Life Lessons Living In A Car
I’ve been homeless 3 times. The problem isn’t drugs or mental illness — it’s poverty.
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. 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 has 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 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. I'm turning 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 throughout the States.
I never dreamed that
homelessness would happen to me,
let alone multiple times.
The first time I was homeless was in the winter of 2012. I lost my job and had to live in my car with my cat, spending one month, mid-winter, with $230 to my name.
My car heater broke years ago. I remember waking up at 2 am one morning and discovering my cat's water dish had frozen solid.
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 one thousand dollars 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 unliveable oven.
Each day I was harassed by police and park rangers because of the town's aggressive policies that criminalize homelessness.
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.
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.
Soon I'll be living in the car once again, due to the sale of my rental house to wealthy buyers from Silicon Valley. I still have a grand in the bank. I still 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.
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 units 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.
”When you're low-income, you have to have excellent money management skills, because you have to survive on so little.
Everything is budgeted to the penny. Credit cards? A nonstarter if you're unemployed, low-wage, or homeless. So a simple problem — such as a car repair — that a higher-income person can eliminate with a credit card in five minutes can wipe out people living in poverty and put them on the streets or, worse, keep them there.
It is much harder to climb out of poverty than it is to fall into it.
2) People think if you're low-income or homeless, it's because you're lazy or uneducated
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. According to 2014 census data, the poverty rate for college-educated Americans jumped from 4.4 to 5 percent. And post-recession, many older workers were forced to take positions they were overqualified for at less pay than before.