Pay for school, skip the rent: Why one UMKC student decided to go homeless

Samantha Anthony

Affordable housing as a college student can be hard to find. But would you be willing to sleep in your car to save a few bucks?

That’s just what part-time student Erica, 19, is doing.

“My car is my home,” she says.

It took a lot of consolidation to make it work, however.

“I’m trying to figure out what I want in life,” Erica says. She doesn’t see the necessity for a house or apartment.

A surprising number of college students have made the same decision as Erica: pay for school, skip the rent. A Temple University study published in 2018 indicates that 9 percent of college students are homeless.

Growing up, Erica lived in a wealthy neighborhood near Saint Louis. She was much more materialistic, she says. That changed when she moved to Kansas City.

“I made friends, and they were like, ‘I don’t want to make six digits.’ That opened my eyes. I was like, ‘What do I want to do?’” Erica says. She first got the idea to sleep in her car from a road trip experience with a friend.

After deciding she wanted to take a trip to California, she began working at a factory to save money. Although her budget was small, she was determined.

“I planned everything out,” she says. She would drive until she was too exhausted to continue, then pull over and set up camp.

“I remember this one time we were driving through Utah, and I couldn’t drive anymore. I just jumped into the back and slept on top of our luggage.”

Ultimately, Erica says, “That led to me knowing I could sleep in my car.”

Erica’s day-to-day life is fairly mundane.

“I wake up pretty early,” she says, adding that she sleeps surprisingly well in her car, a 1999 Honda CR-V. Then she goes to the nearest gas station, a QuikTrip, to perform what she calls her “morning routine.”

“I do my routine in a bathroom—literally any bathroom I can find,” Erica says, adding, “I’m not picky.”

Occasionally, she says, people will give her odd looks when they find her brushing her teeth in a public restroom.

“They’ll just be like—” she stops to mimic a shocked expression and laughs.

Evenings are similar, Erica says, but they can potentially be dangerous. She has to be careful about where she parks to prevent being towed or receiving a ticket.

“You can’t trust anywhere will be 100 percent safe,” she says, adding, “That’s the one thing I’m scared about.”

So far, she’s been lucky.

“I try to avoid anything that I know might cause a problem,” she says.

It might seem like she doesn’t get enough sleep, but Erica says that there are relatively few distractions outside of her car at night.

“I’ve never had somebody knock on my door,” she says, although she is anxious about the possibility.

While living in her car has presented her with the opportunity to save until she finds her own place, it is risky.

“I pretty much have everything in my car,” she says. “They could tow my home away.”

When the conversation moves to school, Erica perks up. She says it’s not hard to focus on classes.

Erica attends UMKC and a local community college, where she studies biology and plans to go into medicine. Most of her homework is completed in the library.

Erica makes it known that she is unashamed of her living situation. Even though people from her hometown have been judgmental, she remains open about her life on social media.

Erica’s sunny attitude and optimistic personality help. For her, life seems to be a continuous road trip full of adventure.

She pauses to recognize that she has more privilege than others who are homeless. She has a support system of family and friends who have helped her when necessary.

“There are a lot of people out there who don’t have options and don’t have the support they might need, so I’m really grateful for that,” Erica says.

Her lifestyle has turned some people away.

“Your real friends show,” she says, “But you also realize how nice people are.”

Ultimately, says Erica, this period of living in her car has given her a new perspective.

“I don’t need as much as I thought I did in life. When you strip away all of those material possessions, I’m still here.”


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