Taking Back America

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I’ve been homeless 3 times. The problem isn’t drugs or mental illness — it’s poverty.

From Vox
By Veronica Harnish on March 8, 2016


In 2010, more than a third of all working adults with jobs that did not pay a living wage had at least some college education or a degree.

At a late January Bernie Sanders rally in Iowa, 46-year-old Carrie Aldrich described through tears what it was like struggling to survive on less than $12,000 a year. I watched and shook my head knowingly, having survived on $8,000 each of the past two years. Such low income, combined with a perfect storm of unaffordable rent, incompatible roommates, non-living wages, and an inability to find full-time work, resulted in three bouts of homelessness that forced me to live in my car. And in a few days, it will happen a fourth time for the same reasons.

I was born into a middle-class family, but I’ve hovered near poverty level all of my adult life because my line of work doesn’t pay much. My career consisted of administrative roles in high-tech offices and government agencies, with most of it contract work because it paid more and provided more flexibility and mobility than permanent secretarial work.

I attended college pay-as-you-go for a couple years while working, then left because I couldn’t afford to continue and knew better than to take on student debt. My moderate savings was destroyed in my 30s by health care costs that insurance wouldn’t cover. Within the past several years, full-time work that pays a subsistence wage has been hard to come by. Now I’m pushing 50, and am aging out of a workforce that for the most part gave me a subsistence-level existence at best.

Three times within the past four years I’ve lived in my 36-year-old car that has more than 400,000 miles on it, because I could not find affordable rental housing or a job that paid a living wage. Though I reside in the Pacific Northwest, the situation is the same all across the country. Impoverished, working single women without children do not get top priority on long waitlists for subsidized housing, rapid rehousing, or other government services or benefits. I don’t have family or a spouse to turn to for help or support. Friends can’t or won’t help for their own various reasons and circumstances. I am totally on my own.

I never dreamed that homelessness would ever happen to me, let alone multiple times. The first time I was homeless in the winter of 2012, I lost my job and had to live in my car with my cat, spending one month in the middle of winter with $230 to my name. My car heater broke years ago. I remember waking up at 2 am one mid-December morning and discovering my cat’s water dish next to my head had frozen solid in the 27-degree weather — inside the car.

The second time I became homeless, in the summer of 2014, I was working a part-time, temporary job for a small municipality while waiting for a full-time position to open up. My roommate gave me notice to leave so her daughter could move into the room I was renting. I had a grand in the bank at the time but couldn’t find a rental situation I could afford. So once again, my cat and I lived in the car. This time, we went to a small, wealthy, temperate-climate Pacific Coast town, because the weather was in triple digits where I had come from, which turns the car into an unlivable oven. Each day I was harassed by police and park rangers because of the town’s aggressive policies that criminalize homelessness. Though I found a new roommate after that horrible week, I lost the city temp job not long after I returned. I’d asked for a raise from $12 an hour to $13. When the city gave me a 23-cent raise, and when out of sheer disbelief I sought an explanation, I was told I should be grateful for any raise at all, because “temps don’t usually get them.” Then I was fired. “We don’t want you here if you’re not happy,” they said.

I became homeless a third time last summer — again with a grand in savings — and lived in my car for a month and a half when my part-time, low-paying, temporary job ended and my roommate stopped paying her bills. My cat and I moved more than 500 miles to a cooler climate in another state, and for a month and a half we spent our days at a state park that had free wifi so I could look for work online, and inexpensive showers (50 cents for three minutes of lukewarm water). We spent our nights in the car on residential streets in town or a couple of industrial parks outside of town.

And in a few days, due to the sale of my rental house to wealthy buyers from Silicon Valley who don’t wish to be landlords, I’ll be living in the car once again — with a grand in the bank — because I can’t find an affordable place to live. Since more than half of all Americans have zero dollars in savings, for someone like me to thrice sock away a grand on a paltry four-figure income was no small feat. It took an earned-income tax credit (EITC) from the IRS for being “working poor,” and withdrawing retirement money from my last government job — and taking a stiff tax penalty for it.

This is what it looks like when you totally fall off the bottom of the economic ladder, and how it happens:

1) Homelessness is expensive

The longer you’re homeless, the more basic expenses such as gas money, car insurance, storage unit costs, laundromats, and gym memberships or park fees for showering deplete your savings. Without car insurance, your vehicle can be ticketed and impounded. Gas hovers close to $4 a gallon in the summer, so just driving around trying to find a safe place to park for the night, or to do routine things like laundry or going to a job interview across town, can rapidly burn up your cash.  Laundromats are expensive. So are storage unit payments if you don’t have enough room in your car for your belongings, especially the ones you might need again if you find a place to live.

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