I have lived the last five years out of backpacks and vehicles.
I’ve walked and hitchhiked thousands of miles, sleeping outside hundreds of times with nothing but what I could carry on my back.
At times I’ve had almost no money; I once lived for three months on $100.
And yet, I can tell you with certainty that I’ve never been homeless, and I can hardly fathom what that would be like.
Dissatisfied with the career lifestyle
I grew up in a solidly middle class family with loving parents. I’m a white, male, relatively able-bodied person. I was good at math and logical thinking, so it wasn’t too hard to get an engineering degree and start a career in that field.
I made $70k/year by age 24. I was married and we lived in a condo with our great dane; we were comfortable. But I had this itch to explore the extremes, away from society’s programming, with no one but myself to answer to. I’d gotten into backpacking and I wanted to hike the Pacific Crest Trail.
The urge grew stronger when my prosthetic pulmonary valve got infected, requiring 6 weeks of IV antibiotics. My congenital heart defect, and open heart surgery at age 15, had always been a constant reminder of my mortality and the uncertain nature of the future.
My subconscious was nagging at me: “If there’s something you want to do in this life, you better do it now!”
I wasn’t satisfied spending my life in an office, using my energy to work on things I didn’t care about in order to make someone else rich. I wanted to use my time to think freely, to learn and unlearn, to have exceptional experiences.
So I did a very selfish thing. I divorced my wife. She kept the furniture, the kitchenware, the dog; I kept the camping gear and my computer. I got rid of as much stuff as I could, saved my money, and in the spring of 2014 (at age 26) I quit my job and flew to the southern terminus of the PCT to hike a 2,650 mile trail.
It took me a total of seven months over two summers to hike the PCT. By many people’s definition, I was homeless. I slept outside, I didn’t shower for many days at a time, I walked or hitchhiked everywhere, I had no place of residence to return to.
Some of us hikers would joke: look at us, a bunch of homeless bums, reclining in the dirt, smelling horrible, isn’t it hilarious? But this kind of joking was ignorant in hindsight.
Defining homelessness simply by whether or not you have a home completely misses the point.
I was houseless, yes; I was living without a traditional housing arrangement.
But I was doing it on purpose, because I enjoyed it. That’s the big difference.
I didn’t have a house, but consider what I did have. I had money in the bank. I had a plan. I had mental and physical health. I had my own sense of agency and the means to control my fate. My lifestyle was chosen in response to my deep desire for a profound experience.
Most importantly, I had a way out if I grew unhappy with the lifestyle. Both of my parents had houses I could return to if necessary. I had enough money saved that I could have rented a living space at any time.
I had a blast being houseless, and I never once feared that it would become a permanent state.
Real homelessness is living outside because you lack the ability, resources, or social status to pay rent and live inside, even though you’d prefer it. There’s nothing fun about that at all.
Navigating houselessness after the trail
By the time I finished the PCT I was completely disillusioned with the idea of having a career and a house. I wanted to spend less time working and more time doing what I was interested in.
I bought a 1981 VW Rabbit and converted it into a camper. It was cramped, but hey, it was like having a tent that could drive itself and play music, so it was quite a step up from backpacking.
I didn’t work at all for the remainder of my 20s. I relied on stored-away wealth; I sold my 2012 Kia and cashed out my $15,000 retirement account, and as my money decreased, so did my daily spending; an asymptote of frugality.
I spent the winter of 2016 living in my car in Moab, UT, and this was when I got my first taste of just a few of the hardships that homeless people endure.
Stealth camping on the street with almost no money, I used public bathrooms, had no way to cook food, and had all my belongings with me in my car. Par for the course. I was used to that.
The difference this time was the cold.
The library was open from 9AM to 8PM, a warm comfortable place to exist for which I was extremely grateful. But come 8:05 I was back out in the cold of night for 13 hours with no place to go but my car. I couldn’t afford to hang out in bars or restaurants. It was as cold inside my car as outside.
