The Coastal Post - September, 1996

Countdown To Homelessness


Four years ago I had a job I loved. I had started working with the fledgling company four years before that, when the company was four years old. (I didn't make up all those coincidental fours, and oh, no, here comes another one:) I was making just over $40,000 a year.

The company consisted of, when I joined, 28 employees including the five young, progressive owners. It was high-tech and close-knit with a laid back family atmosphere. I worked in sweatpants and my boss, one of the owners, worked in blue jeans. The president and others came in shorts most of the summer. Hours were flexible.

I had a boss I loved. We got along beautifully. He left me alone, and I work well alone. He called it "lazy management." I would have called it intelligent; after all, he was paying me to do itso let me.

My job was to start up and then manage a drafting deparatmentreally an engineering support groupwhich would handle the drafting, the documentation, the printing or copying, and the technical library. I loved the original challenge and every little variation of the job since its inception.

This was exactly what I love doing, in exactly the environment I work best in. That was four years ago.

Three years ago the five owners sold the company to a large international conglomerate. My boss stepped down from Head of Engineering to become head of a newly-separated department: Research and Development. The man hired to take his place was a complaining, talkative busybody who (unbeknownst to me until much later) had been intimidated by some remarks of mine when he first started work at the company. (I admit I have never been timid about speaking my mind when someone is unjustifiably way off base on something, as he was in his criticism of existing methods).

From the day he took over as Head of Engineering he began a campaign to get rid of me. He took over my jobs. He tied my hands on every matter he could. He caused delays on my projects. He asked my co-workers suggestive questions about my performance which caused them to scrutinize every move I made more critically than they would have otherwise. Soon problems that didn't really exist were popping up everywhere. He didn't so much run his department as he stirred it. Life for me at the company I loved became Hell.

For the first time in my twenty years of working I dreaded going to work. For the first time ever I was getting complaints about my performance. That was three years ago.

Two years ago I was still making just over $40,000 a year; I had gotten no raise under my new boss (meaning I had lost money since the cost of living continues to go up). I was by then struggling to keep my financial wazzu head above water, having bought my new house calculating my ability to afford it with the expectation of a raise. I was stressed at home and at work, emotionally and financially.

I was a mess and getting worse. I was "snapping" at co-workers and friends I liked. I was "hiding out" in my office, making appearances among my staff only when it became absolutely necessary. I ceased being innovative. I quit caring. I didn't go the extra foot, much less the extra mile. It wouldn't have done any good; my efforts would have been squelched by my vindictive, insecure boss. I knew the end was coming and I looked forward to it, not with eagerness, but with anticipated relief, even though the job market in the Sacramento area was seriously depressed due to military base closings. I began scouting for other jobs to pursue. The outlook was bleak, causing me more stress.

Then came the pink-slip meeting. It took him that full year, but he finally succeeded in getting me fired. I had no notice whatsoever. I was called into the president's office and told that this was my last day. They must have thought I was going to mess up their computers or something, else why would they give me no notice? They must have also thought I was going to sue them ( Did they have a collective guilty conscience?) because they made me sign a three-page statement agreeing not to sue them for any purpose. They listed all the purposes they could conceive, then paid me eight thousand dollars not to sue them for those things or any other which they might not have thought of. If I didn't sign, I got no severance pay whatsoever. After taxes, that money would make three monthly house payments. I signed. That was just two short years ago.

One year ago I exhausted the last of my savings. I had managed to make house payments for a year in the hope of finding another job and being able to keep my house. Now my savings were gone and there was not a sign of a possibility of a prospect of a potential job anywhere in the near or far futureif you get my drift.

Drafting departments are becoming obsolete. With the advent of computers, engineers are doing their own "drafting" as they design and invent. Besides that, middle management positions are being eliminated as companies "downsize." Everything I did was becoming obsolete at the very time Sacramento was being hit by huge layoffs due to the military closing of the Army Depot, McClellan Air Force Base, and Mather Air Force Base. Young family men with college degrees were pumping gas. There was not a chance for an over-fifty, overweight, grandmother without a degree.

I knew I couldn't keep my house. I put it on the market with a local Realtor. In preparation for selling it and moving to something much smaller, I started selling everything I could bear to part with, and storing with friends the valuable things they might be able to house and use until I could take them back.

