Some people enduring homelessness are easy to spot, but many—perhaps most—are not. They’re living with friends and families, in their cars or in shelters.
For some faced with housing insecurity, the idea of living in a self-storage unit may seem like a viable option. After all, the monthly rent is cheap and it provides privacy and protection.
The critically acclaimed television show Atlanta ended its 10th episode first season in an unexpected place, but one that is dear to our hearts: a self-storage unit. The episode ends with the main character, Earn (portrayed by show creator, rapper and comedian Donald Glover), retiring for the night in his storage facility holding on to the only money in his name: two $100 bills.
Another example of someone living in a storage unit was from YouTuber 007craft. He even made it look cool to live in a storage unit after a video of his lifestyle went viral.
According to his post, he had returned from hiking the Pacific Crest trail and had no place to live. Instead of unloading his belongings from a storage unit into a new apartment, the man decided to rent an even bigger unit and just move in. He spent $100 outfitting the unit, and paid $205 a month in rent, including insurance. (Although we’re not sure why he bothered to get insurance, since the policy would be voided due to his illegal habitation.)
“I have all the amenities of an apartment, just in a very tiny space,” the man says during the video.
While we are impressed by his ingenuity, this guy certainly endangered himself and the belongings of other tenants by occupying a self-storage unit illegally.
And you know what else isn’t cool? Getting evicted, which is exactly what happened to him—and will certainly happen to you if you try to live in a 24-hour access storage facility to dodge the high cost of real estate.
Why You Can’t Live in a Storage Unit
Aside from being against the law, there are many really good reasons why living in a storage unit is a horrible idea.
- No running water. Storage units do not have running water, which is needed to maintain sanitary living conditions.
- No natural light. Storage units do not have windows, and many do not have any kind of lighting whatsoever. Most storage units do not provide electricity either.
- It is a fire hazard. Speaking of extension cords, rigging a storing unit for electricity or heat could lead to a fire. Fires have been started by storage unit dwellers trying to stay warm in the winter or heating food in a toaster oven. Even a climate-controlled storage unit will not maintain temperature for human levels of comfort.
- Proper ventilation is non-existent. In a standard storage unit, there are only four walls and a door. Without proper ventilation it is hard to breathe. Throw in a kerosene heater and you have a recipe for a fatal accident.
- You will be caught. You might get away with living in a storage unit for a while, but eventually you will be caught. Most facilities have security cameras everywhere, and storage facility staff are trained to sniff out stowaways.
What It’s Really Like Living in a Storage Unit
As a member of the self-storage industry, we know that this is a really sensitive issue for facility owners and the people that attempt to live inside of a storage unit. Storage units are meant for your stuff, not for living in—and doing so is not legal.
As we mentioned, there is no running water or ventilation, and electricity is uncommon. A lack of these amenities creates unsanitary conditions when someone is living in a unit, not to mention an increased risk of a fire that could affect other people’s belongings.
But for those who do live in a storage unit, they often feel as though their only other option was the street.
From Becky Blanton’s perspective, homeless people living in storage units “is a huge issue.”
Blanton, who lived in a Colorado storage unit for four months in 2006, said she knows of at least five people who are living in storage units in her area. Meanwhile, Blanton said she’s got a friend in Colorado who manages a storage facility and has had to kick out several tenants who were living in their units.
“I totally understand why people don’t let the homeless live in units, even though they feel for them. I have a room in a house now and a roommate, and use my storage unit strictly as an office now,” said Blanton, who now lives in Richmond, VA.
“Finding safe, dry, warm, affordable housing is a problem for the homeless,” said Blanton.
Similar to Earn, Blanton’s journey of rebuilding her life started in a self-storage unit, despite how illegal, unpleasant and risky it was.
“I found out a lot about what it takes to live in a storage unit. The key is remaining invisible. And you can’t tell anyone what you’re doing,” Blanton told SpareFoot in a 2013 interview.
Common Consequences to Living in a Storage Unit
Living in a storage unit is neither safe nor legal, but it does occur, for a variety of reasons. According to a SpareFoot survey of nonprofits that help the homeless, it’s unusual but not unheard of.
