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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.

Thanks for all the comments and good ideas!  Our summer plans are slowly coming together and I’m using several of your ideas!  We signed up for the kid’s free bowling – there’s a bowling alley not to far from us that is participating.  I’m applying for a YMCA campership for my youngest 2 (both 7); and my middle daughter (9 year old) has received invitations from friends in Virginia and Seattle and I can use  my soon to expire frequent flyer miles to send her to visit for several weeks.  My oldest is playing summer league basketball and is old enough (12) to be on her own for a bit if she needs to be.  We are continuing to explore options locally and I’m continuing to apply for jobs (2 more this week- one at a Naval Base as an environmental technician and one as a forest ranger).

Someone asked if I’d let Tricia or Ben babysit – and the answer is no, nor would the kids be comfortable with that.  Tricia is disabled – in fact she’s going to have a hip replacement this summer now that her medicare insurance has come through, and both Ben and Tricia have habits that undoubtedly help them get through life (smoking, drinking and possible other substance use) but that I don’t want around the kids.

Update – As a commentor mentioned the shoe rental isn’t included in the kids bowl free, nor are adults (although for $24 you can add adults to the bowl free deal for the summer).  Shoes are $4 per person.  We signed up and it might be something we do for a special treat. 

Heard from the Y – there are no scholarships available that would help us – too many people in the same situation! Camp for 2 kids would be $900 a month with a scholarship- half my monthly income, so that is out.

At least it does when you are small.  Coming back from taking the trash to the dumpster the other day I was struck by the comparison between our neighbor’s truck, and our ‘house’.

Our house is feeling especially small these days with summer looming and the prospect of spending more time together indoors once school is out.  And it seems we will be forced to limit our outdoor activities in our patio area – a 3-foot wide concrete slab that borders the trailer.  Today the park manager told me that the owner (who sadly is not fond of children) has said we either get rid of the toys on the patio or get kicked out of the park.  So I took all the Hot Wheel track to the dumpster, and packed up the cars and my son’s Legos to take them to storage.  We will park my youngest daughter’s bike behind the trailer and the scooter and skateboard will go underneath.   The basketballs have already been banned –  they are stored in a Tupperware container under the trailer and taken out only for team practice. Bouncing them here bothers the older residents.

My son who can spend hours building fanciful Lego cars and other vehicles (along with my oldest daughter who wants to be an architect and builds equally intricate Lego houses) will be sad when they come home tonight, but if you know anything about Legos you know just how many tiny pieces are required to build these creations!  And there are so many specialized pieces –  little figures, windshields, lights, wheels, corners, stairs, windows and doors.  I freely admit the Legos were getting out of control – we have a big table next to the trailer and a couple of boxes of Legos and the kids would spread out and design and construct to their heart’s content.  And they didn’t get cleaned up and put away after each session – no one wanted to just build and dismantle – so they sat out on the table top and a few would get scattered below…  Well, I couldn’t throw them all away but we cannot keep them indoors either as we have NO counter space for Lego creations. So off to storage they go.  Heck, we have no counter space period and the one table becomes a bed nightly!  We gave up an experiment with jigsaw puzzles over Christmas vacation for this very reason – it was just too hard on everyone to take the thing apart each night and start again the next day.

What we really need is MORE space – a bigger RV with bunk beds for the kids, and a little more indoor storage, and some counter space.  I haunt the listings on craigslist and cruise by the park and sell lots in town looking for travel trailers even though I’ve hardly begun to put aside any money for such a purchase.  And I must find some free/inexpensive activities for the kids this summer so we aren’t couped up  in this tiny space for days on end.  Spring break showed me the necessity of that as during those 10 days we started out getting on each other’s nerves, and by the end were driving one another crazy. If we are forced to be together in this space for the 10 weeks of summer we will descend to the point where the majority of our  interactions will be negative.  Like overcrowded rats or the lost boys in The Lord of the Flies, our inner savages will awaken.  And if that happens…it won’t be toys on the patio that get us kicked out of the park!

We are allowed to have the table and a couple of chairs on the patio, and ‘may decorate with potted plants’ if we wish.

