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"I am 35 years old, I am thrice divorced, and I live in a VAN down by the RIVER!"
Motivation Speaker Matt Foley, Saturday Night Live

A Base on Wheels for the less fortunate, this is when a character has no actual house or apartment to return to at the end of the day, and are forced to eat, sleep, and live inside a vehicle they own, such as a van or car. While an upgrade from a Cardboard Box Home and offering more protection from inclement weather and assault than sleeping on the sidewalk, it still has a lot of problems. There's no kitchen or bathroom, so you can't cook or clean yourself.

As well, unless you have a huge Mercedes-Benz Sprinter cargo van, your sleeping space will be cramped and you'll be crammed in along with all your possessions, which isn't relaxing. As well, your social life will suffer, as you can't exactly bring a friend over to watch TV, let alone invite a date back to your place.

If it's a gritty Kitchen Sink Drama, the trope will be Played for Drama. You will get social realism, a grim portrayal of the depressing, cramped living quarters inside the van. If the trope is Played for Laughs, expect many jokes about someone's house being towed away because they left it in a no parking zone.

Note that this trope doesn't apply to actual Base on Wheels, since they've been designed with a kitchen, bathroom and sleeping quarters for a person or several to live in for an extended period. Nor does it apply to a large recreational vehicle or trailer home that has a full kitchen, bathroom and bedroom. This trope applies to regular cars, vans, trucks, small boats, and small recreational planes that the owner resides in in lieu of a permanent residence.

Hippie Vans and other small campers that are designed for sleeping in during a holiday but not actually living in all year are somewhere in between.

Truth in Television for people, especially in costly urban areas. Sometimes a person who could get an apartment will choose to live in a van, to have more flexibility about where they work and to save money, such as a carpenter who drives from town to town seeking work. More commonly, it is due to a combination of poverty, housing shortages, and high housing costs. One of the challenges that Real Life van residents face is getting rousted by by law officers and parking officials, as many jurisdictions have laws against living in your van.note  The cliché joke about parking the van "down by the river" is partly Truth in Television, because van residents who find an "off-the-radar" location in a limnal region (an "in-between" space) such as an abandoned, weed-encrusted lot by a river are less likely to get in trouble with authorities.

Compare Houseboat Hero.


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Anime and Manga 
  • Great Teacher Onizuka: After Misuzu Daimon evicts him from the school, Onizuka moves into a dekotora parked on the school grounds.
  • GTO: The Early Years: After they both run away from home, Ryuji and Nagisa live in an abandoned bus in a field. Eikichi and Saegusa help them furnish it with furniture stolen from the school, and Yasuo hooks it up to a power line.

    Comic Books 
  • In Hack/Slash, Cassie Hack and Vlad live in their van (and later hearse) due to their mobile, homeless lifestyle.
  • The Runaways have frequently been reduced to living out of their Leapfrog, presumably because it's hard to get a home loan when you're wanted by S.H.I.E.L.D..

    Eastern European Animation 

    Films — Animated 
  • Finnick in Zootopia appears to live in the van he and Nick use for their scams. Given that Judy finds him in there parked in an alley and he answers her knocking waving a bat.
  • Fagan from Disney's Oliver & Company lives in a beached and derelict trawler underneath a pier beside the Hudson River. The boat has no plumbing, no heat, and gets electricity by mooching from a dockside light pole. Fagan and his canine cohorts scrounge for a living.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In Corvette Summer, aspiring prostitute Vanessa lives in a van with her name painted on the side and a waterbed in the back.
  • A Western version appears in Emperor (2020). When a Posse shoots up bank robber Rufus Kelly's wagon, he complains that they're ruining his house.
  • The Lady In The Van is a 2015 dramatization of the real-life case where Mary Shepherd parked her van in playwright Alan Bennett's driveway and proceeded to live there for the next 15 years until her death.
  • Nomadland is a whole movie about this trope! The film depicts the various challenges and rewards of the lifestyle choice of living in a van with great accuracy and attention to detail.
  • Tree Man (2015): Francois, as well as several other Christmas Tree sellers, live in their vans on the streets of New York City until Christmas.
  • Duncan from The Odd Way Home lives in a delivery truck in his grandma's driveway, because "Grandma's walls are too complicated."
  • Bruce from Whitewash ends up living in his snowplow in the Canadian wilderness. He turns the snowplow into a home, stealing insulation to make it warmer and turning part of it into a grill for food.
  • In Americathon, a permanent 70s-style fuel shortage has left practically everybody living in their cars. If you have an actual van to live in, you're well off.

