The Homeless Chronicles Pt. 7: Hidden Homeless: Car-Dweller Culture

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If you haven’t had the opportunity or inclination to read any of my other many blogs about being homeless, I will give you a quick briefing: I’m a 49 year-old white female, college -educated former business owner and artist. I became homeless a year ago, and my blog chronicles the adventure from the beginning up until now (I’m still homeless). I didn’t become homeless as a result of mental illness, drug-addiction, alcoholism, or domestic violence. I became homeless as a result of a declining economy, just like millions of other American small-business owners. You’d be shocked to find out how fast your life can and will unravel after only two months of little-to-no income. If it could happen to me, it can happen to anyone. 

Sure, of course you’ve seen homeless people milling around town like zombies. They’re like the dregs of society; unwanted, insane, filthy people who make public nuisance of themselves by talking out loud to nobody and begging for your spare change. We have varying levels of tolerance for these people, because some of them appear to be quite “normal” and even fun to talk to. Some look like they’ve been on the street their whole lives, and some look like they just arrived. Some are coherent, and some are far from it. Some of them strike a chord in us, possibly because they remind us of someone we know or used to know. Some make us wonder how they got there, and some make it very clear how they got there. The ones that make me the saddest, and the most curious, are the women. Seeing a woman on the street makes me feel such a wide range of emotions, partly because I’ve always known that they are in much more danger than men. Hell, they’re in much more danger because of men. The other part of me is mystified over how her relatives (she’s someone’s Mom, for Christ’s sake! Or daughter or sister!) let this happen to her. How could anyone let something like this happen to a woman?

I’ve been utterly fascinated by the homeless since I was a kid. Who were they and how did they get that way? Since I was raised in poverty myself, the presence of homeless people was noticeable and common. I felt sorry for them, and tried to help them however and whenever possible. My friends were mostly the same way. Giving the other half of an unfinished sandwich to the guy on the sidewalk was just common behavior in our world, as was expecting to give out change and cigarettes on on a daily basis, wherever we went.

But something I never noticed before I became homeless myself, was the massive numbers of people who live in their cars. Now, maybe I never noticed them because they were just really well-hidden. Or maybe I never noticed them because their numbers were fewer in the past than they are now. Maybe a combination of both. But now that I am part of that culture, I see it everywhere I go. It’s kind of like when you buy a Mustang, all you see on the road are other Mustangs. You notice every Mustang, even from blocks away! That’s how “Car-Dweller Culture” is. Once you become one of them, you see them everywhere you look.

I’ve been homeless for almost a year now, yet less than half of that time was spent actually sleeping in my car. Half of that time was spent either on the sofas of friends, or in seedy motels in the bad area of town. My “ghetto-of-choice” was the north side of Van Nuys, because that’s where my shop was, and where my storage was. I could simply go to my storage and swap out my dirty clothes for clean ones, and pick up/drop off my makeup kit and camera gear for days that I got hired for work. Those very few days I could work were a Godsend. The few pennies earned here and there were my very survival, as they kept gas in the tank and Cup O’Noodles flowing.

It wasn’t until nine months later that I ran out of resources, i.e.: friends, that I was forced to live in the car full-time, with no more sofas or motels to enjoy. That day was October 9th, the day I arrived back in Los Angeles from San Rafael. I had spent every dime I earned up north on a Craig’s List shit-wagon, and I had no more options whatsoever. My whole homeless experience suddenly became very real, and very grim. The “adventure” portion of the experience was now over, and I was in full-blown survival mode. Although I had spent many nights in the truck before this, I still managed to break up the monotony with an occasional motel. I was still managing to keep a positive attitude, because my adventurous spirit was still able to derive some kind of excitement from sleeping under the desert stars, and driving all day to new and undiscovered towns. However, the car I bought was so run down and unreliable, that I could no longer book jobs around town out of fear of breaking down (which happened daily). I could no longer head up to the beach and watch the sunset from the bluffs of Malibu. Now I was truly trapped; no place to work, and no way to work somewhere else. It was just me and my cat in a broken-down car in some random Taco Bell parking lot in Los Angeles.

A Day in the Life of a Car-Dweller:

I wake up during the very early hours of dawn, sore from being cramped in a tiny backseat, freezing cold and bladder bursting. I’m fully dressed, with shoes and jacket, because pajamas are out of the question. I’m usually parked on some residential street in front of someone’s house. The reason is because if someone breaks into the car and attempts to rape me, I can honk the horn and wake everyone in the neighborhood. Parking lots are not as safe, but they are usually well-lit, and if someone breaks into the car to rape me, I can honk and flash my lights to get attention. Most of the time I choose the residential streets, because parking lots make me feel like a sitting duck for thieves, rapists, and cops. After I wake up, I have to start the car and drive somewhere to use the restroom. Usually I go to big grocery stores, because they don’t notice me. I can brush my teeth, wash my face, pee, change clothes, and get something to eat all under the same roof, so it’s convenient.

After my usual morning ritual, I will drive around a bit to wake up. I usually have at least 4 hours to kill before I can go to the library to use the internet. Those four hours are the hardest time of the day for me, because there is literally nothing to do but sit in the car and wait. Since I don’t have an income, I can’t waste the gas, nor can I take a chance on the car breaking down. I have to stay in the same general neighborhood, and that really sucks for me. If I had a good car, I could at least drive to nicer places and enjoy some scenery, or even take some photos.