Trailers for sale or rent
Rooms to let…fifty cents.
No phone, no pool, no pets
I ain’t got no cigarettes
Ah, but..two hours of pushin’ broom
Buys an eight by twelve four-bit room
I’m a man of means by no means
King of the road.  ~Roger Miller

A friend is contemplating moving her family from a house that has become too much of an expense in these days of reduced work hours, to a 2-bedroom apartment.  She has four kids and a husband so a 2-bedroom apartment will be a real change.  She thinks they will have to give up their cat but hopes to keep their little dog.  She knows of our situation, but until I mentioned it, hadn’t even considered downsizing to a trailer or RV!  I suspect she’s not alone, in fact I’ll bet most of you reading this blog would also list this option pretty close to the bottom, if not consider it a last resort!  So let me offer some arguments in favor of full-timing in an RV.

Surprised to hear me extolling the virtues of this lifestyle, given my frequent complaints about lack of space?  Granted, I would suggest you do your very best to find a trailer or motor home appropriate for the size of your family! Although, as an aside you must check out the blog of the family of 13, yes, they have 11 children, traveling the country in first a 30-foot travel trailer, and currently in a 40-ft toy hauler! But once you’ve done that, there are a lot of advantages to this life-style, particularly if you desire, or are forced, to live more frugally and if you like to be independent and are comfortable with flexible arrangements.  Here are some of the pros and cons.

It’s CHEAP!  We own our trailer outright (it is a 2004 Terry Dakota ultra light model that cost me about $7500).   First, last and a deposit on an apartment would have cost me at least that much here.  And we wouldn’t own anything but would again be at the mercy of landlords and property managers. While a larger trailer would be (will be) more, even our ‘dream’ trailer will likely cost less than 6 months of apartment rent (we don’t need a brand new trailer).  We didn’t need first, last and deposit to reserve our space, and our pets didn’t incur any additional expense (although that varies by park). Our monthly rent is under $700 and that probably includes more utilities than most apartment rents – electricity, sewer, water and trash.  Granted rent is likely to go up in the next month or so as they are planning on trenching to put in new electrical connections as well as cable and telephone lines but we’ll face that when we have to (or move).  I pay for cell phone and internet (another ~$110 a month).  We rent a mailbox at a UPS store for $15 a month. We don’t have television services and just use ours to watch movies rented for $1 a night at Red Box or DVD Play on weekends.  We use propane to cook and heat on rare occasions that it gets cold enough to justify it (the AC is in use more than the heat as the trailer heats up fairly easily and can get quite stuffy).  Because we aren’t driving around, towing this house of ours, it is less expensive than if we were on the move.  Parks also tend to cost less per day on a monthly basis than on a daily or weekly basis – another reason to stay put for awhile, even if you don’t have children in school.

It’s probably easier for an RV’er to adjust expenses than it is for those of you living in a house.  If we had to we could move locations, looking for lower rent.  This article, while seemingly aimed at the retired couple rather than the family, outlines some of the economic advantages of living in an RV full-time, noting that if you needed to you could pull out of the full-service park and stay at a state park or ‘boondock’ for a few weeks to save money.   And, as I mentioned in an earlier post, if you can land a host position at a campground (wish that had worked out for us) you can stay rent free for as long as 6 months in exchange for 20 hours of work per week.

Another benefit is the independence. This is important for me.  The attitude at the RV Park is pretty much live and let live (although, again, from what I’ve read that varies from park to park).  We pay our rent, keep our area relatively clean (aside from the Legos strewn everywhere), and pick up after the dogs.  We have amicable nodding relationships with most other park patrons, and have developed low-key friendships with a few others.  The children know and abide by our number 1 rule- they are not to go into anyone else’s trailer.  We currently live next to an anti-social fellow who has lined the windows of his Airstream trailer with aluminum foil.  We don’t bother him.  He doesn’t bother us. But if he did… we could move a lot easier than if we were in an apartment downstairs from a person who had loud parties all night or was involved in other objectionable behaviors.  And had I opted for the transitional housing for down and out folks, we would be a lot more hemmed in by well meaning but patronizing rules and regulations.