    Literature 
  • In "Cold Snap", Jamie Chambers is living the back of his van when Vanessa tracks him down. This is contrasted with his famous ancestor, Jonathan Chambers aka Dr Shade, who was a successful vigilante with a secret base in a major London landmark.
  • In Freak the Mighty's sequel story, Max and Worm hitchhike with a hippie who lives in a bus which he revamped with couches and semi-living space.
  • The Savant: When Arlo and Louie arrive in Louisville, they only have $25 left. They sleep in Louie's car because they can't afford a hotel room.
  • In Evidence of Things Not Seen, the underage prostitute Karla used to live in a car with her mother, a fellow prostitute.
  • Annie from Eye of a Fly used to live in a burned-out car after she ran away from her abusive foster home.
  • Harmonic Feedback: Drea and her mom spent some time living in a pickup truck at a campground, where Drea lived off cherry coke and Cheetos from the nearby gas station.
  • Stim: Kaperielu from Kaleidoscope is a gambling addict who sleeps in his taxi because he couldn't pay rent.
  • Alvie from When My Heart Joins the Thousand is fired from her job at the zoo for trying to rescue Chance the hawk from being put down. She applies to numerous other jobs, but can't manage to get hired before she's evicted, so she ends up sleeping in her car. Despite the cold, hunger, and increased risk of assault, she finds her situation oddly freeing - she can mutter to herself and rock in front of people because homeless people are expected to be crazy, and she doesn't have to worry about her life being ruined because it already has been.
  • Lost Voices: When Luce was a kid, she used to move around a lot with her dad, a petty criminal who kept having to flee different cities. Sometimes they stayed in an apartment or a motel, but more often they slept in his red van, the only place Luce has ever seen as home.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Batwoman (2019). Ryan Wilder, who becomes the second Batwoman, starts Season 2 living in a van down by the river. Eventually Mary invites her to become her roommate in the loft above the Round-Up.
  • Baxter from the sitcom Mom lives in a red car. When Christy comments that it's being towed, he runs out muttering about his cleaning lady still being in there.
  • Skye from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. lives in a van, but according to her it was totally by choice.
  • Saturday Night Live's Matt Foley (played by Chris Farley) is a motivational speaker often hired by parents to motivate their young teens to do better in life. Foley's main motivational tack seems to be talking about how terrible his own life is. He'd introduce himself with his catchphrase, "I am 35 years old, I am thrice divorced, and I live in a VAN down by the RIVER!" He'd also work in variants to Scare 'Em Straight by telling kids how they'd wind up like him if they didn't improve themselves.
    "Youíre gonna be doing a lot of doobie-rolling when you're living in a VAN down by the RIVER!"
  • Chico and the Man: Chico lives in a VW van permanantly docked in the Man's garage.
  • Step by Step's Cody lives in a van in the family's driveway.
  • In The X-Files, the Conspiracy Theorist and alien abductee Max Fenig lives in his highly-customized trailer, which allows him to travel around the US following the trail of UFO activity.
  • Bobby from Cougartown lives in a boat on a parking lot. Jules once docked it at the marina, and it sank like a stone.
  • Cousin CJ in 8 Simple Rules lived in his van for a while.
    CJ: Got somewhere I can plug in a little space heater?
    Cate: Sure
    CJ:Cool. [Beat] Got a little space heater I can borrow?
  • In the season one Community episode "Home Economics", the study group find out that Jeff is living in his car.
  • In Supernatural:
    • Zig-zagged with the Winchesters. The Impala is the closest thing they have to a home, since they have no fixed address and sleep either in it or in motels. In later seasons, they spend more time using Bobby Singer's house as a base of operations, and later get the bunker of the Men of Letters for their personal use.
    • Andy Gallagher lives out of a distinctive van with a "barbarian queen" painted on the side. His Compelling Voice lets him get more or less anything he wants whenever he wants it, so he never bothered settling down.
  • After getting kicked out of his college dorm, Axl from The Middle buys an RV and moves there with his roommates, parking it where ever he needs to be.
  • One episode of That '80s Show revealed that Tuesday was living out of her car.
  • Cold Case: In "A Dollar, A Dream", a car is found at the bottom of a lake with the remains of a woman missing since 1999 inside. The detectives learn the woman had endured dire financial straits after her husband's death and was forced to live in the car with her two young daughters.
  • Forever Knight: Nick Knight does have an apartment, but as a vampire he often sleeps in the trunk of his car during the day when the sun rises too soon for him to make it back there in time.
  • On Good Eats, Alton recalls how back in The '60s or The '70s, his parents would go off on a romantic getaway every now and then, leaving him and his "sister" Marsha in the care of their Uncle Rudy. Rudy lived in an old conversion van that he had modified, and was a carefree bachelor with no permanent address. note  Since he didn't have much in the way of a kitchen or an oven, he made kebabs a lot, and was the one who introduced Alton and Marsha to them. (He also let them have swordfights with the skewers when they were done.)
  • General Hospital's Jerry Jacks tells his younger brother Jax about a time when the family was reduced to this before their father struck it big (Jax was either too young to remember or was born afterwards.)
  • Young Sheldon: In "Bible Camp and a Chariot of Love", after George forbids him to buy an old van, invoking "My house, my rules", Georgie tries to get around this by moving into the van.
  • Reboot (2022): Clay's unfortunate struggling actor friend Doogie apparently lives in his Ford Focus.

