How I Became Homeless
My eviction did not come with a dramatic pounding on the front door, like it happens in the movies. Just an unceremonious letter, lumped in between credit card offers and credit card bills. It would have been helpful if it had come in the form of a Howler, Ã la Harry Potter — literally screeching at me that if I was not out by that Friday, me and my belongings would be “forcibly removed” from the property. Instead the letter that contained my fate masqueraded as an innocent piece of junk mail. It remained unopened until I got home on a Monday evening around 7. In other words, in the four-day race to vacate my premises, I had pretty much lost one day.
I still had to work that week. And longstanding plans for my three children to attend a family reunion with my ex-in-laws meant I would lose another crucial day to pack, plan and allow myself a small cushion of time for general freak-outs. I got the kids ready and drove them halfway between North Carolina and Pennsylvania. By the time I got home, I was exhausted from the eight-hour trip and wanted nothing more than to curl up in a ball and slip into a temporary coma. But the real work was just beginning.
Chaos, confusion and panic attacks ensued over the next day and a half as I, along with a shifting crew of friends and family, crammed the entire contents of my three-bedroom townhouse into a 20 x 20 storage shed. I managed to pack a couple of suitcases of essentials, though looking at what I brought, I’m not sure what I could have been thinking. Fuzzy zebra shorts. A strapless bra. Every piece of jewelry I own stuffed into three giant Ziploc bags. It’s almost funny that I once believed this hodgepodge of paraphernalia would carry me through my transitional time. I figured it would be a week or two before I’d find my new place. Instead, four months has passed, and the joke has been on me ever since.
For me, being homeless has mostly been about waiting. Waiting for people to get home from work or the gym or their errands so they can unlock their door and let you in. Or just waiting for someone, anyone, to pick up their phones so that you can find out which direction to head in. Sometimes I think perhaps I’ll get tired of waiting and just drive to Mexico or at least as far as my car will go before it runs out of gas. Maybe I’ll dress up like I’m in the circus and walk one foot in front of the other and tell people I’m a tightrope walker. Or maybe I’ll keep hoping for normalcy, force myself to live through this, and get up and go to work.
Finding a bed each night (and I’m using the term “bed” extremely loosely here) has meant driving between at least five different cities. I have slept in more places over the past several months than I’d venture to say I have in the last 10 years. The sandman has doggedly tracked me down in my car, on floors, couches, air mattresses, children’s bunk beds and in hotel rooms. I’ve shared a twin bed with one, two or three of my kids at a time.
I have always been welcomed at my best friend’s house, though she lives just out of town, and has multiple cats that I am miserably allergic to. My mom offered to share her bed while she took the couch. Though her gesture was kind, she lives an hour and a half away from my job. I was always welcome at my sister’s home, even though she warned me that her air-conditioning was broken. If you’ve ever been somewhere in the South with no air-conditioning in the middle of the summer, you will know this was a serious warning. As I’d lie on a mattress in my nephew’s bedroom staring through the dark at the Spider-Man appliques on his wall, I would literally hold my breath, convinced that even the inhale and exhale motion of my lungs would cause another downpour of sweat. I’m sure the thermostat read “HELL.” My brother’s home, with fully functional air-conditioning and no cats, proved a quite comfortable option. But he had a new baby on a strict sleeping schedule and three very noisy dogs, which turned coming and going into a challenge in the art of ninja invisibility.
I became expert at never wearing out my welcome. I’ve invented a variety of ways to stay gone for most of the day and arrive as late as possible. No matter where I laid my head that night, every morning meant repacking my suitcases, throwing them in the back seat of my car and heading to work, where I would spend much of the day preoccupied with figuring out where I’d end up that evening.
Through all of this, I have become earnestly grateful for my car, a 1999 Toyota Avalon so old that the lettering on my trunk only identifies the car as a “valon.” Whenever I thought about my car in the past, it was only to dream of the day it would be replaced by something made within, oh say, the last decade. Fantasies of Jaguars, Audis and Range Rovers danced through my head as I traveled the highways and byways. Meanwhile, my car has a salvaged title, a huge dent in the driver-side rear door, missing radio buttons, torn leather seats and a door that fills up with water during rain and sloshes loudly when I go over speed bumps.
