Student lives out of car for year

FULLERTON, Calif. — After a long day of film classes, working at the Apple Store, rock climbing at the gym and finishing homework in the student union, California State University, Fullerton, senior Andy Bussell heads home — to a white Toyota Tacoma with a twin-size mattress in the truck bed, a camper shell for protection and black curtains for privacy.

The 26-year-old has been living in his truck for nearly 19 months, skirting rules against sleeping in vehicles while otherwise living the life of a mainstream student. What started out as a way to save some cash has turned into a journey of self-reliance and independence.

"Even though I had a good job, I was tired of living paycheck to paycheck and not making any headway with my credit cards,” he said. "I’ve learned that I can push myself, break down my own boundaries. I’ve been able to learn that I can change and adapt to different kinds of situations.”

The odyssey began in 2005. Bussell was working full-time as a "Mac genius” at the Apple Store in Newport Beach, sharing a $1,600-per-month apartment. He had racked up more than $10,000 in credit card debt and was struggling to pay for school and save money for a three-month road trip. So on July 29, 2005, he started living in his truck, with the goal of lasting one year.

Co-workers created a pool on how long the truck life would last, with the longest prediction three months.

"I’ve beat that,” he said. "Once you find a routine, it’s actually really easy.”

Most mornings, Bussell heads to the university gym to shower, shave and brush his teeth. Then he heads to class, and later to work. Evenings are often spent rock climbing or doing yoga, visiting friends or studying in the student union, which has wireless Internet access. Then he heads back to the truck, which he parks in a variety of locations, and plays guitar, reads with a battery-powered headlamp or watches DVDs on his laptop.

There have been hiccups along the way — less than two months after Bussell began living in his truck, he was ticketed by a police officer, who told him it was illegal to sleep in a vehicle. The citation cost him $177.50, "but when you haven’t paid rent for … months, it’s not that bad,” he said.

His mail goes to a post office box. What he misses most are a kitchen and a bathroom. To deal with the former, he buys food such as yogurt and fruit in small quantities; as regards the latter, he takes advantage of public facilities. On occasion, he has resorted to employing an empty Gatorade bottle.

"It’s handy being a guy,” he said.

Bussell planned to end his time in the truck after completing a nearly three-month road trip last summer, visiting many national parks in the west. But upon his return, he became busy with work and school, and hasn’t had time to think about moving into permanent lodging. The credit card debt, which was part of the reason for his decision to live in a vehicle, is nearly paid off.

Bussell has attracted attention on campus, from fellow film students, who created a short documentary about him, and from the campus newspaper. But he has long been an oddity among his peers. He graduated two years early from high school yet has spent a decade in college, switching majors several times. He expects to graduate in the spring, and is awaiting responses to graduate school applications.

"I’ve learned that I could set my mind to something and do it,” he said. "I think I’ve gained an appreciation for homelessness, in a way. Mine is a choice, but I can appreciate it now. I can understand what people are going through.”

Still, to gain a further understanding, Bussell plans to live as a homeless person for a week before he graduates, carrying a backpack with his belongings and sleeping in the bushes of the university.

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Title: Student lives out of car for year | Author: Seema Mehta | Section: News | Published Date: 2007-02-28 | Internal ID: 5470