Smoke rises from an old school bus parked in the Interbay area of Seattle – but it’s not coming from the tailpipe. Inside, Michelle, 26, is adding fuel to the wood-burning stove.
She lives in it with her boyfriend, Benjamin, 27. The couple prefer to call their lifestyle “houseless” instead of “homeless.” They consider themselves a part of a growing community of people getting by in vehicles across Seattle — some by choice, others as a last option.
The couple asked that their last names not be used, citing a recent attack on a car-dweller.
Benjamin said he observed an influx of vehicle living since the housing crash around 2008. He has been living outside or in a vehicle since at least then.
A one-night count conducted in 2008 by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness found 652 people living in a car or truck. This last January, that number rose to 776.
Benjamin said he knows many of the people living in their vehicles and thinks that most are couples with at least one working partner who have lost their homes.
Michelle and Benjamin consider themselves activists and participants in the homeless community. Sometimes they act this out in small ways: giving out blankets to others, offering a place to sleep or helping someone fix a flat so they don’t get towed. One time they helped a woman with a child who were victims of domestic violence find a safe place to park and gave her a heater.
Benjamin said he also advocates with the city for parking rights.
Benjamin said that until he moved to Seattle in 2007-2008, he was largely transient. He said he was charged as a juvenile with a sex crime when he was 13 and convicted in 2004. He twice failed to register as a sex offender and had misdemeanor convictions for criminal trespassing and forgery.
But he says that those crimes haven’t affected his ability to get work or rent. Rather, he says that bad credit and the minimum wage are what have hurt his ability to rent in Seattle.
Benjamin and Michelle met each other through friends in the University District and have been together for four years. They lived outside for a couple of years as they worked to save up money, sleeping outside or under structures.
Benjamin has lived in and out of vehicles since about 2008, but this was Michelle’s first experience with the living situation. The couple lived together in a condo with someone else for about a year, but it didn’t work out so they bought the bus.
They must park near industrial areas and are required to move their bus every 72 hours.
They also own a moped and a beat-up truck, which they use to get around the city for work. The bus takes diesel fuel and is very expensive to fill up. Sometimes the couple will offer to wash windows for truckers to earn money for gas.
Michelle and Benjamin say they would not be able to live and work the way they wanted to while paying rent in Seattle. They estimate they would have to each work about 80 hours a week to afford the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment.
Michelle works at nights as a janitor at an office building. Benjamin is a dishwasher.
For now, the two of them like working odd jobs. Michelle said she would love to work with kids or teach and eventually be a mother. Benjamin wants to design and make women’s clothes to sell on Etsy using the sewing machine they have on board. He wants to own land at some point, but doesn’t want to be “enslaved at work” just to make a living wage.
The couple’s schedule varies based on their work. Some weeks they work close to full time based on the demands of their jobs.
Benjamin and Michelle's bus has a shelf for dry goods and a stove for cooking, but they currently do not have refrigeration. They don’t have plumbing and so they take advantage of community centers or friends’ homes for showers.
They renovated the bus themselves, using imperfect wood sold at a discount from Home Depot to redo the floor and ceiling. Benjamin learned how to do much of the work from YouTube. The most expensive addition was the wood-burning stove.
Editor’s note 3/10/2015, 1:35 p.m.: An earlier version of this story did not note that one subject, Benjamin, had a conviction for a sex offense as a juvenile and two convictions for failing to register as a Level 1 sex offender. He says that those crimes haven’t affected his ability to rent in Seattle but that bad credit and the minimum wage have.