Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Living out of a car

When I was younger, around 12 or 13, I used to have a recurring dream wherein I owned a “Scamper” trailer that I had in my parent’s backyard. As a teenager, who doesn’t dream of not living under the confines of their parent’s roof? Yes, I wasn’t totally ready to strike out on my own. Being in my parent’s backyard would afford me comfort and safety all inside a tiny little 100 square foot trailer that had its own kitchenette and “bathroom”. I would have had my tiny 13” color television and my VCR and even my stereo. I could stay up as late as I wanted, listened to my music as late as I wanted. It would have been heavenly.


Why am I thinking about this years-gone-by pipe-dream today? I was listening to a story on NPR this morning on the way to work about people who were considered “the working poor who lived out of their cars.” I had no idea the numbers were so outrageously high. They interviewed a woman from Sacramento (I think that’s where she was from). By definition, the “working poor” were those who were making at, or just around, the federal minimum wage of $5.15/hr.

The jist of the story was that the new average cost of an apartment these days across America was $938/mo. For a full-time “working poor” person, this would far exceed their take-home pay of $786/mo. if you were to assume this person was working a full 40 hours a week. Thus there was a huge number of homeless full-time employees that were living out of their cars. If I recall the story correctly, Sacramento, along with Portland, were the only two cities in the nation that had a program where they would allow people to participate in a lottery to obtain 1 of 50 “safe” parking places in government parking garages between the hours of 7 pm and 7 am where they could park their “homes” and be safe from other homeless people and criminals. In all other areas of the country, living out of your car is still illegal with fines of up to $1000.

The woman interviewed for this story had been living out of her Mazda for 6 years. She had a full-time job as a parking lot attendant, presumably making the federal minimum wage of $5.15. She talked about the trials and hardships of living out of her car, although she also mentioned how she had persevered. It was, in fact, a very uplifting story.

But this is what started me thinking about my dream from childhood of living in a little Scamper. I am by no way implying that I would shuck everything I have now to downsize and live in a camper, but I do think I would rather live in a 100 square foot haven rather than sleep in the back seat of a 1986 Mazda Protégé. Impossible you scoff? Well let me lay it out for you.

If you were to assume that this person was indeed making the ridiculously low wage of $5.15/hr., that would net her $786/mo. Call me naïve, but I think there are places in this country that you can actually get a job for slightly more than that. Not much more, but I assume most employers offer a wage comparable to the cost of living for their cities. I know even in Austin you can get a job at a local grocery store starting at a minimum of $12/hr as a stocker. But let’s just, for the sake of arguing, use the federal minimum of $5.15/hr. and an average of $9.00. Still not a lot of money, but doable. So we’re now working with a net take home of $786-1342/mo.

In my travels I have seen some VERY nice travel campers for as low as $4000. Yeah, you can get those huge monstrosities for upwards of $90,000, but I’m talking about the little camper I dreamed of as a child. If you figure you can pick up a decent Scamper for 4 grand and amortize that over a 5 year period, with interest, you’re paying $70/mo. I don’t know how it is in the rest of the country, but in my little neck of the woods, there are lots of area campgrounds that are seriously within 20-30 minutes of the city of Austin where you can get a campsite with water and electric hook-ups for as low as $12/day. Some of these sites even have cable television hook-ups, but that costs a little more, so I won’t even mention them. These campgrounds have fully operational bathrooms with hot showers (in case you don’t want to shit in your 100 square foot space); each campsite has a cooking grill, fire ring, and picnic table; most of them are right on a major lake or area attraction. I realize most all of them have a maximum number of day limit that you can “camp” there, but this is usually a very generous 14 day rule. At the end of 14 days, you can hook up your home to your Mazda (that you clearly have paid for over the last 6 years you’ve been living in it) and move your home to another nearby park (STILL within 20-30 minutes of downtown) and relocate for another 14-days. This way you get a new “view” every 14 days and you can still drive your car to work. If you were to do this every day, you would be paying “rent” (which includes utilities) of $360/mo.

This solution would leave you between $430-912/mo. for gas and groceries depending on whether you’re making $5.15 or $9.00 and hour. I know it’s not as glamourous as, say, Paris Hilton. But it sure gives you a lot more comfort and space than the backseat of your car? Like I said, I’m not wanting to downgrade, but if something were to happen where I had to choose between the four of us sleeping in the back of a Scion XB or stretching out my legs in the comfort of a Scamper, I say pass the S’mores.

By the way, in case you’re wondering. The Scamp that I pictured above was listed on Autotrader “in excellent condition” for $1800. Imagine what you could get for 4 grand…I’m just sayin’!


Anonymous said...

You could build one of these I bet for about 10-12 grand.


(F)redddy said...

I saw the guy who started Tumbleweed Houses on Oprah once and LOVED his places. BUT...$1,800 STILL cheaper than 12k.