100 Hours Living in a Car

Each day as we walk out the doors of our homes, drive to work, take the kids to school, meet up with friends for dinner, we see evidence of Los Angeles’ humanitarian crisis of homelessness. Our streets are lined with tents and the piles of belongings make it clear this is where someone sleeps each night. Then are those who we don’t see, the invisible homeless. Those are our neighbors who are holding down jobs, showering in gyms, struggling to keep their clothes clean to ensure they can keep a sense of normalcy as they call a car a home.

In 2019, Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) reported that there were more than 16,000 Angelenos living in their cars. We, as one of the wealthiest cities in the world, allow this to happen and it’s inhumane and unsustainable. To help better understand the experience of this vulnerable population and the experience thousands of Angelenos face each day, I recently spent 100 hours living in a car alongside Hope the Mission, formerly Hope of the Valley Rescue Mission, founder and CEO, Ken Craft.

As executives who have each worked in homeless services for decades, we recognize the immense privilege we have by only experiencing this situation for 100 hours and use this experience to help inform and guide the services that Hope the Mission provides to unsheltered Angelenos.

Despite my overly fancy title of Chief Financial Officer for Hope the Mission, I am, at my core, just a good accountant. Accountants are great at two things: making sense of numbers and planning ahead. When Ken and I began this experience. I took stock of what I had—and made a plan. A plan to help us survive.

We had fifty dollars, a bag of clothes each, some blankets, our cell phones, and the keys to a car whose gas tank was nearing empty—that was what we had to get through the week. We were expected to show up at work on time at 8:30 AM and perform our regular job duties.

Like many who live in their cars, I did everything possible to hide that I wasn’t returning to a home at the end of the day, but a car. I bought a $ 10-a-month gym membership and showered there. I watched a nearly empty gas tank get closer to empty as we drove to the laundromat to wash our clothes. Each day I did my best to piece together meals – eating a free bagel at work left over from a meeting, purchasing what was on sale, barely any of it providing sustainable, healthy nutrition. The planning to just survive is exhausting.

The first night in the car, I didn’t eat dinner and barely slept. The trend of no sleep continued each night. The seats don’t lay completely flat, it’s claustrophobic because you’re surrounded by your stuff on all sides, your feet swell, and if it rains you can hear every raindrop as it ricochets off the roof. Sleeping in a car is like being in the middle seat of an airplane, and you’re seated between two giants who are also punching you in your sleep. You wake up sore, you wake up tense, and you wake up tired. So tired that you ask yourself if it was worth it–trying to go to sleep at all.

Getting through each workday was exhausting. I hadn’t slept, my body hurts, and all my tasks take significantly longer than usual. I was self-conscious around my colleagues. While I know this isn’t my real life, for far too many Angelenos it is.

Each night after finishing dinner, we found the safest place to park —and where we wouldn’t get a ticket. Last year, Ken and I participated in 100 Hours on the Street and when we were looking for places to sleep, we encountered hostile architecture such as “armrests” in the middle of benches or rocky terrain under overpasses—barriers intentionally placed to curtail people from sleeping there. We’ve faced similar obstacles in the car, but this time in the form of confusing and misleading parking restriction signs. When we finally find a spot to sleep each night, our preference was an area by the Van Nuys Airport, I try to let my guard down and rest after all day, but it was impossible. More planning, more exhaustion.

When you enter survival mode, which is what happens when you’re unsheltered, certain traits and quirks about yourself become magnified. Again, this existence for us was only temporary and I recognize that—but we cannot, as a city, accept this for anyone who lives in Los Angeles. That’s not living—it’s maintaining and surviving, and we cannot and should not accept this as the status quo.

Hope the Mission commends Mayor Bass and the County Supervisors for declaring a state of emergency on homelessness, but we have to do more. The streets, a car—those aren’t homes, and they shouldn’t be waiting rooms until more affordable housing is built in the city. I am proud of the work we do at Hope to prevent, reduce, and eliminate poverty, hunger, and homelessness by offering immediate assistance and long-term solutions. But I wish we didn’t have to exist as an organization.

During these 100 hours, I counted down to the end, but for so many there is no countdown in sight. They wake up each morning in their car and try to get through the day as if they don’t have to go back to their vehicle at night. They remain invisible and closer to street homelessness. Research shows that once you end up on the street, mental health, addiction, and physical issues arise, making the care then needed only more expensive. We must act
now, we must do better – more shelters, build tiny homes, additional hotels, and more supportive services.


Rowan Vansleve is the President of Hope the Mission, formerly Hope of the Valley Rescue Mission.