Where to Sleep in Your Car When Homeless

Homeless sleep in a van in a park.

Sleeping in the backseat of a car when you’re homeless can be hell. Believe me, I know. I was once homeless for about 6 months in 2011 in California. I spent most of the time sleeping on the streets with only the stars as my canopy, but some of my time was spent in the backseat of a friend’s car while he slept in the driver’s side seat. It was a tiny Kia compact car and I’m 6″3, which meant that I had to sleep with my legs folded the entire time. This was one of the most uncomfortable situations I’ve ever been in, but there were nights when it’d be raining too hard or the weather was too cold outside for me to choose the streets over the car.

Making matters worse was that we had to keep parking in different areas due to city ordinances and laws about sleeping in your car where we were. For example, in cities like Los Angeles, there’s only some areas where you can sleep in your car while other areas or blocks are completely off-limits at night due to local businesses complaining about people sleeping outside their shops at night.

So if you’ve recently become homeless and are considering sleeping in a car or RV, here’s some personal tips I can offer that just might help you stay out of trouble and to find decent places to park your vehicle at night.

City-Designated Parking Lots
The first thing you’ll want to do is to check online to see if your city or any nearby cities offer designated parking lots specifically for the homeless to park in at night. These types of lots are often designated by either the city or private charities working with the cities and are often known to be a part of “safe parking programs”. The parking lots are often lots used for business or other purposes during the day, but at night they are designated as safe places where people sleeping in cars can go to get a good night’s rest without having to worry about being harassed by the police or being carjacked by criminals in the middle of the night.

San Diego was one of the first cities in the United States to start offering an official safe parking program and many other cities are now either offering them or are in the process of getting ready to offer them. Most of the cities in the United States are in California, such as Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and San Jose, but other cities in different states are taking notice and there could be one near you if you’re located in the USA. It’s always a good idea to search the internet or inquire with local charities if they’ve heard of any such programs in your area or in the closest big city to you.

Outside of the United States, there are very few countries on record that have offered safe parking programs. Places like England and France have large homeless populations, but still have not officially offered any similar programs to the homeless communities living there. For those outside the USA, it’s best to consult with local charities on where you can park your vehicles at night without worry.

Church Lots
Many churches offer safe parking programs themselves and can offer other resources and help as well. So if your city doesn’t currently have any type of assistance when it comes to hassle-free parking lots, you may want to speak to your local churches and see if they can offer anything.

I myself am not a religious person, but when I was homeless on the streets, one of the people I hung around each day was a man who recently was released from prison and had converted to Mormonism. He told me that he had converted to the Mormon religion because their churches were known for helping out their followers, and as it turned out, he was correct. When I first met him, he was sleeping in a tent next to where I was sleeping in mine outside a local homeless shelter. He wanted a safer environment so he went to a local Mormon church, told them how he had converted to Mormonism and showed them what he had learned about his newly-found religion by reading The Book of Mormon. Within a few days after that, he had left our parking lot and told me he was given permission by the Mormon church to camp out alone behind their church on their property and that they were also helping him with some cash assistance.

So it goes without saying that you should probably speak to your local religious groups in the area and see which ones can assist you, regardless of what your actual religion is. Just keep in mind that sometimes they may offer help in an effort to “convert” you to their religion if you aren’t already a member, so only seek assistance from religions other than your own if you’re open-minded to that or respectful of that. Whether it’s Mormonism, Christianity, Judaism, or even Buddhism, if someone is willing to offer you a helping hand when you desperately need it, it’s worth hearing what they have to say as long as they’re looking out for your best interests as well.

Rural Neighborhoods
It’s probably best to avoid big city streets and main roads where you’ll find metered parking (where you have to insert a quarter or any other amount in a parking meter in order to park there) and avoid other places where parking is highly sought-after. When you park in places where parking is already scarce or where people are literally fighting over parking spots, you’re only going to attract negative attention if you do manage to find a decent available spot.
Sleeping in small rural neighborhoods or places where people park their cars on the street outside their homes can be either a great idea or a horrible one.

The laws regarding this are a bit grey depending on what city you’re in, but in general it’s probably a bad idea unless you can find an empty side of the street with no houses. You don’t want to park your car directly outside someone’s house or across the street from someone’s house because they may notice you and call the police out of suspicion that you’re doing something wrong or that the car has been abandoned. Also, they may use that spot for parking additional cars, in addition to those in their driveway, so you don’t want to make anybody mad either. If you must park in a rural area where people live in homes, your best bet is to look for vacant lots on the street, wooded areas, or otherwise woodsy areas with few homes.

However, this may also be a bad idea as you may actually bring more attention to yourself. At one point when I was homeless, my friend and I parked his car at the end of a rural street in Santa Cruz where there was only sidewalk and woods next to us and no houses. This wasn’t disturbing anybody and because it was at the end of a small street with houses further down the street, it was out of the way from those who lived there but looked as if we had reason to be there for anybody passing by us on the main street.

