Julie Reagan met Phillip Adams on Valentine’s Day 2013. She remembers the cute black-and-white dog he was walking at the apartment complex where she lived. He remembers her knocking on the door and asking for ingredients to bake a birthday cake.

The chemistry was obvious, but there was a catch. Phillip wasn’t actually Julie’s neighbor. He was homeless, alternating between crashing on friends’ couches and camping near a river just outside the heart of Sacramento, California’s capital.

“I didn’t know,” Julie said. “When I did find out, I was fascinated by it. I would just ask him questions for hours and hours.”

With time, however, their relationship progressed to the point where they were ready to take a much bigger step together.

Falling in love on the streetsis a mysterious phenomenon. Research has tended to focus on harsher aspects of life outside, such as homeless women forced to trade “survival sex” for protection. But when it comes to long-term relationships, “there’s very, very little research”, said Jay Corzine, a sociology professor at the University of Central Florida, who has been involved with some of the few studies on intimate relationships among people without a stable home. “Couples are just overlooked.”

A 2010 paper that Corzine co-authored, titled, “Your shelter or mine? Romantic relationships among the homeless,” revealed an entire spectrum of relationships among 19 people living in two facilities, ranging from monogamy to more casual encounters. As the authors noted, “not having a home does not mean not having a sex drive”. One man, Mike, said he was grateful for his partner and foresaw marriage: “I got a very beautiful lady in my life that drives me and encourages me, corrects me.” More grimly, the researchers documented a homicide committed by a jealous ex at a Florida encampment.

But assuming the relationship is not abusive, numerous reports have shown that life expectancy, financial stability and emotional wellbeing all improve with a long-term partner, said Rachel L Rayburn, an associate professor of public policy at Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne, who wrote the 2010 paper with Corzine. “So why wouldn’t it for individuals who are homeless?”

One recurring theme in the limited research on relationships, Rayburn and Corzine write, is that “society feels the homeless should not be dating, having sex or falling in love.” That blind spot, they argue, could ultimately limit success when service providers reach out to homeless couples. “By providing no other choices, we are fostering individualism and alienation.”

Well understood or not, couples are still forging relationships without a roof over their heads.

The Sacramento river encampment, which residents say is home tomore than 100 people, presents a test case. One woman said the close quarters and seemingly constant struggles of life outside can accelerate a relationship. Elizabeth Williams, 29, met Bradley Justice just more than a year ago, and they became close when her dog was hit by a car. Justice buried the pet. He “was supposed to be a boy toy”, Williams said, but the couple soon moved into his camp site, where she had been staying temporarily to avoid the long journey to her encampment downtown.

“I was like, ‘I don’t want to live with you,’” she recalled. “He said: ‘You already do.’”

A few months later, last August, the couple was engaged. Recently, while tending to the year-old pitbull that her fiancé had given her, Williams showed off her silver Celtic engagement ring to a reporter.

Phillip and Julie’s relationship, meanwhile, has outlasted extreme highs and lows.

Following a brief stint in the coast guard, Phillip, 35, was unable to find work beyond $50-a-day odd jobs, and he has lived by the river off and on for 15 years. Julie, 44, had never been to a homeless encampment until she visited Phillip – first for an afternoon, then overnight, then for a weekend – about three years ago.

Despite some rocky patches, including jail time for Phillip and a period apart, the relationship endured. In 2014, Julie’s life among the “normies”, as she calls 9-to-5 types, started to fall apart. She lost her job at a Goodwill store and then her apartment. The tight-knit social circle and off-the-grid lifestyle by the river appealed to her.

One key to adjusting, Julie said, was Phillip’s willingness to bear the brunt of hard work like tending to the couple’s tent and moving their belongings by bike. “He actually has shielded me from a lot of the homelessness, if you will,” she said.

As with many other homeless people in relationships, a shelter isn’t an option for Julie and Phillip, in part because they don’t tend to allow couples or their pets to live in the same facilities. “Every survey I’ve ever done – straight couples or gay couples or trans couples – they’re living outside because they can’t be together in a shelter,” said Bob Erlenbusch, head of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness.

Julie and Phillip got engaged in 2016, and if relationships among homeless people are little studied, there is virtually nothing on nuptials.

Their wedding took place in April at a park not far from their usual campsite. Julie decorated with purple carnations, commemorating her mother’s recent death with her favorite color. Relatives and a local religious group helped subsidize the cost, which included steak meals for more than 100 people and a rhinestone-trimmed cake. Julie walked down the aisle barefoot before a mix of homeless friends and family members.

“Most of the time we’re dirty, but everyone cleaned up,” Julie said. “It shows how much we’re loved and appreciated out here.”

They had a mini honeymoon at the Hawthorn Suites, a nearby budget motel, before heading back to the grind of life by the river. But for them and their friends, the memory of a lovely, unexpected ceremony lingers.

“It was really simple, but very nice,” said Deb Freid, who is part of the group that helped fund the celebration and runs a meal service near the river. “To the person who was driving by, you would have just thought, ‘Hey, it’s a wedding in the park.”