If you are caught living in a storage unit, you will most likely be evicted immediately. That means you, and your stuff, will be kicked to the curb. You could also face potential criminal charges, especially if you have children, as storage units are not considered fit for human habitation.
“Being homeless, according to a friend, is like being a turtle,” said Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the Washington, DC-based National Coalition for the Homeless. “You’re carrying everything you own on your back.”
Homeless people often rent storage units to keep their most precious belongings safe and to preserve what they can of their former life, Stoops said.
They also face another challenge. “When you’re homeless, you’re a private person in a public place,” Stoops said. The ability to keep their belongings in a secure place gives homeless people a renewed sense of normalcy.
How Common Is It?
It is hard to gauge exactly how widespread the practice of living in storage is. An informal survey conducted by SpareFoot found that five out of 41 homeless social service providers across the country were currently helping clients who were living in storage. One respondent said that they estimate about seven percent of the homeless population attempt to live in a storage unit at some point.
We frequently come across news stories about people living in storage, and it doesn’t always end well for them. In Colorado, a man living in storage was found shot dead inside his unit. In Texas, a woman was arrested for endangering her 7-year-old by living in a unit.
So while we congratulate Earn on his new found independence and dedication to the grind, we can’t condone his choice of sleeping quarters.
A Problem That’s Hard to Gauge
It’s pretty much impossible to determine exactly how many people are living in storage units in the U.S., but there are some indicators: media reports, as well as data from shelters and other organizations that help homeless people. At any given time, about 582,000 people in the U.S. are homeless, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
For our survey, we contacted 100 homeless services organizations in the country’s 50 most populated metro areas. We received 41 responses from nonprofits in 30 of those metro areas. The organizations that responded to our survey serve more than 120,000 people a year. Most provide emergency shelter, and many also provide transitional and long-term services, such as job training and health care.
The survey results: Five organizations (12 percent) responded that current or recent clients had lived in a storage unit and reported 14 such cases within the past three years. Five more responded they’d heard about people doing this, but had no specific reports from current or recent clients. The remaining 31 (76 percent) had not heard about people living in storage units.
Keep in mind that many homeless shelters and other service organizations don’t track such data, so our results probably underestimate the true number of people living in storage units. Prohibitions against this behavior also mean most people who engage in it do so secretly, Stoops said.
Where the Homeless Are Staying
One survey respondent said she’d heard about this behavior for more than 15 years and estimated up to 7 percent of the local homeless population engaged in it. Another said that more people are talking about the issue, but noted it still involves only a small percentage of the people her organization helps. Two of the respondents that had specific reports of people living in storage units were in Southern California, along with one each in Arizona, Florida and Washington.
According to our survey respondents, a much larger share of homeless people are living in motels, with friends or relatives, in their cars or on the streets. And they’re less likely than many people think to suffer from addictions or mental health conditions. Instead, they’re coping with domestic abuse, layoffs, evictions or foreclosures.
One survey respondent was able to provide data on the backgrounds of its clients. More than half never before had been homeless, 79 percent did not struggle with mental illness, and 71 percent had at least a high school diploma. In fact, 6 percent had earned bachelor’s degrees.
Homelessness: Almost a Full-Time Job
Homeless people also are less likely to be chronically unemployed than many people realize, our survey respondents said. Some are working full time and simply unable to earn enough money to cover all of their basic needs. In fact, the National Coalition for the Homeless estimates that at least half of all homeless people are employed, according to Stoops.
“Being homeless is almost a full-time job,” he said. “In most cities, you can’t get all the services you need in one location. You have to go to Point A for meals, Point B for health care, Point C for food stamps.”
Ultimately, our respondents said, the typical image of someone living on the streets doesn’t paint a complete picture of homelessness in America. In reality, homelessness can happen to anyone, perhaps because of health problems, disabilities or economic troubles. Homelessness even affects some of our nation’s heroes. For instance, roughly 6,500 female combat veterans in the U.S. are homeless, with some of them living in storage units, federal officials say.
“The majority of homeless folks are just like you and I,” Stoops said. “They’re chronically normal. All they need is a place they can afford to live in, a job that pays a decent wage and health care.”
John Egan contributed information to this story.