Are Families That Live in RVs Considered Homeless?

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Are Families that Live in RVs Considered Homeless?

The quick answer is “probably, yes”.

Why?

And what does that mean?

Read on.

Disclaimer

We are not lawyers. Homelessness is a complex issue and connects to the RV world in different ways.

We’re a fulltime RV family that got caught up in the definition of homelessness and were curious about how it applies to us.

We read as much as we could, we found an expert to interview, and we present our opinion below. Don’t construe it as legal advice, K?

Who Defines Homeless?

The short answer is “the government”.

The longer answer is that multiple government entities have created multiple definitions:

Our Focus

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The definition that impacts fulltime RV families the most is the McKinney-Vento act, and specifically the Vento amendment.

The primary goal of the Vento amendment was to ensure that homeless children could still attend public schools.

Among other things the act provides:

  • Free transportation to school
  • Continuation in their school of origin
  • Registration even if required documents are missing (immunization records, etc)

State Implementation

In order to implement the act each state must establish a statewide homeless coordinator to review the state’s policies and procedures.

Each school system must appoint a liaison to educate teachers and work with local homeless families.

RVers are Homeless?

The McKinney-Vento Act defines homelessness as:

An individual or family who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.

and

An individual or family with a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings, including a car, park, abandoned building, bus or train station, airport, or camping ground.

and

Children living in “motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camp grounds due to lack of alternative accommodations.

It doesn’t matter if:

  • You don’t like the sound of that
  • You agree that only “fixed” housing is legitimate housing
  • You think having an address means you aren’t homeless

What matters is the wording of the law. RVs are indeed not fixed and we do park them at campgrounds.

You could make a good argument that we are homeless.

Expert Input Needed

We needed to talk to someone who was familiar with this landscape. A bit of web searching brought us to Diane Nilan.

Diane is the President of Hear Us, a non-profit whose mission is to give voice and visibility to homeless children and youth.

Started after years of running a homeless shelter, Diane uses the Hear Us platform to:

  • Produce films
  • Speak at events
  • Facilitate media connections for homeless families
  • Raise awareness of the homeless issue in America

And the bonus?

Diane is herself a fulltime RVer of 10 years.

She takes advantage of the fulltime RV lifestyle to travel the country supporting her mission.

Our Conversation with Diane

We wanted to:

  1. Describe the two main groups of families in RVs and see if they would be considered homeless under the McKinney Vento Act
  2. Ask (if yes) what does that mean?
  3. Find out if RV families had to accept supplies or services from the school because they were considered homeless
  4. Ask if being considered homeless would increase the risk of CPS getting involved
  5. Ask if there were any state by state differences to be aware of

Two Groups of Family RVers

At a high level we see two main groups of families living in RVs - you’re either on the move or stationary.

And yes, we know the definitions are a bit fuzzy. Get used to it - we didn’t find completely definitive answers in any of our research in this area.

On the Move

These are families that are in an RV to travel, learn on the road, and have a family adventure.

They homeschool by choice but also necessity (they are not going to be in one place long enough to take advantage of public schools).

They are (usually) not residents of where they are. They have state residency and a mailing address but may be multiple states away from their location.

Stationary

These are families living in an RV and not traveling. They tend to be residents of where they are.

Their mailing address is the RV park where the rig is parked. They are staying in one spot long enough to take advantage of public schools.

Are Both Groups Homeless?

Diane didn’t feel the “On the Move” types of RV families would be considered homeless.

The definition of homelessness has that “lack of alternative accommodations” clause that would likely apply to this group.

If you have the means to put fuel in the tank and pay campground fees you probably would be able to find alternative accommodations.

About the stationary group, however, Diane says:

If they lost housing due to crisis and they are living in a situation that’s not a traditional home, in some cases then the McKinney-Vento act would apply and they would be considered homeless.

So, What Does that Mean?

I know. Just set aside that knee-jerk gut level reaction you’re having. We had it too.

The bigger question is - what does that mean?

Go back to the language of the McKinney-Vento act. It’s all about making sure being homeless doesn’t prevent a child from getting an education via the public school system.

For Homeschoolers

Homeschooling your kids? Diane admits to not being as familiar with homeschooling but still recommends contacting the school’s homelessness liaison:

If the family is in a homeless situation they might still be entitled to some resources from the school district.

Our personal feeling?

Unless you feel like you’d really benefit from something the school provides (music or sports programs, etc) we’d recommend not contacting the liaison.

Maybe we’re paranoid but for us the less any government entity knows about us the better.

