How does an educated white girl from middle class Orange County become homeless?
The circumstances behind homelessness are as varied as the people who are homeless. In my case, as with so many others, I was affected by the global recession when I was laid off from my job as an Executive Assistant in 2008, and wasn’t able to find new work. Additionally, I think people sometimes overestimate their safety net – you take away one or two “guaranteed” cushions, such as family or friends, and you suddenly have nothing left to fall back on. I had family issues that are detailed quite extensively in the book, and all of my friends had found themselves out of work and struggling, as well. Many of them had moved back in with their own parents or already had roommates, so it wasn’t as simple as asking to crash on someone’s couch for an indefinite period of time.
You were raised in a strict Jehovah’s Witness household. How did that claustrophobic childhood shape you?
The very fundamentalist, insular nature of it definitely added to the normal pressures of growing up. Among other disturbing practices I talk about in the book, Jehovah’s Witnesses enforce a strict policy of shunning of any member who decides to leave. They call it “disfellowshipping” and it applies even to family members, which means that my parents and sister are not allowed to socialize or speak with me unless I decide to return to the religion. So although I discovered early on that I didn’t necessarily believe what the Jehovah’s Witnesses taught, there was an added sense of feeling trapped because you quickly realize that the love of a JW will always be conditional. You can have freedom of belief or your family; you can’t have both.
Of course, at the same time I tried to make it clear in the book that there were other issues at play in my household; that I’m not only pinning it all on the Jehovah’s Witnesses. For several years I coped with physical, verbal, and sexual abuse that were not necessarily JW-specific. Being raised in the religion exacerbated it, though, no question.
How did your difficult relationship with your mother play into your ultimate homelessness?
Living with my mother was an extremely toxic environment to be in, and one in which I was always at a severe disadvantage and susceptible to abuse, even after turning 18 and becoming an adult. When I found myself without a job, I also found myself unable to stay with my mother and stepfather due to both the abuse and the religious differences.
How old were you when your mother put you to work earning money to help support the family?
I was ten years old when I got my first under-the-table job, at a beauty/tanning salon in Fullerton. When I turned twelve, my mother obtained a work permit through my junior high school and put me to work full-time, even teaching me to drive four years before I would be eligible for a driver’s license, so that I could drive myself and my sister to school and then drive myself to work afterwards. I started out in salons and restaurants, and worked my way up. By the time I was 16 and a junior in high school, I was a legal secretary at a contract law firm. My mother separated on-and-off from my stepfather, so it was just us girls. My mother didn’t work and therefore my paycheck went to the support three of us.
Once you were thrown out of your mother’s house, how did you end up living in a trailer in a Wal-Mart parking lot?
By sheer coincidence, my biological father (who had sexually abused me, and whom I had not seen since I was about two years old) committed suicide mere weeks before I became homeless. As the next of kin, I inherited the few possessions he had left, among which were a truck and a camper. When I was thrown out of my mother’s house, I utilized the only resources that I had available to me. The almighty Google led me to the Wal-Mart policy of allowing campers and RV-ers to stay in their parking lot overnight. I did my best to blend in with the other campers and vehicles there, some of which came and went, and some of which were more permanent “residents”.
You worked doggedly to find a job. How long did it take? Did getting a job end your homeless life?
I spent my days in Starbucks job-hunting on my laptop, sometimes up to 10 hours at a time, and sent out several hundred résumés every month. I did work several temp and freelance jobs on and off throughout my period of homelessness. Permanent work was near to impossible to find; the competition was enormous due to the recession, and as an additional blow against me, although I had years of experience due to entering the work force so young, I had no college degree, as Jehovah’s Witnesses vehemently discourage higher education. Potential employers could choose between the “best of the best” because everybody was out of work, and nearly every job posting I read required a college degree.
When I did find temporary jobs, they usually paid very little and I was living paycheck-to-paycheck. Scraping together enough money for first and last month’s rent plus deposit on housing was out of the question and would have taken years at the rate I was finding work. Additionally, without a permanent position, I had no reliable source of income. Even if I had somehow been able to land an apartment or a roommate, there was no way of knowing whether I would be able to continue paying rent or would find myself evicted.
Some people might argue that you weren’t really homeless because you were living in a trailer. How would you answer that criticism?
The Federal definition of homelessness does encapsulate “mobile homeless” vehicle-dwellers, as well as those living in hotels, as they are not considered fixed, regular and adequate accommodations designed for permanent habitation. Clearly, I was lucky enough to have a resource that many homeless people do not, and I am so grateful for it. But the “mobile homeless” are the fastest growing subset of the homeless population, with the recession, and you have to remember that this wasn’t like I was living in a luxury RV or a trailer park (which I couldn’t have afforded).
It was a parking lot. There were no utility hookups, no water or electricity. I boiled water on my car radiator to cook food. I bought a $10/month membership at a mom-n-pop gym 8 miles away and drove there to shower every other day. I purchased a jumbo flashlight at Wal-Mart and aimed it at the ceiling of the trailer at night so that it wasn’t pitch black inside, and I could read or build résumés.
