Very few people in my life know that I was homeless once as well. Here’s my story:
How on earth could a 40-something year old woman with a Master’s Degree in International Business and Finance, plus 30 years’ experience in the corporate world and certifications as a personal trainer and Medical Exercise Specialist find herself homeless?
When I say it can happen to anyone, and that it takes one change in your life to set the dominoes in motion, I say it from experience.
What follows is an extremely abridged story of my own experience with homelessness – as long as this story is, it’s only part of what I went through.
Ten years and two months ago, I packed up and moved to Seattle. I had signed a lease a few months earlier, had enough savings for a year, and was confident in my ability to find gainful employment. As my friends and I began the task of moving my things into my new apartment, the apartment manager surprised me by saying I’d been given the wrong monthly rent amount when I’d signed the lease. It turned out the rent was higher than I’d been told. He wanted me to sign a new lease, or I’d have to leave. It didn’t sound legal, but how could I fight it? I had no choice. I had my 19 year old cat, Elsa, with me, and I had no place else to go.
The new rent consumed my savings faster than I imagined it would and I struggled to find any type of decent work. After six weeks of interviewing and sample training/assessment sessions at an uber-exclusive athletic club in Seattle, the director informed me she was making the difficult decision not to hire me because she had someone else with the exact same certification and experience. I applied for jobs as a recruiter – a field in which I had solid references and nearly 11 years of experience – and got no response. As I watched my savings dwindle, I applied for jobs as a barista in the coffee shops around my apartment — but in Seattle, I was up against thousands of applicants with experience. The local grocery store manager handed me an application for work but admitted they probably wouldn’t hire me because I was over-qualified and they figured I wouldn’t stick around long.
Finally, after nearly a year of searching, I found a decent job at a gym as a Medical Exercise Specialist and personal trainer. The money was awful. They paid on a commission basis and had a quota for each trainer based on your monthly billing. The more you billed, the higher your quota climbed. It was never enough to pay the bills plus rent and food and take care of my cat.
I took money out of my 401(k) to keep a roof over my head for Elsa and me, and as I watched the months tick by, I became more frantic and more depressed. I cried. A lot. As her health began to fail, I racked up vet bills. I knew that I would have nowhere to go when my lease was up, and I began to grow despondent. I gave away everything I could and put the rest in a tiny storage unit in preparation.
Homeless shelters were out of the question: I worked from 5:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., and the shelters required me to check out at 8:00 a.m., and no earlier. Then you had to stand in line to check in at 5:00 p.m. – if you got in at all. The shelters I spoke with weren’t interested in my work schedule. Plus, many of the shelters would require me to attend their prayer services twice a day – something that didn’t interest me – and none of the shelters would take me with a cat, anyway.
I confided in just a few friends as my lease was ending. One told me I could stay at his home for a month, but then had to rescind the offer when his live-in girlfriend didn’t want a “homeless person” living in their home. (This same friend gave me a $20 Starbucks gift certificate a month or so later, which I then slipped into the bag of a sleeping homeless man at the local Starbucks. I figured he needed it more than me.) Another friend also offered to let Elsa and me stay with him for a month, then asked me to leave after a week because he realized he didn’t like sharing his home with anyone. I fought back tears and he couldn’t understand why I was crying.
I scrambled. I took out a cash advance from my credit card and found a room to rent month-to-month. It wasn’t a very good situation, but it was a roof over our heads for a month or two until Elsa died. Then, on December 31, Elsa passed away peacefully. A few weeks later, in the middle of January, I moved into my car.
Since I could shower at the gym where I worked, I was always neat and clean. No one at work knew I was homeless. I spent my days acting as if everything was fine. My client list was slowly growing but the money still wasn’t enough to make ends meet. A lot of times there wasn’t even enough to make it to the next paycheck. After work, late in the evening, I’d climb into my car and head to a local Starbucks, where I’d wash up a bit in the bathroom and change into warm clothes. Then I’d get back in my car, drive up the highway, and find a rest stop for the night – one of the most unsafe places to sleep, yes, but it was all I had. Then I’d pull on the flannel-lined coveralls I used to use as a caver many years earlier, climb into my sleeping bag, and hunker down in the driver’s seat to wait out the cold night.
