Sunday, September 12, 2010

So, You're Going to be Homeless - Part 3 - Hitting The Road

   "Moving Day" is upon you, and rather then get into all that unpleasantness and public spectacle that occurs once you have Deputy Sheriffs aiding your egress, you've agreed to move out, and have spent the previous day moving the 90 or so percent of your stuff into your vehicle.  Morning has arrived - your last morning in a place with electricity, a microwave, heating and air conditioning, hot and cold running water, a toilet that flushes, and a shower.  You take advantage of these amenities one last time, grab your remaining belongings, and head out the door for the very last time.  You get in your vehicle, start it up, and after a brief pause, pull away from the curb with a deliberateness of someone heading off to work, as usual.  But it's Saturday.  And you don't work on weekends.  As you drive off, you look in the rear-view mirror, and watch, almost transfixed, as the place you once called "home", recedes in the distance.  By the time you turn the corner, it sinks in, that you really don't have any place to go right now.

   You drive down the familiar streets of a neighborhood that, up until a few minutes ago, you called yours for the past 3 years.  You get to the main road, and turn right, as you always do every weekday morning on your way to work.  It wasn't even subconscious, it was automatic.  As you drive down the main road, on a Saturday - something you rarely ever do as you've always enjoyed just staying home and relaxing on weekends - and for the moment, you're lost.  Like a GPS receiver that has missed a turn, your brain takes
a few moments to reorient itself to it's new position and heading.  You slept poorly last night.  No surprise there, so you pull into the gravel parking lot of an old,  free-standing deli, lock your vehicle, and go inside  In all the years you've lived in this town, you've never set foot in this deli, even though you passed it every day on your way to work - you`re not sure why - perhaps it's because you were always too frugal to pay $1.25 for a cup of coffee you could make at home for $.25 cents.  Once inside, you aren't surprised that no familiar faces are to be found.  Perhaps this is a Good Thing, you think to yourself, because right now, you wouldn't know what to say anyway, if you met anyone you knew.  Any casual conversation right now would be strained and awkward on your part.  You order a large coffee, pick up the newspaper for something to read, and head out back to your vehicle.

   You unlock it and get back in, just now really noticing how loaded up with stuff it is. You vow to further reduce your "Stuff I Really Want to Keep"-stockpile at your earliest opportunity.  As you sit, idly scanning the newspaper with no real intent or effort to actually read any of the news articles, you browse the real estate sections "Rooms" and "Apartments" with some interest, but see nothing, suitable or otherwise, in your price range.  You feel conflicting emotions - on the one hand, you feel relieved to be out of your apartment, and experience this weird sense of total calm,...almost serenity, although it likely more akin to the euphoria one experiences due to oxygen-deprivation, or nitrogen narcosis, rather than from anything good or healthy. In a way, you're glad it's Saturday so you have a couple of days to get yourself situated, and wrap your brain firmly around your new and strange situation, but on the other hand, you WISHED it was Monday morning, so you could just go to work, as usual, and escape, even if only for 8 brief hours, the ugliness of the outside world, or perhaps more accurately, your new place in it.

   As you finish up the last of the now luke-warm coffee, you try and take stock of your situation, but it's a little bit too early in the grieving process.  You've actually done pretty well so far - you skipped past denial and anger, and went right to acceptance.  You pull out of the parking lot, and again make a right turn onto the main road, perhaps subconsciously projecting your desire for some normalcy, by heading closer to your workplace.  Your next destination unknown to you beyond a vague idea of somewhere, anywhere, you can sit and park for an extended period of time without being bothered or bothering anyone by your presence.  You just want a couple of hours of extended, uninterrupted me-time, to formulate a real plan from the vague outline you had been rehearsing in your head for the past several weeks.