Home repairs are easier or cheaper.  Yes, if you live in an RV or travel trailer instead of an apartment, you can’t call the landlord when your toilet gets clogged.  But believe me it’s easier to unclog a toilet in an RV than in a house!  All you need is a long stick!  Tearing up the floor in the trailer this summer and replacing it may be a bit more difficult, but I suspect it will be a lot cheaper than it was to rip out the 10-year old carpet in the dining and living rooms in our house in Colorado and replace it with bamboo flooring.  I have a book – something along the line of RV’ing for dummies – that helps me figure out most of the ‘home repairs’ that I might need to undertake, and can go online for additional information.  Mind you we do not have a motor home – those sometimes need the attention of a mechanic and naturally it’s not easy to leave your home in the shop overnight!

Cleaning is a lot easier and quicker.  And you need a lot fewer cleaning products.

Utilities tend to be cheaper even if they aren’t part of the park rent.  Powering an RV takes less electricity than powering a house of any size.

It’s harder for your teen or pre-teen to get involved in the wrong sort of activity.  Of course the reverse is that it’s hard for your children (or you) to get any sort of privacy.

You are forced to let go of unnecessary possessions.  Painful at first but liberating in the long run.  Seriously, this can really help you to refocus on the important things in life and make you quite nauseous when you realize how much money you spent on unnecessary things like décor in your previous life! All our artwork and knick-knacks, and candles, and potpourri and flower vases and the like are either gone, or, in the case of the best of it, in storage.

If you are really footloose and fancy free and can afford it and take to the road with your family I imagine the learning opportunities for the kids must be fantastic.  The novelty of new sights and places probably help tremendously to keep the family engaged and happy. This is a different lifestyle than ours and in some ways I envy those living it!  I suspect we would feel more of a ‘we’re in this together, team’ if we were on the road.

Downsides – you are much more space constrained and in addition to requiring the culling of possessions, this can be a problem or at least an adjustment in personal relations. If you are used to solitude and privacy don’t expect it in an RV, unless you live alone.  If someone is sick, as my son is tonight, you are privy to every moan and cough.  Bad habits and sleeping patterns are quickly exposed. I recommend families try to get RVs with separate quarters for kids and parents! 

You may not feel established or connected in a community; especially if you are on the road a lot.  It can be lonely and you might feel cut off.  We don’t really have that issue – if you stay in the area and have children in school and sports, or attend a local church, you put down some sort of roots even if they aren’t as deep as those you would have if you lived in the same house for 20+ years.  Anonymity and being the one just passing through aren’t always bad things though – you probably both see the best of a community and see it with clearer eyes.  And if you don’t like what you see, you can move on!  Full-time RV’ing seems to create a community of its own, both in the parks and online (check out FulltimeRVer.com – an online blog for those seeking a lifestyle of ‘freedom and adventure,’ and FOTR (families on the road) a connection resource for families who full-time it. 

There may not be much of a place for kids or dogs to play.  Some parks are better than others in this regard – the more expensive local park has a pool, small playground, basketball court and arcade.  Our park has nothing – nowhere for kids to play.  And your children may not be as safe as they would be living in a house.  Sad to say, but RV parks and mobile home parks do tend to harbor a greater than average percentage of registered sex offenders.  Hence our No. 1 rule!  These issues are part of the reason my youngest are enrolled in the afterschool program (where they have a chance to play, do homework and art projects in a supervised environment) and I enroll the older kids in sports and choir and am willing to drive them to play dates at friends’ homes.  They need time with friends, they need physical activities, and they need to play. 

If you don’t have a lot of savings, or a decent retirement income, it may be hard to generate income while living in an RV – if you are on the road.  Maybe you have the sort of business that can be done from anywhere (life coaching or some other sort of consulting, for instance) or have snagged a fantastic writing assignment about your travels, or have those work/life skills that can find you work in any town in which you land.  Or you migrate from park to park taking on work kamper jobs- host or caretaker positions and it’s easy for you to move on once your work runs out.  But if you don’t fall into these categories it can be hard to support the on the road lifestyle.

Hmm, maybe I should have started with the cons, and ended up with the pros!  I said it before, and I’ll say it again – for those of us who have ended up in rather dire circumstances – unable to find or afford ‘normal’ housing, living in a trailer beats the alternatives – sleeping in tents, or your car, or shelters, or alternating between any of those and a cheap motel just to have a shower and a night’s sleep in privacy and security.  That’s hard!  This is quite doable.

