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Unless congress extends the unemployment benefits we have 2 checks left. Tents are on sale at Big 5 – I wonder if I should replace the family sized tent we discarded at the end of our 2 months of camping last summer. If we have to hit the road we will need to lose the trailer as we can’t pull it with the minivan.

I hope most of you have found our new blog by now – updates are posted there regularly.

A few days ago I called Tricia to find out how her doctor’s appointment went, got her voice mail and left a message. Tonight she called back. It looks like the hip replacement operation will have to be postponed – she has a staph infection in her blood that needs to be treated and the doctor wants her weaned off cigarettes and beer before she goes into the hospital. I commiserated with her about the delay and the possibility of going into rehab – which will probably be the only way for her to quit, and promised to pick her up for a girls’ day – including taking her to Jack in the Box for curly fries, but she still seemed down. She asked me if I remembered Luba – another homeless woman who lived in her old camp. I said yes of course – Luba was a slight Hispanic woman of middle age with a quick smile. She had a little chihuahua dog who shared her sleeping area. Tricia told me that Luba had died the day before yesterday – no one knew what caused her death. It could have been anything; there is so much untreated illness among the homeless. She was 56 years old. I hadn’t heard of her death- although I had read that the Amtrak train recently hit a homeless couple loitering near the tracks in our town, killing the man and severely injuring the woman. I checked those names to make sure it wasn’t Ben and Tricia. I wonder who mourns her.

Thanks to Melissa who shared this link with me:

http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2011483190_homelesscensus31m.html

A story in the Seattle Times about the “new face” of homelessness and the disagreement about what constitutes homelessness these days.

It’s that time of the decade – census time.   Time to stand up and be counted!  You might wonder, at least you might if you are in my situation, does the census count the homeless and if so, how do they do it?  I spent a little time looking into that question and it turns out that the homeless are actually counted more frequently than the rest of the country!  The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) demands a count at least every other year from cities and counties across the country so it can allocate money and services designed to combat homelessness. This means that there are already methods in place to conduct counts of people without a fixed address that census workers can use.  Do these methods work?

In Minnesota census ‘enumerators’ (why does that sound like a role for Arnold Swartzenegger?) try to count the homeless over a period of 3 days.

  • On the first night, enumerators will count persons residing in shelters and temporary arrangements.
  • On the second day, enumerators will interview persons at regularly scheduled mobile food vans and persons at soup kitchens. If individuals at the mobile food vans and soup kitchens report a “usual residence,” they are not included in the SBE operation and are instead included in the general population count.
  • On the third night, enumerators will count persons at pre-identified targeted nonsheltered outdoor locations.

They’d still miss us.  The article points out that counting the homeless isn’t easy because ‘some homeless people don’t want to admit they are homeless, and the homeless are not uniquely identifiable as such by any physical characteristic, and thus cannot be identified easily.’  That’s right; we aren’t all unkempt slovenly individuals shuffling along the sidewalk talking to ourselves or asleep under newspaper blankets on park benches!

Similarly in San Francisco they too will spend three days attempting to count the homeless at shelters, soup kitchens, parks and highway underpasses and the census in Washington D.C. will include people in transitional housing and emergency shelters, on the streets, and in parks and camp sites, along with formerly homeless people now in permanent housing where they receive assistance from case workers. It does not, however, include those who are doubling up with relatives and friends, sleeping on couches and floors, one step from a shelter or worse.

Because the HUD count, and now the census count, methods are aimed at what I consider the traditional class of homeless – as described above, those in shelters, attending soup kitchens, at campsites, etc. – I wonder if it will accurately capture the numbers of the new homeless, those formerly middle class, now unemployed and cast from their homes by this Great Depression.  We don’t frequent food pantries or hang out under bridges.  We (I’m speaking generically here) stay with friends and family, move from motel room to campgrounds, sleep in our cars and RVs.  And we are probably amongst those who do not want to admit we are homeless. Would you want to be memorialized as homeless in the census for future descendants and genealogy buffs to see?  And we probably won’t benefit from the funds for homeless services.

