Even by Los Angeles standards, Noelle spends a lot of time worrying about parking. A writers room production assistant for a major streamer and script reader for a premium cable network, Noelle wakes up at 6 a.m. on weekdays to secure a spot close to her jobs in West L.A. After work, she moves her white, unassuming Ford Transit to another spot, carefully chosen to be located in a non-residentially zoned area without nightly parking restrictions and far away from any schools, daycare facilities or parks. She is constantly rotating these “day spots” and “night spots,” as she calls them, so as not to annoy neighbors or attract too much attention. These days, Noelle jokes, she’s more worried about a cop knocking on her window than getting “murdered or attacked.”
Noelle, 25, who is using only her first name because she signed a no-publicity clause for one of her jobs, is one of the 15,748 Angelenos currently living in his or her vehicle, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. Their ranks are growing amid a worsening income inequality and homelessness crisis: As of January 2018, 9,117 vehicles were being used as homes, up 600 from 2017.
The entertainment industry, one of the city’s biggest and most capricious employers, counts a number of car dwellers like Noelle among its workforce. Though the precise figure is unknown, it’s a small but visible population. Of the 45 or so people hosted each night by Safe Parking L.A. — an organization that launched in 2016 and opened its first facility this year providing guarded, secret lots for vehicle dwellers to sleep in — an actor and a couple of part-time production or lighting professionals usually show up, founder Scott Sale says. Though LAHSA does not survey professions in its annual Homeless Count, community engagement manager Jonathan Hans says entertainment-industry types are a familiar group: “Especially within our younger population, it’s not necessarily uncommon that a group of young kids came out [to L.A.] because somebody told them that they would get them a record deal and then they ended up living out of their van,” he says. Many now-well-known industry figures — Tiffany Haddish, Chris Pratt, Drew Carey, Kelly Clarkson — have said they lived in their car before rising to fame.
Noelle, an Iowa native who graduated from Chapman University in 2016, can afford to rent a room in L.A. Still, she feels that even reasonable rents — her last place was a $600-per-month shared room — are too expensive. (She says her average monthly costs are $850.) Noelle initially wanted to switch to living in a “tiny home,” which generally takes up just 100 to 500 square feet and is often marketed as a more affordable way to own property. Still, even do-it-yourself tiny homes can cost up to six figures, so she found a more affordable solution on Instagram: living in a van.
Crashing in her Transit means “really living small,” she says. Noelle has one closet and says she’s constantly throwing things out. Her bathroom is a tiny portable toilet stashed beneath her hanging clothes (it is emptied at RV dump stations); running water is provided by 5-gallon freshwater jugs stored underneath her small sink. She, like many who live in their cars, showers at the gym.
The extra mobility the van provides is great for an entertainment professional who doesn’t love L.A., like Noelle (before the Transit, she often crashed in her car in Newport Beach or San Diego on weekends). But there are downsides to the itinerant lifestyle: Noelle tends to stay in one place on weekends because she’s afraid of losing her spot; she avoids driving at heavy-traffic times because she’s wary of even a fender bender — going to the auto shop, these days, means briefly losing the roof over her head. She’s heard street fights outside her van at night and keeps pepper spray and a taser on her in case she ever feels unsafe.
Joe Lepp, 27, a grip who works full-time on Amazon’s Sneaky Pete and lives out of his green Ford Windstar, started making the van his home in order to reach savings goals. After crashing in his Windstar infrequently while working at film festivals, Lepp moved in full-time when he relocated to L.A. nearly four years ago. Compared to those who live in cargo vans, Lepp has a relatively small space: After ripping out the minivan’s back rows, he added an elevated bed, now piled with a sleeping bag and blankets, a drop-down table for food (during the week, he gets three meals a day on set; he eats out otherwise) and a tiny bookshelf with volumes strapped in so they don’t fall while the van is moving. Two solar panels provide the space with 100 amp hours and power the string lights he’s hung around the top edges of the vehicle. He frequents a 24-Hour Fitness (lower-end gym memberships generally cost about $15 to $30 a month in the L.A. area) for showers and grocery stores and gas stations for toilets.