When I put my house on the market I planned to buy a used 23-foot motor home with my last ten thousand dollars and moved into it the things I absolutely had to have to live. I began separating my possessions into the ones I absolutely had to have to live, the things I couldn't part with and might store with friends, and those I was going to have to get rid of. I continued living in the house and selling things I loved throughout the fall and winter. It went slowly and things went cheaply. There was virtually no interest in the house in the depressed market after the military closings. The price was lowered, then it was lowered again. That was a year ago.

Six months ago the bank foreclosed on the house. It never did sell, though we reduced the price to less than what I still owed on it. I moved the remainder of my possessions into a storage unit and I moved into the used motor home I had finally purchased only when I was at last forced towhen the sheriff brought the eviction notice.

I left my car sitting beside the road gathering thick layers of dust. I had run out of money to insure it and I didn't want to take a chance on anything happening to it in my present vulnerable financial state, so I quit driving it. I bought a used bicycle for basic transportation.

I applied for general assistancewelfare. I was finally "on the dole." In less than two years I had gone from solidly middle class to the depths of poverty, despair, hopelessness, helplessness. That was six months ago.

Three months ago I still couldn't afford to insure the car (still gathering dust parked at the curb in front of the house that was no longer mine), but I decided I really ought to take it out for a spin so the oil and things wouldn't "freeze up" or coagulate from the lack of movement. Forty minutes later, at the frantic pointing insistence of fellow drivers, I pulled off the freeway and discovered the engine was on fire. I was later to learn it had developed a gas leak in its short retirement. I got out with my pup and stood helplessly at the side of the road watching it burn up. In minutes it went from a $5,000, seven-year-old sports car to a $200 heap of burned auto parts. By this time, I couldn't even cry about it. I just stood in a daze and hugged the one good thing left in my lifemy little pup who didn't care about a house or a car or a job; she knew I loved her and would find a way to feed her and take care of her. In the future, she would become my only reason for living, for getting up in the morning, for stepping out of the motorhome. That was a short three months ago.

Today I am, in a sense, homeless. Although I have my motor home (thank goodness) I cannot afford to rent a place for it in a motorhome park. Welfare pays $300 a month here where I have moved (in search of a job which I did not get), but mobile home spaces start at $400 a month. So do single rooms in people's houses and tiny studio apartments. So I park on the streets and move often enough that the police rarely hassle me, although I have been threatened with jail and having my motor home impounded for "inhabiting a vehicle" even though I am parked legally, causing no trouble, and making no noise.

I have no electricity or running water. I cannot use my laptop computer to earn a living writing without electricity, and I cannot shower to job hunt without running water. Often I cannot get a full night's sleep to be alert and strong for job hunting because of the police. I must stay in town because there is a free lunch program here. That is necessary because welfare allows $83 a month in food stamps. That amounts to $2.68 per dayhardly sufficient to fill a person much less to feed one healthy fare.

I have long days with nothing to do. I wish I could use them to write. Instead I use my time hunting for public toilets (I carry toilet paper in my purse, now.), quite pay phones for job-hunting calls, and outdoor electrical outlets where I can take my computer at night and clandestinely (meaning I have become a thief) plug in for a couple of hours of sitting on the ground, shivering, and writing.

Depression always a small problem in my life, is now a paralyzing force. I sleep when I am not out walking. I sleep twelve or more hours a day. I used to do just fine on five or six.

This is what it is like to be homeless. I am one of the lucky ones; I will get out of this hole. Many are not smart enough or educated enough or ingenious enough or brave enough to ever get out. Now I know why we cannot blame them for not getting jobs. It is the system that is to blame, giving just enough "help" for working people to feel moral and outraged, giving little in the way of a hand up, giving NO effort to understanding the true situation. Choosing, instead, to believe that it is the fault of the homeless that they are, and remain, in that state. This is now. California. 1996.

One year from now I will be off welfare and earning a living again one way or another, though it might be slinging hash. I will still be living in my motor home because I have come to love this minimalist lifestyle. I have one telephone to reach for instead of five, one wastebasket to empty instead of seven, one dictionary instead of four. The dishes can't pile up, unwashed, for days because I only have two of each. No need to put off sweeping the floor because I can sweep all twenty square feet of it in five minutes. Dusting is minimal. I have no yard work and no property taxes. And if I don't like my neighbors I can simply drive my house to another place. It is also a wonderfully inexpensive lifestyle which I have come to appreciate for its freedom from stress.

In my spare time I will be preparing to re-enter college in the fall as a fifty-three-year-old junior studying computer information systems, competing with my youngest daughter who will also be starting her junior year. I can only hope it will be a good year for both of us.

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