Saturday, October 25, 2008

Homeless, Jobless and Hungry

You've heard, I'm sure, the saying "sh!t happens." Despite the best laid plans things can go awry. In this day and age I'd say the probability of each of us having our own personal SHTF event is much more likely.

There was a time when I never imagined anything remotely resembling homelessness, joblessness and hunger would ever visit my life.

I was and am a prepper. I didn't have debt. I had a series of events that piled up quickly.

First the job went bye-bye; then the MS took a turn for the worse; then the marriage toppled; then the now ex-husband drained all the savings, sold property that was off site, and had an affair before the divorce was final. The final straw was my emotional/physical breakdown which later revealed had been chemically induced by the ex.

I'm not whining, just giving some background; so lets get on the experiences and the lessons learned.

Number one: aside from keeping your sanity, you need determination, faith in your abilities and a willingness to be resourceful.

After leaving the husband, I spent my first days with an elderly friend who got me into a physician. The doc found I'd been drugged for a long time and together we tackled the affects of that. Both she and my friend demonstrated empathy and compassion.

Next, I found a part time job while still living with the friend. This helped me meet new people, form connections and instill some self-confidence. After a four weeks, the friend fell ill and had to be hospitalized and I had to move. I had saved nearly every cent of my paychecks but rent, deposit and utilities required well over a $1,000 and all the subsidised places had waiting lists. In addition, the friend's bitchy daughter (whom she had not seen in years) gave me four hours to vacate. The local social services place was NO help so I lived in my car for four weeks.

Living in your car isn't comfortable, especially when it's packed to the gills (including the front seat) with you worldly belongings. One quickly learns where the best public restrooms are; how late the parks stay open and how to dodge the need for the state/county park stickers; how to assess what belongings are essential and what should be sold or given away; and how to appear "normal" under these conditions. There are a million other things I discovered but I think that developing a daily/weekly routine kept me sane in the midst of the unknowable. I worked an overnight shift in a private home and this was a God-send. It enabled me to rest on a sofa, take a shower every couple days and be warm on the nights I worked. So 3-4 nights a week I was safe at night. On the nights I didn't work I half slept while parked at a Super Walmart.

Number two: good friends are helpful but some will be uncomfortable; others will abandon you.

As the first week in my car passed I had a routine in place. Each morning I left work and went to a coffee shop that offered free newspapers and coffee and a donut for $2. I sat perusing those for jobs and housing and accepting refills on coffee. At 9 a.m. the library opened so I was first in the door to get one of the computers to search for housing and jobs. For another hour or so I'd read periodicals. Then I'd go to another friend's for coffee and chit chat. She knew I was staying in my car and appeared very helpful and concerned at first. She's not a cook, so every day I made their evening meal in advance and we'd go for a walk or I'd help out with chores until about 1 p.m. Sometimes I'd eat lunch there, sometimes I wasn't hungry. When you're homeless you either think of food constantly or lose your appetite. I lost mine. Once I left my friend's I'd go to a nearby county park and walk the trails or partake of some of their month-long series of "free in the park" concerts and workshops. I stayed there until 5 p.m. then headed for another roadside park where I'd have my meager supper (usually a peanut butter and jelly sandwich) and read for an hour or two. Every day I'd park in a different spot but always in view of the highway with my doors locked. Then, I'd either wander through Walmart or K-mart for an hour and freshen up a bit (possibly change clothes) and then drive about 7 miles to work (it was a 12 hour shift).

By week two of my homelessness my "chit-chat" friend started asking when I was "going to do something." She's never experienced much in the way of deprivation or change so her growing discomfort with my situation was bound to happen. On day two of the second week, I asked her if she'd rather I didn't come by. It had been her suggestion to begin with but now she said, "I just don't know what to do with you every day." I accepted this and went on. Now I had a few more hours in the day to fill so a third park became my stomping ground. Fortunately, I love nature hikes!

On rainy days I just sat in my car and read more or spent more time at the library. The hours can seem to drag if you're reading in your car but the time at a library seemed to fly by. Sundays were the most difficult as the library was closed. So...I began visiting churches! I should mention that I had landed in an area where I knew a grand total of four people so my visiting options were limited. Anyone I had met via work was in passing between shifts and one doesn't spend a lot of time broadcasting that they're homeless; it's an invitation to suspicion and unpleasantness.

By week four I had some good news but it involved moving three hours north. Once again I was in an area where I knew about four people but I had a place of my own! For the next six months I called a 10x15 foot cabin on 10 acres home. No electric or water, no central heat, no land line phone and seasonal neighbors. I was in heaven. A few people, though, thought I had flipped.

I had a full time job as assistant manager at a restaurant and an offer to stay in the cabin as long as needed. Of course, the owner thought that would likely be about a month until I'd saved enough money for a "real home."

