Monday, September 6, 2010

So, You're Going to be Homeless - A How-To Guide - Part 1: Vehicular-Living

   I felt this an appropriate time for a most appropriate subject, given the current sorry state of the economy.  As one who has "been there, done that", I feel I can offer some tips and advice so as to minimize the impact for anyone on the verge of being "between addresses".  I'm going to assume you're single, or at the most, maybe have a partner who is about to share your fate.  Once kids are involved, it gets too complicated, and much of my advice would NOT be suitable for any situation where minor children are involved.  (Sorry, single moms, you are on your own)  This isn't to say that a single mother couldn't take away some good, useful advice she could apply and/or adapt to her own situation, but basically, this article is written for the single, unencumbered person.

   I also have to assume you, dear reader, "saw it coming", as no one gets evicted instantly for failing to pay the rent on time, and furthermore, you already HAD to know you were in financial trouble at least a couple of weeks, if not a month, before actually getting evicted, *probably* didn't talk to your landlord ahead of time to let him know you had a problem, or had already previously been late on your rent, making your landlord that much more unwilling to work with you.  While I'm personally very big on Personal Responsibility, I also realize that in these times, Bad Things often happen to Good People.  I'm not here to point fingers or blame anyone for the situation they now find themselves in.  I make the above assumptions because having some foreknowledge and preparing for eviction are important parts of my strategy.

    I don't care how you got into your situation - I only want to help those facing eviction, minimize the impact, and cushion the fall so as to avoid a hard landing.  This article will be of the most help, to those for whom homelessness is still a fairly distant blip on their radar-screen - getting inexorably closer with each passing week, and all but certain to arrive, but still a month or two from impact.  I am also writing this from the perspective of someone who is fiercely-independent, too proud(or perhaps, "stupid") to accept charity or seek any one's help.  So if you're looking for tips on getting food stamps, section 8 housing, any kind of public assistance, or advice on making the most of soup kitchens and food pantries, read no further - this is not the article you've been looking for - I have no experience with "The System", and have always avoided it like the plague.  This article, and my philosophy, leans strongly towards self-reliance and self-help.

   With that out of the way, let's get started.  Again, I'm going to make a couple of assumptions about you: You are more or less "normal", you don't have any severe substance abuse issues, and that you still have a driver's license and a car.  Or, if you don't currently own a car, hopefully have enough available credit or the ability to borrow enough money to buy a reasonably-suitable used vehicle - preferably a van, or failing that, at least a station-wagon where you can comfortably sleep without the need to scruntch-up your legs or put your back and body into a stress position.

   I suppose I should mention at this point, how important it is to maintain your driver's license!  Even if it's just a regular license, even if a bit "dirty" - as long s it's valid, it can save your life.  Sometimes, *literally*. It should also go without saying, that having a car is insanely-useful, as well.  Perhaps even more so for the newly-minted {:::aHEM:::}, "Mobile Professional" ;-p  (Keeping your sense of humor is vital as well;)  Being "between addresses" is NOT The End of the World - it is but a temporary change-in-status for most.  Heck, look at me....I've been on a "camping trip" that is now into it's 7th year!  And THESE days?'re in good company, as so many Americans are facing homelessness for the first time.

   Sometime, when I get a chance and manage to revive my old high-end digital camera, I'll take a picture of my current digs and post it on the "About Me" page.  You won't believe that ANYONE is actually living in this dilapidated, drafty and leaky-roofed old sh!thole of a camper, let ALONE still living in it after 7 years.  And with no running water, no sanitation, no cable, no land line phone or Internet connection, and no hookups other than a single long, thin extension-cord into which I've plugged some 15-20 or so various devices and appliances into. Fire hazard?  You bet!  Health hazard?  Uh-huh.  But I'm reasonably happy, and have long ago made peace with my situation, long ago lowered my expectations(thus minimizing my disappointments;) and am kept buoyant and hopeful by my (temporarily-interrupted) plan to relocate to my little EFS in the Carolinas - a goal that is still within reach. 