I was lucky to have a car, and I knew it.
After just a few weeks, I began to notice the same cars rotate around the rest stops with me. There was a little comfort in knowing I wasn’t the only one living out of my car.
Frequently, I went days without food and lived on a bodybuilding supplement I’d found stashed in my car. Time seemed to slow down on those days when I had no nourishment. Your body feels different. Your brain feels different. Being hungry is nothing like knowing hunger personally. I just kept my head down and kept going. I was homeless and I couldn’t see a way out. I was ashamed, demeaned, and personally defeated.
In early March, I managed to get a second part-time job as a product rep for a sports marketing company. It required me to travel to races such as 10k’s, half-marathons and marathons. After one race, I approached a bored young man seated an exhibition booth and asked a question. I kept eyeing the large bowl of bite-sized energy bars that was in front of him. The race was done, the runners were almost all gone. Another man approached and asked if the bars were free. The young man gave him a dirty look. When I looked at this other man, he didn’t look homeless at all, but we could see each other in a way no one else could. This other man unabashedly took the bowl and split its contents between the two of us. I didn’t care what the young man in front of us thought – I was hungry and shoved them into my bag. Within minutes, this other hungry man discovered the still-packaged bars ground into the mud by the race participants were still good. He called to me and we ran around pulling the bars from the dirt while the young man looked on, disgusted at our behavior. I didn’t care. All I saw was wasted food – nourishment discarded by people who’d never known hunger and I was hungry, pure and simple.
Early on, I found out I couldn’t go to a food bank for help. I couldn’t prove where I lived anymore, and the rules at these food banks said I had to provide an address to prove I lived in their county. I felt illegal.
Starving, and at my wits’ end one day, I searched out a food bank somewhere, but wasn’t allowed in. Food banks are generally only open twice a month, and new people could only go to this food bank on the last Wednesday of the month. So I returned on the last Wednesday of the month, only to be told I had to wait until everyone else was served. The employees talked amongst themselves. Everyone waiting their turn to get into the pantry to get food could hear them talk about me: What do they do with someone who lives out of her car? Can they break their rules for me? How do they know who I am if I can’t produce an updated driver’s license?
I broke down in sobs as I listened to them talk about me, and begged them for food. I was publicly humiliated, even though I was surrounded by people who wanted to help. I told them I hadn’t eaten in three days, that I just needed something to get me through to pay day. They took me in back and finally found a couple of cans of soup and a couple cans fruit. It all had to have pop-top lids, since I had no can opener. I left feeling utterly ashamed and useless. Here I was a highly educated woman and I was begging for food at a food bank. How could this have happened to me?
This experience with hunger would trigger a compulsive eating disorder with which I still do battle to this day. It changed me as a person – actually, that’s an understatement. It changed everything about who I am, and enabled me to help others who were battling eating disorders and weight loss. I could relate to them in a way no other trainer around me could.
In April, after four short months, I received a text from a friend. He wanted to meet for lunch and I was happy to accept, hoping I could order something cheap with the five dollars in my pocket.
During lunch, he casually asked me where I was living these days and I hesitated before answering. He jokingly said, “Don’t tell me you’re living out of your car.”
He looked at me and said, “Alicia, please don’t tell me you’re living out of your car!”
That’s when my tears started, and so did his.
Within hours, I had moved into his four bedroom, three bathroom home. I had a queen-sized bed and a closet and dressers in my own bedroom, and my own private, full bathroom.
I was saved, I was safe, and I was lucky.
I don’t tell this story very much. Not because I’m ashamed – I’m not ashamed anymore. But I don’t tell it because I had it easy. Very easy.
Homeless people are all around you. Keep that in mind. The barista who looks like he’s having a bad day could be living out of his car. The clerk at the grocery store who seems distracted could be couch-surfing and running out of friends to help her. Even your dental hygienist or physician could be facing homelessness, or actually be homeless. You really don’t know. You just assume they aren’t because they don’t look homeless.
And all those homeless people you see and try to avoid? Each one of them has a story – all of them far more troubling than my own.
Just remember, we’re all human, and we’re all just trying to survive in this crazy world.
So, please be kind.