For Stef, living in a van made perfect sense. He was on the road all the time, travelling from music festival to music festival, feeding revellers his homemade pizzas. Soon, he had saved enough money to buy a secondhand white LDV Convoy. He moved into it in December 2019, but by early 2020, the pandemic had kicked in, lockdown was under way, and music festivals were a non-starter.
Stef didn’t have enough money to rent a place to live. “I’m on universal credit: £490 a month to live on,” he says. “Half of that goes on running and insuring the van. So there’s not a lot of wiggle room.” He may have dreamed of living in a van before, but now it was his only option.
His LDV conked out in March and he replaced it with a big secondhand silver Mercedes Luton Sprinter. “It’s completely unconverted as finding materials is proving to be a nightmare,” he says. He has no mod cons or running water, and relies on friends for laundry trips. “I’ve got a couple of little camping stoves and little jerrycans full of water and I can make do with that,” he says. Not only has the pandemic robbed him of his work, it has made van-dwelling more problematic. “The van doesn’t have a toilet or a shower so relying on public facilities has been really difficult,” Stef says. “Gyms are closed, so I’ve had to shower at service stations.”
There have been a few upsides. “It’s given me a chance to not be stuck in the cities – to spend time in the middle of nowhere, in the woods.” But listening to Stef, who is usually based in Bristol, it’s hard not to conclude that the negatives outweigh the positives.
By last winter, he could no longer afford the fuel to heat his van. “That was costing me an extra two or three pounds a night.” He ended up “skipping”: raiding huge containers outside supermarkets looking for food. “Sometimes you find bread, a bit of meat, pasta. You can get a bit of good produce if you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky they’ve locked the bins and thrown bleach over them. They do that to stop people going in the bins, which is disgusting, if you ask me.”
Stef, 29, is a warm, happy-go-lucky loner, and has tended to keep himself to himself since he started living in his van. Like many van dwellers, he values his privacy, and asked us not to use his surname. “I just prefer keeping my details and searchable info low-key,” he says. He generally enjoys his own company, but at times he finds it difficult. He has a shortlist of places he likes to stay at night, places where he knows he can get a decent night’s kip. “I know I’ll be left alone, more or less. I circulate between them depending on where I am in the day.”
Does he ever get moved on by the police? “No, not really. There have been a couple of knocks and a couple of checks. But I’ve not really been bothered too much.”
He gets pulled over more often in the day, but he doesn’t think it’s anything to do with the van. “I’m brown – half Singapore Chinese, and I look kind of Middle Eastern – and I’m bearded in a big white van.”
Most days, Stef occupies himself with carpentry, making furniture. He and his boss from the festival catering company started it as a hobby that they hoped might develop into a business. But it hasn’t done, as yet. “It’s something just to kill the time, not really an income.” What they really need is to get back on the festival circuit, as the country comes out of lockdown.
When the pandemic started, he would have laughed at the suggestion that he was homeless. But now he’s not so sure. “It’s a bit of a grey area for me because I’m fairly comfortable with my life – I’ve adapted to living within the means I have available to me. I’ve not really reached out to homeless charities because I know there are people who need help a lot more than I do who don’t have a van to live in,” he says.
Living in a van can represent so many different things these days. For some, it is their culture, heritage and way of life. For others, it’s a philosophy, a symbol of resistance, a two-fingered salute to convention. For still others, it is an aspirational lifestyle to be monetised on social media under the hashtag #vanlife. And then there are those for whom it is a humiliation and a trap. In recent years, the number of homeless people living in vehicles has doubled as conventional homes become increasingly unaffordable. Yet even this precarious way of life is under threat, as a government bill threatens the future of those living in vehicles, whether through choice or necessity.
“The road” has been romanticised as a way of life. While it has deep roots in nomadic cultures, for traditionally settled communities it has also been shaped by penury. In the US, after the Great Depression, it became common for the millions of people searching for work on the road to live in trailers. By 1960, between 1.5 million and 2 million Americans had acquired house trailers, so-called recreational vehicles or RVs. In the US, people living in them are counted among the homelessness statistics whether they regard themselves as homeless or not.
The Oscar-winning film Nomadland, about American communities living in vans, shows the toughness of life on the road, but it has also been accused of being somewhat rose-tinted, with landscapes of sublime beauty, and the uncritical depiction of an Amazon warehouse where working conditions have been described by the Trades Union Congress as “dehumanising”.
