By some accounts individuals who reside in vehicles make up the fastest-growing subpopulation of homeless people in the U.S. They occupy an ambiguous public space, having a mobile shelter, sometimes of considerable value, but often no private place to park it. The U.S. government classifies someone whose primary residence is a vehicle parked in a public space as both “homeless” and “unsheltered,” a designation that ignores recreational vehicles, or RVs, which are made to shelter people.

For their residents, vehicles offer advantages that tents, doorways, and subway stations do not: privacy, a lockable door, storage space, a way to get to work or flee threats. People living in vehicles include the “rubber tramp” retirees-with-no-pension depicted in the 2020 film Nomadland but are usually distinct from social-media-savvy “digital nomads” cruising the continent in custom Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans.