For Many California Residents, Homelessness is No More Than One Crisis Away
Homelessness is easy to fall into — and astonishingly hard to climb out of.
by Heather Seggel
My dad and I became homeless in the summer of 2004. I’ve told the story so many times it sometimes feels like the only salient fact about me, but the just-add-water version goes like this: We were still living together in the rented house I grew up in because we were poor. My dad was disabled and supplemented his very low fixed income with odd jobs when he was able. It was a rural, remote location, and I’ve never learned to drive or owned a car — the general store and post office were a three-mile hike one way, and the nearest bus stop was farther still in the opposite direction. I was scraping by on what I could make with my writing — a very tiny income. Just paying for dial-up internet each month was an expense so daunting that a kind friend subsidized me for a year.
When the house’s owner died and her kids elected to sell the place, we were in no position to buy it, much less deal with the backlog of unaddressed structural issues. We’d had the stewardship responsibility of owners but no equity, so we had to go.
A dozen or so pathetic yard sales later, my dad and I stored a few things in a neighbor’s shed, tied two small tents and a random assortment of camping supplies onto the roof of our tiny Toyota hatchback and hit the beach. Specifically, two campgrounds in Bodega Bay, arguably one of the most beautiful places on earth, the optics of which we were ruining for all the “real” campers. You can only spend ten days in any one campground and the rangers and hosts bent the rules as far as they could for us, knowing our plight, but we also had to crash on the floor at my aunt’s house, a situation too volatile and complex to delve into here — beyond noting that if family dynamics are bad, adding crystal meth does not improve them. We were desperate to get away but had no direction to point ourselves.
My dad didn’t really try to avoid what was barreling toward us, while I was on the phone crying to anyone who would listen, begging for help. What people who have not been through it have a hard time understanding is that homelessness is actually very easy to fall into: Live paycheck to paycheck, add one crisis and you’re potentially a club member. Yet it’s strikingly difficult to prevent, and astonishingly hard to climb out of.
Related: Compassion for the Homeless: We Need New Solutions
It took us over a year — thirteen months to the day, in fact — and what we found was a ramshackle one-bedroom trailer in a park overrun with mental instability and drug abuse, for twice what we’d been paying for a two-bedroom house. I hit the ground running, found a job within the month and we were on our way to rebuilding our lives.
We stayed in that trailer for the remainder of my dad’s life. He died in 2011 as we were preparing to move into a larger trailer that would accommodate a hospital bed, and I went ahead with the move to escape the combative drunk who lived next door and had made our lives a living hell. No longer employed as my dad’s caregiver and faced with rent more than double what my share had previously been, this was a steep challenge. I collected unemployment that did not cover the rent, applied for food stamps and tried to figure out what to do next.
This trailer … had problems. Mice occupied one entire wall that had to be removed, and rats found it appealing as well. Leaks had destroyed the ceiling in the smaller bedroom before I moved in — it was hanging down like a dog’s tongue and you could see inside to the insulation — but the landlord was chagrined that I would ask him to repair it, even as he repeatedly raised my rent. The swamp cooler leaked, a water feature of sorts as it cascaded past my window. The living room leaked and so did the kitchen, both in multiple streams.
The landlord thought I was “mean” for complaining about this, and also for steering his septuagenarian chatter away from constant, disgusting evaluations of my figure. I was trying to work from home, once again attempting to make enough from my writing to live on, but my home was often full of shady repairmen whose work never solved the problem they’d come to address. I was constantly squaring off against someone who had just made a serious problem worse — and then one of them threatened me. It was time to move.
I had very little money and could find nowhere to go. Another aunt offered me a room in a house she was renting while I tried to find a place. I accepted because I thought this was family helping family, but the rent she ended up charging meant I could not afford to travel out to look at places, and she offered very little help in that regard despite knowing a wide and varied network of people. It turned out she was struggling to pay her own rent, so keeping me there offered her a buffer while she waited to advance on a waiting list for an affordable senior apartment. I was there for a year, and it was in many ways worse than being homeless — which at least had offered the ocean as consolation.
When my aunt’s apartment came through, she started packing and I was left scrambling to find a place with virtually no time to do so. Back before my dad and I received our notice to vacate I had been writing for a bunch of different small papers in Northern California, including Sonoma County’s monthly LGBT paper. The editor and I got along well, and though we hadn’t stayed in close touch over the years it turned out he lived not far from where I was staying with my aunt and had a room he could rent to me. I moved in and genuinely enjoyed my time there, though I was paying the same rent and thus similarly hampered in my attempts to find a place for the long term.
It took me just under two years in total to land an apartment back in Ukiah. I’m in a nicer place, a studio that costs less than either of those rooms did. I consider myself fortunate in the extreme, since I had to beg to get the place without being able to come up and see it first and made the move with a total stranger hired from Craigslist (we were each equally worried that the other might be a serial killer, so it was a relief to survive the experience). Those two years of unstable housing stretched the savings I’d accumulated as a buffer against ever being homeless again to an uncomfortable degree, and while I’m writing to get by right now, I’m applying for work that will offer some financial stability for the future. I know all too well that those jobs are in short supply and I’ve been turned down for more of them than I can count.
Homelessness is a persistent problem because our economy persists in favoring those who least need what it has to offer. Until that disparity is corrected, the problem, and its consequences for our communities, are here to stay.
Heather Seggel is a freelance writer seeking a “real job” while working at her dream job. She is currently living in Ukiah, California.
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