I Lived In My Car While Volunteering For Animals Through A National Nonprofit

July 7, 2021

In the book Voices for Animal Liberation, Chase Avior contributes an essay about a path he chose that was strikingly similar to mine. He quit acting to devote his time to activism. In order to not need to work as much, he cut expenses by living in his car.

“Although poverty has been hard on me, and not having easy access to a stove, refrigerator, or bathroom is a challenge, living in my car is worth it, because it gives me more time to help animals.”

A year after graduating with my theater degree, I got my first paid gig as an animal advocate. We went on Warped Tour to screen a video about factory farming. Overjoyed to help animals in a bigger capacity, I then applied to volunteer with the Humane League, which works against abuse of “meat” chickens who comprise an astonishing 88% of farmed land animals. The nearest opening was in San Francisco—an LGBTQ oasis, yes, but with rent as high as skyscrapers!

Lola the Corolla was about to become my new best friend. Here’s what it was like living inside a “petite mobile home” or “portable mini palace” as I jokingly thought of it.

Welcome to my humble abode on wheels

My favorite “camping site” overlooked a beautiful park just south of San Francisco. I woke up to majestic ravens, who waddled and croaked just feet from where I slept, before lifting off to roost in tall pine trees. I’d lock my car, hustle down stone steps into the fog, and greet pigeons and seagulls who’d taken over the parking lot and soccer field. Trance music in my ears, I threw back my head and arms and spun in circles as blackbirds danced in the sky.

Toyota Corolla living

The park’s ramada had electrical outlets. There were dumpsters, restrooms, even a Porta-Potty for emergencies at night. I did laps on the dirt path, stretched in the grass, and treated the local library as my office.

Comfort-seeking introvert that I am, I tried to spend less time in my car but it didn’t always work out that way. The driver’s seat was my bed, dining room, and desk. To sleep, I just reclined. To work or eat, I laid a perfect-sized piece of cardboard between me and the steering wheel. Then, a clipboard or eating tray went on top, and it was just the right height!

Toiletries went in the glove compartment. Garbage and recycling were below that, and everything else got divvied up between the backseats and trunk—depending on which items were most perishable, stealable, or least frequently used.

Key supplies were what you’d expect. Wipes, for one, but also spare tablecloths I’d throw over the backseat area to discourage theft once I wised up.

24-hour gyms made excellent parking spots as well. If I ever drove far to an event, I could just stay at the nearest facility. Technically not allowed, but hey, at least I was a paying member of their chain! It saved me the commute, and I reveled at the idea my “home” could be in any town I wanted. In the morning, I’d head into the gym and claim my treadmill time and shower.

How I ate plant-based in a car for 2 years

What was it like being vegan in an automobile? It helped that I love fruit and have even gone raw before. Grapes, oranges, apples, mangoes, watermelon, and other fruits predominated my breakfasts. Leafy greens were more challenging without a fridge, so I tried to end every shopping day with a massive salad.

My favorite dinner was peanut butter chickpea pita bread pizza. But more commonly it was bean burritos or flatbread wraps with mixed veggies and crushed tomatoes. Don’t forget cereal with macadamia milk and some overnight oats with applesauce and walnuts. To treat myself, I grabbed my electric skillet and headed to the ramada to make Beyond Sausage.

How I got by financially as an animal welfare volunteer

I left for San Francisco with some $1,500 saved up. Having only a very part-time teaching gig that got a few hundred a month, I began volunteering with a leap of faith.

Fortunately, my internship with the Humane League made me a great candidate to gather signatures for Prop 12. If enough California voters signed the proposition, we’d vote to up the legal space requirements for mother pigs, hens laying eggs, and calves used for veal. I was hired to collect signatures full-time for 5 months. I was grateful for the paycheck, and got to bond with amazing volunteers all the time. Prop 12 got on the ballot and was voted in!

My next lucky break was when I became a brand ambassador for a plant-based meat company. The job sent me to grocery stores and events to simply cook, sample, and talk to people. Another side job was that I did data entry for an accounting firm that had animal rights groups and progressive campaigns as clients.

I was no longer just a volunteer, but I still lived paycheck-to-paycheck on part-time hours, my future uncertain.

Daily chores, safety concerns, and ways I coped

With little space and possessions, the Corolla gave me fewer chores to do, but a higher cost if I slacked on doing them. The car always ended up a mess and it was a pain to keep re-organizing. Eventually I rented a unit at Extra Space Storage, which lightened the load. I learned gas stations were where I could dump trash, even if it meant refilling a mostly-full tank just to be polite.

Safety issues were partly my bad. Multiple times I got “home” to my car only to find it had been robbed—window shattered, backpack swiped by Swiper. Once I was staying with a friend when this happened; another time, I was left sleeping in an open car while I waited on a repair. I had a couple of sketchy interactions with people, but surprisingly not many. Mostly it was just police shining their flashlights in my eyes at 3 a.m. and checking to make sure I wasn’t a runaway teenager.

If you want the full comedic low-down, here’s How NOT to Live in Your Car: 10 confessions of a professional Toyota Corolla bumette.

The chaos of my existence was worth it. It was an adventure that made me appreciate the miracles of housing. Most of all, it did save me thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of labor. I enjoyed the part-time hours doing only jobs I was passionate about. A scruffy life is not for everyone, but I knew what I wanted and I chose it: free time over a fancy lifestyle.

I took much-needed breaks from living in my car, and eventually I ended it

If you can catsit or dogsit, DO IT! To tell you the truth, I think my animal rights pals conspired to give me housesitting gigs. They referred my services among themselves and gave me days, even weeks to myself in their apartments. It was weird because I felt like *I* should be paying *them* for the luxurious bedding, privacy, ability to cook quinoa, and canine cuteness overload!

One more big issue to mention: my knees. While some cars are bigger and have backseats that fold flat, I for one slept like a broken Bratz doll every night. Previously injured from tennis, my knees always woke up unhappy, no matter how much I walked during the day.

In 2020, a COVID-19 layoff convinced me to take my parents up on their offer. I quit the car life and moved back in with them in Arizona. It’s been a year now. And it feels I’ve been given a second chance at life.

Living in my Corolla felt like the right choice because I put true passion first. I had a blast participating in a better world for animals! Yet, I was too disorganized to do it optimally. I risked my safety too much. I was unwise not to plan ahead financially. Even still, I took my incompetencies in stride. I knew how privileged I was, seeing so many in San Francisco living completely on the streets, and I was thankful to be alive and making it, doing things I loved!

Now that I have all the amenities I could need, and savings from unemployment, it puts me in a better position to get my life together and plan for the future. I’ve transitioned my life pursuit from grassroots outreach, to writing. Meanwhile, I’ve gotten used to being with family and questioned the prejudice against “living in your parents’ basement.” After all, the older generations need support too, and I’m glad I could support them through Alzheimer’s and challenges of aging.

Until the next car-living, backpacking, fleapit-apartment-renting, or other cheapskate adventure!

I hope my story encourages you to focus on what matters in your life, including making a difference. As long as you’re happy and helping, it doesn’t really matter how you compare to your peers, or what you choose to call home.

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Photo: Bestami Sarıkaya via Unsplash; Sam Manns via Unsplash

Phoenix Huber
Phoenix Huber writes about personal growth, compassion for all, and daily vegan life. Based in Arizona, her hobbies include taking notes to remember her phone calls with friends, leaving effusive comments, and journaling. (She’ll get back to you once she finds some real hobbies that don’t involve writing.) An aspiring freelancer and researcher, Phoenix loves getting to amplify people’s messages of joy and kindness. Oh, and her family rocks! Find more articles from her on Medium.

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