MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In America, poverty often hides in plain sight. Or sometimes, it parks in plain sight, as NPR's Martin Kaste recently discovered. He took a closer look at the abundance of old RVs and vans parked on the streets of Seattle.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: How can you tell if a vehicle has someone living in it? Graham Pruss has a whole list of signs to look for.

GRAHAM PRUSS: I look for: Can you see through the front to the back?

KASTE: Driving through the Seattle neighborhood of Ballard, he points out a row of aging RVs, all the windows strategically blocked. Another giveaway, he says, is condensation on the glass. On colder nights, it's ice. And if you can see in, there's all the stuff. He points out an old Taurus.

PRUSS: It looks like there's a lot of garbage, but when you really start thinking about it and you're looking at it, you see that it's not garbage. It's pots and pans. It's plastic bags that are actually full of clothing or personal papers, right? And so these are like the last things that people are holding on to.

KASTE: Pruss is an anthropology grad student who's spent some time living down here in an RV of his own - for research. Ballard is a good place for that; it is semi-industrial, so old vans don't stick out so much and the residents can sometimes find temporary work. Pruss estimates that there are at least 200 perma-campers, as they're sometimes called.

Some of them are old timers, but there's also been a wave of newcomers, younger people like Marcus Featherston. He lives in a Ford Econoline.

MARCUS FEATHERSTON: You know, do you want to take a look at the inside?

KASTE: It's like inviting myself into someone's house.

FEATHERSTON: Welcome to my house.

KASTE: There's a fold-out couch, a miniature sink and a fridge running on batteries. Featherston moved into the van last year, after losing a couple of jobs.

FEATHERSTON: And it was kind of either food or rent, and I ended up selling a car that I had and moving into the van and deciding to go to school.

KASTE: You say that so naturally - oh, I decided to sell the car and move into the van - like you say, you know, I decided to move in with my parents.

FEATHERSTON: But right. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KASTE: I think the average person would hear, I decided to move into my van and say that's a huge step. And what did it feel like to make that decision?

FEATHERSTON: For myself personally, it was kind of freeing, to be honest.

KASTE: He's surprisingly accepting about it. Apparently, so is his family. His mom, back in Utah, even made him a curtain for the van.

What you find when you talk to perma-campers is that they're often affectionate about their vehicles. The way they see things, living in a vehicle is a way to stay in control of their lives. In Featherston's case, the van keeps him from hitting bottom - living on the street. And for others, a van can be a step up.

JENNIFER ADAMS: This is Becky.

KASTE: Becky is what Jennifer Adams calls her big Dodge van. Adams was living on the streets. And she says this is better.

ADAMS: First of all, I'm not outside, so it's amazing. There's still wind. I'm still in a freezer.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KASTE: Yes, it doesn't look very well heated.

ADAMS: Yeah, it's still a steel van.

KASTE: The Dodge is a mess and so is Adams. She's the first to admit it. She mimics the scoldings she gets from her family.

ADAMS: You should find resources. You know, we've sent you through college. We've done everything for you. You have the resources, just do it. I was like, but no.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEEPING)

ADAMS: I'm lost. Right now I just want you to help.

KASTE: For someone like Adams, hunting for a parking spot can become an existential challenge. You can't park in the same spot more than 72 hours. And lately, complaining neighbors have convinced the city to post more signs banning parking between two and 5 A.M. So Adams is left dreaming of that elusive perfect parking place.

ADAMS: I'm looking for solitude, quietness, and nothingness. I don't want to hear anything. I don't want to - if I could wish for the best parking spot ever, it would have a bathroom.

KASTE: Maybe not be such an impossible dream. A couple of miles away, Our Redeemer's Lutheran Church is offering five spaces in its quiet, residential parking lot. It's a pilot project, ready to go as soon as the paperwork clears with the city. Our Redeemer's has already outfitted the parish hall door with a keypad lock, so the perma-campers can use the bathroom.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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