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What Happens to Your Stuff When You End Up Homeless?

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Mountains of stuff lined streets in suburban Chicago this April as residents cleared out soggy basements and houses soaked by billions of buckets-full of spring rains.

Having survived 2 household floods, I could only feel pity for those schlepping gross stuff up steep and slippery basement steps out to the curb.

Stuff. We’ve got lots of it. And safely storing it has created a $22 billion industry, the darling of commercial real estate, self-storage. Unbeknownst to most is the connection between stuff, self-storage and homelessness.

American houses expanded from about 900 sq. ft. in the early 1950s to over 2,400 sq. ft. today.  The buy-buy mentality, aka stimulating the economy, provided the perfect Petri dish for creating an industry that takes up space bigger than 3 Manhattans (not the drinks). Every man, woman and child could stand under the collective storage industry roof, all of 2.3 billion square feet.

So much for statistics. The human story is more interesting, though dismaying.

On our Babes of Wrath tour, we met Lupe. This hard-working mother and her family became homeless when a water leak caused the City to condemn their apartment. Her motel housekeeping paycheck wasn’t enough to rent another place right away, so they hunkered into a motel, shoving their stuff into a storage unit. (Lupe’s 4-min. YouTube interview)

Good intentions were not enough to pay for both the motel room—the vital roof over the family’s head—and the storage unit—the safe spot for their stuff. Lupe listed the inventory, the obvious: reasonably expensive sectional couches, dining room table and cabinet holding heirloom dishes, flat screen TVs, etc. Her voice broke, however, as she ran down the list of the irreplaceable personal items: family bible, photo albums, kids’ art work, school photos and health records, grandma’s knitted afghan, and sensitive personal documents.

Storage Wars, the brutal reality show focuses on the aftermath of the storage unit lockout, when a renter falls behind on the monthly rent ($50+ plus stiff daily fines). The lock gets cut and their stuff goes to the highest bidder, sometimes in as little as 15-days after the last missed payment.

“You snooze, you lose,” you might be thinking. Think again. It’s not just a matter of your nice furnishings being auctioned for pennies on the dollar. The previous tenant loses more than just the obvious furniture.

Picture the state of mind in the pre-evacuation household. It could be eviction, flood, domestic violence, fire, or condemnation of the building. Panic, dread, stress, not a good combination for clear thinking. Shove stuff in garbage bags and boxes, pile precious belongings into whatever vehicle available, and find the cheapest place possible, suckered by the $1 loss-leader first month rent.

Cram stuff into the 10x10 storage space, pull down the overhead door, snap on the lock, then go find a place to stay. In the unit: sensitive personal possessions with no value to anyone other than nefarious creatures.

IDs, birth certificates, bank documents, medical and tax record—probably not sorted out and carefully stored in the move—become a treasure trove of potentially disastrous materials.

Personally valuable stuff, with little-to-no market value: photo albums, kids’ school pictures, family keepsakes, vacation souvenirs, etc. will get tossed into the dumpster. Gone.

Lupe, income-challenged after a few weeks in the motel, decided to pull the plug on their stuff, unable to keep up with the $30 a day fine added to their arrearage. “A roof over our heads is more important than our stuff,” she stoically stated, as tears started rolling from the corner of her eyes.

The loss of the sensitive documents (and other stuff with limited value except to the owner) is a huge issue. Try to replace identification, or prove your case to the IRS, or piece together your family history, or pass on your family bible or heirloom to your children. The collateral damage in storage wars may not seem significant, except to the biggest losers.

HEAR US, my nonprofit, is taking steps to ease the pain.

  • The Babes of Wrath are drafting legislation to give locked-out tenants a chance to retrieve the sensitive personal stuff before it gets auctioned. Our website has info.
  • We’ve got an online survey that will gauge renters’ experiences with lockouts.
  • We’ve created a 1-page awareness sheet to remind renters of lockout perils and offered simple steps to help.
  • We’ll stir up awareness to enlighten the clueless about how homelessness happens.

Maybe someday Storage Wars will do a show on how these auctions inflict deep pain and suffering on the owner of the stuff that gets tossed and sold. From all indications, that number will soar as poverty rises like floodwaters, with millions of lives in shambles.