   The pity-party that had been setting up the place mats, plastic cutlery and drink cups, preparing for the festivities in your mind, is abruptly postponed, when you see a homeless man pushing a shopping cart.  As bad as your situation is, you realize some other folks are FAR worse off than you,  and you console yourself with the fact that you are far, far luckier than most.  Perhaps "luck" isn't the right word, because although you've fallen into homelessness, you haven't fallen too far, nor too hard.  You knew it was coming, and you prepared for this day the best you could with the resources you had.  You've maintained your driver's license, you car insurance, registration and inspection, your cell-phone, your PO box mailing address, and your appearance.  If you had to look for work, no one would suspect you were homeless, nor would anything unusual turn up were anyone to run background, credit or MVR checks on you - increasingly common in this age of high unemployment. 

   You knew your Honda Accord, while a great, reliable and economical vehicle, and a real asset under normal circumstances, was totally unsuitable as a residential abode-on-wheels.  Yes, you took a bath when you sold it, as the buyer, like a dog sensing fear, sensed your urgency and interpreted that as desperation.  Yes, you again took a bath when you bought your cargo van - a local contractor wanted it as well, but time was not on your side, so you offered more than it would normally have fetched.  But that's water under the bridge at this point - you're damn glad you bought it, and aren't facing a night of trying to sleep in the Accord.

   As you drive past a homeless man pushing a shopping cart, it dawns on you, that at least you have both transportation AND shelter - something the man pushing the shopping cart doesn't have.  For the first time in your formerly middle-class-cum-lower middle-class-cum-lower-class life, you say to yourself: "There, but for the grace of God, go I"  Everything is relative, and relative to the man pushing the shopping cart, you are almost rich, by comparison.  You have one other thing he(and, increasingly, many others) don't have: a JOB. Yes, your job sucks, you are underpaid, probably overworked, and undoubtedly, under appreciated.  It's little more than a subsistance job, but you have direct-deposit, and your pay, as paltry as it is, is reliably deposited into your checking account each week like clockwork.  It doesn't pay enough for you to keep a roof over your head at this time(obviously;), but it WILL keep you in food, gasoline, kerosene (for heat), propane(for cooking) with enough left over to pay your cellular bill and pay down your credit card debt.  In short, you won't freeze, starve, or default on your bills, as long as you continue to work, and continue to live in your vehicle..

   In addition to maintaining your driver's license, et al, you've also maintained your credit - or, at least, haven't trashed it yet.  Every piece of plastic in your wallet still works.  You always were the responsible kind of person that your parents raised, and although things were often tight, you managed to make at least the minimum payment plus a few bucks, every month without fail.  But your sense of responsibility, is also now your downfall - you had a medical issue last month, and wound up going to the ER, were admitted, and spent nearly a week in the hospital.  The bills totalled over $12k.  You didn't have health insurance, and you didn't make a lot of money to begin with.  You paid the radiology and doctor's fee, which was separate, with money you had in your checking account, leaving you with a little over $100 in your account.  Heck, you wouldn't even be getting a paycheck the next week, as your employer doesn't "do" sick days.  The $12k hospital bill, however - for 5 1/2 days of bad food, a cot, and some IV antibiotics - is another story.

  At this point, most "judgement-proof" folks would've walked away and skipped, but not you.  After meeting with the hospital's social services person, and being told your lofty $16k annual salary was too high to get any help from Medicaid, you make an offer-in-compromise of $7k, which the hospital agrees to accept as payment-in-full, provided you pay within 10 days.  It isn't for purely altruistic reasons nor solely a sense of honor that compels you to try and pay the bill - you worked long and hard to build up your credit, and didn't want to see it trashed by defaulting on a medical bill, if you could avoid it.  Settling the bill for less was, for you, simply being pragmatic.  Of course, skipping out entirely on all the bills would have been equally pragmatic in your case, but less honorable, so you chose to pay.