Once 10am rolls around, I can spend the day in the library. I post ads on Craig’s List for live-in jobs (of which only freaks and weirdos reply to), or advertise my own photo/makeup services (of which I have to turn down because I don’t have a location to work from), or apply for apartment manager jobs (of which I have never received a single call back). When the library closes, I get back into the car and go find a safe place to park. This is also a hard time of day for me, because it’s still early and I’m not tired yet. I have to find a way to pass the time, since I don’t have access to electricity to watch movies on my laptop, or to even surf the internet. My laptop battery is bad, and runs out of juice in only a few minutes. In the summer I used to read because it stayed light out until 9pm, but in the winter it’s dark by 5pm, so that shortens my night quite a bit. Sometimes I’ll take Sookie-Bojo (she’s my faithful feline companion) to the park, which she doesn’t mind if there are no dogs around.

The routine itself probably doesn’t sound so bad to most people, because they don’t know about the emotional side of it. To most people, this routine can be compared to camping, in that I just don’t have access to simple things like electricity or running water. The hard part about all of this is the pain of memory. I remember my house and everything in it. I remember the smell of my sheets, and the feeling of being able to go into the kitchen any time I felt hungry and actually being able to cook something for myself with my pots and pans. I remember laying on my couch and watching TV. I remember having a normal life, and the luxury of going to the bathroom any time I wanted. The luxury of having my clothes hanging in a closet, the luxury of being able to shower any time I wanted. Most people have no idea what it’s like to have no access to these simple luxuries. They have no idea what happens to your nerves, your sleep habits, your diet, your skin, your hair, your soul….

The memories of your old life are the worst part of being homeless. You just want to go home, but you can’t.

Car-Dweller Culture: Making Friends

It’s a normal thing for us car-dwellers to run into each other from time to time. Since I’m mainly confined to one area now, I see all the other car-dwellers fairly regularly. You start to recognize each other’s cars. I see the same van every time I go to the library, because the older black guy that lives in it always uses the library’s internet too. I see him at the grocery store in the morning, and I see him parked at Taco Bell at night (leeching off their WiFi after library hours like I do). I see the same lady in her Jetta every time I go to the Burbank Library, and the same Winnebagos/RVs whenever I hang out at the park. Car-dwellers are easy to spot because they always have t-shirts covering their windows and they have a ton of crap in their cars, like blankets and clothes. Or they’re laying down in the backseat reading a book. Sometimes we talk to each other and swap stories, and a lot of the time their stories are very similar to mine. We both started out having everything in life, and some unforeseeable force came along and took it all away from us.

Friend to the Rescue: Thanks for the Electricity!

I got really lucky a few weeks ago when a friend of mine gave me permission to park outside his business. He lets me park in front of his building at night, and hooks up an extension cord for me. I can plug in my laptop and watch movies now, and I can even go inside and microwave food and use his restroom. I can sleep out front and feel safe, and I can use the bathroom in the morning before his co-workers show up. It makes a huge difference for me, and makes the lifestyle just a little more bearable. And yes, it’s fucking humiliating as hell.

Trapped in Car-Dweller Culture: Why We Can’t Escape

I’m sure anyone who is reading this is confused about how and why someone can actually live like this, and I will tell you. The answer is easy. It takes a lot of money to rent an apartment these days. Especially if you have bad credit like I do. It takes about $5,000 to rent an apartment in Los Angeles, and raising that kind of money while you are homeless is next to impossible. Any pennies that you earn by doing odd jobs here and there are put toward gas for the car and food to stay alive. If I’m really lucky, I’ll get a cheap motel for the night so that I can pretend to be human for a day. I’ve said it many times: once someone has fallen below a certain line, it’s impossible to get back up. So the next time you spot one of us living in a car in some parking lot of some grocery store, have a little compassion. You have no idea how hard it is to live like this, and how emotionally draining it is to ache for your old life. Not all of us are crazy drug addicts. In fact, you won’t see me panhandling. EVER. I get my dimes and nickels from doing makeup jobs on clients (and I don’t tell them I’m homeless, either) or odd photography jobs. My pennies go toward clean socks, shampoo, cat food/litter, and sometimes a nice sandwich.

The bottom line? Don’t judge us car-dwellers as crazy or addicted losers. We’re just trying to stay alive in a world that would rather we disappear. We’re just people who, for whatever reason, ran out of options and friends who were able to help.

How Can YOU Help a Car-Dweller?

How can you help a car-dweller without giving them paper money they might spend on something they actually need or want, like pizza or toothpaste? The best thing in the world you can do for a “worthy and deserving” homeless person is to give them a motel voucher or gift-card. Find a low-cost motel and book them a night or two. I’m not talking about the Embassy Suites. They’d probably get kicked out for looking too “scary” anyway. They would be more than happy with a night at a place you would never dream of staying at, so long as it has a bed, shower, and T.V. so they can watch the news before falling into a blissful night of sleep in an actual bed. You take ice for granted, but we do not. We don’t get to enjoy cold drinks or chewing on ice cubes, because we don’t have access to electricity in our world. You probably can’t even imagine that.

How about filling up their gas tank? There are two things us car-dwellers always need: gas and electricity. It would be so great if the city would have little electricity stations for homeless people to charge their phones and warm up their soup, LOL! Do you have a relatively sane-looking car-dweller in your neighborhood? Let them park in your driveway once a week for electricity, or let them use your garden hose to wash their hair. Most people would rather die than do either of these things. Maybe they would consider it if it were their little sister who needed it? Or in my case, probably not. Just a thought.

*This is not a photo of me. This comes from an L.A. Times article about car-dwellers.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. jackcollier7 says:

    I lived in my sports car for a couple of months, in the summer. It was terrible and I identify with everything you have written here. Stay strong,

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