Lepp, who could have paid what he calls L.A.’s “outrageous” rents, estimates he’s reduced his yearly overhead by about $14,000 since moving in. Ultimately, he hopes to save enough to put a down payment on a house that he will rent out for passive income. “I want to get to my [financial] goals five to 10 years earlier than everyone else,” Lepp says.
Today, he’s confident enough in his job security that he tells co-workers openly about his lifestyle. As for dating, he says it’s a matter of meeting the right person: “I would say most people think it’s pretty interesting, and when they find out that I’m not doing it because I’m irresponsible and I’ve been forced into this, it usually goes down pretty well.”
While the #Vanlife movement — a term coined by a former Ralph Lauren designer in 2011 that refers to those who elect to live in vans and share the details of their lifestyles on social media — has glamorized vehicle dwelling, those interviewed for this story do not identify with the trend. Still, perhaps in part due to #Vanlife’s omnipresence on social media, car dwellers say that younger generations tend to be more aware and accepting of the lifestyle than older folks. Another reason for this generation gap may be economic: While wages grew rapidly during the majority of baby boomer earning years, they have remained primarily stagnant for millennials. This is especially true in entertainment, where low-level assistants and craftspersons are expected to subsist on salaries so low that even modest housing costs can eat up entire paychecks.
Austin Pedroni, a 24-year-old freelance camera assistant who has worked on several short films, including this year’s Holy Moses, starring Amanda Seyfried, began living out of a van to free up time and finances for his primary hobby, downhill skateboarding. True to form, the capacious trunk of his white Mercedes Sprinter is stuffed with several skateboards beneath a suspended bed. (While many car dwellers install convertible beds to save space, Pedroni’s is built out: He didn’t want to have to reconstruct his bed at the end of every day.) His space also features a small kitchen with running water so that he can cook, which he enjoys, and counter space so long that it sticks out when he opens his right-side door. Pedroni parks near friends’ houses to use their bathrooms; an old laundry-detergent bottle serves as his emergency toilet.
Before living in a van, Pedroni rented a house in West Los Angeles with a large group of roommates — from nine to 13 while he was there — to keep the rent low. He had idly thought about living in a car, but when he met a skateboarding couple living in a Sprinter van, they “gave the dream a physical embodiment,” he says. Since moving in, he generally tries to get up at 6:30 a.m. daily, re-park his van and head for a yoga class at his gym. Still, he says he hasn’t had to change much in his daily routine because he’s used to living situations that require compromise: “I mean, before, living with nine to 13 roommates was not ideal, but I always just made it work.”
Like all of the vehicle dwellers interviewed by THR, Chris Huelsbeck cites California’s dearth of affordable housing as a major factor in his decision to start living mobile.
Huelsbeck, 50, a video game music composer who has written music for Star Wars: Rogue Squadron, Doctor Who: Legacy and The War of the Worlds, and his wife left a three-bedroom home in the Bay Area to move into his Thor Chateau RV two and a half years ago. The Huelsbecks wanted to lead a more adventurous lifestyle and escape the Bay Area’s high cost of living, which required them to “work constantly for the house,” he says. “Looking at another 22 years of paying a mortgage, we were really looking for a change.”
His 29-foot home today has the look of a modest ’80s-built family dwelling, with tile floors, cherry wood cabinets, gold knobs, and laminate countertops. Huelsbeck works from the road on a small desk occupied by a Thinkpad computer that he’s upgraded to have more RAM space; he also stores a MIDI keyboard controller, two studio speakers, a small mixer, studio microphones and a 40-inch monitor in the RV to compose. “I can do more with that laptop now than I could do with my big studio in the ’90s,” he says.
