Photo by Illustration by <a href="https://www.etsy.com/shop/mizkatie">Katherine Jeanne Wood</a>
Illustration by <a href="https://www.etsy.com/shop/mizkatie">Katherine Jeanne Wood</a>
Shit! That was the only interjection that could convey how I felt when I found myself living on the street in my car. It is amazing how menial divorces, deaths, loss of jobs, family disputes, and all other unpleasant events seemed when faced with survival. My world view changed — forever. I had a new perspective on life, love, money, and bathrooms. Money became the most important thing in life and the love for bathrooms the second.
I remembered what a Vietnam veteran once said to me when I was a young woman. He told me that when you are forced to kill and live under horrific conditions, you have to play mind games. He told me that he survived Vietnam because he collected ears. He said that he chopped the ears off his enemy and made a necklace out of them. He strung them on the chain of his identification tags. All his friends did the same. They took a horrible, unfathomable situation and made a game of it. He told me that they had a contest to see who could collect the most ears. It made them feel more “normal” about killing and protecting their lives. Crazy! But given the same circumstances, what would you do? That Vietnam veteran had a decent job, a family, and a home, but he will never forget living in the jungle and becoming an animal.
Remembering what that Vietnam veteran told me made me think of all sorts of horrendous deeds that could happen at nightfall. I became frightened of every sound that I didn’t recognize. I imagined being found in the backseat of my car by a hunter looking for a victim. When you are faced with the possibility of being killed, you can’t sleep. My life did not compare to what the vet went through, but I came to understand him better. Sleeping was a severe problem. No matter where I parked, there were noises, lights, passing cars, and the fear of being raped or murdered. My favorite spot to park was between Cardiff and Encinitas. It gave me relief from my worries. I selected a spot high on the bluffs and watched a beautiful sunset over the ocean. I forgot for a moment about the perils of sleeping in my car until the locomotives startled me as they rolled by. Sometimes, my eyes followed a lit passenger car. In those few seconds, I saw people reading, talking on cell phones, and typing on their computers. They were going somewhere, probably home, and I was envious.
A residential area was the safest place to sleep; however, the street lights glared into my car like spotlights used for a Broadway play. They said, “There you are. You can’t run or hide. ‘Homeless’ is the role you are playing.” Between the ages of 18 to 28, there would have been the luxurious feeling of freedom and choices. Between 28 to 38, it would have been a wild experiential adventure. At age 38 to 48, it was plain survival and sad. I told myself that I always wanted to go on a long road trip. I told myself lots of things to keep my sanity. And I realized laughter was the best medicine, besides alcohol.
“No one wants me.”
I was not a big drinker. Alcohol did not agree with me. But I have to admit, living on the street did make me drink more. It heats you up. And that was a good thing, but an unhealthy thing as well. What was it doing to my kidneys? When you drink, you get dehydrated and your body temperature rises. My body became an electric blanket, warming me on a cool night. I have a theory that homeless people become dependent on alcohol in order to get through the night. Also, when I drank, my bodily aches and pains went away and I was able to sleep a little more. It was a sedative and a muscle relaxant. I drank for medicinal purposes.
You may be asking how I ended up on the street. I was not using drugs, drinking, or diagnosed with a mental-health condition. It occurred to me that a person may find him or herself on the street because of low self-esteem or confidence and the lack of family support. At least that was my situation. It was not as if I didn’t prove to be a capable, upstanding citizen with some impressive accomplishments. I earned a master’s degree. I worked as a librarian who managed youth departments. None of those things mattered in the world of the homeless. People did not see me for my accomplishments. They looked at me for who I was right there at that very moment. And I was living in my car. How much respect do you think I received?
When I lost my job, it was such a shock that I could not quite get it together. My whole career vanished. Who wants to hire someone who lost their job, especially when they have so many younger candidates to choose from?
During times like these, a strong family background is crucial. Without it, unhealthy patterns of belief return. My childhood replayed in my mind during the long overnight hours in the car. It started the day my mother left when I was five. Then there were slaps, kicks, degrading words, and other abusive methods that my father employed. I looked like my mother and he hated me for that. My older brother added to the abuse. After all, his role model was my father. My family taught me that the world was cruel, cold, and heartless. I believed my life was worthless and less valuable than all others, because it held no value to my family. This thought became a habit.
Intellectually, I understood how negative thoughts affect my life. It was simple science. Unhealthy habits are created by neurological patterns. Neuroscientists discovered that the basal ganglia portion of the brain is where you develop emotions, memories, and patterns of recognition. A habit is formed once a thought is repeated several times with the same cue. Then it becomes an automatic response. The cue could be a memory. A memory is triggered by smells, sounds, images, situations, or any other association. To simplify it even more, a habit starts with a repeated thought or emotional reaction to a cue, which the basal ganglia stores. This is not that hard to understand, but it is very difficult to change. Changing a habit, especially one repeated since childhood, is very difficult to kick. Some scientists say that going on vacation can help. A vacation changes routines of behavior. But going on vacation is difficult without the luxury of the Almighty Green.