Just make sure to follow the appropriate state homeschooling laws.

For Public Schoolers

Putting your kids in the public schools? Then be prepared to face being considered homeless by the school.

In fact, it’s probably best to seek out and contact the school system’s homelessness liaison to explain your situation before it becomes an issue on its own.

The point of making contact would be to either:

  • Proactively decline any of the extra services (if you have no need)
  • Explain your situation and work with the liaison to take advantage of benefits available to you under the McKinney-Vento act

Diane warns:

That liaison may be a well-informed person who is really focused on the job or a harried administrator who hasn’t been focused on it because it hasn’t been an issue in their district. They may not know the law.

Forced to Take Food?

We’ve heard stories of families being (more or less) forced to accept food from the public school because they were “homeless living in an RV”.

Diane responded:

The family is not obligated to take any of the services. They can politely decline. The school district isn’t going to force it on them. The school is just trying to make sure the family isn’t just saying they’ll be OK when they actually won’t be.

The school will probably still want to include you in their homelessness reporting to the Federal Government, however, so you may still be asked for information even though you are declining the service.

Increased Risk of a CPS Visit?

One of the main concerns families have over being considered homeless is that CPS may get involved and take their kids away.

On the one hand Diane said:

The standard language is that if the kids are not being abused or neglected then there should be no fear. I’ve been in campers where families were living that were way worse than I thought was livable but there was still not abuse or neglect.

But on the other hand:

If the family gets turned in because someone sees living in a camper as a concern, but then it comes out the kids aren’t going to school or getting the services they’re entitled to, then the family could be accused of neglecting their kids educational well-being.

The lesson there is:

  • If you are homeschooling make sure you are doing it to the letter of the appropriate state laws
  • If you are public schooling, having already made contact with the school’s homeless liaison would go a long way towards making CPS happy

State by State Differences?

Fulltime RVers are more aware of state by state differences in laws than most people. We have to think about such things as:

  • Can I turn right on red here?
  • Can I talk on my cell phone while driving here?
  • Is there a different speed limit for when I am towing an RV here?

I asked Diane if - in her experience also as a fulltime RVer - there were any state by state differences we needed to be aware of as far as being homeless is concerned.

This is a Federal Law. It trumps any State or district policies.

You may find differences in how one state interprets and applies the law over another state, but the underlying law is the same.

Trawling

In the south we have seen boats with more arms sticking of them than a bad Halloween costume. 

These are “trawlers”:

Trawling is a method of fishing that involves pulling a fishing net through the water behind one or more boats. The net that is used for trawling is called a trawl.Wikipedia

Trawling fishermen know what they are after. Shrimp. Tuna. Cod.

But the nets? They grab everything that’s too big to get through the holes in the netting.

The first thing trawlers do when they haul up their nets is spill out the contents so they can sort their catch.

Bycatch

All the stuff they don’t want is called “bycatch”. Bycatch is either sorted into different bins and sold or discarded.

Many families that live in RVs fulltime are simply the bycatch of the government and school system’s efforts to deal with homelessness in America.

We swim the same waters. We kinda look the same. We get caught up in the definitions created to find people who are truly homeless.

It can take a discerning fisherman to sort it all out and decide who goes where - that’s why the law also provides for state and local-level liaisons to work with the school system.

Diane agrees:

McKinney-Vento does not apply to everyone living in an RV. It is really a case-by-case determination.

Thanks Diane!

Thanks to Diane Nilan for being our “GPS” and helping us navigate this issue. If you have any questions please leave them in the comments below.

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31 Comments Are Families That Live in RVs Considered Homeless?

  1. Picture of alan tackmanalan tackman February 02, 2016

    interesting article- even though the kids are long gone from the nest…

  2. Picture of Jenn JPJenn JP February 03, 2016

    I am concerned about this as I have already had to deal with CPS as a parent. It was very stressful despite all allegations being denied and my child never being removed from my home. As someone who is low income and will be stationary, I’m going to have to navigate this carefully. I have concerns about making my fulltime address that of an RV park. Anyway, thank you for the article and putting this all together! It could be good to eventually figure out which States or school districts consider RV families homeless and which ones don’t.

  3. Picture of Michael BoyinkMichael Boyink February 04, 2016

    Thanks for the comment Jenn.

    It all such a “case by case basis” that even at the local school level one family living in an RV could be homeless while the next one isn’t.

    The application of the law is more around the causes for that living situation than the situation itself.