   As I said, it's not the end of the world.  You can avoid much of the shock and panic that many experience upon finding themselves homeless, or about to be homeless, for the very first time in their lives, if you can prepare and take some steps to avoid a hard landing.  In MY case, I knew it was coming over a month prior, and rather than try to fight the inevitable, I embraced my fate, and took steps to make my transition a "controlled descent", rather than a hard landing.  My OWN story, I've been told, is rather interesting and at times, quite harrowing - some day I'll post a link to it from my "About Me" page.  My experience has been that, once you get over the initial shock and the realization sets in that you no longer have a fixed address, you no longer have a "commute" (if you're still employed), or, if not, that you no longer have any particular place to go or place you need to be - once this realization sets in, gels and solidifies, and once your brain has adjusted to this new and unfamiliar set of circumstances, you might find, like I did within only a couple of hours of hitting the road, a sense of relief that that whole landlord-rent-hassle is now over with, and you won't have to worry about coming up with net month's rent ;-)  In some ways, Janis Joplin was right.

   I actually found it liberating, albeit tempered with a bit of anxiety over the unknowns ahead.  Of course, I had taken some steps ahead of time to ensure a relatively soft landing, and it seriously helped that I had no wife or kids or pets to worry about.  Had that been the case, it would've been a whole `nother ball game. While I KNEW this was my "wake-up call", and knew I HAD to start getting my sh!t together, and *soon*,I took the first couple of days on the road to relax, to NOT think about anything Bad or stressful, and to clear my head so as to start formulating a plan, and creating a rough outline in my mind, for my own recovery plan.  I spent the first couple of days scoping out potential night-time parking spots, and daytime hangout spots, where I could park for several hours at a clip without raising any one's suspicions or attracting the wrong kind of attention.  I had quickly developed a "route" of sorts, being at pretty much the same places at the same time each day, and spending approximately the same amount of time at each place daily. I also kept it local, keeping the miles and gas consumption to a minimum.  Developing a routine can be a Good Thing, as it keeps your "body clock" from getting out of whack, and may even aid in your ability to be perceived by the general public (not to mention, the local cops;) as being just another commuter, or just another worker on lunch-break.  But we're getting too much into MY story here, so let's get back on track.

   As soon as it becomes apparent to you that your impending homelessness is unavoidable, here's what you should do:

   VEHICLE - You NEED one - it will perform triple-duty.  Not only is it going to be your new temporary home, it's also going to be your transportation to work(or, to LOOK for work), and it's also going to serve as your storage for your vital stuff.  A regular car(sedan, coupe) is really not suitable to sleep in.  Not only will you likely have to scrunch-up your legs and try and sleep in very uncomfortable positions that will not only affect the quality of your sleep, but eventually screw up your back as well, it's also far more obvious that
you're living in it, to passers-by, property-owners and the local police.  This is not good, as you want to try and remain as low-profile as possible.  A station-wagon is far more suitable for sleeping comfortably, but you still have the same problem of being too noticeable while in it.  Add a few personal belongings, some spare clothes, ect, and it quickly becomes apparent the vehicle is being used as a residence - even when you're not in it. 

   Your best bet here, is a VAN.  Either one of those "conversion vans" with the high-top roof, electric folding bed in the back, and window blinds and curtains, OR a "cargo-van", preferably a "stretch"(long body) model, preferably with few or any windows, save perhaps the small, tinted "parkway windows" on the sides near the rear of the van, that allow you to drive it on the parkways legally.  Another "upgrade" or "plus", would be a cargo van with a bulkhead or solid partition between the driver's area, and the cargo area. You may have to get commercial plates, you may have to pay somewhat more for the insurance, but you'll have your privacy - something precious and in short supply when living al Fresco. Having your own little refuge from the outside world, even if only the 50 or so square feet afforded by the cargo area in the back of your van, is priceless.  You won't be the proverbial "goldfish-in-a-bowl" while hanging out somewhere during the day, you'll be able to sleep anyway you want on warm summer nights, and won't be an instant beacon the moment you turn on the inside light(as you would be, even in a conversion-van. 