I came across this on the web – an article titled “Is Living in Small Spaces Cruel to Children?”  Naturally I had to read it – wouldn’t want children’s protective services to come knocking at the door, after all!  It turned out that CoteMaison in France profiled a very space-age and small (431 SF) apartment that houses a family of four and a dog. It has a kids’ room that any kid would love in a raised section (I think the kids’ room is larger than our trailer), a sleek kitchen (with counter space), a living room with a Murphy bed for the parents and a porta potty sized bathroom.

Personally I was impressed by the use of space, although I would never chose to have such a WHITE apartment with kids and a dog.  I lived in a little cottage of only 400 SF with my first daughter (and 3 cats) – a 20×20 square divided into three 10×10 rooms (2 bedrooms and a living room) and two 5×10 rooms- the bathroom and kitchen.  Built as a vacation home over half a century ago it had no closets and very little storage.  I found it cramped.

The French apartment story was picked up by Apartment Therapy in the U.S, where some respondents called it cruelty to children.  Americans just couldn’t believe that 4 people could live in such a small space.  One respondent even went so far as to suggest that “in the US the children would be taken.” Interestingly the Europeans who commented scoffed at US sensibilities and told their own tales of living in very tiny apartments with their parents while growing up, and continuing to live in small places as adults.

However not all Americans were disparaging. The following comment reminded me of what a youngster living in an RV with his siblings and parents (previously mentioned in my post “The Romantic Version of Our Life”) had to say about how when they lived in a house everyone disappeared into their own rooms and only emerged at meal times and that living in an RV was bringing them closer together.

“Overall I think learning to manage living in closer spaces with family teaches children tolerance and vital social skills to adapt to new environments and to be comfortable and stress free in a variety of living situations.”

While some people – you know those liberal environmentally aware, frugal-living folks – have embraced the small houses movement (see Tiny House Blog), most Americans still think bigger is better.  And we aren’t alone. In fact we’ve been out McMansioned by the Aussies!  The typical size of a new Australian home hit 215 square meters (2,314 SF) in 2009, up 10 per cent in a decade, according to Bureau of Statistics data compiled for Commonwealth Securities.

In a sea change, the US figures show the size of new American homes shrinking from 212 square meters (2,281 SF) before the financial crisis to 202 square meters (2,174 SF) in September 2009.  For years, the size of the average American home has been getting larger and larger while family size has been declining.  But now USA TODAY reports an abrupt change. As of last year, the average size of a new home was roughly 15% smaller than it was the year before.

What’s brought about that change?  Global warming and environmental consciousness?  Loneliness as we rattle around in houses that could house an extended family or two?  Or maybe the recession? We may think bigger is better, but can we afford it?  Of course, our spending has been reduced in so many areas. But the pivotal expense in our lives still remains housing. Having housing expenses that are too large can really eat up your budget, limiting the amount you can spend on discretionary purchases (new car, vacations, private schools) or save for your children’s college, and your own retirement.  Simply put, buying too much house is an unproductive use of American capital.

And globally, our competitors and trading partners aren’t expending their capital on ‘too much house’.  New homes in other parts of the world are far smaller, with Denmark the biggest in Europe at 137 square meters (1,474 SF) and Britain the smallest at 76 square meters (818 SF).

According to China Tibet Online, the average residential area of Tibetan herdsmen is 172.6 square meters, or 1,857 square feet – the size of a 3 bedroom house in Morningside, FL listed for sale at $450,000.  How weird is that? What’s more (if you can trust their figures) 98.7 percent of Tibetan herdsmen own their own homes.  Currently (2009 figures) home ownership in America is only at 67.3 percent.  

“It will be a long time before people think of owning a home as a good investment again,” said John Vogel, a professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. “A lot of what drives housing is psychological, and right now there’s a distinct lack of confidence in real estate.”

Wonder what skills it takes to become a herdsperson in Tibet?

An article titled “Family life in less than 1,000 square feet” on MSN Money details how squeezing four or more people into a small apartment or tiny bungalow can be done, and the families who say the payoffs can be worth it.

