More people living in vehicles due to lack of affordable housing

As the cost of housing becomes increasingly unaffordable in metro areas around the United States, more people are living in their vehicles, Governing magazine reports.

The number of people residing in campers and other vehicles surged 46 percent over the past year, a recent homeless census in Seattle's King County, Washington found. The problem is "exploding" in cities with expensive housing markets, including Los Angeles, Portland and San Francisco, according to Governing magazine.

The problem of vehicle residency is national in scope, although its impact may be more "acutely felt in urban areas where space is more limited," said Sara Rankin, an assistant professor law at Seattle University and the director of Homeless Rights Advocacy Project.

Challenges abound for people who live in their vehicles, ranging from racking up parking tickets to finding a safe place to park and shower, advocates say.

A recent survey by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP), which tracks policies in 187 cities, found the number of prohibitions against vehicle residency has more than doubled during the last decade.

"Much like outdoor camping and sleeping bans, city-wide restrictions on living in vehicles may leave no lawful place where homeless people may live in a community," NLCHP said in a recent report. "Bans that permit vehicle impoundment, or that result in impoundment flowing from unpaid tickets or other enforcement of such bans, can cause homeless people to lose their shelter, transportation, and personal belongings in one fell swoop – with no realistic option to retrieve or replace them."

Homelessness rose last year, marking its first increase since 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. About one-third of the homeless population was described as "unsheltered," which includes people living on the streets and in their vehicles. HUD's data doesn't provide more specific information.

A fair number of the "vehicular homeless" in Silicon Valley are employed but are unable to find affordable housing, as the Associated Press noted last year. Lines of RVs can be found near the headquarters of tech heavyweights such as Apple, Google and Hewlett-Packard. Nationwide, extremely low-income renters are facing a shortage of 7.2 million rental homes, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

"A lot of times, once you lose your home it can spiral downwards from there," said Megan Hustings, interim director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, in an interview. "We have seen people living in their cars anywhere from a couple of weeks to months to years. "

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