   While I do not personally advocate anyone make a career out of it, or adopt the vehicular-living lifestyle (at least, not the technically-illegal, non-kosher version of it that is the subject at hand), if you think or expect you'll be needing to live this way for an extended period, and don't care about legal technicalities, and are willing to forgo most "normal" parking opportunities in exchange for quite a bit more room, I suppose you can always "upgrade" to a "step-van".  If you get a high-cube, stretch model (think bread trucks or potato-chip route trucks), you could remove the shelving, insulate and panel the inside walls, insulate and put down some plywood flooring(and maybe cover that with carpeting), and have ample room to build yourself a stealth studio-apartment-on-wheels, complete with bed, dresser, porta-potty, wash basin, propane camping stove, table and chair, pantry for storing groceries, and standing closet to hang your clothes.  And much of this can be had for free or very cheaply via Craigslist or Freecycle.

   Some bonuses: Most of these trucks already have a bulkhead, with a sliding door, allowing you slip in and out from the driver's compartment to your living area, without getting out of the van, and you can walk around inside, standing up without hitting your head. Most also already have one or two skylights - if it's the "fixed" type, replace it with one that opens - in the winter you'll be able to run a small, very economical kerosene heater without getting the place too heated up inside, and can regulate(to a point, anyway), the inside temperature by adjusting the skylight opening.  Most of the later (non-ancient) models are automatic, the ones that are diesel, get pretty good MPG - just keep in mind that in cold climates in winter, diesels can be hard to start without having a block-heater plugged-in, and in extremely-cold weather, diesel fuel tends to turn to jello until heated.

   You can probably get away with parking it at night, in commercial or industrial areas, where it will better blend in with the surroundings.  You might also find a suitable overnighting spot near, next to or behind a supermarket.  But you'll have to *think* before you park, as this obviously commercial vehicle will not blend in in any residential area, will look "out of place" at certain times in other areas, and will stick out like a sore thumb at any camping facility designed for, and frequented by, RVs.  Additionally, these bread/potato-chip delivery trucks are HUGE, and while you don't (AFAIK) need any special license to drive one, the extra 2 feet of width, the extreme length, and the general overall bulk of the vehicle will take some getting used to, before you become comfortable driving it. 

   If all you have, is a decent-sized car(eg, not a Mini-Cooper, Yaris, Accent, et al), and selling it or trading it for a van is not an option) and you don't have a lot of cash, there is another solution.  Assuming you have a decent-sized vehicle and can equip it with a trailer-hitch (almost any U-Haul or RV dealer/repair shop can do this for you) - just make sure and tell them you want it for a small travel-trailer, so that they put the correct-sized "ball" on it for you.  IIRC, balls come in 3 different sizes, and again, IIRC, one size is standard for travel-trailers.  Hopefully, since you've known for some time you are going to be homeless, you've scoured the "Free", "Barter" and other relevant categories on Craigslist, posted "wanted" ads, scoured your local Pennysaver, Yankee Trader and other such publications, as well as Freecycle, and hopefully will have or be able to, obtain a serviceable camping trailer for free or cheap (make sure it comes with the title or registration, as you will need to register it with your dept of motor vehicles(or whatever they call it where you are).  Also, before you accept or buy the trailer/camper, look at the ceiling for signs of leakage, as these are notorious for leaky roofs once they get old.  If your trailer is large/heavy enough that it has it's own brakes(whether surge or electric), make sure they are functional as well.  Get it checked out at the RV place if you are unsure.  The RV place will also install a wiring harness and plug(if they haven't already done so) so that you can plug in the trailer so that it's lights and turn-signals work in unison with your car's.  Double check that everything is working as it should.