BLM Land and State Parks
In the United States, there’s an agency known as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) which is managed by the U.S. Department of the Interior. What they basically do is they manage all the public areas of land across the country and regulate how these areas of land are used. Anybody legally living in the United States has a right to use public land in the ways that the BLM designates they can be used for. Yes, this would include camping and sleeping in your car as well. There are maps available on the BLM website that show all the areas around the country that are public land where you can camp for free. While this may be an option for some people, it may not be a suitable option for most homeless people.

I say this for two reasons. The first, is that BLM land is usually out in the middle of nowhere in most states and far from civilization or any big cities. So while it may be possible for you to drive out there each night to sleep and then drive into the city for any resources you may need or jobs you need to work, this may eat up a lot of gas money or put wear and tear on your vehicle when you need it most. Secondly, there are rules for how long you can camp out for free on BLM land and it’s usually around 14-days maximum within any 30 day time-frame.

While you don’t need any permission to camp in most BLM areas, they do require that you apply for a permit for some areas depending on which state or area you’re in. If you’re thinking that you’ll just alternate between BLM areas every 14 days or so, that’s an option. Just keep in mind that sleeping in an RV in these areas is a better option than a car as you will attract less attention and scrutiny on yourself, which is always good even when you’re doing nothing wrong.

Also, if BLM areas are too far from where you’re at, consider possibly paying for a camp spot at a local campground instead if you have the money. BLM is just more advantageous because it’s normally free and in some areas of the country, camping in state parks can actually cost more than getting a hotel room for the night.

24-Hour Businesses
Some 24-hour businesses actually don’t mind if people quietly sleep in their cars or RV’s in their parking lot, but it’s expected that you buy something in their store in order to do so and that you don’t stay longer than one night. Walmart is probably the most well-known example of this, as they seem to openly allow RV’s and cargo vans to camp out in their parking lot at night.

However, this only applies to about 80% of Walmarts and it really depends on who the general manager is and what their policies are. There are some Walmarts that do prohibit people from spending the night on their property, even if you purchase something first. So it’s best to do some research online first on the Walmart you’re considering or try to notice if others are sleeping in the parking lot when you arrive.

When in doubt, don’t do it, as it’s not worth it if the end result is you being woken up by police with flashlights tapping on your driver’s side window and asking you to step out of your vehicle. Some 24-hour Starbucks will also either allow you to sleep in the parking lot at night or will at least not bother you if they see you doing so after purchasing a cup of coffee.

Outside Homeless Shelters
In my experience, most homeless shelters will allow people to sleep in their cars outside the shelters as long as they don’t become a nuisance or bring negative attention to the shelter itself. This doesn’t mean that they won’t encourage you to stay at the shelter though. In general, the managers at most homeless shelters want to get the beds there filled with people because majority of these places are not free and do need funding to continue operating. Some of this funding does come from people paying to stay there per night or per week, even if the first week or first month is normally free.

When sleeping outside shelters, you should be very careful to make sure you always lock your doors and to make sure your windows are rolled up high enough to where somebody can’t try to get inside while you’re sleeping with a clothes hanger or anything else to unlock the door. These are safety precautions you should take, no matter where you are, but this is especially true outside shelters for obvious reasons.

You may want to inquire with the shelter manager if camping is allowed outside, or just take notice of how RV’s are parked outside. Normally there will be many RV’s and cargo vans in any area where people have been camping for awhile. Now just because the shelter is OK with it, that doesn’t mean that the city is. So keep this in mind as well, as I have seen shelters actually fight with cities over this and I have also witnessed the police purposely targeting people sleeping outside shelters in order to search their vehicles for illegal substances and weapons.

Rest Stops
Rest stops should probably be your last resort if you can’t find any other places to park. I don’t say this because of laws or restrictions, but because of safety hazards. Rest stops are notorious for being dangerous places due to so many travelers coming and going to and from these places. They aren’t the safest place to spend the night, because criminals could attempt to rob or attack you and jump back on the highway and be long gone by the time you realize what happened.

Now if you do choose to camp out overnight at a rest stop, you should know which states are friendly towards this and which aren’t. In general, just know that truckers sleep at rest stops in all 50 states all the time, and most of the time nobody will bother you at any of them as long as you are quiet and keep to yourself and aren’t very obvious about it. But if you want to make sure you’re following the rules, the states most-known for being friendly towards campers spending the night in their cars or RV’s at highway rest stops are California, Idaho, Minnesota, Ohio, Washington, and last but certainly not least, Oregon.

Oregon actually encourages people to sleep at rest stops because they know the dangers involved with sleepy travelers driving on major highways when tired. Just know that most of these states along with all the others have rules on how long you can stay at rest stops. Some of them state you can only stay overnight for 6 hours while others are anywhere between 8 to 16 hours, depending on the state and which highway or road you’re on. So if in doubt, do some research online about whatever state you’re thinking about doing this in and make sure you’re familiar with the rules first if you’re worried about that.