Urban camping and showering at school

By Randy Hatfield

I often come across beat-up old RVs in my neighborhood which park there for days at time, drawing complaints from homeowners. I know that life on the streets is a challenge, so I wanted to do an experiment to better understand the struggles of people who live out their cars while still trying to keep up with society. That being said, I live with my parents, and I’ve never been at risk losing that privilege, so even with this two-day experiment, my understanding of homeless life has barely scratched the surface.
I decided to use the family RV instead of a passenger car to make things easier: a 1978 Volkswagen Campmobile, which included a stove, a sink, a bed and some cabinetry.
At first, I thought this might be like a camping trip. I’d been on plenty of those, and they’re usually pretty fun, so what would make this experience any different?
The first problem is that, unlike living in your car, camping trips have a definite beginning and end, the second problem is easy access to basic amenities like a shower, a toilet and faucet, and the third problem is that cheap accommodations like you might find on the road and in rural areas simply don’t exist in the city.
For me, the first two problems were easy to solve: I could stop the experiment at any time and I’m a student at SCC, so I could use all the amenities that campus had to offer so long as I didn’t stay the night (security forbids overnight parking). I even took a shower in the Men’s locker room as late as 10 p.m. – though I’d advise against this because the building closes at 7 p.m. and it gets spooky in there late at night.
The biggest challenge of this experiment would be to find a place to stay the night.
The most favorable was to rely on the kindness of friends, which I did for one night in my friend’s driveway. This was a good solution because I got a full night of sleep and I didn’t feel alone, but I didn’t want to overstay my welcome so I knew I’d need to try my other options.
I stayed my other night at the Silver Lake rest area, where people are allowed to stay for up to 8 hours. It was close to work and not too far from school, so it wasn’t a bad option, but the Washington State Patrol has a small outpost there and while it added an element of safety, I knew I couldn’t stay regularly because they’d eventually notice me.
This left me with the least favorable, but most popular option: unregulated street parking. According to the SDOT “Can I Park Here?” guide, it is legal to leave your car parked for up to 3 days on a city block if there is no sign indicating a time restriction. This is called the “72 hour rule”
I didn’t try this because my car isn’t nondescript enough, but many of the guides I’d read online call this stealth camping, and have suggested doing it in areas that are well-lit areas that aren’t densely-populated so you can easily go unnoticed by law enforcement and nosy people. Regardless, it’s more survival than camping and just barely legal, so I wanted to see why people who opted for this weren’t going for any of the other options.
Paid accommodations were out of the question: the nearest campground (in Des Moines) was an hour south of SCC or my work, and the cheapest RV parks (in Everett) were way outside my budget – one quoted me at $52.41 per night.
Walmart offers overnight parking at some stores, and that was an attractive option because of late-night/early-morning access to a bathroom in case of emergencies, but the nearest one to offer this would be an hour commute to school (Arlington).
With the rising cost of living and the lack of cheap housing options in Seattle it’s clear why there are so many people who become forced into a situation like this – it’s cheaper than owning property, but it’s exhausting and unpredictable. Even during the two days I did this experiment, I felt like I had to hide and pretend everything was normal at work even though I was worried about finding a place to stay that night.