   The main benefits of going the travel trailer route, are that you can un-hook it and store or park it somewhere (hopefully, *safe*) during the day, and not have to drag it around with you to work ("Gee, that's odd...I didn't know you were going on vacation?  When are you leaving?") Show up several days in a row, towing your new domicile, and your employer and co-workers will soon know what's up - whether that's a Bad Thing for YOU, I don't know, but it's something you have to consider.  The other benefit is, at least you can eat and sleep, and cook, and read, ect, in relative comfort, as opposed to being stuck in your car.  And finally, you can probably blend in with "normal" RVers at RV campgrounds, and may even be able to treat yourself to a few nights of electricity, perhaps cable TV, maybe try out your shower, and empty your grey-water and waste storage tanks now and then, as some campgrounds have hookups and dump-stations. Most campgrounds limit the length of time you can stay at a clip, or how often you can stay there, so don't get TOO comfortable and *NEVER* allow yourself to get complacent about your situation - as long as you are living this way, it can end at any time, even if the property-owner doesn't want it to end.  Zoning and ordinances trump private property rights  MY ideal situation ended after 6 years, ended VERY abruptly (I had about 5 days to relocate), and ended DESPITE the property-manager and owners WANTING me there.  All it takes in many towns, is ust one person with an axe to grind - it doesn't even have to be YOU they have a problem with.  It can be your neighbor.  Once the code-enforcement gendarmes come a crawling all over the place, you might find yourself an unintended casualty of someone else's dispute.  That's exactly what happened to me, a year and a half ago.

    You MIGHT have better luck with a privately-owned campground, *especially* during the off-season.  It doesn't hurt to try talking to the owner(s) about a longer-term stint and explaining your situation honestly, but I think this might work better of you've already rented there a few times, and the owners already "know" you to some degree, as opposed to being a totally unknown stranger.  Of course, you'll either be paying rent again, or perhaps working at the camp to earn your keep, but that's actually a Good Thing.  It's nice to know that you have a place to come "home to", even if it's just a rented parking spot, and just having electricity ALONE, will make your life instantly 10X better, even if you still have to haul-in water, haul out garbage, and use an outhouse.  But keep in mind my cautionary tale above.

   The last option for vehicular living, is of course, the RV, and by this, I mean motor homes and slide-in truck campers (as we've already, covered, or at least, touched on travel-trailers above).  Now, you're probably wondering why this wasn't my first choice - after all, it seems like the perfect, heck, *obvious* solution, as in "Du-UH?"- obvious.  But it isn't.  Sure, it SEEMS like the perfect solution - until you know more, and then think things through.  First, let's talk motor homes -we'll get to the truck-campers later.  A motor home, whether Class A(medium-to-large, rectangular box-bus-shaped vehicle), Class C (medium to large vehicle with over-the-cab sleeping area, or Class B (generally smaller than a Class C, and without the over-the-cab overhang-thing), are all RVs with an engine and steering wheel that you drive (as opposed to a trailer that you pull).  Hence, they require insurance, but not just any old insurance, they require a special type of insurance known as RV insurance. So? Why is this a problem?

   The first problem with motor homes, is that RV insurance only comes in 3 flavors: Part-time: you leave the plates on 12 months a year but only USE the RV a certain number of months per year.  Since you're going to be living in it FT, you'll need Full-time RV insurance.  So far, not a problem.  Even F/T RV insurance is surprisingly cheap - especially when you consider how large and heavy the vehicle is, and how much damage it could do were you to get into an accident with it.  But RV insurance is also fairly restrictive - while the insurance company doesn't seem to give a whit HOW much you drive it, they DO care WHERE you drive it. You are not allowed to use your RV to go to work. Period.  The only way around that, is to buy Commercial RV insurance, which would allow you to drive it to work.  This costs approximately double what normal F/T RV insurance costs, but STILL *relatively* cheap.  The problem comes in, in that we've run out of flavors. You cannot get F/T commercial RV insurance, so while you could now drive it to work, you are now not allowed to live in it - at least not F/T. If this kafka-esque insurance conundrum doesn't make you reconsider, perhaps, the next paragraph will. (And I KNOW what you're probably thinking, but sorry, no.  I do NOT advocate anyone commit insurance fraud, and this is exactly what that would be.  Don't even go there.  It's SO not worth it - Scoob)