Yesterday we arrived home and amidst the commotion of unloading kids and homework and groceries and releasing the dogs from captivity for their mid-day walk, a young woman approached.  She was wearing a name badge around her neck, carrying a clipboard in her hand.  “Hello,” she said.  “I’m from the US Census 2010.”

We were counted. But I don’t know if we count.

Still searching for fortune!  Here is one writer’s reasonably sympathetic and mostly accurate take on our situation:  http://www.getrichslowly.org/blog/.  A columnist who writes on frugal living, she ends the article with advice for her readers on how to avoid falling into similar circumstances.  Shades of that poster I highlighted a few weeks ago!  “ Mistakes.  It could be the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others.”  LOL!

While I generally try to maintain a certain amount of privacy in my blog, for my children’s sake (hence the ‘not her real name’ in the article), I do think this might be the time to say something in response to the people who commented on the article, asking ‘where’s the father?’  I adopted my children as a single parent and that’s all I plan to say about it.  It was my own choice and at significant expense – one of the reasons why I didn’t have the recommended emergency fund of 6 months worth of living expenses.   

Yes, some of my own choices led to this situation – in hindsight moving to the mountain state to look for a better standard of living was a mistake.  If we had stayed in California after my son came home we would still be living in a 3-bedroom condo.  But then again it would have lost value after the housing bubble burst and I might still have lost my job since my field (environmental permitting) relies on developments and construction projects.  So, who knows?  So that’s the thing guys – while it’s comforting to think a person is somehow to blame for the bad situation they find themselves in – there are MILLIONS of Americans in similar situations now – and it’s hard to believe they were all stupid,  naïve, or bad in some way.  Sometimes bad things do happen to good people!  And then we just have to make the best of it and I welcome new readers who want to follow us as we attempt to do just that! 

We have never lived a life of luxury.We drive a 2003 mini-van with 141000 miles on it and did before we lost our house. We didn’t have fancy toys- we had second hand bikes, a cast off tv (not flat screen)- we didn’t take vacations or eat out much. The kids didn’t have a load of expensive lessons- they belonged to scouts and particpated in school and church events.   I had built up some debt due to my kids’ health (two were born with heart defects,and one had hearing loss that needed to be dealt with through surgeries and speech therapy)  and other issues.  But that was my choice and where I put my money. 

And now, since we have to pull the trailer out of the RV Park for the next 72 hours (and my heartfelt thanks to some internet friends who are helping us to do that), it’s time to start tidying up and strapping things down!

BTW- Thank you all who have kindly made a donation!  That is really nice of you and we appreciate it. Donations are going in my account for a new larger trailer to allow us some additional space, get my son off the floor where he sleeps and provide a little privacy- all necessary for our mental health and well being!

Or the jobless, for that matter?  I think the most emotionally debilitating part of this situation has been the isolation it has created.  My interactions with other adult humans are pretty much limited to brief chit chat with the checkout clerk at the grocery store, a comment exchanged with another parent while we await the dismissal bell, and two minutes of conversation with my daughter’s basketball coach at the end of practice.

The kids are less affected as they continue to attend school, have play dates and are involved in activities like basketball, choir and the school play.   But my social circle, small to begin with due to our moving around and unconventional lifestyle (being a single mom to four by choice, a rare thing, even rarer in professional circles), has essentially disappeared. You don’t realized just how important work is for social interactions until you no longer have a job.  As blogger Joe Malik, in “Unemployed in Tacoma” remarks with a measure of humor:

“Until I was summarily booted out of the place, I didn’t realize how much I had come to depend on my workplace for social connections. And that’s the really pathetic part, because most of the people I worked with were generally annoying, or downright despicable human beings.

So why do I miss some of them so much?

Well, the people you work with – whether you like it or not – are kind of like your surrogate family. You see them every day. You know about what goes on in their personal lives… most of all, the workplace seems to be one of the few places that many of us have a chance to make any sort of deep, personal connection with people.”

