By Ashley Duong
In a Benadryl-induced haze, prompted by a bout of insomnia, I decided a few weeks ago that attempting to live out of my car would be a great idea.
I had been thinking back to news stories I had seen about students living out of their cars and purchasing gym memberships for showers because the cost of both rent and tuition was unmanageable. Even though media coverage of the issue has since died down, student homelessness is still very real and relevant. A recent Los Angeles Times article noted that “more than 56,000 college students identified themselves as homeless, according to 2013-14 Federal Student Aid Form (FAFSA) data.”
And so, to get a better understanding of the issue and hopefully raise some awareness, I set out to get a sense of what it’s like to be a homeless college student on a budget by living out of my car for two weeks. While the experience is far from what a homeless student truly goes through on a daily basis, I had hoped to somewhat simulate what it feels like to not have a stable living situation.
The rules I set for myself were that I could not access my apartment, could not use any of the amenities at my apartment complex (VDC Norte) except for a bathroom, and that I could only spend $100 for the entirety of the two weeks.
After packing up my clothes and books, I handed my apartment keys off to a friend and waved goodbye to my apartment. Here are some things I’ve noticed in the first week I’ve spent in my car:
CAMPUS IS FILLED WITH BENEFICIAL RESOURCES
As my access to my usual comforts disappeared, I was forced to become more resourceful and utilize more of the amenities provided to me as a student of UCI that I hadn’t used before. I spent a majority of my time on campus, studying at libraries and study spaces with Wi-Fi and took note of the best places to find outlets to charge my phone and laptop.
I also went to the ARC to shower for the very first time. Other than accidentally soaking my shoes one time, showering at the ARC was actually rather convenient. The spacious stalls and clean towels they provided made not having an easily-accessible bathroom less of a hassle.
But even with the resources available to me, I still noticed the downsides of having to live out of my car.
PRIVACY IS NOT A GIVEN
The first downside I noticed came as I spent over an hour trying to put up covers on the windows of my car. The general lack of privacy was a factor I hadn’t given much thought to until I started covering up my windows.
Simple things like changing my clothes or sleeping at night could be interrupted by random people at any time. I no longer had a space of my own, a place for me to enjoy a moment of solitude or to relax. Cramped up in a small, dark shoebox, often overhearing the arguments unsuspecting couples were having outside, left me feeling more out of place than ever.
Many of my nights were spent tossing and turning with restlessness and discomfort. Aside from getting a bad back from sleeping in the reclined passenger seat of my Honda Fit, I was also constantly paranoid about safety, even while parked in on-campus parking lots. I was afraid of not only potential harm, but also getting found by police officers and being told to leave — or worse, getting arrested (however unlikely). Every car that passed, every time I heard voices or saw headlights beamed in my direction, I unintentionally perked up in fear, prepared to start my car or bolt if needed.
SLEEPING IN A CAR COMES WITH A LOT OF ADDED STRESS
Eventually, the lack of quality sleep and general stress of not having a home began to affect me in ways I had not previously considered. It took me longer to finish simple assignments, and I began to lose important belongings, like my wallet and my beloved waterbottle, from forgetfulness.
When my car wouldn’t start late one night because the battery had drained (probably from a light I had accidentally left on), I nearly had a breakdown. I sat despondently, staring out into the darkness as I waited for roadside assistance to come. After the ordeal, I was definitely counting my blessings as I listened to the hum of my engine and drove my car around to ensure that it wouldn’t die again.
OC WEATHER IS SOMETHING TO BE THANKFUL FOR
Even through the lows of the week, ultimately I was extremely grateful for the small things that I didn’t generally pay attention to when I had access to my usual comforts. Good weather and going to a school that provides the resources that UCI does are random coincidences that I have no control over, but definitely benefit from.
Although I did have a few brushes with the low temperatures of the early mornings (the scariest one included waking up to find that my left foot was slightly discolored from the cold and no longer had any sensation), I realized that this experience could be much worse if I didn’t live and study in California.
Although cliche, the most profound things I’ve observed from this first week have been less about the large inconveniences of living out of my car and more about the small things that I usually take for granted on a daily basis. But still, my short-term experience could never truly encapsulate that of an actual homeless student, which has only made me even more conscious of the many privileges that I have as a financially secure student.