  4. Picture of MarkMark February 05, 2016

    Mike, the stuff you’ve posted in the past about needing to have a fixed, permanent address for banking (as opposed to one of the services that receive your mail for you) would be interesting to touch on in this context, too. Perhaps it doesn’t pertain directly to homelessness definitions and schooling, but it does feed into the need to conform to a traditional residence to be a citizen.

    Semi-related, when I opened passbook savings accounts for my kids last year, I was surprised by the confusion that ensued. The application screen required a photo ID for them for them, “Patriot Act” requirements were mentioned, and, lo and behold, those photo IDs with a barcode that showed up with their school pictures this year had a purpose.

  5. Picture of Michael BoyinkMichael Boyink February 05, 2016

    Thanks Mark. I’m almost wondering if there is a post just about the different situations where not having a permanent address becomes awkward.

    Like - most job search sites begin with asking your location.

  6. Picture of Sandy LenderSandy Lender February 05, 2016

    Great article…no children but very informative.  You mentioned that you previously wrote about an address for mail etc.  I am going full time soon and have tried to research the subject and seems like a lot of contrary info.  Can you direct me to your blog/article.  I am very confused about State for drivers license..rv registration when you have no brick and mortar.  Thanks.  Just recently subscribed.  You have great info.

  7. Picture of Michael RobertsonMichael Robertson February 05, 2016

    Interesting Michael, thanks.  I’ve wondered about this for our living situation and our girls have actually noodled it through and reached their own conclusion: “We’re houseless, but not homeless.” All the best.

  8. Picture of Mirtha Mirtha July 07, 2016

    Hi Mike, great article!  We are a family of 6 but my oldest left home the minute I suggested camping for longer than a weekend.  My second oldest was entering her senior year and was miserable about camping for the summer.  The summer turned into the fall and fall brought an rv.  The subject of us being homeless was often brought up.  At the beginning of that year we had closed our business and soon after that my grandfather that raised me died.  I felt living nomadically would give us a fresh perspective and I was fascinated with it.  I never felt homeless because i felt it was an excercise in selfawareness in many areas of my life.  Many people i met felt we were homeless and so i had to defend my pride with i own a home that I rented during this time.  I guess I was surprised and naive.  I believed the whole land of the free idea.  Instead, I found real homelessness, drug users, and general fear of the unknown had jaded a lot of people.  We finally came back to our residential brick and mortar address this winter.  My child’s senior year is over and she is halfway across the country in a very prestigious school on a full ride and a fully paid summer program.  The first week there the school takes the class camping. Lol.  Maybe, she is homeless too.lol.  Anyway, our wonderlust has returned.  Your post gives me hope I can see this great country.  Working on renting house, getting a tow vehicle and figuring out work.  We have always homeschooled.
    Sorry for such a long. Post.

  9. Picture of BoyinkBoyink July 07, 2016

    Thanks Mirtha! Yes - there’s always hope. And a good community of like-minded folks out there to help out as well..;)

  10. Picture of KatieKatie July 25, 2016

    We are full time R.V.‘ers with two kids that I homeschool. My husband would like to adopt my daughter. When they do a home visit for step parent adoption, will living in an R.V. be a bad idea?

  11. Picture of Michael BoyinkMichael Boyink July 25, 2016

    Hi Katie -

    Unfortunately that’s a topic we know little about. We’ve seen comments in various FB threads that you’d need to be either in a house or apartment - but best find some folks more knowledegeable about the adoption process than we are.

  12. Picture of HollyHolly September 18, 2016

    Great article answering many questions I’ve had over the last year. I ended up enrolling my daughter in an affordable private school close to my office. We live full time in an RV park, in our 26’ camper. I tried going to the public school, and even went to the liaison for homeless students but the issue of getting her enrolled was never addressed. It was a bad experience all around, I have her shot records, all documentation and even had her old school records. They didn’t know what to make of us living in an RV and using a PO box for an address.
    The school she attends now wasn’t concerned about where we lived, I was up front with them about our living situation. 
    Getting a visit from cps has been a worry, but there are two other families in this rv park so I know I’m not alone in dealing with this issue.
    Thanks for the information! Very helpful and reassuring!

  13. Picture of Michael BoyinkMichael Boyink September 18, 2016

    Hey Holly -

    Glad you found it and that it helped.

