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The real story of #VanLife—it’s ‘not as glamorous as it seems’

A composite image shows Paul Thomas in his cargo van that he has been living out of the past four months, left, and Paul Thomas during a soundcheck at Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco. | Jason Henry for The Standard; Justin Katigbak for The Standard

In the Bay Area, homelessness can feel like an abstract concept for those not directly impacted by it—a hot-button issue argued over by city and state politicians. But of course, homelessness is not a monolith, and for many Bay Area residents who live in their cars or in tents, the process of becoming unhoused can be gradual, nonlinear or even preferable to other living situations.

Paul Thomas says it’s the price he pays for the chance to work his dream job. He’s been mixing live shows at San Francisco music venue Bottom of the Hill for 17 years. By Thomas’s estimation, he has operated the sound board for approximately 4,000 bands in total and 100 concerts each year. During this tenure, he’s become a fixture of the independent music scene that revolves around the treasured Potrero Hill nightclub, where several employees, from the bouncers to the bartenders, call themselves lifers.  

Still, the 53-year-old’s loyalty to the scene was put to the test back in January, when he lost his home in Petaluma. As Thomas told The Standard, he’s been living in his cargo van for the past four months, and the experience has made him more committed to live music in San Francisco than ever. 

Paul Thomas drives around the block to look for a new parking spot on Thursday, as his old one expired. | Justin Katigbak for The Standard

Like the more than 35,000 unhoused residents in the Bay Area, Thomas’s living situation is the collateral damage of rapid gentrification, which has displaced scores of low-income people, including countless artists and musicians. He said he was first pushed out of the city back in 2010, when rising rents forced him to relocate to Fremont, and then further out to Sonoma County. Eight years ago, he found relative stability in a double-wide trailer a mile down a dirt road in Petaluma, which he rented for $650 per month. 

But then his roommate, who was also his landlord, moved a partner into the trailer who turned violent. Thomas spent a brief stint sleeping at the dog sanctuary in Sacramento where he volunteers, and in January, he decided to build a loft in his Ford Transit Connect. 

While Thomas said his mental health has actually improved since he began sleeping in his van, it presents a battery of daily challenges. Logging around 140 miles a day back and forth from Sacramento and Sonoma to San Francisco, Thomas has to perform regular maintenance on the van. People have slashed his tires. He currently pays for three storage units. 

“Needless to say, #vanlife is not as glamorous as it might seem,” he said. 

Bottom of The Hill's neon sign lights up the evening sky in San Francisco on Wednesday. | Jason Henry for The Standard

Thomas explained that becoming unhoused is only his latest lesson in adaptation. At the beginning of the pandemic, when live entertainment came to a crashing halt, Thomas lost his entire income when the 40 gigs he had on his schedule were promptly canceled. Realizing he could leverage his professional background as a roadie—he’s worked as a crew member on tours for indie bands like Portugal. The Man and Rogue Wave—in spring 2021, Thomas co-founded a dog rescue organization called Roadies & Rescues that transports adopted pets along the West Coast. 

Even though Bottom of the Hill has resumed its full calendar of concerts, Thomas said that volunteering with Roadies & Rescues easily complements his work schedule, which still hovers around two or three shifts per week. 

Those few days of the week are long. Because Thomas parks the van either in Santa Rosa or Sacramento, his rush-hour commute into San Francisco regularly stretches to two hours. The shift at the venue lasts eight hours, ending around midnight. Though parking the van in the city would significantly shorten his work day, he said it’s not worth the risk of vandalism or theft. 

Paul Thomas sets up at Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco on Wednesday. | Jason Henry for The Standard

Of course, Thomas said the costs of that journey add up to make his livelihood a precarious balancing act. For one, there’s the price of gas, which currently sits at $5.062 per gallon in San Francisco. The bridge tolls set him back $8 per day. Each shift at the club pays out $225, which he said dwindles down to around $150 after taxes.

By Thomas’ accounting, for the past decade his yearly income has ranged from $15,000 to $20,000—less than a quarter of the low-income threshold in Sonoma County, which rose to $82,200 in 2020. In San Francisco, that line was $114,500 in 2020, according to a 2023 study by Bay Area Equity Atlas. He’s approaching his mid-50s and has no health insurance. 

“Needless to say, over the last 10 or 11 years I have learned how to live a very lean lifestyle with virtually no margin for error, financially speaking,” he said. “At any other job, all of this would be hard to justify, but Bottom of the Hill is way too special to me to ever give it up.”

Paul Thomas makes repairs to the mixing board at Bottom of the Hill, the music venue where he works, on Thursday. | Justin Katigbak for The Standard

A former Edwardian saloon and soda fountain, Bottom of the Hill has been a mainstay of San Francisco’s indie music scene since it was founded by beloved community advocate Tim Benetti and his friends in 1991. In the wake of dozens of Covid closures, Bottom of the Hill is still operated independently by a group of lifelong pals—Lynn Schwarz, Ramona Downey and Kathleen Owen. Thomas said that playing the small, eclectically decorated club has become a rite of passage for many touring musicians.

When asked to name the most memorable concert he’s engineered over the past two decades, Thomas hesitated—imagine picking your favorite child if you had 4,000 of them—but he remembers a string of shows by Portland-based indie electronic group Portugal. The Man in 2007 and 2008. Long before the band hit it big with the 2017 single “Feel It Still,” Thomas had the opportunity to fill in as the band’s live engineer during their 2012 European tour supporting The Black Keys.

“And it was all because they remembered me from the times we worked together at Bottom of the Hill,” he said.

Paul Thomas poses on Thursday outside of his cargo van that he has been living out of for the past four months. | Justin Katigbak for The Standard

Still, Thomas said it’s not the big name sold-out shows that ultimately stand out most.

“It might be an absolutely incredible band that played the most amazing and mind-blowing set on a Tuesday night with 35 people in the venue,” he added.

He said he understands many people who make comparable commutes work salaried jobs that pay in the six figures, but he believes those individuals have their own set of trade-offs. At the end of the day, he said his devotion to live music makes it all worth it. 

“I feel lucky to have found this thing that I love,” he said. “Of all the things I’ve done in my life, the past 17 years have opened more doors and connected me to more great people than any other period in my adult life.”