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.)