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