Four Months as a Nomad Consultant
From August 29th to December 31st of 2016, I lived as a homeless, nomad management consultant. In that time, I slept in 25 different places across 14 states and two countries. Among the places I slept were 4-star hotels, couches of friends, couches of friends of friends, Air BnB rentals, air mattresses, airplane seats, and my old bedroom at my parent’s house. I flew 26 times in those four months including 20 times from August 29th to October 16th.
It all started this summer, when my apartment lease was due to expire and I needed to find another place to live. Instead of signing a new lease, I moved mostly all of my possessions into a storage unit. My belongings shrank to just a backpack, a carry-on suitcase, and all that I could fit inside those two bags. And that was entirely sufficient to sustain me for those four months and even longer if necessary. I packed a week’s worth of clothes (and did laundry every weekend), my laptop (which, combined with my iPhone Hotspot, allowed me to work from anywhere in the world), a book, toiletry bag, my passport and that was pretty much it apart from a few other smaller items.
At the time I gave up my apartment, I was traveling so much, every week for my project assignment and then alt-traveling most weekends to other cities that it didn’t make much sense to me to have an apartment if I didn’t have to. I felt that it was holding me back from being out in the world and experiencing stuff. I read somewhere that a true consultant only owns what he can carry with him on an airplane and I felt “Yes” that’s exactly how it should be. Up in the Air style. I would travel around the country and visit friends from college, family members, and see places and states I had never been before. Being a nomad felt adventurous and life-giving.
This endeavor was also an experiment in homelessness. In the summer after I graduated college, I worked at a homeless shelter called Andre House in Arizona. There, I saw how the guests would fit their belongings in just a couple of bags which they would carry with them wherever they went. A co-worker there once challenged me to see if I could reduce the number of clothing items I owned to fit in the size of the laundry bag we gave our guests. The bag was small. My time at Andre House was a significant catalyst for my nomadic adventure. If this experiment in simplicity and voluntary “poverty” worked well, I hoped it would make me feel more alive, closer to those around me, closer to myself, and closer to God.
And so it began. Soon after moving out of my apartment, I realized that the mere fact of not having a permanent place to live takes up a great deal of time and energy. I had to plot out where I was staying every night. I had to book hotels or Air BnBs, ask friends to stay on their couches, arrange airplane flights, arrange pick-up times at airports, order cabs and ubers, all while not losing track of my two bags, and staying on top of my work. The logistics were considerable but unavoidable because at the end of each day, I needed a place to sleep! I had no upcoming return ticket to Chicago with a comfy apartment waiting for me. It was open-ended. At minimum, I wanted to stick this out for two months, I’d be satisfied with four, and in my more energetic daydreams, imagined doing it for a whole year.
It was thrilling. In consecutive weekends I was in Costa Rica, Seattle, Savannah, Montgomery/Biloxi/New Orleans, New York, Raleigh/Chapel Hill, Los Angeles, Cleveland, and South Bend. I saw friends I hadn’t seen in over a year (Peter Harvey, Colleen McLinden), visited family members (Grandma, the Serody family, Mike Dunker, Joey Woltjer), had awesome travel partners (Nini Wu), attended weddings (Emily Horvath and Tim Woodcock), went to three Notre Dame football games (Syracuse, N.C. State, and Miami), walked on beaches, rode ferries, had long dinners, met amazing Air BnB hosts (Christine, Rod, Cynthia), had other amazing hosts (the King family, the Steiner and Bauman families), made new friends (members of the ACE Biloxi and ACE New Orleans communities), and saw places I had never seen before. It was an unmatched blitzkrieg of travel and adventure that I likely won’t repeat anytime soon.
I won’t repeat it anytime soon because in addition to being thrilling, it was also incredibly and completely exhausting. And that was something I didn’t anticipate, how much it would drain me. It wore me down mentally and emotionally. The non-stop travel made it difficult to fully register where I was at any given time — I knew I was somewhere, for a couple of days, and then I would be somewhere else, for a couple of days, and on and on. Another flight. Another city. Another bed. Always the hosted. Never the host. Always packing and unpacking. “Can I use your laundry machine?”
On top of that were the demands of work — the job that made this sort of extensive travel possible with little to no personal cost. Thankfully, the first month and a half of this adventure, I had a manager who was very supportive of my travels and minimalist lifestyle (Flo). We were always able to get our work done during the week so the weekends would be free (and have quite a lot of fun during the week as well). In mid-October, however, right in the middle of my whirlwind of travels, my project ended. Immediately, I was put on a new engagement in Chicago — the very place I had just left and didn’t have an apartment anymore.
Along with temporarily losing my suitcase on a bus in Costa Rica (a whole other article to itself), getting staffed on a project back in Chicago was the biggest heart-stopper of the journey. I found out about my new project on a Wednesday in Miami and had to be in the Chicago office the following Monday morning to start a new project, with a new team I had never met before, a new client, and a new subject area. But before Monday I needed to attend two final readout meetings, travel to Charlotte and then Los Angeles, find a flight back to Chicago, and find a place to stay in Chicago. Woof. And that was probably what did me in. Thankfully, the next morning I texted one of my oldest friends (Will Stith) who told me I was welcome to stay with him as long as I needed. I booked a Sunday afternoon flight back to the Windy City and just seven weeks after I left, I was back.