   .   You may be deep in debt, but your FICO still says otherwise.  If you had to rent a vehicle, you could.  If your vehicle broke down, and you had to get it fixed, and had to stay at a motel for a day or two while you waited, you could do that as well.  If you came across a suitable apartment complex that required decent credit, you wouldn't be automatically excluded.  You've also largely avoided scrapes with the Law, and outside of a couple of minor "youthful indiscretions" are pretty "clean", so renting in that conveniently-located and inexpensive mobile home park, not far from where you work, would not be off-limits to you if and when you were ready to re-join the ranks of the housed.  Unfortunately, the APRs on your credit cards went up, leaving you in the unenviable position of having to choose between paying the rent, or paying your credit card bills on time.  You tried doing both, choosing to be late on your rent rather than your credit cards, because your credit cards report to all 3 CRAs, and your landlord doesn't.  By the 2nd month, your balancing act lost it's balance, which is what brought you to the point where you are now.

   You continue down the main road, and, by now losing the battle with an irresistible urge to swing by your workplace. You know it's closed, but just want to get a fix on things, and scope out the surrounding areas.

   But once again, I digress. Sort-of.  The above, was a somewhat-intentional shift in writing-style.  "Somewhat" because I didn't plan it this way, and "intentional" in that once I saw where my proverbial digital quill-tip pen was taking me, I simply followed along for the ride.  The above accurately describes the psychological issues and feelings that a newly-homeless person might feel and experience, and also gives an example of how someone who is employed, had a home, and was "keepin' it together", could easily be pushed over the tipping point by one unfortunate event, one large, unexpected expense.  It happens every day here in the US, especially in these times.  If it isn't a medical bill that sends someone to defaultville, debt, bankruptcy or foreclosure, it's a job-loss.  The above also offers some insight into what is important to hold onto, and why.  It is useful information in novella-format.  I will now, pick up where I left off, but shift back to "how-to"-style

   Once you've had some time to adjust and come to terms with your new circumstances, it's time to scope out and survey the local area.  It's Saturday, now around noontime, and you want to drive round a bit and select a good place for your first night in the van, as well as at least one alternate spot in a different part of town, should your first selection turn out to be not as ideal as you thought.  And when you DO locate these spots, you AREN"T going to park there.  Not YET.  Not during the daytime.  You'll need to locate several other spots for daytime usage, and expect to move on and rotate those spots every 2-3 hours.  In my experience, your daytime and nighttime spots are *not* interchangeable.  The world is often a very different place in any one location, depending on whether it's normal weekday business hours, weekends, or at night. Spots that are suitable at night, may be extremely unsuitable during daylight hours, and vice versa. 

   When I was doing the "van-dweller"-thing, I found myself taking advantage of my intimate local knowledge of the area, and already had some foreknowledge of what places were likely to be deserted enough at night so that nobody would care or pay much notice to my van sitting all night in one spot, yet not SO deserted that my van would stick out like a sore thumb, and be noticeable or suspicious to those in the immediate area, nor to a passing patrol car.  It can be a delicate balance, at times.  Depending on your town/area, "hiding in plain sight" might be an option.  And, again, hiding in plain sight means, ONE(or more) place(s) for daytime usage, and ANOTHER place at NIGHT - you can probably get away with parking in the parking lot of an all-night supermarket, but don't push your luck and continue to stay there into a late Saturday or Sunday morning.  If the supermarket-manager or property-owner saw your van parked for 6 or 8 hours at night, he's probably not going to take much notice, figuring you're probably an overnight stock-person or other employee of the store,  This can work night OR day, but NOT *both*. Pick one or the other.  If your van is parked in that parking lot much more than 8 hours, *someone* is going to get suspicious, and if they don't confront or question you directly, they may call security or the local cops to check you out - in which case, your cover will be blown, permanently, night OR day.  So don't get lazy, complacent and "push it". Know ahead of time, develop a sense/intuition, of when it's time to move on.  Don't wait for someone else to make that decision for you!

