In America, poverty often hides in plain sight. And sometimes, it parks in plain sight. Such is the case in one Seattle neighborhood, where an abundance of old RVs and vans parked on the street alludes to a world where homelessness is just one "no overnight parking" sign away.
Graham Pruss, a grad student studying anthropology, says there are ways to tell if someone is living in a car or vehicle. Driving through the Seattle neighborhood of Ballard, he points out a row of aging RVs, all the windows strategically blocked.
Another giveaway, he says, is condensation on the glass. On colder nights, it's ice. And if you can see in, there's the stuff.
"It looks like there's a lot of garbage," he says, pointing to an old Ford Taurus. "But when you really start looking, you see it's not garbage, it's pots and pans, it's plastic bags with clothing ... so its like the last things these people are holding on to."
Pruss has spent some time living down here for research in an RV of his own. Ballard's a good place for that; it is semi-industrial, so old vans don't stick out so much and residents can sometimes find temporary work.
Pruss estimates that there are at least 200 "perma-campers," as they're sometimes called. Some of them are old-timers, but there's also a wave of newcomers and younger people, like Marcus Featherston, a 20-something who lives in a Ford Econoline van.
Featherston's van has a fold-out couch, a miniature sink and a fridge running on batteries. He moved into the van last year, after losing a couple of jobs.
"It was kind of either food or rent, and I ended up selling a car that I had and moving into the van and deciding to go to school," Featherston says. "[The decision] was kind of freeing, to be honest."
He's surprisingly accepting about it, and apparently so is his family. His mother, back in Utah, even made him a curtain for the van.
What you find when you talk to perma-campers is that they're often affectionate about their vehicles. The way they see it, living in a vehicle is a way to stay in control of their lives. In Featherston's case, the van keeps him from hitting bottom and living on the street. For others, a van can be a step up.
Jennifer Adams calls her big Dodge van "Becky." Adams was living on the streets, and for her the van is much better.
"First of all I'm not outside," Adams says. "But I'm still in a freezer; it's still a steel van."
For someone like Adams, hunting for a parking spot can become an existential challenge. You can't park in the same spot more than 72 hours, and lately complaining neighbors have persuaded the city to post more signs banning parking between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. Adams is left dreaming of that elusive perfect parking place.
"I'm looking for solitude, quietness and nothingness," she says. "If I could wish for the best parking spot ever, it would have a bathroom."
That might not be such an impossible dream.
A couple of miles away, Our Redeemer's Lutheran Church is offering five spaces in its quiet, residential parking lot. It's a pilot project, ready to go as soon as the paperwork clears with the city. Our Redeemer's has already outfitted the parish hall door with a keypad lock so the perma-campers can use the bathroom.
Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.