In Britain, there’s no official count of people living in vehicles. But in December 2018 the charity Crisis estimated that 12,000 people were living in cars or tents or on public transport in the UK – double the number in 2012. Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis, adds that an increasing number of people are falling into poverty and homelessness because of the pandemic’s impact on the economy. “It is absolutely unacceptable that people are forced to live in their vehicles simply because they have nowhere else to go, other than our streets,” he says.
Jeremy Flynn is providing a guided tour of his van – double bed, cooker, fridge-freezer, crockery, a couple of cupboards, computer, guitar. Then he remembers his prized possession – an Oculus virtual reality headset. It is one of the few luxuries he owns. Flynn moved into his van to save money and escape the daily grind. But sometimes his alternative lifestyle also gets a bit too much. “You can escape reality living in a van, then escape the reality of living in a van by putting on the headset.”
Flynn, 46, says he had been a wage slave all his adult life. He had five children, divorced, and worked constantly just to get by. “Work, food, sleep, every day. Just going to work to be able to pay your rent.”
For two years, he spent his spare time at home watching videos of people who lived in vans, telling his kids he was going to do the same thing. But he continued renting the annexe of an elderly couple’s house and struggling to get by. Then around Christmas 2019, the couple died within a month of each other. Flynn managed to save £2,000 for rent and a deposit on a new place, before asking himself why he was planning to chuck away his hard-earned cash to fund somebody else’s mortgage. Instead, he spent £1,500 on an 18-year-old Peugeot Boxer – a large, white commercial van – and moved into it.
It’s 14 months since he swapped bricks and mortar for a van. His move coincided with the start of the pandemic. As a result, he has barely travelled from his starting point of Christchurch in Dorset. Now he is in a car park just down the road, but he says his life has been transformed: no money worries, no anger issues, and a new sense of freedom.
Flynn is a tough-looking man with a sentimental streak. He is heavily tattooed with huge angel wings wrapped around his neck – a tribute to his father, who passed away a few years ago. He talks about how he and his friends would gather in the pub once a week, and moan about their lot. Now, he turns up with barely a worry in the world, and his mates can’t understand the change. He’s still doing the same job as a gift card printer and part-time personal trainer, but while they worry about life and work and the pandemic, he sits there content.
What do his children think of his new lifestyle? “They think I’m crazy.” Did they think he was crazy beforehand? “Oh yeah. Yeah.” For Flynn, one of the most liberating things is being relatively possession-free. “I’ve been in houses, flats, and bedsits and slowly my belongings moved down to a duffel bag. Now I put my bag on the passenger seat and go: well that’s it, all my stuff.”
Most people, he says, assume he is in crisis and desperate to find himself a place to rent, but he doesn’t see it like that. “On my Instagram, I will hashtag ‘houseless not homeless’. I would imagine 99% of people who live in vans, if you said you’re homeless, they would say: ‘Go fuck yourself.’” Does he think he would ever move back to a house?
“No, I genuinely don’t. I enjoy this so much that if I won the lottery, I might get a slightly bigger van, but that’s it.”
Flynn’s lifestyle may not have been forced upon him, but it was fuelled by a shortage of money and affordable housing. For others, van living is not a lifestyle choice, it’s a necessity.
Sarah (not her real name), who lives in the north of England, says she never imagined she would end up living in a van. She is in her 50s and had been homeless once before in her life – but that was only for a few weeks after a relationship ended. For many years she held down a good job in management. “It wasn’t the best pay, but I could afford to live on it,” she says. Then her mother became ill and needed her support full-time. Sarah gave up her job and moved in with her.
She says some relatives didn’t like the fact that she was so close to her mother and threatened her. “They were constantly asking for money. I said: ‘Look, Mum, you don’t want to be giving all this money away – you need it yourself.’ That’s when things got ugly.”
Sarah says that after she was badly beaten, she fled from her mother’s home, terrified for her life. Soon after this, her mother died, and Sarah blamed herself. “They kept leaving her on her own, and she fell out of her wheelchair because she wasn’t strapped in.”
Two years ago, she took her savings and headed off in her 14-year-old red Ford Transit van, “without a damn thing”. She loved her battered old van, in which she had occasionally slept on overnight trips, associating it with freedom and good times. But now it was her home, she found it simply wasn’t equipped for living in.
