Editors note: I play bass in a few bands in Portland. Michael Anderson is the drummer in my band, Loverless. Steve and I have played music together in the past. Steve agreed to speak with me on the condition that I would not take photos, reveal his last name, his job or where he parks his RV.
In a converted bus parked among the weeds in an industrial area just off the Portland peninsula, a man named Steve is living the good life.
“I live like a king,” he said last Friday, seated at the kitchen table of his converted bus, eating chips and salsa while country music played in the next room and the air conditioner hummed.
Steve has been living in this vehicle since last August. But he’s no stranger to the nomadic lifestyle. Before he bought the bus, Steve, a singer and guitarist who plays in local bands, lived in a former bread truck and two different Dodge cargo vans.
But his old homes don’t compare with the RV, which he shares with his cat, Wild Bill. Steve has a fridge, a stove, a television, running water, electricity, a full-sized bed and a shower. His cabin stays warm in the winter and cool in the summer, and he gets intermittent wireless Internet from a nearby business. Steve sometimes has people over for dinner. He also hosts band practices or plays guitar by himself, sometimes for three hours at a time.
Steve bought the RV from an engineer in New Hampshire who had converted it from a bus because it came equipped with a wheelchair ramp, which he needed for his wife. He and his wife used to drive it down to Florida in the winter, Steve said. Then she died and he put it up for sale.
While many people are driven to live in their cars out of necessity, Steve does it by choice. He makes good money at his job and could afford an apartment if he wanted to.
“The No. 1 reason for me is to avoid giving my money to a landlord. Rents are too expensive and you don’t get anything in return,” he said.
According to ApartmentRatings.com, a website that tracks rental prices, the average monthly cost of a one bedroom apartment in Portland is $868, while the average for a two-bedroom is $953.
Steve was inspired to live in a car in the late 1990’s, when a troupe of New Orleans street musicians called the Flying Neutrinos visited Portland on a raft.
“Betsy and Poppa Neutrino raised a whole family living on rafts, living in vehicles, doing basically anything they could to avoid the rent trap — the freedom that you lose by paying rent,” Steve said. “You sign a years lease, all of a sudden your apartment or whatever you’re dwelling in just turns into a locker room. You just get back there in time to rest up.”
“I don’t know what people do, they tune in to the X-Files or something to zone out at night, then they wake up in the morning and brush their teeth and go to work only to come home and do the same thing again. Then at the end of the week you give half your week’s pay to your landlord? That just seems like a bad deal to me,” He continued. “I’d rather live in a tent.”
In a country firmly rooted in free-market capitalism, which presupposes that each person rationally acting in their own self-interest leads to a better society on the whole, the decision to live in a vehicle can seem oddly rational.
While the initial purchase of the bus was expensive, Steve said he’d rather own his own home, as it were, than give his money to a landlord.
“It was $20,000, but I have a $20,000 asset,” he said. Steve rented a house in Portland the year before he bought the bus, and estimates he and his two roommates paid $15,000 a year in rent. “Granted we were splitting it, but there were also expenses involved in it,” he said. Currently, Steve’s only real expenses are diesel gas for the engine, regular gas and propane for the generators that power his appliances and $50 a month for a storage space in town. “The equivalent of my utilities are far less than heating a house in the winter time,” he said.
For Michael Anderson, 28, of Portland, the decision to live in his 1999 Ford E-350 was the result of good weather and problems keeping up with his bills.
“It just made sense with the weather getting nicer to live in the van,” he said Saturday evening.
“Rent has always been the same price for me for the last six years; it was never raised. But I haven’t been making enough money to really get ahead or do anything fun. So it just made sense for me to get out of the lease and live on my own.”
Anderson, a rock drummer in three bands, also holds several jobs. He’s a go-kart mechanic, a bouncer at a rock club, and he races and repairs vintage Alfa-Romeo cars. He said he’s so busy working that he rarely spends any time in his van. The only thing he misses about having an apartment are regular showers.
“There’s certain times when showers are key, but I’ve got friends and people that are willing to hang out and let me take a shower,” he said.
“I’m a rock drummer and I’m young and I’m trying to have the best time of my life so [I end] up partying pretty hard,” he said. “I’ll park it somewhere where I know it’s safe in town and then go ahead and party and not worry about having to drive or take a taxi home because I’m already here. Those nights are pretty fun. I just get drunk as I can and sleep in the van.”
Because of his hectic work schedule and inclination to imbibe, Anderson spends little time in the van.
“I’ve been so busy with work and music and now racing that it’s really just kind of an afterthought that I’m living in a van,” he said. “My parents think it’s a big deal, but honestly I don’t spend enough time in it to really get to enjoy it.”
Some cities don’t allow people to camp in their cars within city limits, but Lt. Gary Rogers of the Portland Police Department was unaware of any such ordinance in Portland.
“It’s nothing that I’ve ever had to pull out of the rulebook,” he said. “It’s not an issue that we deal with, just given the shelters that we have in the city. There are people that do live in some secluded areas. They used to camp out behind the county jail. It’s referred to as ‘hobo jungle’ down there,” he said.
“There are times when it becomes an issue — usually it’s property owner issues or when crime becomes an issue,” he said.
Neither Steve nor Anderson have encountered any problems with police.
“I think the trick is to not be somewhere where you’re creating a scene,” said Steve. “Don’t park your van that’s painted all up in paisley flowers on the West End in Portland.”
Both men said they didn’t talk with the few other people living in their vehicles in town. They both said they liked to “keep a low profile.”
“I move around a little bit. I’ve found a few places around where I’m welcome — friends that have property on the outskirts of town, things like that,” Steve said. “It’s a lot easier to find places the further out of town you go. When you find a sweet spot in town, you kind of want to keep it under wraps, just look like you’re parked.”