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.

The Youngs, a Florida family of five, ended up homeless after being forced to sell their home. Unable to find space in shelters, they moved into their car and put their belongings in a storage unit. Eventually, they began spending nights in the unit.

Living Like a Turtle

Living in a self-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.

how common is living in a storage unit

If you are caught living in a storage unit, you will mostly 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 consider 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 for the same reasons the Youngs did: 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.

homeless couple storage unit
This couple lived in an Arizona storage unit in 2012.

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 610,000 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.

homeless man
At any given time, about 610,000 people in the U.S. are homeless.

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.

homeless woman
Community organizer: “The majority of homeless folks are just like you and I.”

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.”

Becky Blanton
Becky Blanton lived for four months in a storage unit.

‘Huge Issue’

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.

She also understands why some people take up residence in storage units.

“Finding safe, dry, warm, affordable housing is a problem for the homeless,” Blanton said.

John Egan contributed information to this story.

Photos courtesy of Flickr/Adam Fagen, Flickr/Ed Yourdon, KPHO-TV, Becky Blanton

  • Josh Langlois

    You are mentally retarded.

    • Bill Sparks

      So what do you have against people with iq’s 70 or below?

      • Chris Daly

        They lack credibility to their opinion. For the most part, I ignore them.

    • Chris Daly

      Have you reviewed the results from their certified IQ test to determine this?

  • omni crux

    pathetic, they rented it they can do what they want with it as long as they leave it how they found it. you people make me sick.
    I dare you to walk in their shoes.

    • Chris Daly

      Socially, sure. Legally, no.

      They make laws for reasons. I don’t know what those reasons were, but they must’ve been pretty good ones for a group of people to spend so much time writing them up and others so much time enforcing them.

      You should probably spend less time arguing that “the homeless should get to live in storage units” and more time arguing that “we need more homeless shelters; single-room housing for individuals and couples / two-bedroom housing (or apartments) for couple with <2 children /etc. needs to be federally subsidized." Similar to SNAP/Medicaid/Workers Comp. Must be working or looking for work, tracked by the government, federally-assisted job placement programs. All those great ideas that have so little exposure.

      You know. If you're interested in the social welfare of these individuals, perhaps you should argue in favor of social welfare.

    • Chris Daly

      Its not like they’re filming porn.

      And…yeah…they left it as they found it. So what?

  • Corey Keyes

    I personally do jot see a problem with someone occupying a storage unit. It actually sounds like a great idea if you have no other alternatives. It is safe and dry and secure. There is a storage unit in my town that is climate controlled and has a coded lock on entrance to the facility.

    • Chris Daly

      No bathroom (they’re going to go somewhere, sooner or later…), outdoor units have no heat/AC, easy to get locked in; if you have children with you, they are unprovided for, could be considered neglect depending on what the relevant laws state. No electricity, so gas lanterns may be used for heat/light, poses a fire hazard and CO poisoning hazard in a small, unventilated area.

      Plenty of reasons.

      • Violet Artson

        Still ten times better than the streets.

        • Chris Daly

          But not moreso than a shelter.

          • Chilo Chili Gutierrez

            You mean the shelter that can only take 200 people and the rest get turned away

          • Chris Daly

            Then build more, or build them bigger.

          • Evelyn Roses

            Shelters are expensive to maintain and support. Many shelters are run out of old buildings that don’t have much room. it’s not that simple.

          • Chris Daly

            Yeah, that’s what taxes are for.

            Talk about it like it matters, people will think about it and agree, someone will take action, free people will complain and fight against it.

            Fortunately, somebody else out there who needs to feel important will do something about it.

          • Maria Dryna

            That would be a good idea for the government to provide, along with private donations and low monthly fee. A series of large sturdy box homes, like a small studio or cheap hotel room as long term housing for the homeless, especially the elderly, single moms/dads…etc.

          • Evelyn Roses

            “Talk about it like it matters, people will think about it and agree, someone will take action”, ummm not true?

          • Chris Daly

            Right, you’re the other people that keep it from happening by not agreeing, but if you agreed, I’d be right. Get it?

            Contrarian gets us nowhere.

          • Abbott

            That insult makes zero since. Try again.

          • Chris Daly

            It’s not an insult.. Be part of the problem, don’t try to help, I couldn’t care less.

          • Chit H

            Walk a mile in a homeless Persons shoes….. Ive been homeless in Ocala Fl. for over a Year, Not once have I had the luck of being able to get into one of the shelters. Section 8 housing isn’t accepting new apps for over a Year. I have a broken back, am in a wheelchair, and $488 Disability a Mo. WTF Is anyone supposed to do with THAT.

          • dave

            Who do you think will build them? The republicans who don’t give a crap about poor people?

          • Chris Daly

            And again, naysay instead of action. Hm, ionno, bring it up at one of those political rallies or meetings where you get to ask questions like that.

            See, it’s quid pro quo. Republicans want votes, you want action. In order to get votes, politicians take action. You give those good little boys and girls something to do and say you’ll hire them if they do it, they’ll do it. Get it?

  • Chris Daly

    So, it seems that, one of the biggest problems facing our country, is poverty.

    Not gay rights, not society’s perception of women, not marijuana legalization, not transgender dysphoric individuals, transgender bathrooms, public breastfeeding. None of this special interest group BS.

    Homelessness, expensive housing, prevalence of and dependence on food stamps. Too many people are broke. They need more money, things need to be cheaper. Tax the rich, we have plenty of them.

    Mebbe we should rethink how this economy works, mayhaps?

    • Lil25

      I agree that poverty is a huge issue (I disagree that the other things you mentioned are unimportant). I can not, for the life of me, figure out why people struggling to make ends meet would vote for Trump. He’s one of the worst rich people out there. He’s only going to make things worse!

      • Chris Daly

        Yes, you can dissuade supporters of my opinion, though there seem to be bone because I speak on behalf of those who cannot stand together to form a voice, by changing the subject to a larger, more easily digestible topic bound to promote distracting argument.

        No, none of those things matter, these people complain because they did not know what to complain about, so they complained about the rules enforced upon them, in favor of people that treated them well. We can discuss psychology all day long, but that doesn’t day anything about helping the impoverished.

        Please stay on topic.

        You’re one of those “Talks about it for attention but does nothing g to help.” Kind of people.

  • Andrew Sahagian

    One problem I’ve heard of with shelters is that you have to get there by a certain time to get in. For example a 5pm deadline keeps people who work, say 9-5, from being able to stay, except on their days off.

  • steve pol

    I sold my house last week. I rented PS unit. Every time I am at my unit there is a same car with the same faces a couple of numbers down from mine… They must be living there. I could not believe it…