9 Months in a Tent; or Failing at the American Dream

There’s a few ways people go when you tell them you’re living in a tent. They either look at you with total confusion and try to get away as quickly as possible, they try not to believe you, or they ask very stupid questions. The very tiny minority offer you a place to shower as long as your husband doesn’t watch Fox News, which, by the way, after being homeless for almost 2 years he no longer does.

It’s really interesting being down and out in the United States. And let me preface this by saying that there are a few good people out there who give a shit, but I know from experience that it’s pretty minimal. And it’s not that the others are bad necessarily, it’s that we’ve become a country that really only cares about itself, and that is certainly reflected in how we feel about the poor and others in general. The sad thing is that not only do we not care about  our poor, and we really don’t, we are ashamed of them. The people who turn away, or who say really stupid things like why don’t you just get an apartment somewhere, aren’t horrible human beings. The ones who call you a loser, maybe they are, but those are thankfully few and far between as well and usually are family members.

I’d also like to say that I don’t blame anyone for our being in the tent. It was purely our fault, partially bad financial planning, lack of good jobs, and irresponsibility. I do, however, blame a lot of people for my senior citizen parents being in the situation they were in. They worked their entire lives, which is what we’re all supposed to do then everything will be alright, right, and still ended up in basically the same place we did. There was some help for them, but not much and the only real help came from our very kind neighbor who let us stay in the tents, the motor home, and finally a couple of fifth wheels on his property.

All of that didn’t really bother me. Living in the tent wasn’t terrible, and don’t get me wrong, we didn’t really live rough. We stole electricity from our old house, and snuck into my mom’s house for showers, and had a BBQ for cooking. It was more like extended camping. And in no way do I feel sorry for myself. But what we experienced is symptomatic of everything that is wrong with people who don’t understand poverty and resent those who are poor.
And let me make it very clear: At no time during this experience were we on Welfare. So just take that off your list of things we must have been doing wrong in order to deserve this.
Paul, my mother, and my daughter were employed, my other daughter was going to school full time and looking for a job, my dad was on social security, and I was frantically looking for a job with my two degrees in hand. I, five years later, am still looking. The rest of them are all employed and I doubt any of us will ever be homeless again, ever. Ever.
So, see all of you who read this, we did in fact learn our lesson.

There’s a few questions that get thrown your way, too. Most of them completely stupid.

1. How did you get in this situation?

Well, I don’t know. Short answer is we fucked up. Long answer has to do with feeling a duty to care for my aging parents, being afraid we wouldn’t make rent one month and be in this situation elsewhere, being afraid in general, the economy imploding and no jobs for middle aged women, and really not having enough money between the five of us (Paul, myself, and the kids) to even go down onto first street and rent the roach motel.

2. Why don’t you force your parents into a home? Said in a much nicer way without the word force.

Short answer. Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha! Long answer: Obviously none of you ever knew my father or my mother. Mom lived in a motorhome until the day before she died so that she could go to work. Only one person at her work even knew her situation because she was ashamed to tell anyone. I kept telling her that she worked at a Walmart, so nobody would care. But she was afraid her bosses would fire her for being homeless, which apparently is actually a concern. Just google “Fired for being homeless” and quite a few separate incidents come up. That is incredibly sad.

And my dad, well anyone that knows him knows he’ll never go into a home in this lifetime. I’d have had to get them both declared incompetent and that would suck. Because they weren’t and aren’t crazy. What they were was demoralized, sad, angry, frustrated, and scared. It’s so easy to forget that part. That their home of 35 years was taken because dad had a string of bad luck, basically retired, and also did stupid shit like not paying off the house when he could have. So, yes, it was their “fault” too, I guess. But is this the way we measure success? Or pride in our country? Dad and his family lived the American Dream. Every one of his mother’s children had a better life than she did. But it all crumbled into a nightmare because that dream only counts if you’re committed to being the same as everyone else. Yes, I said it. The American Dream is for boring people. And even some of those get shafted if their company underfunds their retirement, goes bankrupt so that they don’t have to pay anyone but the CEO’s, or if the economy blats like it did recently. I think my brother lost half the worth of his 401k and he’s been doing everything he should do in order to have a good life. Just goes to show you, everyone can get screwed regardless of who or what or how they behave.

Why don’t you just get a job?

Not really a short answer here. I tried like Hell. Still can’t get one, rarely even get an interview, and I have no idea why. And yes, I’ve dumbed down my resume and I’ve plumped it up. Nothing. Thankfully, Paul is awesome and is doing very well or we’d be screwed.

Why do you blame others?

