From camping to squatting, how one woman entered the ranks of the homeless
One Sunday several months ago, I woke, made my bed for the last time, and ate the banana and heel of bread sitting on the card table in what used to be my kitchen. I showered and dressed, leaving the wet towel and my pajamas in a pile on the bathroom floor. I locked the front door behind me, slipping the key under the door as instructed. My dad was already outside, warming up our little Toyota hatchback, which was straining under the weight of our remaining possessions and camping gear. I cried as we pulled away. It was in this manner that my father and I joined the demographic advertisers won't touch and polite people turn away from on the street: the homeless.
We had had two months' notice that our landlord had died and her kids wanted us out so they could sell the place. That's 60 days to undo 30 years in one house, and while it's all the law requires, it's not enough time. We had seven yard sales and then, as we began to realize we couldn't afford to move, began jettisoning stuff by the pile: to thrift stores, neighbors, a monster free box, and into the trash. Everything had to go, us included.
I reserved a campsite at the coast for our first week out and deluded myself into viewing this as a vacation; I'd rise with the sun, boil coffee on the fire, and spend each day hiking and bird-watching. Instead, I spent the nights quivering in 40-mile-an-hour winds that soaked my tent in ocean spray, and several days flat on my back, bawling my eyes out in bewilderment at what had happened.
Up until we left, I was a good-natured failure as a freelance writer; my annual income was in the high three figures, but I loved the work and never doubted that my career would take off. Losing my home meant losing my office as well. Now my laptop is in storage, my reference books have been sold off, and my only vision for future work is a big pair of golden arches, which won't pay enough to get me back indoors. I'm scared.
After the beach we ended up squatting for a few nights in a summer cottage whose owner was out of town. It was illegal, unethical, and it felt like it: The crunch of gravel in a driveway had me flat on the floor in a panic, and I almost fainted when two police cruisers pulled into the front yard. (As it turned out, they stopped to look at the place next door; it had just been put up for sale.)
From there we bounced to another campground further down the coast. The rules say you can't stay too long in any one place, and the rangers, while friendly, frown on homeless campers. We had to cook up various backstories ('Our house is too hot/cold this time of year/is being fumigated/is part of an FBI sting') to explain our reappearances. I didn't feel permission to speak up in my own defense when they assumed my dad and I were married (jeez, how old do I look?). And I hated lying, especially since it obligated me to act like a chipper tourist when each day's perusal of the classifieds seemed to seal our doom. My dad's tiny disability check and my unemployment benefits couldn't even get us into a studio apartment. I did my part nonetheless, clomping around with my binoculars, watching two mature black-crowned night herons protect their baby from predators.
Before this happened I was poor, to be sure -- uninsured, underemployed, and so on -- but I had a good life, and I was almost never bored. Good books to read, more music than I could listen to, a full pantry, and lots of art supplies meant I could satisfy my creativity at any time, and having my own bedroom gave me a place to retreat and recharge. Now my creative energies are applied to things like finding a shower or a cup of coffee, and my life is basically a public spectacle. Just living from sunup to sundown with no privacy is incredibly draining, and made worse by the fact that I can't sleep through the night anymore.
We put in a few more nights squatting at the cottage, two more stints at the beach, then went to stay with family for a while so my dad could make a series of appointments at the Veterans Affairs hospital (he has an aortic aneurysm and needs major surgery). I thought this might provide relief from some of the hardships we'd faced, but it's more of the same shit (having to shop from meal to meal, alternate showers to save water, and lie constantly about everything being wonderful) with the added inconvenience of always being in someone's way. They may be family, but this sure doesn't feel like home.
As I write this, it's been two months and we still haven't found a place to live. I always knew we were one major financial hardship away from something like this, but still it came as a shock. We're far from alone -- the shelters here are perpetually short of beds, and the county just outlawed sleeping in your vehicle, which tells you how many other folks' luck has run out just in my neighborhood -- but that's not much comfort. I just hope our situation takes a turn for the better before it's too late.
Reprinted from the feminist magazine Bitch (Winter 2005). Subscriptions: $15/yr. (4 issues) from 1611 Telegraph Ave., Suite 515, Oakland, CA 94612; www.bitchmagazine.com