Even in the median-sized 2,469-square-foot American home, many parents would tell you there’s more stuff than space. And yet families of four, six and even eight are willingly squeezing themselves into apartments and bungalows of 1,000 square feet or less, sacrificing space for nice neighborhoods with good schools or rich cultural amenities.  (Umm, like living in Paris?)

Families living in RVs have taken the sacrifice to another level!  Check out this nicely done blog – Traveling on the Outskirts – chronicling the life of 2 professionals who have sacrificed the house, car, big TV and full-time jobs to travel around the country while living in a pop-up trailer!  You think our place is small- well theirs is teeny-tiny! 

We haven’t sacrificed for nice neighborhoods or rich cultural amenities!  The interior dimensions of our trailer – including the bed, sofa, and dinette and bathroom, not just the floor space – are approximately (it’s hard to measure – do we include the sinks, bathtub, stove and frig in the available square footage?) 9 x 23 or 207 SF.  Is it cruel to children (or their parent, why does no one think of the parent?) to live in such a small space?  Possibly.  My young son sleeps on the floor, and chafes at the lack of space to spread out his Legos and hot wheel cars.  My youngest daughter sleeps with me, as do numerous hard plastic Barbie dolls, the 2 dogs and the cat (who defends her claim on our pillows with sharp claws), which results in a very poor night of sleep for mom.  My middle daughter has claimed the sofa as her own since it is her bed at night, spreading out her possessions and tucking books, stuffed animals and homework in the crack between the bed and wall, and we no longer bother transforming it from bed to community seating during the day. 

But I think my oldest, my 12-year old tween, suffers most of all. Her bed must be remade daily into the dinette. She wants to talk to, or text, friends in private but has to retire to the car in order to do so.  She crushes on a boy in her class but we can’t have him over to hang out and they are too young to go off on their own.  She ‘needs’ to wash her long hair daily, and attend to other adolescent ablutions but as soon as she locks herself in the bathroom a sibling is pounding on the door with an urgent need to ‘go’!  Adolescence is the time to begin separating (within reason) from one’s family, to develop some independence, a sense of self.  I wonder how our living situation will hinder her.  She is a remarkable good sport and great help, even with the occasional flaring of teen attitude.  She is a straight A student and is involved in sports and theater.  She wants to help the homeless and study to become an architect.  I promised to take good care of her when I adopted her.   Some days I wonder if she would be better off adopted by a Tibetan herdsman.

We had to move our trailer again today – when we returned from our 72-hr pullout the only open space was one of the larger ones – nice but not for our little trailer, at least not for long.  As soon as a smaller space opened we had to move.  So today, once the kids were in school, we shifted the trailer half a block to the small space at the end of the street. For the most part ‘community’ in the RV Park is limited to the friendly wave or nod when you pass each other on the way to the dumpster or laundry room.  But every once in awhile it goes a bit farther and you engage in conversation and even reach out a helping hand to each other.  That stood us in good stead today as another tenant at the park moved us – free of charge (which is nice because some people have been charged $100 just to have their rig moved from one spot to another) and helped us get hooked back up (every time you move you disconnect water, sewer, and electric systems, and turn off propane, wind up the jacks… it’s a process and if you don’t do it regularly you have to remind yourself not to unplug the electricity before pulling in the partial slide!).  Another tenant lent me her level so we could make sure we were level enough to put the slide out (we had one but my young son worked his magic on it and I couldn’t find it).  And yet another helped restart the water heater (oh, yeah – it’s got to be reconnected to the battery) and promises to come back later to help figure out why the oven doesn’t work.  So we are ‘settled’ in for the rest of the month at least and perhaps longer. 

I’m hoping it’s just the rest of the month and this is why – I’ve applied to be a campground host at the local state park.  If we get the “job” (completely volunteer- no money involved) we will get a free campsite that includes a much larger spot, a picnic table and fire ring.  Water, electricity and sewer hook ups are included (no internet sadly).  The job is a ‘natural resources’ host  – which means I’d spend a certain amount of time each week helping to protect endangered shore bird nesting habitat in exchange for our camp spot and the position could last as long as 5 months.  It could limit my ability to collect unemployment but the rent savings would be great and the additional space would make it easier to undertake the floor replacement project.  It’s not a sure thing by any means – in fact I have the impression that it might not come through because the park administration would prefer a host without children – but I should know next week.  If we get it, it will be worth the hassle of shutting down, pulling out and setting back up again!  Especially as the visit to the dentist yesterday revealed my middle daughter needs a root canal to deal with the cavity in her permanent molar.

