the enemy.
But it seems that a special vitriol is reserved for people whose vehicles are their homes. The affront of using street parking — a public space which, if it’s not metered, is paid for by all of the taxpayers, even those without permanent addresses — is not bad enough. But when a van or a motorhome or even a car piled with personal items pulls up in a single-family neighborhood and uses the curb for its exact stated purpose, you can expect housed residents to raise hell.
What I find so interesting about this particular flavor of rage is that it seems in stark contrast to the other complaints of housed people. A person living in a van is not living in a tent in a greenbelt. They are not sleeping in parks. They are not hanging around outside of a coffee shop, menacing housed people with their mere existence. Shouldn’t a person living in a vehicle — which, it should be noted, is nearly half the homeless population in Seattle — be given additional graces, because they are not doing all the things that housed people complain about the most?
And anyway, when was the last time that someone on NextDoor complained that their neighbor parked their sleek $60,000 luxury Sprinter van in front of their house during the winter?
It begins to feel like people with stable housing aren’t so much upset about where people are finding shelter, or the kinds of shelter they’re finding, or the systemic roots of homelessness (and why the population of people living in vehicles has doubled in the last decade). Instead, it seems that the real issue is any level of visible poverty.
It doesn’t matter if a resident obeys all parking laws. It doesn’t matter that public spaces are designed to be public for a reason, and that the very nature of a public space (like a curb) is that no one person has dominion over it. And it doesn’t matter that some motorhomes — like those used for cutesy #VanLife Instagram accounts — are given a free pass, while those that look like they might be full-time homes are viewed as a plague.
I wonder if housed folks could try a thought experiment. What if, instead of becoming irate at the very sight of a person living in poverty, we considered why? Why is this person here? What led them to live in this van?
And, perhaps most importantly: What can I do to help?
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer who now lives in Portland. Her work has appeared in the Nation, the Atlantic, Bust, Pacific Standard, GOOD and the New York Daily News. She currently works on public policy and trying to pet as many dogs as possible.
Read more of the Nov. 3-9, 2021 issue.