When a 20-something-year-old bemoans their quarter-life crisis, the reaction from others usually involves eyerolls or rather unsympathetic nods. But times have changed.
More young adults are facing lifelong crippling student debt, a volatile economy impacted by a global pandemic and a housing crisis forcing a majority of young Americans to live with their parents for the first time since the Great Depression.
At 26 years old, Evan Fu was living in Northern California when he found himself grappling with a confluence of these crises. Put simply, it was overwhelming.
“I was a mental wreck at the time. I think what really hit me was not knowing what the future would hold,” Fu said.
After discontinuing his enrollment at UC Santa Cruz, Fu worked a number of jobs throughout the Bay Area and Santa Cruz. It didn’t take long for the issue of housing to come to the forefront of his concerns.
Fu does not consider himself housing insecure. He could move back in with his parents in Southern California if he had to, like millions of Americans have done due to financial impacts caused by the COVID-19 outbreak. But more than a literal roof over his head, Fu says he was desperate for a sense of community – community he says he found when he attended college in Santa Cruz.
In 2018, Fu bought a van for $22,000 then spent $6000 and 600 hours retrofitting it with help from his father who has a background in building cabinetry.
Fu has been living in his converted van full time for more than two years documenting his journey on YouTube with an account that now has tens of thousands of subscribers.
“In my current state of life, this is the best ‘housing’ situation because it gives me that flexibility. In some ways it gives me stability,” Fu said. “Because if I’m renting an apartment or house, in a sense, I’m more insecure because I’m giving up more money than living in a van. And I don’t know how much rent is going to go up five years from now or if I’m going to need to move for school or work.”
When asked if his housing solution is for everyone, Fu said “absolutely not.”
“There’s advantages to this lifestyle, but I can’t possibly see everyone [doing it]. I’m not married, I don't have kids.”
Not everyone in the City of Santa Cruz is happy about having van dwellers parked on public streets. After receiving a number of complaints, the city is currently working on an ordinance to ban oversized, unpermitted vehicles from overnight public street parking.
“There are public safety and public health issues,” said Santa Cruz City Councilmember Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson who introduced the ordinance. “It includes having waste, having human waste into our water systems. It includes having hypodermic needles and other trash in our water systems.”
When asked about concerns surrounding criminalizing homelessness, Councilmember Kalantari-Johnson said criminalization is a last resort.
“There is a safeguard in this ordinance that says if any individual is living in their vehicle and they are interested in a safe parking space and program, but there is not one available, then they are safeguarded against being cited or any other consequences,” she said.
Facing other accusations by citizen groups the new law would directly create more unsheltered homelessness, city officials say they are working to create more ‘Safe Parking’ locations, which are sites where van dwellers can legally park and access housing services that include case management and a pathway to permanent housing.
The ordinance is currently under state review.
“This is the first time that our city is committing to investing in these [housing] solutions. The ordinance gives us an opening and an opportunity to both address the impacts on neighborhoods, which are pretty significant, as well as get folks into a pathway to permanent housing,” said Councilmember Kalantari-Johnson.
Fu’s van may not be banned from parking on public streets overnight according to the ordinance’s language, which mostly refers to RVs. However, he understands neighbors’ concerns.
“I’m trying to figure out what I can do for me. I want to share my life and how I did van life not to convince others to do van life but to convince others there needs to be a solution that they need to figure out in their lives and try to collectively [figure out] what is the solution that can work for all of us,” he said.
Watch the Investigative Unit’s four-part investigative series on California’s housing crisis: Overpriced, Overwhelmed, Over it!