Living in your RV (or travel trailer as in our case) is different from using it for vacations. In the case of the latter you willingly forgo access to most of your possessions. You pack light. For instance you don’t take your library on holiday (unless you are a lucky owner of a kindle).  But when you live in your travel trailer with 4 school-aged children and inconsistent access to the internet, you have a bookshelf with a couple dozen books on it.  Likewise, you have more toys, more clothing, more pots and pans, more pairs of shoes; well, more of everything.  It’s hard to pack light for living!  This plethora of possessions (even pared down) hinders the mobility of your ‘mobile home’ as we discovered during our required 72-hour pullout from the park this past weekend.

One of the first ‘home improvement’ projects I undertook after we moved into our trailer was to, with a great deal of difficulty (crowbar required), remove the small cabinet bolted to the back of the dinette.  It had to go- it had three shelves, measuring approximately 8×8 inches.  Cute – but pathetically inadequate for our needs.  I replaced it with a folding bookshelf, 3 shelves, each 3 feet wide and 12 inches deep.  Perfect- each child was then given a fabric box (you’ve seen them at Target) in which to store their possessions.  When placed on the shelves, there remained room at the end for some books and the binder that stores our DVDs.  The top shelf holds the art box, more books and whatever miscellaneous stuff has been piled there at the moment.   This is a very efficient use of what would be walkway space behind the dinette.  Very efficient for day to day use and a disaster when the trailer hit the road. 

Knowing that we had to pull out I boxed a lot of stuff from inside the trailer, and pulled all the plastic tubs stored under the trailer, and took it all to the storage unit.  Since the storage unit is stuffed that required a couple days of sorting through and letting go of more possessions- mostly books, toys and clothing.  We used to have a library of over 1,000 children’s books!  Mind you we pared that down considerably during our yard sales last summer.  But I kept a lot too- both kids’ books and my books and those boxes probably make up the largest category of ‘stuff’ in the unit.   But now, as it looks more and more likely that we will not be moving back into a fixed (and larger) dwelling anytime soon, I’ve decided to part with more –there’s nothing worse for books than to be stored and someone really should be reading them.  So several boxes went to the kids’ classrooms, some were put on eBay, others hauled off to the thrift store.  As much as I was tempted to perch on a box in the gloomy storage unit and reread old favorites I persevered and cleared out enough space for the incoming boxes.  

Breakables were put away, the little TV and computer monitor unplugged and stashed on the bed surrounded by pillows, pots and pans that don’t fit into our cupboard (and which usually live on the stovetop) were tucked into the microwave, cords and hoses disconnected, the half-slide (that provides us with an additional foot or so of walkway space) retracted.  The dogs were in the car, the cat we thought would prefer to ride in the trailer.  We were ready to go.  Our friends hooked up the trailer to their super heavy duty truck and our little house wobbled off down the road.  I had a few hours before I could pick up the kids from school so I didn’t get to follow along behind – just as well as apparently our emergency access window started flapping wildly in the highway wind causing our friends considerable concern about whether our cat might try to make a mad dash for freedom.  By the time I learned about this the cat had been ascertained to be safe and sound (albeit somewhat annoyed). 

The little pot of lucky bamboo, wedged in the one kitchen bin, had tipped sideways, the cat’s water dish had spilled, and in addition, the bookshelf had toppled over, spilling the contents of all the kids cubbies (the books had been removed and boxed up but, having run out of room in the storage unit, I’d convinced myself that the shelf would stand and the cubbies would be fine).  Otherwise all was well. Especially as we didn’t have to live in the trailer for the 3 days we spent with friends (although the cat did, resulting in even more outraged cat behavior).  We could leave the TV on the bed, cushioned by pillows, the bag of hoses in the bathtub and the pots in the microwave oven. 

