Moab ‘dirtbaggers’ blur the line between homeless and not

Some people are camping or living in vans by choice amid the city’s affordable housing crisis

Editor’s noteThrough a grant from the Local Media Association, The Salt Lake Tribune is reporting on homelessness in Utah communities outside of the Salt Lake Valley.

Moab • Mike “Marlow” Mewborn likes to say that he’s “house-free” — not “homeless.”

The 63-year-old writer and avid outdoorsman ditched his four walls about 15 years ago, opting to live off his bike and a few other essentials after he realized he was at his happiest when he spent most of his time outdoors.

At first, he would summer in Jackson, Wyo., and winter in Mexico. But he made the switch a few years ago to living full time in Moab, where he and his old greyhound Flix sleep in a human-made cave in the hotter months and camp at the hostel in town during the colder ones.

Though he doesn’t have a home, he pushes back on the idea that means he’s the one missing something. “A lot of so-called homeless guys have more of a sense of home than people that live in like the usual suburban plot,” he said.

“Because to have a home you have to have a relationship with not just the thing you live in, but also the landscape and the seasons and the weather, the other species, your neighbors. And more and more, I see people that live in the standard template household are kind of cut off from all those things.”

Mewborn is part of a proud group of Moab “dirtbaggers” — or “skids,” as he likes to call himself — who throw off the constraints of job and house so they can dedicate themselves to outdoor recreation.

But with some people camping or living in vans by choice and others eager for a roof over their heads amid the city’s affordable housing crisis, the line between who’s homeless in the community and who’s not can be fuzzy.

Grand County Commissioner Mary McGann says it’s well known that there’s “two types of homelessness in the community.”

The first group is chronically unsheltered, fitting in more cleanly with the “traditional” view of homelessness. The second is made up of people who live in their cars, either out of choice or because they can’t find anywhere else to live in the booming tourist community.

“They’re your service industry type — your maids, your cooks, your waiters, your waitresses, your people who run the rivers, give tours,” she notes.

[Read more: ‘Done with Moab:’ Now living in his car, longtime community DJ says the town is unaffordable]

While most people in this category aren’t seeking homeless services, it can be difficult for providers to discern who needs their help and who has chosen this lifestyle, said Liz Donkersloot, housing resource coordinator with the Moab Multicultural Center.

“There’s so many people who do van life,” she noted. “And then there’s this really thin line between, well, are you homeless and living out of your vehicle by choice, or are you doing it because you have to and circumstantially you have no other option?”

Sometimes, she said, it comes down to how each individual defines their experience and the level of choice and agency they’ve had. “It’s, do they have those resources, do they have those connections? Can they go to work?” she said.

The Southeastern Utah Housing Authority has on several occasions offered Mewborn a spot in an affordable housing unit. But as classical music echoed through the cool of the cave where he’s been staying, he said he wasn’t interested in settling down quite yet.

“I always say, ‘Can you call me back in about 10 years?’” he said. “That would just be death to end up in a box like that.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Liz Donkersloot, housing resource coordinator at the Moab Valley Multicultural Center, on June 3, 2021.

Pushed into van life

Sock Beachum — a longtime Moab resident who lives out of a Ford Escape with his partner and two dogs — said he was taken aback recently when a friend jokingly used the word homeless to describe him.

“I’m like, I guess I am, aren’t I?” the 38-year-old bike shop employee thought. “But then, I’m not. My car is my home, so it doesn’t make sense to say that.”

He and his partner have been camping in the SUV since losing their housing several weeks ago, he said. And while he didn’t choose this lifestyle, he’s still savoring it.

He loves cooking on a two-burner camp stove with the desert spread out in front of him. He even appreciates the lack of privacy and being able to see his neighbors as he’s relaxing or making coffee at his picnic table.

“I can sometimes share food with people going by. Inside of my walls, I might not do that,” he said. “As a person who has often retreated into my privacy and not thrived, it’s forced me to be like: Well, look, you don’t have any privacy now. What are you going to do?”

This living situation is just the latest of the unconventional housing arrangements for Beachum since he moved to Moab about seven years ago.

He’s swapped labor for housing, helping grow basil and vegetables on a local farm in exchange for lodging in a converted bus. He later rented a small cabin where he had to draw his water from a spigot in the wintertime when the plumbing was turned off.

And he sees many other Moab residents in unusual shelters, too, from school buses to retrofitted delivery trucks.

“I definitely see a UPS truck on the regular,” he laughed. “This guy in Moab who’s camping out, he’ll be blasting music out of this UPS truck.”

The limits of the lifestyle

While Beachum isn’t sure when he’ll move back inside four walls, others who have enjoyed van life say the experience definitely has an expiration date.

Mike Stimola, owner of Moab Canyon Tours, lived as a dirtbagger for a while and enjoyed the freedom that came without having a home.

But like many people who stay in Moab for the long haul, he eventually drifted away from that mindset, realizing that the supposedly liberating lifestyle was more expensive and limiting than he once thought.

“I find it ironic that a lot of people, they’re like, ‘Oh, I live in my car so that I’m not going to be tied down,’” he said. ‘”But oh, I have to go spend three hours in the library tomorrow so I can charge my phone.’”

Outdoor guides in particular return from trips exhausted and hot, he said, and all they want is a quiet, air-conditioned home where they can recuperate.

Instead, given the scarcity of affordable apartments, many of them have to keep camping or returning to apartments crowded with roommates. Grand County Commissioner Gabriel Woytek said he even spoke with one river guide who sleeps in a storage unit.

At one point, Grand County Commissioner Jacques Hadler dealt with the lack of workforce housing by letting his bike shop employees camp in the business parking lot and giving them access to the store’s outdoor bathroom and shower.

“It was convenient for them, if they were working at 7:30 or 8 o’clock the next morning, just to sleep in their van in the parking lot,” he said.

But Moab police ultimately cracked down on the camping, forcing his employees to move further afield onto public lands to find overnight spots. Grand County commissioners also recently moved to restrict camping outside of designated areas as they tried to address concerns about the proliferation of RVs on private property.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Moab, a town of 5,400 residents swells by the thousands week to week from May to November, as tourists visit Arches National Park, and outdoor enthusiasts arrive to hike, bike, camp, 4x4 and run the Colorado River, Feb. 19, 2021.

Before the prohibitions passed the commission, both Hadler and Woytek spoke about how camping is often the only option for local workers. Woytek later noted in an interview that the housing struggle is evident from a simple glance around Moab.

“I can ride around a few blocks here in town, and I���ll start running out of fingers to count how many folks where it’s clear that someone’s living in a camper or RV in someone’s driveway,” he said.

Woytek’s house was once one of them. With Grand County also suffering from a child care shortage, Woytek’s mother spent time living in an 18-foot camper in the family’s yard, so she could help look after the commissioner’s 4-year-old daughter.

And until the affordable housing crisis abates, Moab’s RV-packed driveways will continue to be a fact of life and locals will question whether they can live in a town that has priced them out, he said.

“It would really be a shame that with this sort of workforce housing shortage or general housing shortage,” he said, “we’re driving those important people out.”