She told the council that she had been physically abused and threatened, and that she needed social housing. The council told her she would have to go to the bottom of the list because she had moved from her home area – it would be a three-year wait if she was lucky. She was offered an emergency shelter, which she found even more traumatising than living in the van. “I got my backside grabbed, I got sexual remarks. They were all addicts. I felt more unsafe in that hostel than in my van.”
She moved back into the van, living without water, toilet and electricity. “It was horrible. I went to bed in my clothes in my sleeping bag with a quilt on over the top and I still woke up frozen. In the summer it was often the other extreme – red hot.”
Sarah was ashamed of the way she was living. She has adult children, and made a joke out of it when talking to them. “They are key workers and they had enough on without worrying about me.” She has not seen her children and grandchildren for two years because she didn’t want them to know the reality of her situation. As for her old friends, she found it too humiliating to tell them, so she simply disappeared out of their lives. “I never thought that at my age I’d have to live in a bloody van,” she says.
Sarah tried to find work but was in no condition to present herself for job interviews. “I’m a tidy person. I’m normally very clean. Living in the van I just felt scruffy and unkempt all the time. People said: ‘Well, go and get a job’, and I said: ‘You try going for a job when you stink, you can’t get a shower, and you can’t get dressed up because you’ve got no suitable clothes.’”
She was often moved on by residents or by police and found herself living in laybys. “I was sleeping in laybys, dogging laybys mainly.” Did she feel at risk? “God, yeah … I didn’t get much sleep, I’ll put it that way. Some nights people were trying your door handles. It was horrible. I had a baseball bat in the back of my van just in case.” Did she ever use it? “I shouted a few times and pretended I was a bloke.” She laughs. “You just try and adapt, don’t you?”
Eventually, things got too much, and she tried to take her own life. “I got stopped by some nice gentleman who saw I was a bit stressed. He talked me round.”
After five months of living in laybys, she had a stroke of luck. The father of a friend told her she could park her van on his drive, and allowed her to shower in the house in the morning. When the country went into lockdown last spring, her friend said she could move into his flat, which is where she has stayed for the past year. But she knows she will have to move out soon, as the country comes out of lockdown, and she’s already panicking.
“I cry a lot,” she says. “I don’t know how I’m going to react to things from one day to another.”
Sarah had been told by the council that it could prioritise her only if she pressed charges against the family members who she says assaulted her. She refused to – partly out of fear and partly because her mother was still alive at the time and would have been left with no one to look after her. Now she feels betrayed. “You think: why have I paid into the system all these years just to be dumped? I feel the least they could have done is give me a house or bloody flat. Like I said to the council: how would you like to live in a van and pee into a bucket at my age? To be honest, it makes you feel like a piece of crap on someone’s shoe.”
Suzanna Jones adored her job driving heavy-goods vehicles. She was queen of the road, trucking her way through Europe. “It was a fantastic wage. I was living a great life and loving every minute of it.” One day, three years ago, she came out of the yard at the end of her shift and shut the heavy iron gate behind her, just as she had done for years. A heavy gust blew the gate back on her, smashing her ankle bone. She hasn’t worked since.
The ankle was left to heal, but it never did. Complications set in. She went on an NHS waiting list and was due to be operated on in early 2020. Then the pandemic started, and routine operations were cancelled. By then, she was using a frame to get around, convinced she would never walk properly again.
At the time, Jones was renting a lovely Victorian chapel house in north-west Wales. Convinced she wouldn’t drive again, she got herself four hens, three quails and a cat to keep her and her dog company. Without work, she quickly went through her savings, and found herself scraping by on benefits.
Last November, she finally had her operation and learned to walk again. But her savings were gone. In March this year she was evicted. The council could not provide her with social housing. She was offered a place in an emergency shelter, but it wouldn’t take her animals. “I love them all, and they love me,” she says. “I’ve rescued these hens from cages, and I’m not going to send them back to them. It would be terrible.” As we talk on Zoom, they cluck away in the background.
Jones moved out of her home into a white LDV Maxus van. Jones says it’s cramped inside, with only enough room for her bed, which is too low, and two small chests of drawers crammed with her belongings. She found an abandoned warehouse and parked at the back of it. The day before we talk she found out it wasn’t abandoned; the owner saw her, and told her she couldn’t stay, for insurance reasons. His business partner then came along with a bag of chicken for her, and some food for her dog. “She’s been so wonderful, this lady,” Jones says. All the same, she thinks she will have to move on soon.