But it has been the one constant in my life. My car carries everything for me and travels great distances like a faithful mule. My car has been my shoulder to cry on as I sat in parking lots, sobbing and trying to figure out where to go next. It’s my shelter and my sanctuary. I have become so appreciative of my car that just walking up to it fills me with a sense of pride. It is my never-failing companion.
Eventually, though, the extreme last resort of sleeping in my car was no longer an option. My children needed to come back, despite the fact that I had yet to secure a home. Staying with virtual strangers would also no longer be an option. We needed somewhere safe and large enough to accommodate all of us and the noise and stuff that came along with us. But what we needed even more was someone willing to accommodate all of us and the inconvenience to their own life that we’d unavoidably bring.
What weighed on me the heaviest was that the start of the school year was quickly approaching. Traveling from city to city would be an impossibility at that point. Hell, I didn’t even know what schools my kids would be attending without having an address to enroll them. We desperately needed stability. Though they didn’t let on much, my children sensed my fear and anxiety, and coming back home to a mother without a home must have given them a fair amount of worry. I fought back tears upon discovering a small cardboard square in my 7-year-old daughter’s suitcase. In blue crayon, she had drawn a stick figure with a frowning face. Above the figure it read, “I AM HOMLESS.”
Finding decent, affordable housing has been the absolute bane of my existence. Although as a country we are clawing our way out of the housing crisis, its effects can still be felt in significant ways. With the drop in homeownership, the number of renters has spiked. In turn, this has allowed landlords to increase rental prices and be extremely picky with tenant selection. A single mother of three children with a fixed income isn’t exactly the Holy Grail of lessees.
When you find yourself in precarious predicaments such as mine you’ll also find suggestions and advice are handed to you as casually as breath mints. Have you thought about taking a loan? What about staying at a hotel? Surely you could find something cool on Craigslist. Each one of them makes me so crazy with sarcasm I want to slap my forehead like a cartoon character. Now why didn’t I think of that?! What a waste of energy: I spend all this time explaining yes, I’ve tried it, it doesn’t work, and instead of feeling supported, I just end up answering the same questions again and again.
I’ve started to dread Monday meetings at work. While everyone goes around the table and talks about the weather or their lovely weekend with a fantastic cheese tasting, I sit silently, hoping no one turns their attention to me. The inevitable question will come to me. “So, are you all moved in yet?” Every week I offer some vague explanation as to why I am still without a home. “Still trying to find a place in the kids’ school district,” “Hoping to hear something back soon,” “Just waiting on a few repairs.” At this point my dumb responses have made them cut back on their inquiries.
This rough patch has taken a toll on my relationships, too. I had always suffered under the illusion that no matter how dismal things looked for me financially, how out of shape my body might be, how nonexistent my love life, I more than made up for these deficiencies in the friendship department. But as I stand in the midst of my own personal hurricane, I’ve watched valued friends run for cover in fear that their hair may get frizzy from the overspray.
I get it. They don’t want their lives to be shaded by my troubles. Begrudgingly, these types of friends have offered me their homes, but only if I had noooooowhere else to go (major emphasis on the “oooooo”).
But there are those others. Those who might not possess the resources to give me what I really need, but they will open every cabinet, look under every cushion and empty out their pockets to offer me what they do have. This, combined with the awe-inspiring grace and generosity of relative strangers, has replenished my faith.
Our saviors during this crisis ended up being my best friend from college and her wonderful husband. Even with a new baby boy, they graciously allowed the four of us to stay in their spare bedroom. Only crazy people would be OK with seven people in a two-bedroom apartment for an indefinite amount of time. Thank God for crazy people.
I am eternally grateful that even though I haven’t always known what I am waiting for, I can rest securely in the fact that there will be something for us. I know there are many people who have little to absolutely nothing to wait for. I don’t know how they go on. So, if you pass by a person in need, the least you can do is acknowledge their humanity, and if you are blessed enough to do more, then do more.
Without this generosity, we’d be in a homeless shelter now. Being here has meant putting clothes on hangers and in drawers for the first time in months. It has meant having enough time left in the day to go to church. This is routine. This is peace of mind and no longer finagling and hustling for a place to go each day. This is not feeling like you’re in anyone’s way and not feeling pressure to get out as soon as possible. This is feeling (almost) like being home again.