I pull into a campground, pay my fee and pitch my green, two-person tent beneath the trees in the hills above California's southern coast. Someone has left some firewood, and I split it with my ax and chop some kindling. Within minutes a nice fire is going. I heat up some chunky canned soup on my propane stove and eat it out of a coffee mug along with crackers while sitting in my canvas chair.
For dessert I have a small can of fruit. I look out over a lake and watch the sun set and the fire crackle. It is a relaxing way to end the day. Nearby are families and couples doing much the same thing. Later, I crawl into my sleeping bag and doze off until the sun wakes me in the morning.
I could be one of many vacationers or weekend campers traveling in my clean, red, 5-year-old truck with pickup shell. But this has been my daily routine for 15 months now. On June 2, 2002, I gave up my $750-a-month apartment in Palm Springs, Calif., and put most of my belongings in storage to save money by living out of my truck. I thought it would be for the summer until the economy rebounded and I got public relations consulting and freelance writing work or a full-time job in the field. I never realized then that summer camping would go into fall and then the chill of winter, even in Southern California, then spring, then summer again.
I had no income at all in 2002 and have lived off savings, premature IRA withdrawals, credit cards and then food stamps. I wasn't eligible for unemployment compensation because I was self-employed. I didn't qualify for subsidized housing because I didn't have a steady income. I fell through the cracks of California welfare programs because they are aimed at families with children at home. To save money, I dropped my health insurance two years ago and reduced my vehicle insurance last year to the state minimum. I cook out at campgrounds or eat cheap meals at fast-food places to keep my expenses down. Most of the time I have been in California, but during the winter I camped some along the Colorado River in Arizona and also near Phoenix. This summer I headed north to what I thought would be cooler climes of Montana, but have been in a heat wave. My situation is finally starting to look up. This spring and summer my corporate freelance work picked up, with several small jobs. It's not enough to rent an apartment or room, but I have hope that the work will continue to increase as the economy rebounds, and my plight will end soon.
I am certainly not the only one in this predicament. About 8.9 million people in the USA were unemployed in August, 6.1% of the workforce, according to the Labor Department. More than 3 million people were homeless over the past year, about 30% of them chronically, according to the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty. They are not just the noticeable ones on the street but also families in shelters due to the current economic condition. And, 20% of the homeless have jobs, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors. At California state campgrounds rangers told me there were many homeless families, moving up and down the coast to get around limits on stays. At one state park, I saw one woman each morning drive her son to a bus stop so he could get to school.
Every day, a challenge
In my case, I have had to use various survival skills to cope with living out of my truck and also in dealing with government bureaucracies.
My biggest daily challenge: Finding a campsite, especially in the tourist season, and, when I am in towns, places to go to the bathroom. I am only at campsites at night — sleeping either in my truck or tent — and during the day spend much of the time in libraries surfing the Net for jobs and sending out résumés by e-mail. The corporate writing work that I have gotten I have done in libraries. Sometimes I relax in air-conditioned bookstores and read the papers, magazines and books. I also have used job service computers daily for months in California seeking work, to no avail. Luckily, I have always been able to stay at campgrounds, mostly county, state and federal ones, which range from $10 to $18 a night. Private ones are too expensive. I try to shower daily, and many of the campgrounds have coin-operated showers. I tried showering at friends' homes when I didn't have one at a campground, but they tired of that quickly.
The campgrounds have limits on stays, often seven or 14 days a season. They are intended for recreational use. At one California park I overstayed the 30-day annual limit and was told to leave by a gun-toting ranger who grilled me about my intentions and then gave me a lecture on finding a job. He later relented on throwing me out because it was near Christmas and said I could start the 30 days the first of the year. At a county park, a sympathetic ranger said I could stay over the 14-day limit "if you behave yourself."
Weather also caused me to move around. I camped in the desert of Southern California in the winter, near Palm Springs, despite temperatures in the 30s and 40s at night in December and January. I had to move into a Motel 6 once due to the cold and another time because of heavy rain. When the weather got too hot in the spring in the desert, I camped at higher elevations or along the coast venturing into pleasant cities like Santa Barbara and San Clemente to use libraries.
Some campgrounds can be risky. Some even have signs warning of theft, mountain lions or, in Montana, grizzly bears. I had items taken three times, twice by other campers and once by a worker, but all were recovered. At one state park on the ocean north of Santa Barbara, a mountain lion walked through my campsite at dusk while I was tending a campfire. I slept in my truck that night instead of my tent.
Falling through the cracks
At first I wasn't eligible for food stamps because I had more than $2,000 (the maximum allowed to qualify) to my name and because I thought my truck was worth too much. But eventually, the money ran out and I found out that my truck, with more than 170,000 miles on it now, was worth less than the $4,650 the food stamp program allows. I got anywhere from nothing to $139 a month in food stamps depending on my freelance income for the month. I had several glitches on food stamp amounts due to errors by bureaucrats, but I appealed and won.
Other government programs weren't much better. At a job service office I was told that I couldn't send e-mails to apply for jobs, until I objected that many employers wanted applications for public relations and journalism positions sent that way. I didn't find the job service program much help, with aides more interested in finding me some menial labor job rather than one in my field or in a related area like marketing or sales. Low on money, I did apply for retail jobs in hardware, department, lighting, copying and other stores, even a bottling plant, but was either turned down as overqualified or for not having the right experience. I think some of the employers thought I would leave as soon as I found something better.