She has quickly discovered the van’s flaws. “The doors aren’t shutting right. Last night, it absolutely threw it down and the rain comes in, so I got a plastic bag at the end of my bed with a towel on top to try to stop it soaking my bed. It’s not ideal, but I’m a truck driver – I’m used to living in a cab.” As for keeping clean, she’s not worried at the moment. “I can do a full body wash with a face cloth and a bowl of water. My granny taught me how to do that when I was a little girl.”
Jones has a friend in nearby Caernarfon who will help out with her laundry. Another friend has just given her an old caravan fridge. There is just one problem: with the chickens, cat, dog and quails, there’s no room for it in the van.
When she tells people she’s living in a van with chickens, they pull a face. But that’s just prejudice, she says. “They say: ‘Ugh, as if you’re living with chickens – they stink.’ I say: ‘Any animals stink if you don’t clean them – cats, dogs and everything. As long as you keep everything clean, they don’t smell.”
Jones is angry with the council for not finding her anywhere to live, but for now she says she’s coping. “The situation is a disgrace, but I’m happy. Living on the road is something I love anyway.”
A month later, Jones gets in touch to say things are looking up. Gary the cat had knocked a mug of tea over her computer, frying its motherboard, but she has received £4,000 from more than 100 donations to her GoFundMe campaign, which she used to buy a new laptop. She has been declared fit to drive, the owner of the derelict warehouse has allowed her to stay on site, and she has finally been able to shell out for much-needed van repairs.
But when we reconnect in May, things have taken a turn for the worse. As we talk on the phone, there is loud banging from the mechanic who is fixing her van in a local garage. She’s living there until the repairs are complete. She says the landowner of the warehouse is now asking her for £100 a month to stay. She is paid up for the rest of May, but doesn’t know beyond that, as she only receives £300 from the Department for Work and Pensions, and the money from her GoFundMe is dwindling. Even so, she says, she was ready to get back on her feet and back to work when she found a lump in her neck.
Jones noticed it at the beginning of April and became concerned when it was still there a month later. “I went to the doctor. He sent me to see a specialist who found another lump behind my nose.” She worries that it’s cancer. Jones had a biopsy a couple of weeks ago and is waiting for the results. “So, I’ve got that hanging over me on top of this other business of not having anywhere proper to live.”
Despite the uncertainty she’s more concerned about her dog, Amy. “Me and her have never had a moment apart. She sleeps in my bed, she has a bath with me. I couldn’t imagine anyone giving her as much cuddles and love as I do. I don’t know what I’ll do without my girl and what she will do without me.”
The van-dwelling lifestyle has become a phenomenon on social media in recent years. Type in #vanlife on Instagram or YouTube and you will come across numerous van dwellers documenting the good life. Typically, the accounts belong to young, attractive couples taking photos of all the fun they are having, the beautiful spots they are staying at, and their designer vans. Those with huge followings can make an income from their share of ad revenue.
Martin Cowe is a YouTuber who is more interested in showing the mundane reality of life on the road. He understands why people tend to prefer the utopian vision of van life. “When people come home from work, they don’t want to see people like me saying: ‘I’ve had another problem today. The toilet was full, and I still need to go.’ They want to see people having a damn good time. It sells the dream to a lot of people. It’s a glorification of van life.”
Cowe becomes animated at the mention of the film Nomadland. “I haven’t seen it, but apparently they use my name. My YouTube channel is Houseless Not Homeless and that phrase gets referenced in the film. Maybe I should have trademarked it back in the day.”
Why did he choose that name? “I got sick of people saying I was homeless because I live in a vehicle,” he says. Cowe is a quietly spoken, polite man but he is militant on this subject. Nobody, he insists, is ever homeless: you can make a home anywhere, whether it’s a doorway or a tent.
He has lived in a van for eight years, mostly in Bristol. Last year he moved to the Algarve in Portugal – partly for the weather, but largely because of the politics surrounding van life in Britain. He has little time for those who romanticise van life, but even less for the authorities in his home country who are trying to clamp down on it.
Cowe, 34, grew up in Crewe and then lived an itinerant life – moving between Nantwich, Chester, Liverpool, Bristol and Gloucester before heading to Portugal. As a teenager, his closest friends were Irish Travellers. While his parents took him on extravagant holidays to the Gambia or Cyprus, he wished he could go away with his Traveller friends for a couple of months. Their lives seemed so liberated.
Does he come from a privileged background? “I wouldn’t say so, no. Both my parents are lorry drivers who work all hours God sends. They weren’t around that much when we were kids, but they made up for it by giving us nice holidays. They took us to Gambia because they wanted to show us that some people don’t have the luxuries in life.”