   There is ANOTHER problem with motor home insurance as well, whether PT or FT:  Your motor home cannot be your ONLY vehicle.  You MUST have at least one other "regular vehicle" registered and insured in your name, and be able to prove it, or the insurance company will not issue you a policy for the motor home.  The good news, is than even a Class B moped qualifies as a vehicle, can be bought, registered and insured cheaply, can simply be hung on the bumper of your motor home, provides cheap local transportation, and doesn't require a motorcycle license(or at least, it didn't, here in NY, when I got one 7 years ago)  The bad news(again), is what are you going to be using as your garaging address for the RV?  And, no, you can't use the storage yard`s address as your garaging address, either.  Been there, done that. Just some more things to consider, before jumpimg into RV-owner/dwellership, thinking it's The Answer.  It's NOT the "obvious" "no brainer" answer-to-all-your-problems you mayTHINK it is.

   The insurance problem aside, what else would cause me to advise against getting a motor home?  Well, fuel consumption, for one. Between hauling around 8, 9, 12,000 lbs of mass everywhere you go, and the pretty un-aerodynamic shape of most motor home, these suckers *EAT*.  Sure, you could get a bike or cheap moped and hang it on the bumper, and use that to get around, but where would you park the motor home while you're gone?  You`re homeless, remember?  And chances are, you are in no position to feed the RV`s ravenous appetite for fuel, anyway.  The other problem with motor homes, is when they break down.  When that happens ("When", rather than "If" - if you drive it long enough) you will have all your eggs in one, big, broken-down basket.  Not only will you probably have to pay extra for a heavier-duty tow-truck, you may also have to have it towed farther, as not all repair shops work on RVs.  *Some* won't even TRY.  Then, you'll need to get some of your stuff out, and arrange for transportation to a motel, and be prepared to spend an extra day (and "extra" money you don't have), if your RV should need a part not carried by the local auto-parts store.

   And yes, your van could break down as well, but you won't need a larger-than-normal tow truck(with a larger-than-normal towing bill), just about ANY auto-repair shop will do, and the auto parts store is more likely to have what your van needs, in stock.

   Now, on to the last part of this installment: truck-campers (aka "slide-in campers").  If you ALREADY have a 3/4 ton or better pickup truck, then this would be a no-brainer for the soon-to-be homeless.  If you can sell your car and buy a decent PU/camper combo, or trade your car for such a package, I'd highly recommend you do so.  Slide-in campers are a bit cramped, but more than sufficient for one person to live F/T in one.  It's much better than a mere van, and while compact, is functional for all your basic needs. There are also a couple of benefits - first, while you CAN get cheap RV insurance to ensure the rig, you don't have to.  Just get regular insurance, and be free to drive it anywhere, including work, or job-hunting. If you take it to work everyday, no one is gonna raise an eyebrow about the slide-in camper.  Just tell them you go fishing, or like to camp at the beach, or hunting, or skiing (depending on your locale and the season) as often as you can, go practically every weekend, and find it too much of a bother to keep removing and re-installing the camper every week, so you just leave it on.  Obviously, if you don't want your employer or co-workers to know about your situation, don't get lazy and just sleep in the parking lot of where you work - leave at a normal time, and return at a normal time - as if you actually lived somewhere.  And finally, as with the travel-trailer, you could occasionally treat yourself to a campsite w/electricity, and perhaps enjoy some A/C, your microwave, your TV, your PlayStation, and maybe a cold drink from your fridge. 

                               Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for the next installment....

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