Lani Vasquez, 42, appeared in court Friday on child neglect and stolen property charges, and was released without bail. She is due back in court June 17th.
The van was parked at the corner of Clinton and Brewster, and had been home for weeks to Vasquez, her 20-year-old daughter and her 13-year-old son.
Jack Vero, a pastor, lives in the neighborhood where the truck was parked. "I never saw her emerge from the truck," he said.
Disputing initial reports that she lost her home during Superstorm Sandy, Vasquez says the family went to Arizona to live with her son's father, but it did not work out and they returned to New York several weeks ago to wait for a new apartment.
"My apartment was supposed to be ready, and it wasn't, so we had to wait," said Vasquez. "We just sat in the van during the day and went somewhere else at night."
They stayed with a friend in Brooklyn and were only in the van for about a week, she said. She insists she did not steal the van.
Although they were living in the van -- with the heat turned up -- the neighbors hardly noticed until someone called 911 Thursday morning.
Detectives said the truck had been reported stolen seven days ago.
"I think a lot of people need help," said William Rich, a neighbor.
Vero said he wishes he had known. "It really saddens my heart," he said. "I felt kinda bad ? we would have been able to help."
The cats were taken by animal control officers and the children by child welfare.