   So why all the emphasis on "hiding", you might be asking?  SEVERAL reasons, actually:

   In many parts of the country, whether by State law, County codes or Town/Village ordinances, being homeless is technically illegal, and in some places, de facto criminalized - perhaps not overtly, perhaps not even intentionally (<----<< giving serious "benefit of the doubt"  here on THIS one), but, for the most part, just by BEING homeless, you are ALREADY a violator and probably, a "criminal", too, in many parts of the country.  Heck, even on a Federal level - you're technically-required to provide your true physical address when you apply for a PO Box - and technically-required to update that address within 10 days of it changing. Putting down "Homeless" is not an option, or at least, wasn't an option when I was "of no fixed address".  Ditto for your driver's license - in most(but not all) States, "Homeless" isn't an option.  Them there's that little matter of the "garaging address" you supplied to your auto insurance company, and that other little matter of your living in your vehicle - a usage you didn't sign on for with your auto insurance company, and one they wouldn't allow anyway.

   So you see, you're already technically-guilty of multiple violations and at least one misdemeanor(which is a "crime", and not a "violation"), before you even get in, and turn the ignition key.  The point is, you want to keep your little "address problem" to yourself, as much as and as long as you can, without creating new problems for yourself.  Here, an ounce of prevention (not being noticed in the FIRST place), is worth the proverbial pound of cure. If no questions are raised, none need be answered, which could be not only particularly-important(depending on who is doing the asking), it also avoids the need to get into a Catch-22 situation, where telling a member of any Authority the truth, could cause you almost as much trouble as getting caught lying to them.  Technically, in most parts of the country, you CAN'T win - the best you can do is to not lose.

  You DON'T need or want any scrutiny from anyone - not the locals, not the police, not the public-safety or code enforcement critters, and not social services.  You want to remain invisible - you don't need to get noticed by the local cops, rousted and told to move-on (at 2am, probably - Murphy's Law and all that), and you really don't want to get cited for vagrancy or trespassing, as these not only get you into a database you'd rather not be a part of, it can cost you money for fines, and cause you problems at work, when you have to take time off for a court appearance, and need to come up with some plausible explanation for your need for time off.  And if, for some reason, you're unable to pay the fine or make your appearance, this sort of thing can quickly snowball into a Kafka-esque nightmare from which escape will be difficult and expensive. Avoiding these unpleasantries will be your new Job #1 - right up there in priority with maintaining your paying job, which brings us to next potential cunundrum:

   Your job -  should you tell them, or let them find out, perhaps breaking the news to them slowly?  Or should you keep it a secret?  I'm afraid I can't answer that question for you - there's too many variables and too many unknowns for me to suggest you do one or the other.  Ultimately, only you can answer that question.  I would say it depends on several factors, with the pragmatist in me asking: "How likely are they to find out, ANYWAY?  And how SOON?"  While you can certainly keep up appearances for a VERY long time, and can probably explain-away your sudden acquisition of a cargo van and the sudden, permanent absence of your Honda Accord, there may be other factors in your town, workplace or general situation that will tend to reveal your Nomad-status to your employer and/or co-workers, eventually.  Or perhaps not.

   I would think that, in an industry where lower pay is more common, and where most of your co-workers, and perhaps even some middle-management, are routinely living paycheck-to-paycheck and struggling with the economy, you'd be more likely to find a sympathetic and understanding environment, than you would be in a more upscale industry, where even the lower-paid employees get paid pretty well, all else being equal. I suppose it also depends on your relationship with your employer, how long you've been there, whether you do a good job, have been reliable, ect, ect.  A sympathetic employer might even let you keep your van parked at work after hours - perhaps even offer you an extension-cord and or use of the bathroom, but I wouldn't push it, nor would I take advantage of any such offers for very long, but that's just me. YMMV.

   Note: Part 3 - Hitting The Road, continues in the next installment



  1. Very good read. I am up here in Ontario Canada and think alot like yourself and i too live in a rv fulltime.

    Will check back on your blog.

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