(Photo by Garry Knight, cropped to fit)
One of the side effects of living in my car is gaining a little bit of perspective on what it's like to be homeless.
There's a huge difference between being homeless and houseless. Some people, like me, choose to live in a vehicle or a tent for the fun of it. We have the option of returning to housed life at any time. We are houseless on purpose. Overall, it's fun; it saves a lot of money and we can tolerate the discomforts.
Homelessness is living outside because you lack the ability, resources, or social status to pay rent and live inside, even though you'd prefer it. There's nothing fun about that.
I remember reading about how homeless people will often spend their monthly welfare check to get a motel room for a few days. I used to think: well, that's silly. Why would they do that? They could be buying food, or saving it up for other things they really need. Why blow it all on a shitty motel room?
Now I get it. Let me explain.
Earlier this month I was invited to live in an empty room at a friend's house in exchange for some work, but they quickly found a paying roommate and I had to leave. Before that, I'd been camping on a property where I could use a heater to warm my car and prepare food with an outdoor kitchen, but I couldn't return there because I'd already told the property owner that I would be moving out, and broken down camp. Now I found myself in the same situation I was in when I first moved to Moab: stealth camping on the street, using public bathrooms, not having a place to cook food, with all of my belongings in my car. No big deal -- been there done that, right?
The difference is: now it's fucking cold. That IS a big deal. It's been dipping down well below 20 degrees, even inside my car, and the lowest temperature I've seen is 14.6 F on my thermometer. I'm essentially sleeping in a freezer. Technically, it's fine because I have blankets, and down bags, and when I'm all bundled up I stay plenty warm. It's not like I'm going to freeze to death. The thing is, I can't just be in bed whenever it's nighttime. Nights are really long.
Most days, the library serves as my living room. It's usually open until 8pm, and I can hang out in the warmth until it closes, but that puts me out in my cold car at 8:05 and there aren't really any warm places where I can hang out until the library opens again at 9am. That's 13 hours, only 8 of which I can reasonably be expected to sleep. On Saturdays the library closes at 5pm, and on Sundays it's closed all day.
So I've had some days where I'm lying in bed in my tiny car for hours trying to stay warm, reading books or using my phone. I feel trapped in my bed because any part of my body that I expose to the air gets cold quickly. I don't want to drink water because it's icy and it makes me cold, so I get dehydrated. This is frustrating psychologically because all I do is wish that the weather would be warm again so I could be comfortable. Every morning frozen condensation coats the inside of my car.
There are other factors that compound the situation. Without a place to cook food, my diet went downhill a bit. I used to think this didn't affect me much, but after a few months of eating mostly real foods like potatoes, onions, and rice, convenience food definitely feels gross by comparison, and is much more expensive. On top of that, I had a couple nights of bad sleep. A few days ago I woke up at 2am and never fell back asleep. That whole day had a layer of haze that made everything feel surreal. These things add a dimension of anxious helplessness to life.
But, I went to bed very excited the next night, because in the morning my good friends were leaving town for a week and they'd asked me to house-sit for them. I only had to make it through another night of the trapping coldness and then I'd have a whole house to myself! Warmth! Privacy! Kitchen appliances! Hot water! A real bed! Space to move around! Internet! Electricity! Oh my god, what a dream! I shivered myself warm with a smile on my face.
I woke up at 4am and again had trouble falling back asleep. Never in my life have I been the kind of person to wake up in the wee hours and have trouble getting back to sleep, so this was eye-opening. I knew my friends were leaving "really early" that morning, so I waited until 6, drove to their house, found that they'd left, parked in the garage, brought in my food, took a hot bath, and passed out. I spent that day and the next one simply vegging out and enjoying the fact that life was so damn easy all of a sudden.
I'm lucky to be in the houseless class and not homeless, because I get these kinds of opportunities to regroup. While I'm here I'm going to be working on my car to make it a bit more livable. I have a Coleman stove now. I'll sleep in it for another week or so after my friends get back and then I'll probably head down to Arizona for a couple weeks where it's warm. I can get through the winter like this, subsisting on these sporadic exchanges with friends and community members.
But what if I were actually homeless? I only have a hint at what that would be like. What if on top of all the things I mentioned, I had the kind of social stigma that made people look down on me and see me as inferior? If the cold had been getting into my bones for years and not weeks? If I didn't have my secure warm bed in my car? If I was doing it not of my own agency, but because I had post traumatic stress from war, or a criminal record, or a mental illness, or a debilitating addiction, or no education, or childhood abuse or neglect -- all of which would reduce my opportunities even further? If I were anything but a white male in our society? If I was not only eating poor quality food, but actually going hungry? If I didn't have enough bedding to stay warm, and couldn't sleep well? These can be HUGE barriers to meeting even basic survival needs.
Many people who have never experienced homelessness don't understand why they don't pick themselves up by the bootstraps and start making the choices that will lead to "success". The reason is very simple: Maslow's hierarchy of needs. If someone faces extreme difficulty obtaining food, water, warmth, shelter, sleep, and safety, how are they going to focus on building loving connections and self esteem? If they can't build those things, how are they going to work on self-actualization -- the ingredient necessary for self-rescue from a very difficult situation? Planning an escape from that kind of hell requires long-term vision, yet all energy must be spent surviving today.
When you live in a house, life is easy in so many ways that you take for granted. It's easy to forget that you exist in a very uplifted mental and physical state compared to what a homeless person experiences. Tasks that are mindless for you can be exceedingly difficult for them. They are so busy just trying to keep their heads above water that they don't have the energy to swim toward shore, never mind learn how to water ski. It is no surprise that alcoholism and drug addictions are so common. They provide an escape from this dismal reality. People just want to feel OK.
The reason homeless people spend their monthly welfare checks on a few nights in a motel room is because they desperately crave a small taste of the quality of life that you experience on a daily basis.
If we really want to help homeless people, let's help them meet their basic needs in a secure, stable way. Let's give them homes first without presenting additional barriers. Let's not withhold financial aid because they suffer from addiction. Let's not make it hard for them to find bathrooms, water, or food. Let's not stigmatize them for mental illness or substance issues.
Don't be shy about giving them money. It doesn't matter what they spend it on. You have it and they don't. It gives them more power. If you can, give them shelter for a time, or at least don't call the cops to get them to leave a public space. Think about the basic things you have that they don't, and notice what they're missing, and try to help them have those things.
There are some actions we can all do to help, but ultimately this is a system-level problem. We live in a society that worships money and creates this class of people as a waste byproduct. The reality is, we have enough resources to house and feed all humans. It's a question of distribution, it's a question of our values and what we're motivated to do with our resources. Our economy is huge. There is excess everywhere.
Please believe in a future that manages our excesses in a better way, which will provide for the needs of those who are unable to navigate this hellish system instead of providing another billionaire with another billion dollars. Take the first steps in that direction, not only with your ballot votes but with the dollar votes you cast every day. Don't listen to the people who say homeless people deserve it because they did something wrong. It's inhumane, but more than that, it's shitty logic. Our current approach to homelessness costs us a lot, both in dollars and humanity. Adopting a housing-first approach would cost a trivial percentage of our annual budget and it would give hundreds of thousands of people a realistic path to regaining their dignity, stability, health, and productivity.