Finding a Parking Place
Choosing the right parking place is an essential survival skill. Choosing the wrong one will draw the attention of residents, business owners, and police, and you will be moved on early. There is enough work involved in setting up for the night that moving on costs you at least an hour, and it is an unpleasant hour, one in which you have to listen to a self righteous jerk with a badge and a stick tell you how you ought to be living.
Don't get me wrong. I like police when they're chasing criminals. Somehow, though, they become something different when they are preventing me from attending to my most basic biological needs. Somehow, when they are standing between me and sleep they seem less than heroic.
A good parking space is difficult to find. It needs to be isolated, but your car can't stand out. It needs to be near other cars, but away from the prying eyes of property owners and tenants. It needs to be well lit, and yet your car should be unnoticable. Ideally your spot should be shaded from the morning sun. Such places exist, but usually you accept some flaws.
A residential area is never ideal, but it is the most reliable supplier of an acceptable spot. The advantage, your car never looks out of place. If police cruise by they won't be wondering what a car is doing parked there. The disadvantage, lots of eyes. You want to park so that you are not in front of anyone's front door. Along a fenceline is good, particularly a tall fenceline. That shelters you from view on one side. Best is a place just on the cusp between a residential and a commercial zone. You want to be removed from the houses, so the residents don't notice or care about you, but you want the car to look natural in the place you've parked.
It is best to be under a streetlamp. A well lit area allows you to have the dome light on in the car without light shining out through your car cover, so you can read or write without fear. Light also deters thieves. Darkness has no real advantages. It may allow you to get into the car unobserved more easily, but this is really trading a full nighttime of increased danger for a few seconds of lower exposure. You can find the right moment to enter the car in the bright light.
Business Areas and Parking Lots
First let's clear one thing up, paying for parking is unnecessary and wasteful, so if you are thinking of one of those pay to park parking structures, think some more. Pay parking lots are regularly patrolled by three kinds of people you'd like to avoid, cops, security guards, and thieves. It is way too high profile, and frequently they are locked overnight. You don't ever want to be locked in anywhere. The overriding quality you are looking for in a parking place is flexibility on entrance and exit.
Don't park where traffic will prevent you from getting into or out of your car safely. Don't park on busy streets. On those few occasions when I did park on a busy street I couldn't shake the fear that someone might sideswipe my parked car. It happens. You don't want it to happen while you are in the vehicle.
Don't park where people will be arriving in large numbers at certain times of day or night because it will make it harder for you to get out unobserved.
Never park near a grade school or a high school. People take child safety very seriously, and rightly or wrongly the homeless are going to be perceived as a threat.
Most of the time supermarket or department store parking lots are no good. Your vehicle sticks out in an empty lot. Walmart, though, allows RV's to park overnight in their lots. I'm told that some Walmarts even have utility hookups for the RV's. I have never tried this, because I was unaware of the Walmart policy, but where RV's go will probably be safe for you in a car. I would park near any RV's that were there ahead of me, and I wouldn't concern myself with hiding my car living ways from their owners. This is one of those exceptional situations where you can relax a little.
Hotel and motel parking lots will do in a pinch. This is a good choice if for some reason you've lost your car cover. The cops won't bother you and a lot of hotels and motels will tolerate you. When approached by hotel staff, just tell them you are only looking for a place to sleep that night. Most of the time they will look the other way.
Service stations are pretty good for a one night stint also, especially those that think of themselves as a freeway rest stop. You can generally sleep till morning without anyone disturbing you.
RV's and campers and truckers tend to find lonely stretches of road and congregate. These can often be found near beaches, near lakes, just off the highway, and in other more or less remote places. Where you find such a congregation, you can park with safety. Watch the crowd. It knows more than individuals do. The favorite in a horse race wins about 33% of the time, but the very best handicappers in the world pick the winner 17% of the time. Crowds know. These are places that are ignored by law enforcement, yet offer no particular temptations to criminals.
Yeah, campgrounds work, I suppose. Lots of people use them. Personally I hate camping. It's cold. In a car, you are well above the ground. In a tent you are on the ground, and even with a pad it's a powerful heat sink. In a car, the wind can't touch you. The wind will take your tent and put it in the next county. Your car is impervious to the rain. Your tent keeps some of the rain out, I guess, unless, of course, you pitched it in a dry creek bed. Yeah. You want to camp? Camp. It isn't for me.
Many campgrounds even require that you pay for all this luxury.
Campgrounds are also separated from all the places you do business, usually by quite a distance. Cold, uncomfortable, often at a cost of money, and in an inconvenient location, well, they must have something to recommend them, but I am having trouble thinking what it is. You are still exposed, even moreso really. Now instead of just thieves and cops you've got paranoid marijuana growers, bears, mountain lions, and the occasional (though admittedly very rare) serial killer to worry about. On the plus side, you can have a fire, but you will probably have to have brought some wood. In my experience, wood that will burn easily is rare at a campground.
Freeway rest stops are good, but they are crowded, the restrooms are unsanitary, and they have posted rules about how long you can be there. In California the rule is usually six hours, because some bureaucrat thought it would be funny to make sure no one got a full night's sleep. Irony creeps in everywhere, even at rest stops.
The good news is no one has ever enforced the time limit on me. I haven't used them a lot, but when I have, I've usually been there eight or ten hours without a problem.
Rotate Your Sites
It is a good idea to have three to ten good parking places scouted out, and rotate from one to the next. It is a bad idea to park in the same place three nights in a row. You should scatter your sites through several neighboring cities if you are in a big county like Los Angeles, so that you don't get too well known to one police department. Speaking of that, county land is often less patrolled or controlled than city land is. If you know of a group of streets that have no city claims to them, check those out for good places to park.
It's a bad idea to have a regular pattern, like always being in the same place on Tuesdays. Think about it. You might have been observed, and a complaint may have been made, but the police failed to catch you. If the complaint contains an observation of a pattern, they'll get you on the next cycle, the next Tuesday. Sound paranoid? Police have told me they were waiting for me.
If you are homeless long enough, you will break most of these rules from time to time. That's fine. Sometimes there will be some advantage, some exception to the rule. Sometimes you will just be too tired or too lazy to do things right. Sometimes you will pay a price for that, but that is part of this. Some things you just have to learn the hard way.
Be alert. Choose parking carefully. Stay safe.