September 23, 2003


How a regular guy gets homeless (Les Gapay, 9/21/03, USA TODAY)

I had no income at all in 2002 and have lived off savings, premature IRA withdrawals, credit cards and then food stamps. I wasn't eligible for unemployment compensation because I was self-employed. I didn't qualify for subsidized housing because I didn't have a steady income. I fell through the cracks of California welfare programs because they are aimed at families with children at home. To save money, I dropped my health insurance two years ago and reduced my vehicle insurance last year to the state minimum. I cook out at campgrounds or eat cheap meals at fast-food places to keep my expenses down. Most of the time I have been in California, but during the winter I camped some along the Colorado River in Arizona and also near Phoenix. This summer I headed north to what I thought would be cooler climes of Montana, but have been in a heat wave. My situation is finally starting to look up. This spring and summer my corporate freelance work picked up, with several small jobs. It's not enough to rent an apartment or room, but I have hope that the work will continue to increase as the economy rebounds, and my plight will end soon.

I am certainly not the only one in this predicament. About 8.9 million people in the USA were unemployed in August, 6.1% of the workforce, according to the Labor Department. More than 3 million people were homeless over the past year, about 30% of them chronically, according to the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty. They are not just the noticeable ones on the street but also families in shelters due to the current economic condition. And, 20% of the homeless have jobs, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors. At California state campgrounds rangers told me there were many homeless families, moving up and down the coast to get around limits on stays. At one state park, I saw one woman each morning drive her son to a bus stop so he could get to school.

My biggest daily challenge: Finding a campsite, especially in the tourist season, and, when I am in towns, places to go to the bathroom. I am only at campsites at night — sleeping either in my truck or tent — and during the day spend much of the time in libraries surfing the Net for jobs and sending out résumés by e-mail. The corporate writing work that I have gotten I have done in libraries. Sometimes I relax in air-conditioned bookstores and read the papers, magazines and books. I also have used job service computers daily for months in California seeking work, to no avail. Luckily, I have always been able to stay at campgrounds, mostly county, state and federal ones, which range from $10 to $18 a night. Private ones are too expensive. I try to shower daily, and many of the campgrounds have coin-operated showers. I tried showering at friends' homes when I didn't have one at a campground, but they tired of that quickly. [...]

Many of my friends and acquaintances kept pressuring me to take any job and forget about my profession. I continued to press for jobs in my field, public relations or journalism, but postings were few. Some jobs I was told had 200 to 300 applicants, with many going to young workers. I will turn 60 this year and wondered if age was a factor.

At one point, I was down to my last $200. I borrowed some money from friends when relatives refused loans, with one saying he was out of work and another that he had been unemployed for several months and was still getting back on his feet. I was surprised which friends loaned me $200 or $300, different from the ones I had thought I could count on. My ex-wife and her husband surprised me by loaning me some money. One campground worker asked me: "Do you have any kids who can help you out?" I get little show of concern or contact from one adult daughter and haven't heard from the other at all, although I never asked them for any money. No one wants a homeless person for a father. When you are having troubles is when you need a supportive family. Even priests I know at churches I attended weren't sympathetic or helpful, with one refusing to meet with me, saying he was too busy. Most homeless are worse off than I am, not having a truck to live in and a cell phone to use, and some have mental problems. I never went to a shelter, figuring paying for campsites was more like being a snowbird.

So let's give him the benefit of the doubt and assume this wasn't just an attempt to get a book contract and he's not quite as difficult a man as he seems; how then did the regular guy get homeless? Three ingredients appear to be key and make him irregular at best:

(1) No close relationships with family (including his own daughters) nor real friends.

(2) No close ties to the community and its social institutions: church (churches in his stated case), workplace, club, etc.

(3) Insistence on his right to pursue a chosen profession rather than obligation to support himself.

Yes, if you live a completely atomized life, cut off from everyone and everything that might help you and think there's no need for you to make changes, you are at risk of sneaking through the cracks. But why should we try to fill in such narrow cracks rather than you try to stand on the firm ground of a traditional kin and social network?

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 23, 2003 11:24 AM

This reminds me of the occasional news stories
about students that graduate from college with
dubious degrees and just can't seem to find a
job in their "chosen field".

The family connection thing seems like a big
aspect to this particular story.

Posted by: J.H. at September 23, 2003 12:15 PM


I have no sympathy for people who are too proud to support themselves while they look for a job worthy of their superior intellect.

Posted by: Jason Johnson at September 23, 2003 12:45 PM

Especially when his chosen profession is one that can and is undertaken by many talented writers part time and/or after hours.

All those hours he claims to spend job-hunting in libraries are a tad exaggerated, I'm sure.

Posted by: Peter B at September 23, 2003 1:58 PM

What a loser.

Posted by: David Cohen at September 23, 2003 2:23 PM

He made a mistake by choosing a profession that spits out practitioners in their 50s.

A majority of my former editors were dismissed before the age of 60. They tended to become recluses or drunks, or both.

Low threshhold of entry, low threshhold of exit.

They don't tell you that in journalism school.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 23, 2003 3:04 PM

So here's a guy who must have a decent command of English and he cannot support himself?

You can step off the boat and get a job right away if you're willing to start at the bottom, and he's already AT the bottom from the sound of it!

Jason hit the nail on the head. I have no pity.

Posted by: Jeff Strunk at September 23, 2003 4:03 PM

I know I'm risking a piling on flag, but...

I lost my airline pilot job, thanks to the Islamikazes.

Like he, Couldn't find anything worthy of my talents.

We had to cut a lot of corners to get a family of four by on the money to be had by being a satellite dish installer.

But we made it. And my kids learned a valuable lesson.

This guy is total looser. He should call 1-800-WAAAAAAH for someone who cares.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at September 23, 2003 8:51 PM

He also exhibits no talent or skill at living "rough". For instance, he claims to pay between $300 and $500 monthly for camping. I've lived out of my car several times, by choice, and I've yet to pay a dime to park.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at September 24, 2003 1:52 AM

I noticed that too. How hard is it to find an unused landing along a logging road, or just park on a turn-off and walk beyond the range of a cop's spotlight before rolling out your sleeping bag?

Posted by: at September 24, 2003 9:14 AM