When I lost my job, I felt the same old feelings of abandonment. I was alone without family support, and all those cues came knocking on my basal ganglia. I felt worthless and devalued. The only thing I could think about was how I was going to survive without a job. The old thoughts of “Nobody likes me,” “No one wants me,” and “No one cares” crawled in like ants on a powdered doughnut. Those thoughts kept me from getting a job, and the longer I was immobilized by those thoughts, the closer I got to destitution. Finally, I woke up homeless in the backseat of my car.
My savings quickly disappeared and I began to get anxious, panicky. I needed inner peace. How was I going to make it unless I appeared okay? Who would hire a desperate person? And thrashing about in the backseat of my car, twisting, turning, and crying my eyes out in a pity-party for one was not going to work either. Those street lights became the horrible spotlight of enlightenment beaming through my car window at night. They unrelentingly exposed me for who I had become. They said, “Look at your life. What are you going to do?” Thinking and thinking about my situation gave me a series of ten-minute catnaps in the backseat of my car. I had to change my thoughts and fast.
Living out of her car in San Diego
Nica Taylor talks about her experience living out of her car in San Diego.
I joined a church Bible-study group because it was free. Everyone seemed nice, and I had a regular place to go on Wednesday nights. But during one group study about Jesus, a pastor’s wife told me that I was lucky, as she talked to a lady about getting her nails done. She stretched out her arm, hand, and fingers to look at her polished fake nails. She said she had been to Africa, spreading God’s word. She turned her attention to me and leaned over to have a private conversation. “And they didn’t have cars to sleep in,” she said to me. Duh! I guess you get instantly stupid when you are down and out. I would not have told my fellow derelicts that they were lucky to have grocery carts as I walked into the gym to take a shower.
Even on the street there was a hierarchy among the less fortunate. I had a mid-sized car, others a bus or van, and some cardboard boxes. I showered at the gym, others in the restroom at the park or library. The pastor’s wife may have had a point about being grateful to have a car, but I didn’t feel very loved. The one thing the pastor’s wife neglected to notice was that I was without family. I wish I wasn’t so judgmental, but she was in the business of helping people. She really didn’t give me the time of day. I was on my own, which was a harsh reality for me. The law of attraction seemed to be the only thing left to try.
The first step of the law is to be appreciative or grateful. I must “feel good” in order to make changes in my life. I had to ignore the negatives and dwell on the positives. So, I wrote a list. Here were all the things I loved about being homeless.
1) I didn’t have to pay rent or utilities anymore. Yippee! No landlord.
2) I got free beachfront property because I parked my car at the beach to sleep. Only millionaires have beachfront property.
3) Life was a picnic at the park… literally! I ate there every day.
4) I went to the gym every day...to shower, groom, and feel normal.
5) I didn’t have to buy shampoo and body wash. The gym supplied it.
6) I enjoyed more of what San Diego had to offer. I walked on the beach all the time and enjoyed the ocean.
7) I loved my car. It was spacious. The trunk held everything I owned. It was luxurious yet inconspicuous. It fit right in with the other parked cars on a suburban street.
8) I didn’t have to cook. I had personal chefs... McDonald’s and Roberto’s.
9) I didn’t crave fast food anymore.
10) I found out who my true friends were and where I stood with my family. Being homeless was a true eye-opener.
11) I noticed when someone was polite, like a man opening the door for me at the grocery store. A little politeness went a long way. It gave me hope in mankind.
12) I noticed the little things, like a smile and returned it. It was the highlight of my day.
13) I became more spiritual without material items to worry about.
14) I started to believe in miracles, because that was what it was going to take to get off the street.
15) I was thankful for being healthy, because I couldn’t afford to get sick.
16) There was a lot of room for improvement. Anything would be better than nothing.
17) I didn’t have to live with annoying roommates.
18) I didn’t have to do house-cleaning once a week.
19) I didn’t have to worry about home repairs.
20) People didn’t knock on my car door selling things or come over unannounced.
21) I didn’t have annoying neighbors. And if something bothered me, I could drive away.
22) I didn’t have to complain about never going out. I was always out.
23) I went on Sunday drives, every day, looking for a spot to sleep.
24) I saw the sunrise every morning.
25) I regularly communed with nature, even if it was mostly flies, gnats, bugs, ants, and bees.
26) I read more, since I spent a lot of time at the library keeping warm and using the internet. Funny…I used to help the homeless at the library, now I was the homeless at the library. Libraries do change lives.
It felt good to write a list and laugh about my situation. But the money didn’t roll in, and I wasn’t offered a job. “Show me the money!” I yelled to a universal God. I never was a money-hungry person before my stint on the street. I changed! It was all about money. It became my God. I went to church to discover that they were spreading the word about money on that particular Sunday. They were asking for money. Wow! The law of attraction does work. The law states that whatever you think about shows up in your life. Your thoughts are always validated. And the pastors of that church wanted money, just like me. The pastors went on and on about how they helped people. They tried to convince the congregation that they used the donations they received to fund important projects to help the needy.