California’s housing crisis has hit entry-level, below-the-line and nonunion workers in the industry particularly hard. A single, childless person needs to make $87,260 to live “comfortably” in Los Angeles, according to a GoBankingRates study. (Living comfortably, according to GoBankingRates, means living alone in a one-bedroom apartment, having health-care coverage and being able to dedicate some portion of his or her income to non-necessities and savings.) Freelance audio supervisors, production coordinators, associate producers and production assistants all earn a median salary of $50,000 or less, according to a 2016 television production study.
Safe Parking L.A. has become a safety net for industry professionals who fall into car dwelling rather than choose it. Actor Octavio Solorio, 65, who has appeared in commercials for Home Depot and Burger King as well as small parts on Hulu’s Casual, truTV’s I’m Sorry, Fox’s Rosewood and TBS’ Cougar Town, began sleeping in his Volkswagen Passat in the organization’s North Hollywood lot following the loss of $30,000 in bad business deals. A counselor at the Actors Fund referred him to Safe Parking L.A. He began parking there two months after he first left his apartment in Chatsworth.
Solorio’s time in his car before he found Safe Parking was harrowing: He slept on dark streets, in dark clothes, so that no one would notice him; he searched for spaces that abutted bushes or fences so that people on the sidewalk wouldn’t knock on his windows. (Still, several neighbors did.) The first night he didn’t have a blanket.
At his Safe Parking lot, he is friendly with the guard who surveys the facility all night, is in close proximity to Burbank studios where he does voiceover work, gets free food on Wednesday nights and is in touch with Safe Parking employees about resources that can help him save for a new place or focus on his work. They’ve suggested he apply for SNAP benefits, for instance: “It’s hard for me to say this because I don’t think of myself as in need of help,” Solorio says. “But right now I need help.”
Los Angeles County seems to be reconciling itself to the logic of providing help to its car-dwelling population: In August, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to roll out a pilot program administering more resources for people living in their vehicles, including funding to help individuals buy functional — rather than beat-up — RVs and better waste-disposal solutions. The motion also asked L.A. County officials to come up with a plan to implement more “safe parking” lots.
While Safe Parking L.A. is open exclusively to people in need who are seeking permanent homes, those who have chosen to live in their cars say that the more mobile lifestyle has upsides for their career.
When Lepp is working as a “day player” — getting hired on a daily basis without a long-term contract — on multiple productions, parking near set gives him more time to rest, he says. And when productions are outside L.A. proper, he can avoid long commutes by parking nearby: One week in December, he had a location shoot in San Pedro, up to a three-hour round-trip commute from where he was staying in Burbank. He intended to drive down to San Pedro before the shoot began to save time. “When people ask me, ‘How far was your drive?’ I’m like, ‘I had a four-minute commute,’ ” Lepp says.
Pedroni’s van, meanwhile, complements his freelance work, he says, by providing a low monthly overhead that keeps him comfortable during both busy and slow months. By living in a mobile home, Pedroni can also take more “local” jobs — gigs that won’t pay travel expenses — without assuming much of the extra cost himself.
Huelsbeck, for his part, avoids stints in expensive hotels at trade events like the E3 Expo and the Game Developers Conference by staying nearby in his RV. When he was recording a Christmas album and concert with the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, he also stayed in his vehicle. He adds that getting out of the city is good for inspiration for his compositions: “We’ve been spending a lot of time really out in nature on public lands, in national forests, and there are always fantastic views so that definitely inspires music creation,” he says.
Meanwhile, a vibrant online community is providing those who live in cars — or are interested in doing so — with customizing tips, repair tricks and cost breakdowns. Facebook groups like Sprinters California United and forums like Cheap RV Living, the Digital Nomads Forum, TheSamba.com and Sprinter Source offer community, instant communication, inspiration, and support.
Pedroni says he visits Sprinter Source, which has an “awesome” community, a few times a week. But Lepp, for his part, doesn’t see these resources as a good sign: “The fact that there are all these little forums and stuff like that [for car dwelling], I think that’s just the beginning of a much larger, underlying problem within our economy and is kind of a precursor to where our economy is going.”
This story first appeared in the Dec. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.