Living the life of Riley on four wheels in boro

James Hines stands in front of his home, an RV parked on the streets of Queens. Photo by Joe Anuta
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James Hines always wanted to have a motor home of his own, but instead of going on camping trips in the woods, he has used it to live on the streets of Queens rent-free for the last eight years.

“I’ve got everything an apartment has except space,” he said. “It’s a full home on wheels.”

Hines, who asked that his exact location not be revealed, has lived in the borough most of his life.

For 20 years he rented an apartment in Pomonok Houses while he worked as a vending machine mechanic. In 2004, he paid $7,000 for his RV, fulfilling a longtime dream.

“I planned on this a long time ago. I used to go camping every week,” he said.

On those trips, Hines would see other campers pull up in their motorhomes, and he wanted in the club as well.

“I said, ‘One day I am going to get one of those,’” Hines said.

But things did not turn out exactly how he envisioned.

The purchase of the recreational vehicle was more of an emergency than the result of a carefully orchestrated plan.

That year he lost his job and could not afford to pay rent, Hines said.

He was faced with living on the streets, bouncing in and out of homeless shelters, or tweaking his RV dreams to accommodate an inconvenient reality.

He opted for the latter and scraped together his savings to purchase the mighty machine, which has lasted for nearly a decade and taught Hines a thing or two about what he can do without. Hines has two beds, a stove, a microwave and a refrigerator in his home.

During the winter, he has to turn off the heat at night to avoid any potential fire hazards, which means any standing water freezes and he awakes in something that more closely resembles a meat locker each morning.

For the most part, Hines lives a solitary existence, although he has a sister who lives in Ozone Park.

But he has learned to adapt.

To make enough money to pay for the gas and propane that power the recreational vehicle, Hines collected scrap metal for several years and sold it to a company in Willets Point.

When asked how he copes with the various hardships that come from living on the side of a road, he often answers with a casual shrug, as if the inconveniences are a small price to pay for the freedom of living off the grid.

After all, Hines pays no rent, and as he has done several times in the past, he can simply hop in the driver’s seat and take a trip.

A woman often walks her dog by the RV and says hello, and on holidays Hines visits the home of a longtime friend’s family.

“His family is really sweet,” Hines said. “They send me cards on my birthday.”

Those cards would need to be hand-delivered, however, since Hines has no mailing address.

To stay legal, all he needs to do is move the vehicle once a week.

And though Hines expects to start a new job by next month, he has no plans to move back into an apartment.

His ideal setup would involve private land and a bigger RV, specifically one with a living room that can expand outward, he said, like a dresser drawer.

Although Hines does not park his RV in the forest like he had seen others do on camping trips, even on the streets of Queens he sometimes catches glimpses of Mother Nature.

“When we had the blizzard last year, I came out and could see 3 feet of snow and no cars,” he said. “It was like I was in the wilderness.”

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4566.

Posted 8:32 pm, May 30, 2012
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