There’s a parking lot about two miles from LAX where rideshare drivers wait for pings from arriving passengers. The regulars call it the pig pen, or Jenny lot – it’s just off Jenny Avenue. Just after 1 a.m. on a recent visit, the 100 or so spots at the lot were almost all occupied. Drivers leaned against their cars, smoking, talking, and waiting for ride requests.
Gordon Swan, who drives a weathered black Grand Prix, was reluctant to talk about what it’s like to drive for Uber, a company that’s had a storied and often-conflictual relationship with its workforce. Especially because he’s part of a largely-invisible class of people who live full-time in the cars they drive for the rideshare company. He said he’s trying to stay optimistic, and stave off embarrassment about living in his car. “But it’s not like I’d go around advertising it.”
Has been living in his car for: about a month
Monthly car payment: $0
Monthly storage unit, insurance, and phone costs: about $300
Monthly hours driven: about 100
Has been living in his car for: about two months
Monthly car payment: just over $600/month
Monthly insurance, gas, and phone costs: just over $1000/month
Monthly earnings (in a good month): $2800/month
Monthly hours driven: about 250
Has been driving for Uber and Lyft for: about eight months
Monthly car rental: about $800/month
Monthly gas, storage unit, food, coffee: about $1600
Monthly hours driven: about 200
According to this year’s homeless count, more than 4,000 people live in cars and vans in Los Angeles county – about 7 percent of the 58,000 people who are homeless in the county overall.
Later that night, a woman emerged from her Prius. She asked to be identified only by her middle name, Renee. She said the whole experience of driving for Uber had been “demoralizing.”
Renee said that when she first started driving for the company, the money was good. There were fewer drivers, and less competition. This was before Uber and Lyft got into a price war, slashing fares and drivers’ take-home pay.
When it got harder to make money driving, Renee found herself struggling to pay for the car she was renting through Uber. If she didn’t drive enough to afford the weekly rental, she’d end up owing Uber money instead of pulling a salary.
In 2015, she moved into her car to save money and sent her three children to live with their grandmother. But she kept falling further behind on the rental payments, until one night, the car was repossessed. She was dropping her daughter off at the babysitter’s. “And the repo man was outside and repossessed the car,” she said. “And I was embarrassingly stuck at the babysitter’s.”
She, too, moved into her mother’s in Lancaster. But continued to drive for Uber and Lyft, and said she still feels the looming threat of homelessness.
“You drive past Skid Row when you’re on your way to a call sometimes, and you think, oh god, I don’t wanna end up there,” she said. “So you drive and drive and drive.”
Renee’s not alone. Brandon, a 34-year-old Uber and Lyft driver, moved into his own Prius about two months ago. Like, Renee, he said the fear of living out on the street is never far from his mind. “If life ultimately wants me to live on Skid Row – I’m pretty close – and I have to give up my car, then that’s what I have to do.”
Brandon asked that we use only his first name because no one in his life really knows that he’s homeless.
The stigma associated with homelessness is more powerful than some people realize, said Eric Ares, an organizer with the Los Angeles Community Action Network, or LACAN, an advocacy group based in Skid Row. It can stop people from getting government assistance they’d be entitled to, like food stamps or housing subsidies.
“You have people who’re afraid or ashamed to reach out for assistance to help them get back on their feet,” he said. “And I think you’d be surprised about the prevalence of folks who are currently working. Full-time, part-time. In other cities in the country, they might be able to rent a one-bedroom. Not in Los Angeles.”
Brandon said he started driving full-time for Uber and Lyft because it paid pretty well and the flexibility was appealing. He was trying to go back to school for psychology. But then, the pay dropped precipitously.
He said he can drive 12-hour days, seven days a week, and barely make enough to cover his expenses and debts.
“I get [passengers] who you can tell have a lot of money based on where I pick them up and where they’re going and the conversation that they’re having,” he said. “And I just think to myself – I’m literally sleeping where they sit. This is my life.”
Uber declined to answer questions about drivers living in their cars, instead providing a two-sentence statement from a spokesperson, saying it was up to drivers to decide “when, where and how long to drive.” And that, “we’re focused on making sure that driving with Uber is a rewarding experience, however you choose to work.”
Joel Kotkin, a Chapman University presidential fellow who writes about economics and urban studies, said there’s a term for workers like these drivers: the precariat. They’re members of a class of precarious workers, teetering at the edge of financial destitution. And as the workforce of companies like Uber and Lyft shifts from part- to full-time workers, Kotkin said, the precariat is only going to grow.
“I don’t know that [driving for Uber] was ever seen as a real career for people,” Kotkin said. “And that’s unfortunately what we’re seeing, which is that a lot of people, particularly younger people, are stuck in these jobs that … particularly in expensive, high-rent areas like LA, [couldn’t] even support paying the rent.”
But the answer to the problem of the precariat likely won’t come from Silicon Valley, Kotkin said.
“Silicon Valley is particularly known for these kinds of labor abuses on many, many levels,” he said. “It likes to portray itself as hip, cool, and progressive, and yet, I think you’d be better off working for an oil company.”