To this day, I value my time at the cabin the most. Reflection, quiet and resourcefulness were my constant companions. I learned how to dig a privy hole to dump the camp toilet in; how to wash dishes in a ceramic bowl; how to cook and heat water on a camp stove and bundle up on 19 degree nights. I had a kerosene heater but tried not to use it much as it's expensive and one must always have a window open. I hauled water from a creek until it froze and then befriended a single woman who lived a mile away. She let me haul water from her place for three months. But, I never took more than 10 gallons a week. I learned to take thorough "bird baths" and to keep my long hair brushed and braided ( less snarls and looks cleaner when its not). I had no TV and no one to talk to and a prepaid cell phone that only worked if I walked half a mile down the road. I hand washed my clothes and hung them on hangers that hung on hooks from the ceiling. On nice days they hung outside on the clothesline.

About the second month at the cabin I had the money together for a place and went in search of something better. Two miles from my workplace I found a great deal and gave the owner a deposit. I was to move in the following Saturday. On Friday night the place burned to the ground. On Monday the restaurant owner called everyone in and said he was closing down. We all collected our last checks that Friday. In a week's time I had lost my "new home" and my job.

For another four months I sat at the cabin watching the snowflakes, building puzzles, reading and twice a week driving 10 miles to town to use a library computer to job search. In that time I had four interviews and ran out of money.

There are two things that saved me. One was the Internet and the other was the food and toiletries I had stockpiled. Having once been homeless I knew that hunger is not good company. A 25# bag of rice, several cases of vegetables, some spices and a few bags of beans are a diet anyone can live on for a long time. At Christmas I had four cards, each with a few $ and that money went in my gas tank.

One day, while at the library, another regular visitor was using an online free dating service. We always chatted with one another and he suggested I "put myself out there" on the dating site. Yeah, right, I told him. It had been the furthest thing from my mind but he dared me so I gave him the smart remark, "Okay, I'm not posting a picture but I will be brutally honest."
Four weeks later I met Sweetie. My posting said, "I've been homeless and jobless and now I am again. I've been divorced more than once; I don't drink; I live without amenities in a 10x15 cabin; I like the outdoors." Two men responded. One was obviously an ass. The other said, "I live with my mother and cut wood. I don't spell or write well (thus far nearly every word was miss-spelled) and I like long hair." So we started chatting, first on the computer twice a week, then by phone. We eventually met in a Walmart parking lot having never seen a picture of one another. The rest, as they say, is history!

Number three: time heals a lot of hurts and can give you the opportunity to delve deep into those age-old questions: What do I really want; what's really important, etc.

I could write a book about what this journey has taught me but the thing that sticks with me is how dependent we've made ourselves on external crap. We judge everything and most judgements are based on status, fashion, education, finances or affiliations. People who don't have a job (or a "lowly" job) or a substandard or small home or who are homeless are viewed as worthless, unfortunate, ignorant, lazy, unmotivated or some other convenient label. We're constantly measuring people against some standard that is driven by media, merchandisers or our own fear of being in the same place.

At one time I told an acquaintance, "I'm the same person I've always been." I still like the outdoors and puzzles and home cooking; I still prefer certain foods and have the same beliefs. But, then, sitting at the cabin I realized I was no longer the same person. I now had experienced life at its most basic. I didn't have the comforts and conveniences or the options. I no longer took anything for granted. And most people, when they heard about my situation, talked about how unfortunate I was, or how they'd "never" do or be able to tolerate certain conditions.

After six months at the cabin I realized I was the lucky one. I knew I wasn't following some aimless huckster or myth about what the "good life" is. I wasn't hung up on what someone looked like or how new their car was or where they worked. I was no longer impressed by the external. And I knew I had survived and thrived. I was at peace and comfortable in my little home. I didn't fear being alone or not having a lot of stuff. After awhile I realized I was happier than I'd ever been and none of it was predicated on any of the mythologies and sales pitches blasted forth in most magazines, TV shows and movies. And I'd met someone who took the time to get to know me despite my living conditions or any other condition.


Staying Alive said...

An amazing testimony. I like the way you came back from your loneliness. You and your man are a good fit, I think. Long life to the both of you.


Patricia said...

What a beautiful story, Treesong. I am so glad you wrote this--I found it very moving and real. Thank you.

Levy Goddess said...

Treesong, I actually love that story, while I know it wasnt pleasant I too have now been thankful for growing up poor. The best thing is I know I could do it again. I feel as if I live like a princess in my $20,000.00 home. I have tv, laptop, stay warm in winter and cool in summer and my favorite creature comfort is ice in my drinks. I have a nice 2000 car that gets me to work and home. I have no credit card debt only a few medical bills. But you know what...I sleep sound every night knowing that I will not wake up in the middle of the night sweating because I cant make this or that payment. You know all those commercials for credit cards that say....priceless? I laugh at them and think, not having your card is what is priceless.
Thank you for sharing, it is inspiring and it reaffirms that Im not crazy, just maybe a little smarter than most people that feel that their worth is tied up in big houses and new cars.