Even with the limited upset it is nevertheless clear to me that any idea of both living in the trailer and journeying around the country in it would require additional sacrifice.  Or a bigger trailer with more storage.  We can’t really travel in this trailer.

We are back in the park now, back to living in a space that seems even smaller after spending a weekend in an expansive house.  We aren’t unpacking much just yet because we only have our slot for 3 nights, then we will have to find someone to help us to move half a block to another slot.  The one we are in now is reserved for a bigger rig starting the 4th.  Once we move again we will settle back in, bring things back from storage, unload the things that are stuffed into the van, start spreading out again, and adding to our possessions, until we do this all over again in August!  If you want lessons on how to de-clutter your life we recommend moving into a 26-foot travel trailer!

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.

I was raised by a mother who took the idea of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ to heart, long before it became a slogan of the green movement. Her recycling involved not only schlepping cans and bottles to the new recycling center but saving egg cartons, shoe boxes, the cardboard from paper towel rolls, and the like to donate to local  preschools for art projects.  Because she didn’t want anything that could be reused, or refashioned into a new use, to go to waste she amassed large collections of materials of all sorts – those waiting for a trip to the recycling center- newspaper, glass bottles, cans, the few plastic containers that were accepted back then; and those waiting for rebirth – old fabric and hand-me-down clothing that could  be made into a quilt, plastic cottage cheese containers that were our ‘Tupperware,’ and old envelopes, the back of which could be used for grocery lists, all of which sat in boxes and paper sacks in the corner of the kitchen.  In addition, coupons, wine bottle corks, string, twisty ties, old keys and paperclips piled up in the junk drawer, and leftover food scraps went into an old plastic gallon ice cream container that sat in the corner of the sink.  Yes, she didn’t just recycle, she composted for use in the garden.

My childhood made me aware that we need to treat both the earth and fellow creatures (people included) with care. So perhaps it’s not surprising that I ended up going into the environmental field.  Being ‘green’ is important to me and I’ve tried to inculcate the same feeling in my children.  While we’ve never been extreme about it, we’ve been conscientious about recycling and have tried to make environmentally conscious decisions. 

But I have to tell you– it’s hard to be green and homeless or alternatively housed.  Now, our homeless friends who live by the celery field do recycle cans – they need the change it provides and can collect garbage bags full and stash them next to their tent – but for the most part if you are living in a tent or sleeping in a car or even living in a travel trailer, it’s not easy to be green.  The RV Park doesn’t have any recycling bins or pick up – just two large trash dumpsters which quickly fill up.  So any recycling we do, we do on our own. Our trailer is very small and we have limited storage space so right now the bathtub is the recycling repository. It’s also the dirty clothes repository, and the full trash bags repository.   With five people we pretty much fill up the tub daily!  (Thankfully the park has showers otherwise we’d be out of luck).  Yes, we could buy 3 or 4 trash cans and keep them outside for our recycling but the park has fairly strict rules about the appearance of the outside area.  We’ve been asked to clean up more than once and that’s just due to the table where the kids play with Legos and Hot Wheels, and skates and scooters scattered about. We also store our shoes and my eBay items in large plastic tubs beneath the trailer.  And if we collected recycling there’s the sorting – no more co-mingled curbside recycling – and bagging, stuffing everything into our car which also already serves as extra storage, and driving to the recycling center which naturally has odd and not terribly convenient hours. 

I’m sorry to admit that I’m not as strict as I used to be about recycling and I feel a twinge of guilt every time I toss out a plastic bottle or tin can (we don’t drink soda so we don’t have the more lucrative aluminum cans of which to dispose) or use a paper plate instead of plastic.  Yes, we use a mix of paper and re-useable place settings.  We have limited room to store and wash dishes and pots and such and hot water uses propane.  Like my mom I used to abhor waste and think of uses for nearly everything that’s left over.  However our storage unit is full to overflowing with things we can’t part with or think we can use some day, and the local preschools seem to prefer to buy art supplies rather than accept my cardboard rolls and wine corks.  So I combat the guilt with the knowledge that at least we inhabit a much smaller footprint on the earth these days- using considerably less electricity, water, and gas- and consuming far, far fewer consumer goods.  On the whole I suspect our new lifestyle is greener – now if I could just convince the park to add a recycling dumpster!

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.