A  movement of nomads redefines the meaning of housing

When housing, feeding, and sustaining yourself on a limited budget becomes a very real stretch, what do you do? Some people are choosing to abandon their homes to make ends meet while others are moved by necessity to live in vehicles as their only shelter. They take temporary or seasonal work as campground hosts, in Amazon fulfillment centers, in beet fields, and myriad other gig jobs, many requiring hard physical labor. Job boards like Workers on Wheels and resources like Workamper News provide leads to jobs, many of which provide a spot in RV parks or campgrounds in exchange for work or in addition to employment.

Unlike the trendy van dwelling of younger people—where living in your van is a romantic ideal—a growing number of people living in RVs, vans, converted trucks, and cars are older. Many are single women who generally receive less social security than men due to a wage gap in earnings during their lifetime. And women’s savings, if they have any, are compromised due to the extended years of life they have over men. Although the allure of road tripping is a pull for some, for many others the choice is not for freedom but survival. Like the refugees of the Dust Bowl who migrated west and found jobs in orchards and fields, the new migrants are seeking economic relief in much the same way with temporary jobs that fill an immediate need for cash and a legitimate place to camp.

Revising the American Dream

The reality of having a class of downwardly mobile older Americans has created a shadow culture of transitory workers. As they become more visible, the seeds of a new class begin to emerge. Some, like Guy Standing (a professorial research associate at SOAS University of London and founding member and honorary copresident of the Basic Income Earth Network, an NGO that promotes a basic income for all), have put a name to it—the precariat—a portmanteau merging precarity and proletariat. Workers’ loss of rights and job insecurity have been the result of an economy defined by neoliberalism, which since the 1970s preached the value of competition, free markets, and property rights in place of public welfare.

Over the years, workers have gradually lost their power to unionize, pensions began to shrink or disappear, the notion of job security became an oxymoron, and many people became uprooted and unmoored. For many older Americans, the culmination of all this was the financial meltdown in 2008. Many lost their savings and homes and were forced to downsize—some in the relative luxury of RVs, others in homemade mobile vehicles. Those struggling to maintain a roof over their head began to reconsider the American Dream. As one woman wondered in Jessica Bruder’s book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, “Is this the evolution of the former middle class?”

A Culture of Wandering Workers, a.k.a. “Nomads”

Bruder’s Nomadland* reveals the shadow of this new economy. An investigative journalist who traveled as a “nomad” intermittently over the course of three years in her van provides us entry to a world that feels economically insecure yet socially supportive. Where physical labor in Amazon warehouses and beet fields takes a toll on older bodies, there is camaraderie. Gatherings, YouTube videos, blogs, and websites share information on jobs and mobile-living skills. Bob Wells is a sought-after mentor and new-age guru of the van-dwelling lifestyle. His website, CheapRVliving.com, and his YouTube channel help newbies learn how to outfit their vans as well as provide inspiration and connection. He organizes the annual Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, where people gather in the desert to learn and bond.

Few van dwellers revel in life on the road; most are making the most of a difficult economic situation. In a time when politics and the economy feel like a freefall, it behooves us to consider the future of older Americans. Where many of us have little to no savings, and more us don’t have enough money to last the rest of our lives, where will we live? Will the traditional sticks-and-bricks (brick-and-mortar) homes be affordable to us? As we lose our ability to live in neighborhoods, how will we deal with the loneliness and isolation of living on the road? Will we have to work physically difficult jobs to survive? Will our safety be compromised? And how long can we endure an itinerant lifestyle as we look to our 70s and 80s and even 90s?

Silvianne is a 60-plus-year-old van dweller who keeps a blog of her gypsy life on the road. Having spent the previous night in “existential” dread, she writes this entry:

I am in yet another transition. . . . Moving out of a temporary apartment in Madrid, New Mexico back into the van . . . before returning to my summer camp host job near Big Bear Lake in Southern California. I have no savings and barely enough money to get there and pay my expenses until I start the job in May. Again, this has pretty much been a constant of my van-dwelling existence. . . . I’ve been living on the edge ever since with a charmingly innocent (or fool-heartedly reckless) faith in Spirit to see me through. . . . But this time, for the first time in 10 years, I am also in credit card debt. Van breakdowns and plumbing issues (in the tiny former miner’s cabin I haven’t been able to sell) this past Fall took all the savings I had from last summer, and then some. . . .

If the van stops running for any reason . . . I am completely and utterly f#$*!d. . . . I have over 1,000 miles and four weeks between me and my next paycheck, I’m maxed out financially and the credit card interest is mounting. . . . If [the van] breaks down I don’t have any other vehicle to get me to any kind of job . . .  and my ability to obtain more credit is non-existent. And I can’t do the camp host job if I don’t have a vehicle I can live in. And I have a cat who depends on me and no one I know who could reasonably adopt her. . . .

So, there it was, staring me in the face. The consequences of all the decisions I’ve made in my life that have led me to this pin-point in time.

One would argue whether it was Silvianne’s life decisions that brought on this existential moment or if it was the collective consequences of an economy and culture that favors a few and burdens the many.

*Nomadland will be released as a major film, starring Frances McDormand, in mid-February 2021.

Follow-up on van life here