Miles from Nowhere

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

UTNE
UTNE
In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.