Many of my friends and acquaintances kept pressuring me to take any job and forget about my profession. I continued to press for jobs in my field, public relations or journalism, but postings were few. Some jobs I was told had 200 to 300 applicants, with many going to young workers. I will turn 60 this year and wondered if age was a factor.
At one point, I was down to my last $200. I borrowed some money from friends when relatives refused loans, with one saying he was out of work and another that he had been unemployed for several months and was still getting back on his feet. I was surprised which friends loaned me $200 or $300, different from the ones I had thought I could count on. My ex-wife and her husband surprised me by loaning me some money. One campground worker asked me: "Do you have any kids who can help you out?" I get little show of concern or contact from one adult daughter and haven't heard from the other at all, although I never asked them for any money. No one wants a homeless person for a father. When you are having troubles is when you need a supportive family. Even priests I know at churches I attended weren't sympathetic or helpful, with one refusing to meet with me, saying he was too busy. Most homeless are worse off than I am, not having a truck to live in and a cell phone to use, and some have mental problems. I never went to a shelter, figuring paying for campsites was more like being a snowbird.
Living on fast food; making the best of things
One of the most difficult aspects of living out of my truck was finding places to go to the bathroom or just to sit during part of the day. I quickly learned the ropes. I often ate in fast-food joints because of the $1 promotional items. Two of those made a meal. McDonald's and others had plenty of homeless people sitting around drinking coffee. I ended up spending time in those places reading the paper in the morning and stopping in to use the bathrooms. Other places I found that had plenty of restrooms were Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Borders and shopping malls. Sometimes I would get a cheap meal at a food court in a mall. When I wanted to treat myself to dinner, like when I got a loan, I could only afford to go to Denny's and order a senior meal. But it sure tasted good to me. I found I gained weight, 10 pounds in a year, despite being homeless because of the constant fast food. I started cutting back, getting cereal, fruit and deli sandwiches with my food stamps.
I discovered after a while that it would have been cheaper to rent a room than to pay $400 to $500 a month in campground fees and additional money for storage and for gas. I looked for rooms, but found that no one wanted to rent to me since I didn't have steady work.
Another drawback to my plight was getting daily phone calls from bill collectors and credit card companies because I had had $25,000 in debt on my credit cards and was unable to make payments. Chase bank was the worst, calling me every day. If I didn't answer, messages were left. "How are you able to pay for a cell phone?" one caller from a collection agency demanded. (It is the one bill I pay so I can use the phone for work and so potential employers can contact me about jobs.) In addition to credit card companies, I owe the IRS money as penalty for early IRA withdrawals — before I was age 591/2 and eligible. I have considered bankruptcy but have put it off, waiting to see if my situation improves. Under the law, I still would have to pay my taxes even if I filed for bankruptcy.
I also learned to live without TV and without knowing much detail about most news. I didn't pay much attention to the war in Iraq, terrorism, politics, the latest movies, music and trends. Mostly I was with nature at campgrounds in places like the Salton Sea, Joshua Tree National Park, state beaches along the coast of Southern California, national forests in the mountains and county parks. I even went up to Yosemite for a while and also Northern California. I walked along the ocean or in the desert. This summer it has been in Glacier National Park and Yellowstone. Last summer I heard a wolf howl in the wild at night and saw grizzly bears, the first in Montana and the second in Wyoming. I read books on theology and history in bookstores. I built campfires and watched sunsets and sometimes even a sunrise. I would pray and meditate at night and in the morning. Because of that I was at ease during much of this. "I envy you," said one harried food stamp supervisor. "I know it is difficult, but to us workers in cubicles it sounds good," said a corporate friend in the Silicon Valley. I don't enjoy living like this, but try to make the best of it.
Finally, a light for me, and for all of us
Now, finally, things are improving. I got work in March and through the spring and summer, small jobs, from a former client on the East Coast. One article I ghost wrote for him appeared as an op-ed piece in a national newspaper. I got him interviews with the press around the country, calling from my cell phone or e-mailing from libraries, with no one the wiser, all probably thinking I was a successful PR person.
I sold some photos I took in 1979 on a movie set to a documentary film company. I got a writing assignment from a computer company in the Silicon Valley this summer, and there is possibility of more, the first time I have had work from that client in three years. Public relations job postings on the Internet have increased. I am not eligible for food stamps anymore because I am making more than the limit of $960 a month, another good sign. I've even gotten some welcome relief from sleeping outdoors. I have recently stayed with friends in Montana and Washington and slept in real beds.
To be sure, my work is sporadic and doesn't pay nearly as well as it did a few years ago when times were good. And I sense that the recovery isn't broad yet. But, already I am back in California, closer to potential work when the economy does come back.
Hopefully coming soon is sleeping in a bed every day, a place of my own and some security. No more camping except on vacation, and that not for a while.
I'm ready for a more normal, healthier life again. Let the good times roll! I think the whole country is ready for good economic times. The recession wasn't fun for any of us.
Les Gapay is a public relations consultant and writer. He is a former Wall Street Journal reporter.
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