That one always pissed me off because I never did. All I wanted was a little help until we got on our feet. Funnily enough, after going to New Jersey and realizing that we had to do without that help, things got much better. My problem is that had anyone I knew been in the situation we were in…anyone…I would have been much like our very kind neighbor and done anything I could to help. Maybe I’m the stupid one, but I’d like to think that that’s what kindness means and that’s what you do when you are in a better place. All of us have times in our lives when we’re down. It’s how we react when we’re not that counts.
And we did have help from people who know who they are, and after three more months in a fifth wheel, we had this apartment.

Sometimes I miss the tents. I very much miss the Ranch and it’s smell, just so fresh and clean, foresty. I miss the quiet and the pitch black nights, and looking at the stars through the top before we got our first snow in 30 years and it collapsed on top of us. I can’t see those stars now because of the city lights. I miss just being able to go outside and feel peace. We never have that here. Just peace.

I miss my mom humming her way out of the motorhome to meet me at the tent and we’d eat some cereal together on the rickety card table that Paul tried to make into a dining room table, and listening to her complain about whatever it was that she hated that day. Mostly my dad, not surprisingly.

What does all of this mean? Am I complaining once again? Probably. But it’s not because we were in the tents or why we were in the tents that bothers me, and that’s something that most people don’t understand. We were extremely fortunate, and I know that in reality that my parents had places to go. They were just crazy and refused to got there. What bothers me is the idea that our poor are so far beneath us. My father served in the Korean War. He built  the original nukes after Fat Man and Little Boy (something he pretty much regrets, but he did it), and he always helped people out when he could. We always had someone living with us that needed help. My mom raised her kids, went to work when she felt she could, and was one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever known. My mom’s last days were not unhappy, really. She had me and other family members with her. But they should never have been in a tiny space no bigger than some people’s bathrooms.

And that’s what pisses me off. All the excuses as to why we can’t have health care, or housing, or education. Or care for our elderly. Because they worked for all of that, too, and they didn’t get it either.

I sometimes say I am ashamed of our country, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart. People on the other side always claim that other countries with socialism or whatever have failed, and in some cases they are so very right. But aren’t we supposed to be the best country in the world? Can’t we find a way to compromise so that this doesn’t happen to more people?

But I guess the bigger question is what happened to us to make us not care. Because I have a great many acquaintances, more than the opposite, who I know think we somehow deserved this or that we feel sorry for ourselves. We do not. We have struggled to have a good life and we have made it through and of that I am so proud and nobody can take that away from us. And you can think we deserved it because I’m an artist and I didn’t do the work thing all you want. Go fuck yourself. Or that we took advantage. Or whatever. But go take a good long look in the mirror. And ask yourself if you hate the poor or what the poor represent. Ask yourself what it is about the poor that frightens you so much. Because this is the first year since 1998 that I have lived above the poverty line.

And then ask yourself if any decent human being puts their money before kindness. Take care of you and yours, yes. But money should never be the priority. Does this mean I may end up like my parents without a good financial plan? Not really. It just means that I give a shit. And I’ve seen how money tears families apart. Very recently, in fact. It’s just plain stupidity, greed, and evil. And it shames me that most of the United States thinks this is ok.

My mom told me while she lay dying, that I was the kindest person she ever knew and that she loved me. What you have to understand is that mom and I never got along and that I can count on my one hand how many times she told me she loved me after I was an adult. She was pretty loopy on morphine and was only lucid for moments at a time, but she was very clear at that very second. She grabbed for my hand and thanked me for being who I was, so strong and so loving. And I have to admit, I am not strong. I did what I had to do, and I regret how I was with her at the very end. I had to be stern because she didn’t want any care and I had to force it. I couldn’t just sit and hold her hand and give her support because she needed that care. And when you are there in that situation a million questions go through your head; do you give her more morphine than they told you you could because she’s in pain and the nurse from hospice hasn’t gotten back to you? Yes, you do. Do you give her her laxatives and vitamins even though she’s puking them right back up and you know, even though nobody else has seemed to notice, that she isn’t going to be here much longer? No, no you don’t.  You make decisions because you have to.

And that’s how it is with being homeless. You do shit because you have to. You live in a tent and you cook outside and you love your children and your parents and your animals because that’s all you have. And if people think you are somehow less deserving of respect or dignity because of the situation then there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it, and that reflects upon them, not you.

The last question I get asked, often, and this goes for my very frank discussion of my time in the mental hospital, is why do you talk so openly about all of this? it’s nobody’s business, and it can only make you feel badly to talk about it.

My answer to this is that I don’t work that way. For me, talking about it is the only way for me to heal, because my greatest hope is that I can help someone, somehow. I am not ashamed, and that’s really the question they are asking me, just in a circuitous manner, is am I ashamed and if not, why the fuck not? And my answer to that is because I know that while being homeless was mostly our own fault, it isn’t what makes me who I am. Homelessness did not and does not define me, as it shouldn’t anyone. What do I have to be ashamed about? I’d be far more ashamed if I were all those people who judged.

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