It is sad how that ‘deep, personal connection’ turns out to be the most superficial of connections once it’s severed. Former colleagues (one of whom recently characterized my blog as a “depressing website” in an email to another former colleague) are the first to disappear off your social landscape. Another place for making those connections is church, but since we left our church (in response to what I considered an unfortunate change in leadership) shortly before becoming unemployed and homeless we discovered those ‘friendships’ to be similarly superficial.  As I’ve remarked before group membership (even unofficial) is what counts.  When you are out, you are really out!

What about friends and family, you ask?  Friends, and family, while initially concerned, seem to grow increasingly uncomfortable with and tired of your unemployed/homeless status the longer it lingers on.  Compassion fatigue settles in. Your status overshadows everything, and while you are both bored with the subject, like an elephant in the room, it cannot be avoided.  So instead they avoid you.  New acquaintances are both curious and repelled by your situation – offering generic words of comfort while withdrawing from interactions with you the way one might do with someone infected with a peculiarly grotesque and contagious disease.  They marvel, “How do you manage?” while backing away. Who invites a leper out for drinks?

Even social networking falls by the wayside as your experience begins to vary substantially from your connections on LinkedIn, your ‘friends’ on Facebook, and the members of all those yahoo groups to which you belong.  It becomes harder for you to relate to their lives and events which begin to seem increasingly complacent and superficial to you, while your struggle with very essential, bottom-line issues is foreign and discomfiting to them. BTW- along this line I plan to start a 2nd blog for single parents in this situation in which there can be multiple authors and points of view, support and resource exchange.  I guess if you lose your group memberships you need to find, or start, new groups!

It’s odd the way this isolation makes itself felt at times.  For instance, most recently, the kids’ school was having one of those jog-a-thon fundraisers to fund future fieldtrips and each family was supposed to find sufficient sponsors to raise $150 per child.  Where do you turn, school fundraiser, or Scout cookie or nut sales, in hand?  To your colleagues, friends, members of your church and the other organizations to which you belong.  And although so starved for conversation that I’ve frequently engaged the checkout clerk in lengthy exchanges to the despair of the people in line behind me, I haven’t been able to bring myself to solicit jog-a-thon sponsorships from complete strangers! 

I’m not the only unemployed person to feel this sense of isolation.  In “The Lonesome City Blues,” Pulitzer Prize winner and former LA Times columnist, Al Martinez, blogs about the loneliness of being unemployed; saying of the jobless, “We occupy a landscape of spiritual desolation.”

Among the unemployed, blog after blog is filled with tales of isolation and loneliness, with the feeling of being cut off from the world around us.  Some people struggle with depression, others tell of the loss of hope, and anxiety about the future.

And a column in USA Today, titled, How Joblessness Hurts Us All, states the following:

“Recent studies confirm the results of research during the Great Depression — unemployment badly frays a person’s ties with his community, sometimes permanently. After careful analysis of 20 years of monthly surveys tracking Americans’ social and political habits, our colleague Chaeyoon Lim of the University of Wisconsin has found that unemployed Americans are significantly less involved in their communities than their employed demographic twins. The jobless are less likely to vote, petition, march, write letters to editors, or even volunteer. They attend fewer meetings and serve less frequently as leaders in local organizations. Moreover, sociologist Cristobal Young’s research finds that the unemployed spend most of their increased free time alone.  

Moreover, beyond civic disengagement, places with higher joblessness have more pervasive violence and crimes against property. They have more fragile families with harsher parenting, and higher rates of mental disorder and psychological distress among both the unemployed and the employed. These social consequences are a powerful aftershock to communities already reeling economically.”

Our social landscape is changing, shifting and cracking, in ways the still gainfully employed and big financial institutions may not initially notice but will surely feel in the future.

Yesterday my (truly) homeless friend, Tricia, called me to say that the police had come by their campsite and informed them that the landowner ‘wanted them off his land.’  They’ve been living there for over 5 years with the landowner’s permission so I asked what had happened to make him change his mind.  Apparently more homeless have moved in and a few have had brushes with the law and what was a quiet campsite for a couple and their dog, was becoming a rowdy group campground.  The police told them if they were still there on Wednesday they would get a ticket, on Thursday, they would be taken to jail. 