    Music 
  • The eponymous "Florida Man" by Ross Childs lives in a van.

    Professional Wrestling 
  • In this review of a shoot interview The Iron Sheik once did, because of his tendency to repeat himself ("Tehran Iran, oldest country in the world, 15 years old, 155 pounds, Iranian High School Champion, Iranian Army Champion, go to '68 Olympics in Mexico City, AAU Champion, coach at University of Minnesota and '72 Olympics in Munich, all true wrestling fans know I let blond guitar player beat me because HE not AAU champion, etc. etc. etc."), the reviewer chose to replace any reference to Sheik's background with, a la Matt Foley, "LIVING IN A VAN DOWN BY THE RIVER!"

    Theatre 
  • Magic Goes Wrong: The Mind Manglerís roommate, after being yelled at for messing up the formerís tricks one too many times, takes back his room keys and threatens the Mind Mangler with this. The Mind Manglerís only response is that his car has been repossessed, so heís wrong.

    Video Games 
  • The Sniper in Team Fortress 2 lives in a camper van, and the Spy and Scout sometimes taunt him about it during a domination kill.
    Scout: That was a mercy killing. You live in a camper van!
    Spy: Perhaps they can bury you in that van you call 'home.'

    Web Animation 
  • The group's Hippie Van in Mystery Skulls Animated definitely looks lived in, and Vivi can be seen sleeping in the back in "Freaking Out", where all implications are that the sleep deprived Arthur ought to be doing the same, and "Hellbent".
  • Otakebi: Shinjiro and Sojiro's parents sells their house and buys an RV to travel around Japan to get away from any unwanted attention because of the trouble caused by the latter.

    Western Animation 
  • Scooby-Doo and the rest of Mystery Inc. all have families with houses they can stay in, but they effectively live in the Mystery Machine in the series. In Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated, the gang all still live with their parents, but Fred, after finding out that his father isn't really his father, and that his real parents are no better, ends up living in the Mystery Machine parked by a lake.
  • Eliza explains in the opening credits of The Wild Thornberrys that her family lives in a convoy because they travel all over the world to film her Father's nature show.
  • Steven Universe:
    • Greg Universe lives in his van even though he owns a fairly successful business (a car wash, whose parking lot he keeps his van in) and he built the house that Steven lives in. Even after becoming a millionaire, he still lives there. Greg only moves into an actual house at the very end of the series, after Steven moves out of it to travel around the country.
    • Greg also raised Steven in the same van in his earliest years, though by the start of the series, Steven had moved in with the Crystal Gems in a house built in front of the Crystal Temple. Not much is made of this until "Mr. Universe", when Steven discovers Greg was actually raised in a house, and tells his father he wished he was raised with more structure to his life.
      Greg: You grew up with actual freedom.
      Steven: I grew up in a van!
  • Jeff Fischer from American Dad! lived in his van parked in front of the Smith's house, Hayley moving in with him. They both move inside the Smith house after they marry.
  • Subverted in the The Loud House episode "Roadie to Nowhere"; Luna's roadie Chunk appears to live in his van, and upon seeing this Luna fears this might be her future too if she fails as a rock star and canít find another job. However, we find out later that Chunk does have a home and he only sleeps in his van the night before a big gig with his band.
  • One episode of The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy heavily implies that Principal Goodvibes lives in his car, since he's shown brushing his teeth while sitting in the passenger seat.

    Real Life 
  • The singer Jewel lived in her car for about a year until she made it big.
  • MLB pitcher Daniel Norris lives in a 1978 VW Westfalia camper during the offseason.
  • Video game critic Noah Gervais lived in an old VW Bus for most of 2017 to tour the continental US at his leisure.
  • In the late 2010s, living in a van became somewhat trendy. The hashtag #vanlife trended on Instagram and lifestyle magazines extolled the freedom involved, portraying it as a fun and carefree beachy lifestyle. While often portrayed positively in media, this coincided with record low homeownership and skyrocketing housing prices in places like California. However, van-life culture has often been criticized as amounting to essentially "gentrified homelessness" or Poverty Porn, as vanlifers are typically rich enough to afford the perks of such a lifestyle (freedom of movement and avoiding responsibility for paying rent or mortgages on housing) without any of the downsides (the usually resultant economic instability or the stigma of homelessness).
  • Eric of Pretty Much It lives in a van by choice, traveling around the country to record commentaries with friends. He details his lifestyle choice, appropriately enough, in a commentary for Nomadland.

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