Homelessness Could Happen To YOU.

Let’s face it: I’m homeless.

Not “house-free,” as people joke. “A house is not a home,” after all. Yes, I am high-class homeless: I live in a Mercedes Sprinter van (the same kind FedEx uses to deliver stuff) that has a camper built into it. Posh, for a homeless person! But I don’t have a physical address. I don’t have a home to return to, when I’m weary of the road. I don’t have a family, a family doctor, a community, etc. Nevertheless I’m blessed to have shelter and transportation.

A month ago I was camped by a lovely high meadow in Sequoia National Forest, in Forest Service Dispersed Camping. This is where I live: I wander from forest to forest, camping for free in the thousands of informal campsites sprinkled all over the largely unpaved Forest Service roads. Most of the time I’m fortunate to find isolated spots with no one around for miles. This particular time I was fortunate that there was another camper, a few hundred yards off.

It was a Chevy van, obviously a DIY conversion. Pretty neat, really. One man, no dog. I wondered what his story was. I hoped he was benign, but I tucked my pistol into its concealed carry holster nonetheless. I was miles from help, and no cell service. Of course I have my Doggess, my personal Enforcer; but as my Marine K-9 trainer taught me, if they shoot your dog, that gives you an extra 15 seconds to get your weapon ready. But I was hoping not to have any truck whatsoever with my neighbor.

Turns out, I was the one to introduce myself to the guy I’ll call Bob.

This Mercedes van isn’t like a Mercedes car. It’s a truck. Bells and whistles, none.

For instance: If your car (any make at all) is less than 20 years old, it probably has a nifty little switch that automatically turns off your lights after you remove your key, so your battery doesn’t run down because the lights were on while you were asleep in your snug bed.

Even my old ’97 Dodge truck had that feature….but not this 2016 Mercedes truck. Nuh-uh. It has four wheel drive and a granny gear, which is why I bought it, but if you forget and leave your lights on, you’re S.O.L.

Which I was, the morning after I left my lights on all night.

Quite luckily, I had recently charged up my external jump charger. It was red hot and rarin’ to go. But my Mercedes van is made of solid metal and lots of it, which is the other reason I bought it. Only thing is, with my various infirmities, I often cannot lift the hood. That was the case this particular morning.

My neighbor looked like he was finishing up breakfast, but I did not see a sign of a coffee cup. Hmm, that means either he doesn’t drink coffee, or he doesn’t have any. I’ll take a gamble and see if I can offer him some. Then I’ll move in for the kill and ask him to help me jump the van.

Paydirt! He was fresh out of java. I fixed him a good strong one. We drank coffee and chatted. He seemed like a good sort, although I maintain clear boundaries at all times when interacting with characters I meet on the road.

He cheerfully lent me his arms and took over the jump start task with manly pride in being useful. I made him a second cup, and while we let the truck run to get good and charged up, he told me his story.

Bob was 64 years and 7 months old. Up until four weeks ago, he had been the IT guy at a medium-sized development company in Sacramento. He was the guy who kept all of the machines updated, virus-free, and running cleanly. He was the guy that did all the backups and made sure everybody’s data was safe and secure.

On the day he turned 64 1/2, he was laid off, along with a new hire that hadn’t worked out. Bob had been there for 12 years. If he had worked another 6 months, he would have been able to collect company pension.

“Wait a minute!” I cried. “Isn’t this a clear case of laying you off to avoid paying your pension?”

“Clearly it is,” he said. “But my lawyer pointed out that they were careful to let a younger person go at the same time, so it didn’t look like a pension avoidance. They claimed the company was downsizing.

Suddenly Bob was jobless.

In a state of shock, he reverted to his main competency: analysis.  What is the algorithm for sudden, unexpected unemployment?

You find a new job, of course.  Bob blasted out his resume, which includes a long stint at Apple, another with Microsoft.  Bob is a smart, talented, high level techie.

He’s also an old techie, and as he discovered, nobody wants to hire someone who’s 6 months away from their 65th birthday.

Bob put in for unemployment.

Gotta hand it to his former employer: at least they fixed it so he would get unemployment insurance up until he was eligible for Social Security, which was much less than his pension would have been, but at least it was something; and via COBRA, he would have his health insurance until he was eligible for Medicare.  Pretty slick.

Meanwhile the bills continued to roll in as usual.  Bob, like so many members of the Middle Class, had very little in the way of savings to fall back on.  He quickly saw that what funds he did have wouldn’t last long, paying $1,700/month for his tiny studio apartment.  He rented a storage building, put everything into it except his camping gear, and moved into his van.

He’s an organised person, so within a week he had his infrastructure in place: a membership at a gym franchise provided shower access; he developed a rotation for overnight parking so he wouldn’t become a target for thieves or police.  His portable kitchen was still a work in progress.  He was learning to live out of his van.  Learning to be a member of the high-class homeless.

I often hear and read self-satisfied, superior comments about homeless people.  The assumption is that homeless people are all alike: lazy and shiftless.  If they just got a job, they wouldn’t be homeless…right?  And they’re all on meth anyway, so why should I care? 

Uh, sure.  Just…only…that’s very often not the case.  Like Bob the IT guy, who got the hook because he’d been loyal enough to his company to happily stay until retirement.  Except he got laid off at age 64 1/2, with no warning at all, no time to prepare for the retirement he had every reason was waiting for him.

I used to joke that if all else failed, I could always be a greeter at Wal-Mart.  That used to be one of the only jobs available to the Medicare crowd.