As an aside I wish the sheriff in Colorado could have acted with such alacrity when I called and asked if he could remove the squatter from our house.  Instead I had to go through 2 court hearings – one to evict him and one to decide if he owed me money (yep, like 1ok) and the sheriff wouldn’t act until both hearings (months apart) were completed.  But back to the current story…

Tricia asked could I help them move- they weren’t certain where they could go.  I said yes, of course, and got to work trying to locate a shelter for  them.  This is what I learned about the local shelters.  There is one for men and one for women and children.  This is a problem for Ben and Tricia who have been together for over 20 years.  She is disabled and relies on him.  They don’t allow animals.  This is another problem as Ben and Tricia have their ‘baby’ Goldie (a golden retriever) who is an older dog and suspicious of strangers – not exactly a candidate for shelter adoption even if Ben and Tricia wanted to give her up.  And the shelters are filled to overflowing already- especially during times of rain, such as now.  And they don’t answer the phone on Sundays. 

There is just no way I can invite Ben, Tricia and Goldie to stay with us.  I can’t see how it could be done.  I could help them move their tent to the state park where we lived this summer.  It’s only $10 a night if you bike or hike in with a tent (as opposed $35 per night if you drive in).  But when I checked campground availability I discovered they are fully booked until April.  Back to the drawing board.

A caveat – this is an entirely personal POV post.  I’ve never been a particularly vain person, never had reason to be.  And no one who knows me would consider me ‘high maintenance.’  I have short wash and wear hair, nails that haven’t seen a manicure since grade school, and a ‘beauty’ routine that uses less than a handful of products. Regardless, like any American woman influenced by the media and my own desire to look attractive, I exfoliated, plucked, and moisturized, dabbed on a bit of scent, and slicked on some lipstick on a daily basis.

But when we had to pack up our belongings and move to tents this summer I wasn’t thinking about looks. It was like an extended camping trip, right?  Who packs make-up to go camping? My primary concern was that the family was fed and safe.  Well, clean, and clothed were secondary.  That’s how basic it got.  I packed soap, shampoo, toothpaste and brushes and a first aid kit, not lipstick, moisturizer and Crest Whitestrips!

The two months we spent in the tents camping out in the parks were tough. Mid-summer in California is dry and the campsites had seen constant use since the beginning of the season. It was impossible to get and keep clean – walking back to the tents from the public showers (where a quarter bought you 3 minutes of hot water) we would begin to acquire a fine coat of grime, the first of many layers before our next shower.  We spent hours in the sun and even liberal doses of sunscreen couldn’t keep us from developing deep freckled tans.  Fingernails broke in the setting up and taking down of tents, bug bites accumulated and festered.  Whether it was due to squinting in the sun or fretting over our future, new lines were etched onto my face, leaving me with the appearance of a perpetual frown. My “beauty routine” consisted of putting on deodorant.  I ignored the damage – there wasn’t much I could do about it anyway. 

Since moving into the trailer some things have improved.  It’s perfectly easy to brush our teeth after meals for instance and we shower much more frequently.  We can keep clothes clean after laundering them – something that was hard to do in the tents.  I can even, though not easily, color my hair again.  I retrieved my moisturizer from our storage unit but am uninspired to mess with makeup.  When you aren’t going to work every day, the need to look professional fades. Depression, poor diet and lack of activity have layered on the pounds, and with the sun damaged skin and lined face; I look five years older than I did this time last year.  Just one more toll this journey has taken.

We of the sinking middle class may sink without further struggles into the working class where we belong, and probably when we get there it will not be so dreadful as we feared, for, after all, we have nothing to lose.

George Orwell (1903-1950) British novelist, essayist, and critic.

Think about this.   There were foreclosure filings reported on 2.8 Million U.S. properties in 2009, a 21 percent increase in total properties from 2008 and a 120 percent increase in total properties from 2007.  The prediction for 2010 is more of the same.  And yet at the same time apartment vacancy rates are up nationwide – hitting a 30-year high of  -8 percent nationally in the fourth quarter of 2009,  even though in many areas rents have decreased.  Some vacancies are due to foreclosures of the rental properties themselves with renters being displaced during the process. But others are due to apartment dwellers who are favorably positioned to take advantage of the low home prices, moving out and purchasing a home of their own. 