There I was, locked in 100 cubic feet, well below freezing, as though I’d moved a big freezer out onto the street and decided it might be a fun place to spend my time. I had enough sleeping bags to stay warm when I was in bed; but staying in bed for 13 hours a day is a miserable way to live. I felt trapped there because any part of my body that was exposed to air got cold quickly.
My water supply was half frozen and made me cold, so I got dehydrated instead of drinking it. I had a hard time sleeping sometimes. Showers and good meals were rare. I just wanted the weather to be warm so I could exist comfortably. Every morning, frozen condensation coated the inside of my car.
My diet went downhill, and combined with the lack of sleep, I felt a surreal haze as I went about my day with no clear purpose. It added a dimension of helpless anxiety to my life. It was a real low point for me.
Then, my friends went out of town for a couple weeks and invited me to stay at their house while they were gone. Oh my god, this was like heaven. Life was so damn easy all of a sudden. I had everything I could ever need! Warmth! Privacy! Kitchen appliances! Hot water! A real bed! Space to move around! Internet! Electricity!
Do you wonder why so many homeless people blow their monthly welfare checks on just a few days’ stay in a motel? It’s because living without secure access to the basic necessities is exhausting. They’re dying for just a taste of the luxury and convenience that housed people take for granted every day.
As hard as this experience was for me, I’m fully aware that it was barely a fraction of how hard life is for homeless people who can’t find a way out.
I wasn’t suffering from any addictions, any horrible family trauma, any mental or physical health issues. I had an education and no criminal record. I had ways to change my situation and I stayed by choice. I try to imagine what it would be like to have some of those complicating factors and live a rough life on the street, for years… and it hurts my brain.
Eventually, I got a job, and upgraded to a minivan, and then to a shuttle bus which I am now in the process of converting to an RV. I realized I wanted to make it easier to meet my basic needs comfortably while still living on wheels.
When I got tired of my situation I easily landed the first job I applied for and turned things around.
Why this all matters
The reason I want to draw a distinction between homeless and houseless is not to distinguish myself from the homeless class. I don’t really mind how people think about my social position, or who I get lumped in with.
The distinction is important because so many people are suffering, and if people start to think homelessness is some kind of fun lifestyle experiment, it draws attention away from the absolute misery that the homeless endure. It’s absolutely shameful that we perpetuate (and eagerly benefit from) the economic and legal systems that throw so many people into a living hell.
For many thousands of Americans, it’s hard to see beyond surviving the day — thy struggle to meet the most basic of needs, which frequently go unmet. And yet the higher socioeconomic classes sneer at them and wonder why they don’t pick themselves up by the bootstraps and start making the choices that will lead to “success”.
The reason is very simple: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If someone faces extreme difficulty obtaining food, water, warmth, shelter, sleep, and safety, how are they going to focus on building loving connections and self esteem? If they can’t build those things, how are they going to work on self-actualization — the necessary ingredient necessary for self-extraction from a very difficult situation? Planning an escape from that kind of hell requires long-term vision, yet all energy must be spent surviving today.
If we really want to help homeless people, I think we should help them meet their basic needs in a secure, stable way. Let’s give them homes first without presenting additional barriers. Let’s not withhold financial aid because they suffer from addiction. Let’s not make it hard for them to find bathrooms, water, food, or a place to sleep. Let’s not stigmatize them for mental illness or substance issues.
There are some actions we can all take to help, but ultimately this is a system-level problem. We live in a society that worships money and creates this class of people as a waste byproduct. The reality is, we have enough resources to house and feed all humans. It’s a question of distribution, it’s a question of our values and what we’re motivated to do with our resources. Our economy is huge. There is excess everywhere.
I want to see a future where we manage our excesses in a better way, which will meet the needs of those who endure the worst suffering before it provides another billionaire with another billion dollars.
Don’t listen to the people who say homeless people deserve it because they did something wrong. It’s inhumane, but more than that, it’s shitty logic; all kinds of people end up on the street for a multitude of reasons. Our current approach to homelessness costs us a lot, both in dollars and humanity.
Adopting a housing-first approach would cost a trivial percentage of our annual budget and it would give hundreds of thousands of people a realistic path to regaining their dignity, stability, health, and productivity.