But it wasn’t luxury that Cowe wanted, it was freedom. As soon as he could afford it, he bought himself an old VW camper van. Then he bought himself a second VW and took the best parts from both vehicles to make into one.
Despite his yearning to escape the treadmill, Cowe held down regular jobs, doing long hours as a CCTV security officer for the council, then working in student welfare and security at the University of Chester. He was working 80 to 90 hours a week and was exhausted and dissatisfied.
In his mid-20s he and his girlfriend split up. He initially moved into his camper van for a couple of weeks to save money for a rental deposit. After a couple of weeks, he decided to stay another month. Eight years on he is a confirmed van liver – and, he thinks, probably a van lifer. His current vehicle is a white 1992 LMC Liberty.
He continued to work at the university, but he found he was making new friends. “I discovered a whole different community and lifestyle. I enjoyed spending my time with them and wanted a piece of that for myself.” How were they different?
“They were against systems – high taxes on anything from vehicles to salary. They could do a weekend of gardening and that was their money for a couple of weeks.” He began to ask himself why he had been working all those hours just to give away most of his money to landlords.
When we speak, he has just finished his work for the day: restoring an old ruin at a campsite on the Algarve. He does the work in exchange for getting fed and a free pitch. “My only other income is a bit of revenue through YouTube. I do need money to do repairs on the van, but for everyday things I like exchanges.”
Cowe says he makes between $50 (£35) and $100 a month from his YouTube channel, “enough to pay my necessities, and a beer at the end of the week”. While he has no time for those who paint a rose-tinted picture of van life, he says there is much to recommend it – the simplicity, the low environmental footprint, the lack of stress, the breaking down of social norms.
Does he ever get bored? No, he says – he loves photography, making YouTube films, playing his instruments; he has a rigorous daily fitness regime that he would never stick to if he was living a regular life. Sometimes he’s just happy to watch the world go by.
Cowe left England because he believes the country is becoming increasingly hostile to those who live in vehicles. “They see us as people who go out and steal or who are bringing down the area with our crappy hippy vans. I had a few incidents with people in Bristol who were intolerant of people living in vehicles. For the last two years there was more and more controlled parking, even in the wildest, deepest forest in Gloucestershire.”
Many van dwellers in Britain believe that the government is making it harder for them to live in their vehicles. Despite the fact that renting or buying property is increasingly unaffordable, the proposed police, crime, sentencing and courts act will create a new offence of “residing on land without consent in or with a vehicle” and make it easier for the police to remove unauthorised encampments on highways. Bristol Vehicles for Change (BVfC), a campaigning group that exists to protect and advance the rights of vehicle dwellers in the Bristol area, believes the bill violates existing legislation by targeting communities with protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010, such as Gypsies and Travellers, and breaches article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998: the right to respect for one’s home.
For Cowe, who has campaigned for BVfC, the bill presents a huge threat. “If this becomes law, van life in the UK as we know it is dead. I’ve been on the phone to friends in recent weeks and they are so scared that if this comes in, they won’t be able to live the way they live.”
He was so alarmed at the prospect that he headed for the Iberian peninsula. “I knew that Portugal was looking to ban wild camping, but if I go into Spain, which is only half an hour from here, I’m free to park where I want. As long as I’m respectful and abide by local rules, there are no sanctions there. I won’t be trespassing.”
There is another reason he is so well suited to van life, he says. “I have massive depression and anxiety, and if I lived in a house, I’d just be sat playing computer games. I wouldn’t go out. I would not be the man I’ve turned out to be if I lived in bricks and mortar.” In the past, he was constantly making excuses for not seeing people. Now, the rules of socialising aren’t so rigid.
“I can park up at any campsite or go to any place where there’s wild camping. Language barriers don’t matter – just walk over for a beer, sit your arse down and join in with everybody.”
For Cowe, living in a van isn’t so much a necessity or a practicality, it’s a belief system, an act of faith. “It’s the only way of life. Deep down, when people say they want this and that, I don’t think they’re really happy – buying all this material stuff trying to keep up with the Joneses.”
Meanwhile, Sarah is petrified she’ll end up back in the van. “There are no other options,” she says. How will it affect her if she does have to return to it? She exhales loudly. “Put it this way, I don’t think I’ll be here next year if I have to go back in my van.”
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or by emailing [email protected] or [email protected]. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org.