It was last July, somewhere around Malibu on the Pacific Coast Highway, when I first noticed the RVs. Miles and miles of vintage cream-colored RVs parked bumper to bumper along the inland shoulder of the PCH. My first thought was that they must have belonged to tourists spending a day at the beach. But they were still there at night, stretching down the shoulder of the highway like a caravan caught in purgatorial gridlock, no closer to entering the city than to escaping it.
I started reading about the homeless camps spreading across the western United States around 2014. My initial impression was that the stories were paranoid allegories about late capitalism and American greed—postscripts of a sort to the rumors of encroaching FEMA camps from the previous decade, not meant to be taken literally. But the reports didn’t go away, and at some point I started to wonder if they could possibly be true, and—if they were true, and dust-bowl-era settlements were cropping up across American cities—how it wasn’t bigger news.
I’d read in one account that it was a crisis of rising housing costs and stagnating wages, and then, in another, that it was a crisis of drug addiction, mental illness, and deinstitutionalization. Were warm weather and welfare benefits drawing homeless people from other states to the West Coast? Had progressive governments, fearful of infringing on the rights of even the most disturbed people on the streets, effectively ceded public spaces to unincorporated settlements? Were business interests and real estate developers to blame, or was this the consequence of family breakdown and social atomization?
I wanted to see for myself, so I went out west.