  14. Picture of Jen W.Jen W. September 19, 2016

    Thank you for this article, very informative! My family and I live in California in the silicon valley and we we chose to live in a 5th wheel on a camp ground. We chose to sell our house, down size and have the ability to get up and move whenever we wanted. It has been an educational adventure for sure, where we have gotten to learn a lot about ourselves, and the sub/fringe culture of the rv lifestyle. I’ve recently have been caught up in the definition of homelessness and if we were considered to be homeless. I don’t feel that we are but I guess the gov’t may not see it that way and this irritates me. The cost of housing is ridiculous here, it’s down right outrageous. And, there is a lot of conversation on public radio like NPR about our housing crisis and the number of truly homeless people. But no one ever speaks about how the number of families that have chosen to do exactly what my family has done. I can’t tell you how many families are in the park we are in and the many more single gainfully employed people who have figured out that full timing in an rv in CA is way more cost effective. The CPS issue isn’t something I’ve thought about and didn’t even know that should be on our radar. Thank you so much for that heads up.

  15. Picture of Michael BoyinkMichael Boyink September 19, 2016

    Fringe culture!? I resemble that remark…;)

    Glad you found the article - and yes, sounds like you became bycatch.

  16. Picture of Emma and AjEmma and Aj September 25, 2016

    I love this article it helps us out so much. We do have 4 children and 1 is a boy. So our question is about sleeping arangements. How many can sleep in a full size bed if they are same sex. And also can you get good stamps of you love in an RV FULL-time? Thank you!

  17. Picture of BoyinkBoyink September 25, 2016

    Pretty sure there is no law about sleeping arrangements - unless you were in the adoption process where there would be a home study.

    No idea about food stamps - best to find out who administers that program in your area and give them a call.

  18. Picture of C. ManningC. Manning October 08, 2016

    If we are traveling between states and homeschooling, which state laws should we follow?

  19. Picture of Michael BoyinkMichael Boyink October 08, 2016

    Hey C - Manning: Check out our shop where we have an eBook to answer exactly that question..;)

  20. Picture of C. ManningC. Manning October 08, 2016

    Thanks.  I wasn’t asking for myself, but for families that ask on our homeschool support site in WI.  Families are often in transition for a variety of reasons, not necessarily full-time rv living.

  21. Picture of DebDeb October 30, 2016

    Excellent job. As a teacher who has recently left the profession your subject is often talked about in schools grom the standpoint of how best to help the child(ren).  By joining family RVer sites I’m learning that your children have such an advantage and rich learning experience that is difficult to duplicate in a classroom. Can’t wait to explore your content more!

  22. Picture of ToshaTosha November 03, 2016

    Thank you! We are about to join my husband (3 kids) and and homeschool. He does short term Safety Management work. When is it considered more permanent? We don’t expect to take a contract longer than 6 months. Right now, they are 1 week to 3 months.

    Multiple objectives:
    1)children’s cultural development and direct integration of location into history, geography, and literature studies.
    2)gain multiple industrial experience for husband to advance his career
    3)We intend to stay in multiple locations within 60 miles throughout the contract time in an effort to consider areas for a permanent home.
    4) struck with illness, I’ve made a slow, and but steady decline, and this allows me to travel with my kids while I can without needing assistance. It’s part of my bucket list

  23. Picture of Michael BoyinkMichael Boyink November 03, 2016

    Hey Tosha -

    Not sure I understand the “more permanent” question.

    Each state has its own requirements for and definition of residency .

    If that’s what you are asking - you’d have to investigate each one to see when they consider you a resident.

  24. Picture of KarenKaren January 03, 2017

    Our home is on property that will support an RV for my son and his family.  Because his wife is young (and her mother will force the issue) CPS visits are likely.  Would you know of any issues with this situation in Texas? Thank you!

  25. Picture of Michael BoyinkMichael Boyink January 03, 2017

    Hi Karen - we aren’t lawyers or well-versed in state-specific issues like this. We did have CPS visit our RV a couple of years ago, and learned some things in the process. But you should probably be speaking to someone locally in preparation if you expect issues.

  26. Picture of RebeccaRebecca February 18, 2017

    In Washington State, curious if we can stay in our new RV for 2-3 months, just until we find a place that is more affordable?  We have two in school (9 and 11). This is very temporary.

  27. Picture of CrystalCrystal July 11, 2017

    I am a little confused bc the IRS says you make your RV your primary residence as long as you have;
    .Sleeping
    .Cooking and
    . Toilet facilities

    I’m wondering if my brother in law could live in RV on my property and be considered living in his own establishment?
    I live in Pa
    Anybody know the answer to this?

  28. Picture of Michael BoyinkMichael Boyink July 11, 2017

    Hi Crystal - You’d be better off checking with your local township or county offices to get that answer.

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