Bob had that same idea.  He applied to every Walmart in the State of California.  He found out that most Wal-Marts have discontinued the greeters.  Too expensive.

He tried fast food places.  “Over qualified” for those, naturally.

He’s still sending out resumes.  Fortunately, he’s still able to afford to rent a mailbox that gives him a physical address, so he can receive his rejection letters.

He’s adjusting to van life.  He does love camping.  Of course there are challenges, like, how do you keep your possessions from being ruined when it’s 105 degrees?  You yourself can go walk around in the mall, but your “house” is still going to bake in the parking lot.  Your soap will melt, your shaving cream can will blow up….

And what about the future, that looked so comfortable with your pension, formerly adequate for your needs?  What will happen when you get sick, develop diabetes, have a stroke, get crippled up with arthritis….?  What if you need surgery: where will you go to recover?

Please remember, dear reader, this valuable adage applies to us all:

There but for the grace of God go I.

(And for you who are smirking because your 401k or your Keogh is coming along nicely….all it takes is another 2008 and you’ll be sitting right where Bob found himself.)

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28 Comments

  1. I’m stuck for words, that don’t sound condescending. But I hope you both find yourselves in a better place one day xx

    Reply
  2. Shaking my head! I know it happens in many companies. Still it’s unbelievable cruelty! Prayers for Bob to get some kind of job! Prayers and strength for you to keep surviving. πŸ‡ΊπŸ‡ΈπŸŒΊπŸ‡ΊπŸ‡Έ Christine

    Reply
    • Thank you, Christine! I keep in touch with Bob, and it looks as if he’s making a retirement project out of learning to live on his Social Security….he’s a tough and resourceful man. I’ll be interested to see whether he gets tired of the extreme austerity and whether he comes up with ways of supplementing his income. At this point, his mind is still struggling with the fact that the algorithm jumped the tracks….

      Reply
  3. The above story has a emotional touch.

    Reply
  4. If 2016 and it’s election taught us anything, it’s that there is no permanence to any of this. My husband served 24 years in the Navy and was lucky enough to find a job before his terminal leave ran out. Then…2 years later, right before Thanksgiving, he loses his job.

    It took about 4 months to find a new one, but we certainly aren’t strangers to the idea that most of us are 2 paychecks away from being homeless.

    Reply
    • Wow! In Yiddish, we would call that a “shreck”–a close call. Your husband must have his military pension by now at least…I hope?

      Yes, the numbers show that fewer than 30% of Americans have saved even 3 months’ worth of normal expenses.

      One major glitch in the flow of income, and most people could get bumped out of the game.

      It’s hard enough to find work, but if you’re living out of your car…..

      And if you’re near retirement age….

      I pray that your family stays secure in every way.

      Reply
      • It was a close call and we were really grateful for the first job he had after the military. They ended up being kind of shmucky and “laid him off” the week of Thanksgiving. He did (does) have his pension and while he was job hunting he went to school as well getting his GI Bill supplements. We used up savings too. He has a really good job now, so we’re VERY fortunate.

        I know I, for one, am grateful we’ve landed on our feet most of the time. But you’re very right to advise putting some savings away….you just never know when all hell will break loose.

        We always equated it to the scene in Emperor’s New Groove: tied to a log, about to go over a waterfall, “sharp rocks at the bottom?” “Most likely.” “Bring it on.”

        Reply
  5. I feel the homeless pain too Laura. Mine is living with my son and his family and having an open upstairs loft as my bedroom. I spend a lot of time up on my bed, now that my daughter-in-law has quit her job. Having 3 teen grandkids whom I dearly love home for the summer, but there is so much noise! It is like 3 years of trying to stay out of D-I-L way but doing all of the chores to keep her happy. And being disabled is wearing on me with the circumstances however I am so grateful for them or I would be homeless. My heart breaks for Bob, you and all of us who worked all our lives and now have to worry about our futures instead of enjoying our twilight years. How can companies be so greedy to cheat people like Bob out of their pension, but it is happening to so many these days!

    Reply
    • That sounds awful…reminds me of an old song, “old and grey, and only in the way” πŸ˜•. In my case, the dutiful daughter who gave up her job and home to help her parents, but ended up living in the barn, AND doing the work. Better to live in my van and not be treated like Cinderella!

      Reply
  6. I was “lucky” to have parents who died too soon, but saved wisely all their lives and passed their money onto myself and my two siblings. Otherwise, i’m not sure how long i would have called this place home. Seems i chose to work in fields without pensions or retirement plans
    and woefully undersaved. They saved my ass.

    Reply
  7. “There but for the grace of God go I.” ❀

    Reply
  8. I was homeless for 4 months, and unfortunately I lived in a shelter where some of the women there were crazy or who like to pick fights on purpose, or you had shelter staff who didn’t give a damn and who didn’t want to do their job to provide assistance to the women under their care. I had to move out of my apartment due to a dangerous unstable neighbor who just wouldn’t leave me alone. No one would help. To me you were lucky. Me personally I hate this country, however I hope to go to college to be a counselor for kids with special needs. I already knew that anyone could be homeless so I’m not scared that it could happen. I’m a military vet so at least I have somewhere to turn. I grew up abused & all that so my whole life has been like a recession + layoff, just another in a long line of how this country screws good people.

    Reply
  9. Sorry this happened to you. Keep your head up and keep pushing on, your still you in the end. Better days will come.

    Reply

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