It was only seven weeks, but it was as dense a seven weeks as I’ve experienced recently. And afterwards, I was more than ready to settle back down. My adventure itch had been scratched for a while. I was able to rest again and regain strength and energy. The Stith condo was amazing, with my own bedroom and bathroom, and allowed me the rest I needed. The Stith family could not have been more welcoming (or excited) about me staying at the condo. And so I ended up staying there for most of the following two months, until my new project ended in mid-December. By that time, I had picked out a new apartment, a studio in Lincoln Park, which is, after not having a permanent place to stay for four months, a little slice of paradise.
What did I learn from this endeavor? Well, for one, it’s important to know your limits and I definitely feel like I hit mine sometime in October. As a consultant, you spend all day sitting in a team room with other people, constantly interacting, which can be a lot of fun, but also can be tiring. Ordinarily, I have little time to myself in a given week and deciding to stay with others on weekends, dwindled the time I spent totally alone to virtually zero. The time that I need to withdraw from the world and recharge wasn’t there and instead of feeling closer to myself, others, and God as I had hoped, I mostly just ended up feeling fragmented. Building in that time for solitude, privacy, anonymity, and reflection is critical for any sustainable and productive journey.
Additionally, I learned first-hand that being homeless is really hard. And I wasn’t even genuinely homeless. Before embarking on this trip, I knew that whatever happened, I had so many safety nets. If there was an emergency (like when I was surprisingly staffed in Chicago), I knew that I could always find a place to stay. I had thousands of Marriott and SPG points with which I could book a hotel room in any city in the U.S. I also had money to book a hotel or Air BnB. There was also couchsurfing.com. And in Chicago alone, there were a dozen people I could text and have a place to stay for the night (including my parent’s house in the suburbs).
In contrast to my situation, the homeless we see on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, for example, don’t have those safety nets. What separates me from a person on the street isn’t just money. It’s not only that these people don’t have money to get a room for the night, it’s also that they don’t have anyone that they can call to stay with. Not a parent or a sibling or a neighbor or a friend. That sort of isolation is something that I can’t really imagine. And probably for most people reading this, it’s a difficult thing to imagine. Not having anyone. Beyond money, it’s also the strength of the web of relationships in your life that hold you up.
After this time spent as a nomad, I’m more familiar with shuttling myself from place to place, never having my own bed, and trying to quiet myself enough to rest soundly wherever that may be, whether that’s in a bed or a couch or an airplane seat. It’s difficult moving so much but also difficult having reduced control over the external environment or room you’re sleeping in. Someone who needs to spend the night on the street or in a shelter or some other place is already in a tough spot. Spending that night on the street or in a shelter, instead of a private room, only adds to the maladies. In most circumstances, you’re guaranteed a restless, vulnerable night and a weary mind the next day. Do that a few nights in a row, or longer, and it’s not difficult to imagine the weariness that the homeless must feel, or the substances they’ll use to get through those nights. And ever downward the cycle spirals.
For most of us, it’s difficult to imagine ourselves in the place of a homeless person. But it’s not completely unfeasible. At Andre House, through a detailed survey of our guests, we learned that about a third of the guests had been coming to Andre House for less than a month (this demographic was opposed to the chronically homeless, those who spend years on the streets). Many of these recently homeless, I learned through conversation, are not so different from the rest of us. You have a good job and strong family. Then maybe you lose the job, and a relationship breaks down, and add in a habit that inflames into an addiction and before you know it, you’re in a city where you don’t really know anyone with little or no money. Your only option might be a place like Andre House. It’s not an admirable situation, but it might be a sympathetic one. Another particularly current possibility is the plight of the refugee, displaced for any number of reasons and forced to relocate far from home with minimal possessions and possibly no relationships in the place they wind up (there were 65 million displaced people in the world at the end of 2015 according to the UNHCR). For these temporarily homeless, perhaps a solution like affordable, private rooms to stay for a few nights to regroup and figure things out (instead of mass dormitories), could mean the difference between stopping the spiral and picking one’s self back up or continuing downhill.
I was of course never close to a situation that would necessitate staying in some sort of shelter. But now, because of my nomadic endeavor, it’s not as difficult to imagine that sort of situation, nor to imagine the mental, physical, and emotional effects of such a situation. And I’m grateful for that.
Ultimately, being so dependent on others for housing lost its luster pretty quickly. It can be fun and adventurous for awhile, but it’s not really a good long-term solution. I felt like I was getting so much more than I was giving and I needed so much that I wasn’t able to give anything. I did save some money, but that was never the point. It was always about the experience. It was about traveling to new locations, exploring places and having conversations with people I care about, learning something about myself, and learning a bit about what it means to be without a home. It was an incredible adventure. I’m glad I did it, but I probably won’t do it in the future.
Finally, the last thing I need say is thank you. Thanks to everyone who made this experience life-giving and meaningful. Everyone mentioned in this article and everyone not mentioned who I encountered along the way and contributes to the strength of the web of relationships in my life. Thanks for letting me stay with you, talk with you, and be with you.