Putting the ‘van’ in Vandal
As a downtown streetlamp shines its beams through the windshield and bathes the van’s interior with annoying light, Jet Johnstone shields his eyes with a bandana in hopes of having his first restful night’s sleep in three weeks.
With the sound of traffic and stumbling drunks penetrating the thin sheet-metal of his 1984 Econoline van, the University of Idaho student wrestles for sleep on his make-shift mattress. This is the North Idaho College junior transfer’s new home.
“I almost want to say that this was forced upon me,” Johnstone said. “I come from a middle-class family, but they’re really stingy (parents). They said ‘As long as you’re going to school, we’ll pay for your books.’ That’s all I get for financial help from my parents, like $400 dollars a semester.”
UI Dean of Students Bruce Pitman recognizes student homelessness as a growing problem within Moscow. He said with a dwindling economy, families are coping with the cost of higher education. “I admire what they’re trying to do,” Pitman said.
“I also fear for them and have concerns that they will have so many challenges, that it’s unlikely that they will achieve their goal. Going to schools is hard enough without facing the problems that come with living in desperate poverty.”
According to Lt. Dave Lehmitz of the Moscow Police Department, a homeless college student is a rare occurrence. A five-year veteran of the force, Lehmitz said he has been in contact with three students who have found themselves homeless.
“Unfortunately, (homeless students) went hand-in-hand with mental illness,” Lehmitz said. “They would try and go to school and after the first semester, they would kind of get off their medication or start partying. After that, things would go south.”
Lehmitz said that after getting into trouble legally or academically, the three homeless students were all evicted from campus housing and were forced to search for places to stay. After spending time in various areas of the city, the homeless students eventually dropped out of school and disappeared, he said.
“As a Lieutenant based on the UI campus, I start seeing these things manifest on campus before they hit the city,” Lehmitz said. “These individuals may be having issues with harassment and can’t live in the dorms anymore because they’ve committed a battery. They would then be booted out of the campus living areas at this point.”
Johnstone said he has found himself on the street not due to mental illness, but because of financial difficulties. Although he worked two jobs during the summer and paid off his tuition for the academic year, the Coeur d’Alene native said he is down to his last few dollars. Fueled by optimism and self-reliance, Johnstone said he is confident that he will eventually be able to live comfortably in his van.
“It’s actually been slightly more pleasant than I had expected,” Johnstone said. “If I did fall down in life and had some situation that really knocked me out, I know now that I could still get by. Another nice thing is that if I hate my neighbors, I can always pick up and move.”
Johnstone has parked his van in the 24-hour parking section near First and Lincoln Street, allowing him to stay overnight without receiving any fines. Lehmitz said camping in a vehicle within a non-metered area is legal. Johnstone said he still plans to move every week to get a change of scenery.
“The location that I’m at isn’t bad, but I don’t think I could stay here for more than a week,” Johnstone said. “I imagine I’ll do a small rotation around the city, as long as it doesn’t have a metered spot. Where I’m at now is kind of a prime location, being so close to school.”
Finding a homeless student within city limits, although rare, raised an important issue for Lehmitz. He said he first investigates how the students found themselves in that situation. After starting a conversation with the student, Lehmitz suggests other living accommodations the homeless student could use.
“There’s hundreds, if not thousands, of apartments and alternatives to sleeping on the street,” Lehmitz said. “I would try to hook them up with an apartment manager or leaseholder. We try to direct them to different resources if we come across them.”
As a member of the Moscow Task Force, Pitman is also working to solve the city’s homeless issues.
“There’s a lot going on right now in Moscow related to taking an inventory of services that are available and needs that should be addressed,” Pitman said. “We’re also working on a program to help homeless families have temporary shelter.”
Living in his van has given Johnstone an opportunity to explore both his limits and himself.
“I’ve always found that I have a wild heart and being tied down is like having your heart in a cage,” Johnstone said. “To be honest, I don’t feel like I’m sacrificing much.”
David Humphreys can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org