It was hard for me to digest, since not too long ago I was shunned by a pastor’s wife with long nails. It would have been nice if she befriended me or given me an ear. Maybe she could have given me a job, or at least put the word out. The congregation didn’t extend much of a helping hand either. I think they were too afraid to get near someone living on the street. There are so many ill feelings toward the homeless and stereotypical beliefs that were not true in my case. We are not all criminals, drunks, drug addicts, or bums. But I realized, during a cold night, that it was far better to have a drink than to feel the cold air on your face. Having a drink or two makes for an instant body heater when you are freezing. How many times could I turn the car on and off to warm it during the night? I had to conserve gas. I may have been homeless, but I never considered myself a criminal, drunk, or bum. No, definitely not, even though I drank.
“Look, Mommy. Ms. Taylor lives in a car.”
Whatever belief I had about my situation or myself became reality. The law of attraction was working in my life. I believed no one cared. I believed I wasn’t going to get any help. I believed I was on my own. I believed that I was not going to get hired by anyone. I thought about these things every day. I attracted into my life what I thought about most. I thought I could take care of kids. I thought I was great with kids. I thought I was creative. I thought I had great ideas. So, while living in the backseat of my car, I was able to start and run a tutoring business. I never got caught sleeping in my car. I believed that no one was paying any attention to me. No one even suspected when I was living in my car. I thought I was alone and no one cared. But inside my classroom it was different. I made it to work every day with a smile. I was glad to be at work. Even though I did not make a lot of money, I worked hard. It felt good to work and be appreciated. It felt good to know that I didn’t have to work for an undesirable boss. But if the community found out where I lived, do you think they would have enrolled their kids in my class? Of course not. Would you? Would I? I can hear it now, “Look, Mommy. Ms. Taylor lives in her car.”
Yeah, that would have gone over well. So, I guess that it was good that I thought I was invisible.
I finally got off the street and into a room for rent. But, surely, after earning a master’s degree, it wasn’t my dream to wake up in the morning to the smell of coffee, cigarette smoke, and an animal carcass in the kitchen sink. But this was heaven to the landlord. The United States was a dream to him. It was far better than Iran. He escaped Iran before he was forced by the military to serve his country. San Diego was living in abundance to him. He had reached far more than expected.
I expected more. I can’t get fond of cockroaches crawling across my bedroom floor or piles of trash in the backyard next to a green pool. But I was alive and warm. And this was far better than sleeping in my car.
I still yearned for the American dream. I did not want to live life hiding from the county health inspector who came banging at the front door. He placed a “Vector Notice” on the doorknob. The county health inspector’s job was to protect human health from diseases transmitted by mosquitoes, rats, and flies. The landlord’s green swimming pool was a breeding ground for mosquitoes. The inspector couldn’t enter the backyard, not with the landlord’s large Rottweiler barking and growling at the backyard gate. I was too embarrassed to let him in, so I hid. I hid from the truth. I was in a horrible situation.
If the inspector did get in, a green pool would not be the only thing he would have found. What about the carcass? Maybe it was a pheasant. The landlord, a hunter, used the kitchen to pluck and chop whatever he shot. Feathers were everywhere. And blood was on the light switches, washing machine, doors, and kitchen shutters.
It was hard to stomach. But when I went to my room at night, I locked the door behind me and crashed on my very own bed. I was warm and safe in the small cube that protected me. As great as the backseat of the car was, it was not like having a room and a bed. Sometimes, I caught myself giggling in appreciation at night. I was happy to have shelter.
It wasn’t long before the landlord demanded that I pay his entire water bill. He was serious. He said that he didn’t have the money to pay the bill and the water would be shut off. When I refused to do what he said, he became mean, yelling at me to take care of his dog and clean up after him. He wanted me to wash the huge pile of molded dishes that he left in the sink for weeks. I started to believe I did not deserve his abuse. I believed I could do better. The landlord’s disrespectful behavior forced me to look for another place to live. It forced me to look at myself and what I thought I deserved. And I found another room to rent quickly after I started looking. I was able to sneak out of his house without any trouble.
I found a beautiful room to rent. And the quality of my life got a whole lot better. My business succeeded in getting me off the street, but I wished it was more lucrative. However, I was fortunate to be able to rent a room before the holidays and the change of weather, because I don’t think I would have survived the winter on the street. My immune system was fighting off the flu and a cold — the joys of working with kids. But it was nice to have a cockroach-free bedroom to sleep in and carcass-free kitchen to use.
I loved my new bathroom across the hall. And loving things felt good. I had everything I needed. I believed I would be provided for. And since I changed my outlook, I continue to receive more of the beautiful things life has to offer.