The number of renters prepared to purchase (and able to get a loan) is far fewer than the number of people who are losing their homes so we aren’t exactly talking about a real-life episode of ‘Trading Spaces.’  And that disparity in numbers means there are houses that are uninhabited. Abandoned homes aren’t just eyesores or social art (see http://www.kevinbauman.com/100abandonedhouses/ and http://www.onlykent.com/20100203/home-encased-in-ice-by-two-artists-us-housing-crisis/), they are also becoming prime targets for thieves and havens for squatters- some involved in criminal activity, according to a report by the advocacy group ACORN. 

In an editorial in the NY Times titled “Slumurbia” the author describes the fate of a development built on the bulge of the real estate bubble:

“Dirty flags advertise rock-bottom discounts on empty starter mansions. On the ground, foreclosure signs are tagged with gang graffiti. Empty lots are untended, cratered with mud puddles from the winter storms that have hammered California’s San Joaquin Valley.

Nobody is home in the cities of the future.”

So there houses that are uninhabited, and apartments sitting vacant; where have all the people gone?  According to one recent study titled “Foreclosure to Homelessness 2009; the forgotten victims of the subprime crisis,” the majority are living with friends and family; staying in emergency shelters; in motels; in transitional housing; and on the street.  A minority are living in another house that they rent or own.

Why are so many people failing to find a stable place to live even though apartment vacancies are up and rents are down? The answer seems to be in part that at least some of the people who have lost their homes have also lost their jobs.  And in the process they’ve probably used up their liquid assets trying to keep their house, or had bills they couldn’t pay due to loss of income.  So they end up without a job, without a home, without assets and without good credit.  Try finding a landlord that will rent to you under those circumstances. 

People who only a short while ago were employed, housed, members of the middle class are now living on the streets!  As one respondent in the above mentioned study on foreclosure to homelessness remarked,

“This should not be happening. We were the middle class and now we are poverty stricken. We had two cars, money in the bank and a reasonable mortgage. My husband is an electrician and simply cannot find a job anywhere.  On September 12, 2008 my husband’s company sent everyone home. The company could no longer afford to pay their employees. We have had no money coming in since then and absolutely no prospects. Our savings is all gone… our home is being auctioned off. So much for the American Dream.”

Since it seems difficult to get people back into homes or apartments, some communities have begun to recognize the need to accommodate people who live in a vehicle of some sort. In Santa Barbara, California, a public sleeping-in-cars program has been in place for years.  Other communities, while railing at the growing number of homeless, continue to remain rigid in their views of appropriate housing.  Just south of Santa Barbara, officials from the city of Ventura, announced last year a pilot version of the same program, on a smaller scale on private lots, but ran into opposition from residents and business owners concerned over safety and sanitation. Citing similar concerns, the city of Camarillo banned the practice outright.  Sleeping in cars is better than being on the street.  But it’s no way to live.  It’s potentially dangerous, cramped, cold in the winter months, and lacks privacy or any sort of bathroom or kitchen facility. 

Lately I’ve come across, or have been sent, articles about other families who have lost their homes and who have, like us, resorted to living in RVs or travel trailers.  Like the Renaults who are one homeless family among more than 20 living in an RV park in Tennessee; or the Teels in Las Vegas who live in a 25-foot travel trailer with their teenaged daughter.

Following hurricane Katrina charities launched nation-wide drives asking for donations of RVs to provide housing for victims of the disaster.  Lately charitable organizations have done the same thing for the newly homeless, generally on an individual basis as with the small Ojai charity that donated a decades-old, but still working, recreational vehicle to a homeless healthcare-giver and single mother.  Great idea. But unless you have a place to park it, you have a house on wheels with no place to call home! Parking is just one aspect.  A lot of travel trailers, like ours, are not ‘self-contained’, that is we have no generator for electricity.  At the park we are hooked up to an electrical outlet and to water and sewer.  Even self-contained RVs need a dump station to periodically empty the grey and black water tanks when they are full. 