I realized the legality of my staying there long-term might be shaky, despite Wal-Mart’s policy, and I lived in fear of the policy changing or an overzealous policeman having me towed. I just sort of eked out a sustainable existence and devised a routine that I stuck to as closely as possible, but it was nothing that could ever be considered a permanent solution.
What about your cell phone and laptop? Were those luxuries for a homeless person to hold on to?
I think that in such a technology-driven age, they are necessities for anybody, and especially homeless people if they want to get back up on their feet. Without a laptop, how was I to efficiently reach out to as many potential employers as possible? Without a cell phone, how were employers or temp agencies to contact me for telephone interviews or job offers? I wasn’t always homeless. These were resources that I had when I became homeless. Sure, I could have sold my several-years-old cell phone and laptop for a paltry sum (not anywhere near enough for even one month of rent), and bought a few hamburgers with it. But then the hamburgers would be gone and I would have thrown away some of my greatest resources.
Your dog, Fezzik, is an important part of your life. Was it difficult keeping a dog while homeless?
It absolutely was. Homeless men and women having pets is an extremely controversial issue. And I knew from the beginning that if I reached a point where I wouldn’t be able to take care of Fezzik properly, I would have to find an adoptive home for him, despite how much it would crush me. He is a Neapolitan Mastiff, a huge lovable lunk, and he served not only as my companion during times of loneliness (and there were many), but as my protector. Despite his sweetness, he has a very deep, formidable bark, and people give me a wide berth when they see me walking down the street with him. It was a source of much reassurance, because being not only homeless, but a homeless woman, left me in a highly vulnerable position.
How did you meet Matt, the fellow homeless blogger from the UK who would become your boyfriend?
We initially met via Twitter. He ran a highly respected website online that served as a community for homeless and formerly homeless individuals. He picked up my blog on his RSS feed through an initial tweet that I sent out. He asked me to write some guest posts for his site, which I did, and we be came close rather quickly.
When we fell in love, it was a very new experience for me, because growing up the way I did, I had never experienced love before. In the book, it was important to me to convey that we were not two “homeless” people; we were first and foremost two people who just happened not to have a home. Time doesn’t freeze, feelings don’t disappear, and the need for connection doesn’t dissipate just because I lost my home. Like most homeless people, I did my best to try and move on with my life despite my housing predicament.
Your story became a media sensation when you landed an internship with Elle magazine columnist E. Jean Carroll. How did you make that happen while living in a trailer in California?
She was one of my favorite advice columnists because she has a very funny, down-to-earth, yet brutally honest writing style that I related to. I had been reading her column for nine years. On a whim, I wrote her a letter explaining my situation and asking for advice. Several months later, not only did she publish my letter and her response in Elle, but she offered me a telecommuting internship that would forever change my life, open a lot of doors for me, and also provide me with an expanded platform to talk about homelessness.
What would be your first piece of advice to a person who suddenly finds themselves homeless?
Have a good cry, get it all out, and then figure out what resources you have. Hold onto as many essentials as you can, and work out a survival plan. If you can get into a sustainable routine you’re halfway there. Positivity and hope are also so important to cultivate, because it’s incredibly easy to get sucked into depression and bogged down by it. Once that happens, it’s that much harder to shake off the inertia and get yourself rolling again. I know because I’ve been there. To dig yourself out of homelessness, you need to think positive and proactive as often as possible. Once you’re in the situation, your most important asset is, of course, yourself; your mind. Take care of it.
You have a new book and a job. Do you still consider yourself homeless?
I recently got a wonderful, permanent job that I adore, with awesome and supportive co-workers, so that’s a huge bonus. I’ve been there about three months. And yes, I have a book coming out, which is exciting and which I’m hoping will reach a wider audience, alter perceptions and stereotypes about what it means to be homeless, and invite further discussion as to solutions.
The Federal government would still consider me homeless, though I consider myself in sort of a limbo state. Right now, I’m living in a converted shed on a lot in the middle of the Southern California desert. I commute 80 miles round-trip to work every day from there. The property owner rents the lot to homeless and down-on-their luck individuals on a month-to-month basis, so it’s become a sort of informal homeless commune in which we live out of campers, vehicles, or converted sheds and garages. Similar makeshift residences and “tent cities” have sprung up in the news all over the nation since the recession, so I suppose we’re in good company.
It is a step up from a camper in a Wal-Mart parking lot, for which I’m super grateful. But it’s not a permanent home by any stretch of the imagination. I know that there are no “Cinderella” stories and that I’ll have to work extra hard to get myself out of this, and it’s what I do, day in and day out. What this book has given me, more than anything, is a voice that many homeless people don’t have. I’m hoping more than anything that it helps to put a spotlight on them and give them the recognition and voice they lack. I want solutions for all homeless people, regardless of background or circumstance. And if I can make it happen for myself too, then I’m just peachy with that.