- Courtesy Photo
- USU student Stephanie Buchanan fires up a quick meal in the cramped-yet-efficient back of Moby Dick, her Chevy Uplander.
The sun set 30 minutes ago. As her communications class ends, Stephanie Buchanan packs her backpack and sighs.
"Well, time to head home," she says. She starts down the hill at Utah State University, the iconic Old Main tower lit up in Aggie blue behind her. It's 7 degrees. She goes fast.
When Buchanan arrives home, she slides open the door and takes off her shoes just like anyone else. The snow wafts in from outside. She steps up through the door and is already on her bed. Six inches away is the bathroom. Her kitchen is 3 feet behind. The dresser sits a foot below.
"All within reach from bed," she says, sliding shut the door of her home, a white 2008 Chevy Uplander she nicknamed Moby Dick. Buchanan has called the minivan home for almost a year, and has experienced every season inside the 80-square-foot metal beast—less than a sixth the size of its fictional namesake.
To most observers, she's one of the almost 90,000 known homeless college students in the United States. But Buchanan doesn't self-identify as such.
"I have somewhere to go," she says. "Where I park it changes, but I still have somewhere."
According to the government, however, she is considered homeless. According to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, anyone living in a car is. And with the ever-increasing costs of getting a degree, researchers are finding that more college students are sacrificing paying rent in favor of affording tuition.
But for Buchanan, forgoing rent in favor of her van was the best choice she ever made. In fact, she argues that "everyone should live in a van."
She's not alone. According to data from the National Work Truck Industry, sales of new cargo vans, the type people build into traveling homes, have skyrocketed in the past five years by 41%. Recreational vehicle sales are booming after tanking in 2008, according to industry data.
Younger people like Buchanan don't view living in a van as the last resort. For some, it's the dream, and given the 6.3 million unique Instagram posts tagged #vanlife, the trend is here to stay.
Is a Turtle Homeless?
Researchers believe higher education costs are creating more homeless students.
"We're certainly seeing it's not getting any better," says Eddy Conroy, an assistant director at the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University in Philadelphia.
The center released a report in April that found almost 60%of students were "housing insecure" in the past year, meaning they risked eviction or homelessness. While the survey had more than 86,000 respondents, Conroy says it's likely that the number of students in trouble is even higher.
"The students who are most at risk are often students who have the most going on in their lives, and responding to a survey is probably going to be fairly low down on their to-do list," he says.
When a student has to choose between a roof and an education, Conroy notes, that exposes serious flaws in American higher education systems.
"We've told students that if they go to college, it will pay off for them. And we actually know that if they succeed and graduate, it probably will pay off," he says. "But at the same time, we've got a very large number of students who, in the process, are not thriving the way they should."
Conroy says Americans have been sympathetic before, with free and reduced lunch programs in K-12 education, but "those needs don't change when someone is over the age of 18."
Policymakers are starting to respond to the data as well. A bill introduced to the U.S. Senate in March by Rob Portman, R-Ohio, would expand federal low-income housing to university students. The bill has bipartisan support, but is sitting in limbo in the Senate Finance Committee.
But if a home is also a car, where does that categorize someone?
Buchanan says if she was asked point-blank, she wouldn't call herself homeless, even though she fits the legal requirement. After all, she says, a turtle isn't homeless.
Sure, she has to take some extra precautions. As a solo, young woman, Buchanan keeps a lead pipe and bear spray nearby—but not for bears.
She could afford rent now, especially in a town like Logan. Buchanan worked as a river guide for the past few summers and works part-time at the university. But when she first drove Moby Dick, she wasn't as lucky.
"I was pretty strapped for cash," she recalls.
She traded in her car for the van, and built a bed and storage infrastructure for about $70. Compared to the hardwood floors and full kitchens that "van life" YouTube stars boast, Buchanan's setup is minimal.
For most students with a four-wheeled residence, structural upgrades are nil. Annie Weiler drove south last May with no plan, just a Subaru, a sleeping bag and a suitcase. She spent a summer in Moab, living in the back of her car while paying remaining rent on a year-long lease in Logan.
When Weiler returned north, she wanted to stay in the back of her car.
"It just gets so cold up here," she says, so she rented an inexpensive apartment. But when school gets difficult, or she needs to get away, Weiler still takes the Subaru into the nearby canyon for a quiet night in the mountains.
- Courtesy Photo
This Land Is My Van
Until the snow came and the gates closed, Buchanan also drove up to Green Canyon, just two miles north of USU. Whether she was there legally is difficult to tell.
"The national forest is for recreation purposes, not residential purposes," says Jennefer Parker, the Logan ranger for the Uinta Wasatch Cache National Forest.
For people camping and recreating in the national forests, there is a 14-day stay limit, Parker says. The problem is, the stay limit doesn't matter if someone is using the forest as their home. That isn't allowed for any amount of time.
But how do enforcement officers know the difference? To Clair Larsen, the single officer in charge of monitoring all 275,000 acres of the Logan Ranger District, it's usually obvious.
"A lot of times they have tarps for privacy, it's messy, more like an encampment," he says. "This has become a huge chunk of my job. It's probably tripled in the last four years."
He deals with the illegal tenants on a "case-by-case" basis, but says usually the first encounter is educational and just about understanding the person's situation.
"But nine out of 10 times, I find them in the next canyon over the next day," he says. "That's when people get citations."
Parker and Larsen say they're not trying to crack down on people using public lands. But because national forests belong to all citizens equally, the rules promote equal treatment and access.
"If someone is living in a camp, it prevents families from spending a day or two up there recreating," Larsen points out. "It's about equal access for all."
In most cases, there is a clear difference between recreating and residing, Larsen says, but van-lifers are starting to blur the line. "If you have a next destination in mind, that's recreating to me," he says. "You'd be like an RV, which is welcome in the 14-day stay limit."
So is someone's legal status based on how fast they can name their next trailhead? Not exactly, Larsen says.
"It's about recreating, using the land for its intended purposes," he adds. Usually, cleanliness plays a factor.
Parker says "residents" tend to leave more trash and waste behind.
Buchanan says when she stays in national forests, she is sure to be clean and discreet, and usually fits in the category of recreator. Her usual public land spots are Bureau of Land Management-owned, anyway, she adds.
Homeless and Happy
When Buchanan arrives back at the van, wherever it's parked that night, she feels more at home than ever before.
One snowy November night, parked behind a friend's house, Buchanan settled down with a book and a beer.
"This semester, I've been the least sick, the least tired of all my semesters," she muses. Graduating in a week with a degree in communication studies, Buchanan says she faced the heaviest workload of any year prior.
But living in the van has taught her how to get work done quicker, before coming home. She's learned how to be more organized.
"I think if I was able to watch Netflix or FaceTime people or go on the internet while I was in my van, it wouldn't be the same," she says, "and I don't think I would like it."
When she can't be in nature, Buchanan typically parks at a friend's house in exchange for a van-cooked meal or six-pack of craft beer—a rent she says is much more sustainable.
"Something I loved about camping is being by the fire, talking and sharing stories and learning about people," she says. "And I feel like I can bring that with me wherever I go in my van, whether that's a campsite or in someone's house."
If nature and friends are both unavailable, Buchanan enjoys the alone time in Moby Dick at the nearest Walmart parking lot, but she makes sure to keep her lead pipe and bear spray close, and she always parks under a light.
"I'm much more aware of my surroundings," she says.
Where will she be next? She isn't sure. Wherever it is, it's not down on any map. As Herman Melville wrote, true places never are.