There are so many people who opt for trailers upon losing their homes that there’s a page at the Got Trouble website with ‘how to’ information for those choosing that option!  They don’t deal with the downside, however, such as the fact that many RV parks won’t let you in if your rig is old – and old is relative.  There’s one park near us that has a cut off of 3-years!  And anything older than 10-12 years isn’t allowed in any of the parks around here.  And in California you won’t find a campground that rents a space for the $10 a night mentioned in the article-try $35 to $50.  And while abandoned houses and vacant apartments abound there are relatively few RV Parks and those are diminishing in number – one near us has vacancies but can’t rent them because the park is slated to be demolished so that more houses can be built –  and fewer that allow long term parking.  RV parks, after all, are created to cater to a transient population – vacationers and retirees who are traveling around, seeing the country.  Most welcome pets but many are less than family friendly, lacking safe play areas for children.

I think RV living could be an excellent solution for many of those made newly homeless through foreclosure and job loss.  Particularly for families who have a vested interest in their community, want to maintain some semblance of continuity for their kids and don’t want to give up their pets.  Instead of trying to force these people into shelters or transitional housing with inflexible rules or impose public sleeping-in-cars programs on local residents, communities should look to developing or providing full-facility RV Parks.  Places with a reasonable rent, utility hook-ups, wireless internet and/or cable (gotta keep up those job searches after all), sanitation, laundry facilities and play areas for children.  They should relax the age restrictions on the rigs so people can park those ‘decades-old, but still working’ RVs in the park.  And they should hire some of those unemployed folks to manage the park, keep the grounds, and provide maintenance.  These parks could become stable and safe communities and for-profit business concerns- helping both the economy and the homeless.

If, as George Bernard Shaw was purported to have said, “A happy family is but an earlier heaven” what is an unhappy family?

It’s been said before but it’s worth repeating.  Becoming homeless has a severe negative effect on families. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless:  “It disrupts virtually every aspect of family life, damaging the physical and emotional health of family members, interfering with children’s education and development, and frequently resulting in the separation of family members.”  Lest you think this sort of strong language only applies to impoverished, uneducated, substance abusing families headed by young single moms who were victims of domestic abuse (in other words the stereotypical homeless families), let me assure you it does not.  While being educated, mature and relatively healthy, undoubtedly helps a parent deal with the difficulties of becoming homeless, those characteristics alone are not enough to counteract the stress and strain on the family. 

Homelessness frequently breaks up families. Families may be separated as a result of shelter policies which deny access to older boys or fathers. Separations may also be caused by placement of children into foster care when their parents become homeless. In addition, parents may leave their children with relatives and friends in order to save them from the ordeal of homelessness or to permit them to continue attending their regular school. The break-up of families is a well-documented phenomenon: in 56% of the 27 cities surveyed in 2004, homeless families had to break up in order to enter emergency shelters (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2004). http://www.nationalhomeless.org/factsheets/families.html

I have been proud to have managed to keep my family together during these past 6 months, but with increasing frequency I wonder if it’s really something of which to be proud?  Granted these thoughts occur most often during my 3 AM insomnia period when all seems gloomiest and most hopeless, but they come to me in the daylight as well.  Are the children being irreparably harmed by our situation?  Would they benefit from living with another family or families in a more stable situation? What am I really providing for them and does it make up in any way for all that is denied them now?

Initially I was certain that I would quickly find a new job and things would return to normal.  But as the months of fruitlessly submitting job applications pass by my hopes dim. I cannot believe my lack of progress and suspect my applications are being screened out in the early phase.  I begin to wonder if my age or credit score are playing into employers’ decisions not to even interview me.  It is extremely frustrating as prior to this I have never had a problem securing a new position.  It is also very depressing.

Inasmuch as I try to put on my Pollyanna face in this blog, proclaiming our tiny trailer to be sufficient, I am sure no one really believes that I think it can meet the needs of a family of 5 indefinitely. Living in this small space on a paltry, inadequate income (unemployment) is unbelievably difficult and has affected our health and outlook on life.  We are irritable, and pessimistic.  I don’t know how much longer I can continue in this situation and I feel certain it would be better for the children if we didn’t.  Too bad the options are so limited.