(CNN) — A family with two young kids, a young woman who’d escaped a tiny expensive flat in Barcelona, and a group of young friends who adored traveling. After weeks of bouncing around, this group of nomads had finally managed to find a place to live.
Then the police forced them out.
This is “van life” in the age of coronavirus.
The groups had all been living in their vans and staying on the private property of a young Brit named Nathan Murphy and his neighbor. Murphy himself lives in a van with his girlfriend while he renovates an old house in the Catalonia region of Spain.
“Police who come around, they can’t imagine that you don’t have a home somewhere,” said Murphy, speaking from his van. “It’s such a hostile environment for people who are living here in a vehicle.”
The police labeled the refuge an “illegal campsite,” so the “van lifers” had to move on. Some are now staying with family, others didn’t know where they would wind up.
While there’s been an explosion in the last five years of people pursuing full-time van life, RV life and tiny house living, the lifestyle is still an alternative one and that’s been especially problematic as coronavirus wreaks havoc across the world.
“Governments can’t really understand them ’cause they’re such a small segment of the population,” Murphy said of van lifers.
Border regulations, stay-at-home orders, and mass closures of campsites have all been a big headache to a group of people who originally “went tiny” to live a life of freedom.
The problem is especially challenging in Europe, where Murphy had offered some fellow van lifers refuge on his land after police told them to “go back home,” not realizing “home” is the van they’re already living in.
Murphy’s neighbor Angela Jackson, a mom with two young children, said wherever they would stop on public lands police would approach them, admonishing her to keep her kids inside their vehicle for the entire day.
People like Murphy and Jackson have good practice at adapting to crazy situations. They’ve figured out how to filter their own river water, snake sink hoses out kitchen windows to shower, and fit five beds into old school buses that they then manage to drive on mountain roads across the country.
But this may prove to be the toughest challenge yet: Many who are living in their vehicles are now abandoning their vans altogether, or some are continually moving from spot to spot to find a cheap, safe place to stay.
They don’t want to get back on the road again
Van lifer Matt Alexander said the most important thing right now is for people like him to find a spot and stay there, so everyone can help stop the spread of Covid-19.
“We have to be responsible for the betterment of society and make these decisions to stay put for a little while,” said Alexander, who found a spot for his 2005 Dodge Sprinter on public land in Nevada. “You know, the freedom and flexibility to travel is amazing, but then you bring in health issues such as this and it changes everything.”
Van lifers agreed that it’s best for van and mobile homeowners to get to a safe place quickly and stay there for the duration.
That’s proving nearly impossible in Europe as public spots have been systematically closed to people living in vehicles during the coronavirus crisis, Murphy said.
“If you’re a van lifer and you can go home, or you have a home to go to, that’s fine,” said Murphy. “But let’s say you basically live in your van, then essentially your lifestyle is outlawed.”
It all depends where you live
Matt Alexander says the most important thing right now is for people like him to find a spot and stay there.
The situation for people living in vans and RVs in the US and Canada is challenging but slightly easier.
He gets groceries delivered to Amazon lockers in town, so he can limit his time spent in stores. His only neighbors are rabbits, and he spends his mornings drinking coffee on his roof deck with his Chihuahua, Stella. Even as he sees his situation getting more difficult, he still doesn’t envy people who live in urban environments.
“But I also feel safer because I’m so far disconnected from cities and environments like that,” said Alexander, on a Zoom call from his couch. “There’s a level of nature and peace and comfort that comes with the sun coming up every day and setting every night. That doesn’t change whether the coronavirus is out or not.”
That’s a regulation Alexander was hoping would not be as heavily enforced during the coronavirus pandemic because he said it could cause virus spread.
BLM recently issued a statement saying the two-week rule remains in place, advising people to check with local BLM field offices for any further guidelines, “just as they are reminded to review current recommendations from the local and state public health authorities in following all public health guidance while visiting public lands.”
Anyone going the route Alexander has chosen will also have no access to electricity, showers or bathrooms, as any facilities that were once open have now been closed by BLM. Your van or RV has to be completely self-reliant with solar power and water tanks.
“I would NOT say van life (or scamp life) is the way to go in scenarios like this,” Rhae wrote in an email. “It’s dreamy to be surrounded by wilderness, but most who dream of this have never camped outside!”
She added a caveat, however, echoed by other van lifers: “I personally wouldn’t trade it for anything and can’t think of a single place I’d rather be.”
Altered plans and staying in one place
The Reillys prefer to stop at RV lots like this.
For Canadians Heather Gallant Reilly and her husband, Randy Reilly, their RV has become their full-time home. They’re both retired — Heather was a flight attendant and her husband was in the Air Force.
They’ve been catching sunsets, photographing vistas and making other RV friends since they left Ottawa, Canada, on a road trip last fall. They were loving their new RV life and made it all the way to Arizona.
“I would say it’s exceeded our expectations,” said Reilly. “Um, well all things current aside.”
When Heather spoke over Zoom, Randy was in the background in the RV’s tiny kitchen putting a word in here and there while furiously whipping up batches of soup.
They’re on their way back to Canada to stay near their family where they’ll remain for the foreseeable future. When they arrive, they’ll have to quarantine inside their RV for two weeks, without even stepping inside a grocery store.
They were lucky enough to finally secure a spot in Canada for a month, but will play it day by day after that. Regardless, they still feel that they’ve made the right decision to go mobile.
“I just don’t think I would want to live any other way than we are,” said Reilly, after her husband finished some furious vegetable chopping. “It’s the freedom, and you live with less and you realize you can live with less.”
Gigi Stetler runs the RV Advisor, an owner-advocate group where former NFL pro Dan Marino is an advisor.
RV Sales of Broward
Gigi Stetler, CEO of RV Sales of Broward in Florida, has spent 30 years watching the RV business climb to a $114 billion industry.
Stetler has seen the average age of her customers drop from mid 60s to mid 40s.
Starting in February, she saw a slight uptick in people interested in buying RVs for the extra quiet space they offer. Even as a future vacation option, you control the costs, the guest list and the cleanliness.
“Having an RV, you know, too, it’s like a safeguard,” said Stetler. “We got eight requests in the first hour.”
There’s no place like your home, your tiny, tiny home
Bryce Langston has a tiny home in New Zealand and another in the US.
Living Big in a Tiny House
This nomadic community has always been full of people who may have escaped the confines of society, but who are eager to help each other out in a pinch.
This community of people living in vans, tents, school buses and even old army tanks will still persist.
Langston was acting in a New Zealand soap opera when his character was killed off. He saw the affordability of alternative living and started making videos about it in 2013.
His mortgage and rent-free home may help him weather an economic storm that will put many out of work and thin out the advertising revenue he and his fellow YouTubers depend on.
“This whole thing which is happening right now is really sort of highlighting to me what a good decision this really was,” he said.
Langston said he wouldn’t be surprised if alternative living became more and more attractive as coronavirus continues to wreak havoc with people’s sense of security.
“I know that this is a place which I’ll always have to come back. And it may not be a big home, but it’s a beautiful home and it’s a place that I’m proud of and especially in times like this helps to make me feel safe.”
Here’s a list of resources for people living in mobile homes and vans: