40 Model Essays Homelessness

Nobody ever tells you about the sleep deprivation.

At around 4:30 am, while the rest of the world is still asleep, I wake up and get moving under cover of darkness. Quiet spots with some degree of tree cover, or the occasional hospital or church parking lot, are typically where I sleep for the night. Still, there’s always the risk that someone will spot me and I’ll wake up with police blaring a flashlight into my eyes.

Every night and every morning, I wonder how it got to be like this. If I’m lucky, I’ll get maybe six hours of shuteye, but usually it’s a lot less. The fear of police or someone else finding me makes me nervous. After a while, the lack of sleep sets in. I feel groggy, low energy, and my legs and feet get swollen and stiff. Sleep deprivation is a torture technique the military uses, and it works just as effectively on an old lady like me.

Not having a home is hard. Now imagine not having a home at the age of 66.

Elderly homelessness is on the rise. A combination of slow economic recovery from the recession and an aging baby boomer population has contributed to the rise of the 51 and older homeless population. The percentage has spiked by almost 10 points since 2007 — in 2014, the 51-and-older group represented nearly a third of the national homeless population.

I never thought I’d be living in my car at age 66

When I was younger, I never thought I’d spend my golden retirement years living out of my car. For most of my life I had a roof over my head, food on my table, and steady work as a journalist and writer. I grew up living a middle-class life. I was able to live and travel to many places close and far from my native state of New York. Most of my adult life has been in California and Nevada, but I also traveled around the world to Europe and India after graduating college.

Then in my mid-40s, my life slowly started to unravel. I divorced my husband, and three remaining family members who were very dear to me all passed away, shrinking my safety net. I got rear-ended by a car and developed fibromyalgia. For years, every morning when I woke up, it felt like I had been run over by a Mack truck. Later, in my 50s, I went through extensive therapy to heal my fibromyalgia symptoms — but then developed osteoarthritis in my knees.

Then the recession arrived. I had been working primarily as a freelance writer, editor, and PR manager, but well-paying gigs rapidly slowed down. I was running out of money fast and needed steady work. Day after day was spent sending out hundreds of résumés and applications, but I rarely heard back and only landed one or two interviews. Unemployment shot up 5 percentage points in 2009, peaking at 10 percent the next year.

Eventually, I couldn’t scrape together enough money from savings and the occasional gig. I needed money badly, and when I turned 62 I applied for early retirement to activate my Social Security checks. At $672 a month, it wasn’t enough then, and it’s still not enough now.

The breaking point: a terrible, dangerous roommate situation

The breaking point came after I moved in with my roommate, Jack. Unable to afford skyrocketing living costs, I had moved into a home in Monterey, California, with a virtual stranger under the promise of cheap rent and a cordial living environment. But Jack turned out to be a struggling alcoholic and a hoarder. He exhibited increasingly worse abusive behavior.

Every day, the lewd and threatening comments chipped away at my sense of safety and peace of mind. The space, crowded with an ever-growing pile of his junk and trash, began to close in on me. He would threaten me, call me names, and physically block me from going to the bathroom late at night to intimidate me in his drunken state.

When I could no longer take his threats, I started calling the police on him at least once a week. Finally, I hit a point where I just couldn’t take it anymore. I used some money collected from friends, put my faith into a world where I had always been able to land on my own two feet, and moved out with no solid living plans. Sadly, my story is not uncommon. Domestic abuse is cited as the main reason for immediate homelessness for 50 percent of women without homes.

Two years later, and I’m living out of my car in search of a home. Finding a permanent roof over my head is increasingly becoming a dream out of reach. Rent is much too high to be covered by my monthly Social Security checks, and living out of a motel is a luxury I just can’t afford. Even campsites or trailer parks, where I could pitch my tent and make a temporary home for myself, can cost up to $1,000 a month. And it feels like time is running out — my dog and I need a home as soon as possible.

Across America, affordable housing is hard to come by

The first time the police found me, I had fallen asleep in a school parking lot. I knew it wasn’t the ideal place to park my car for the night, but I had gotten lost driving around town and couldn’t find a better spot before exhaustion set in. I fell asleep and woke up with a flashlight in my eyes and a police officer demanding that I leave. I burst into tears. The policeman, sympathetic and, I think, surprised that the ‘96 Subaru Legacy parked in the middle of an empty lot contained an elderly woman with no place else to go, gently escorted me to a new location.

Everywhere in our country, people are having a hard time finding affordable places to live. The housing crash and its chilling effect on mortgage lending have hit the poor the hardest. Affordable housing rates, defined as a unit that costs less than $800 a month, dropped by 12 percent in the past few years. Homeowners are being replaced by renters, as the American dream of owning your own property is becoming increasingly a luxury for the rich and upper middle class.

I used to be middle class. Now I’m nouveau poor.

Health is the biggest risk when you’re homeless

There are many common and outdated myths that portray homeless people as drug addicts, lazy, or mentally ill, or that they have chosen to live like this. But that certainly doesn’t describe me or most of the people that I’ve met. We do not choose to live like this. We have lost our jobs and homes in poor economic times and are struggling to get by on Social Security checks and savings.

Yet we face so much discrimination, even by law. In most cities, it is illegal to sleep in cars, in tents, and in most public places. For this reason, I call myself “unhoused” instead of homeless, as the term is loaded with derisive connotations.

The toll the lifestyle takes on your health is truly taxing. Lack of sleep and poor nutrition are the biggest issues. I’m reliant on food stamps to feed myself, which only last about a week out of the month. I’ll occasionally go to a food bank, which are stocked with donations of tuna, cookies, soups, and peanut butter and jelly. I’m also limited by not having a home — without a refrigerator, the food won’t last a day or so. Without a stove, I cannot cook anything.

As someone who is elderly, these problems are exacerbated. I have less flexibility, mobility, and energy than younger people. I end up having more hospital visits, which are necessary to treat the blood clots in my lungs and edema, or swelling in my legs, that has formed from prolonged periods of sitting in my car. I was in and out of the hospital 13 times this year alone, and last year I had surgery for breast cancer.

I tire easily, and it can be hard to walk due to my swollen legs and feet. Often, I’ll go to Whole Foods, Home Depot, or Target and borrow one of their motorized scooters. That way I can give my dog, Cici, a little exercise, letting her walk alongside me as I weave through the aisles of the store.

Homelessness is really lonely

It can be really tough to maintain a community. People I meet are often coming and going, dying, getting arrested, hospitalized, or leaving town. I have a few friends I have known for decades who are a godsend, helping to keep me sane by lending an ear via phone or email when I’m feeling down. But they live far away and have their own busy lives with families, jobs, and responsibilities. I don’t want to ask them for too much. A year ago, the most important person in my life passed away — my best friend, mentor, and teacher who encouraged me to write, travel, lead seminars, complete college, and more. Losses like these feel, and are, truly catastrophic.

It’s been easier to maintain a social life online. Wifi connections are cheap and easy to access by bringing my laptop to the library or by holing up at Starbucks for the small cost of an herbal tea. There, I blog, chat and keep in touch with a like-minded community of dog lovers. It’s a true moment of normalcy in my everyday life. My dog mamas and papas network has occasionally helped me out financially so that I can spend a few nights at a pet-friendly motel.

My dog is the most important living thing in my life right now

Unhoused people often prioritize feeding their pets over even themselves. It’s not that surprising — dogs are vital and necessary for providing comfort, protection, and companionship for women without homes, especially during this dangerous and isolated period of their lives.

My dog, Cici, a spotted Dalmatian mix, gives me a reason to wake up in the morning. She helps me meet kind strangers who come up to pet or feed her and strike up a conversation. I keep myself going day after day to make sure that she’s walked, fed, and given affection. Whenever I start feeling depressed or suicidal, she is the reason I choose to live. The idea of her having no one to care for her is too much to bear. And she makes me laugh every single day, which is a true lifesaver.

The crises are difficult, but so is the everyday loss of privacy and dignity

Some days, it feels like the problems pile onto each other, building an insurmountable mountain in front of me. A car breakdown, a lost phone, or not being able to secure food starts a chain of events that all add to my financial problems. I wake up each day and wonder if I’ll be able to survive the next crisis.

Other days, it’s the little things. The bureaucracy of social services, where a church social worker will spend three hours on the phone trying to find temporary shelter for me. The lack of privacy, where having to eat and use restrooms in public spaces feels like living in a fishbowl. I wander all over town, wondering where my dignity, privacy, and stability went. The empty days stretch out in front of me. How can I live my life with no job, no money, and no place to go home to?

I spend much of my time writing articles and researching housing solutions for myself and for others. I go to Lowe’s to find materials needed to build a tiny mobile home. I’m looking into creating a nonprofit where people can donate RVs, campers, and trailers for elderly women who need homes. I’m still sending out résumés all the time, trying to find work.

On some days, I’ll drive to the beach. I’ll walk my dog in the parking lot, then sit in my car and watch the waves and listen to the birds. The sounds of the ocean are calming and soothing. The sun on my face warms me.

I try to remember what’s important in life. I try to remember that there’s beauty everywhere and good people in the world. I try to remember my previous life, filled with interesting characters, connections, wondrous places I have lived and visited.

If I’m lucky, I’ll fall asleep and dream about living in a home again during a short, heavenly nap.

—as told to Karen Turner

CeliaSue Hecht’s writing work has been featured in more than 40 local and national newspapers and magazines, on her dog travel blog, in newsletters, and in five romantic travel guides. She has traveled around the world and has written and led seminars and workshops in the US and Europe. Her travels have included about 245 cities. She can be contacted by email at prmatchmaker@yahoo.com or on her website celiasue.com.

We know how to end poverty, so why don't we?

At a late January Bernie Sanders rally in Iowa, 46-year-old Carrie Aldrich described through tears what it was like struggling to survive on less than $12,000 a year. I watched and shook my head knowingly, having survived on $8,000 each of the past two years. Such low income, combined with a perfect storm of unaffordable rent, incompatible roommates, non-living wages, and an inability to find full-time work, resulted in three bouts of homelessness that forced me to live in my car. And in a few days, it will happen a fourth time for the same reasons.

I was born into a middle-class family, but I've hovered near poverty level all of my adult life because my line of work doesn't pay much. My career consisted of administrative roles in high-tech offices and government agencies, with most of it contract work because it paid more and provided more flexibility and mobility than permanent secretarial work.

I attended college pay-as-you-go for a couple years while working, then left because I couldn't afford to continue and knew better than to take on student debt. My moderate savings was destroyed in my 30s by health care costs that insurance wouldn't cover. Within the past several years, full-time work that pays a subsistence wage has been hard to come by. Now I'm pushing 50, and am aging out of a workforce that for the most part gave me a subsistence-level existence at best.

Three times within the past four years I've lived in my 36-year-old car that has more than 400,000 miles on it, because I could not find affordable rental housing or a job that paid a living wage. Though I reside in the Pacific Northwest, the situation is the same all across the country. Impoverished, working single women without children do not get top priority on long waitlists for subsidized housing, rapid rehousing, or other government services or benefits. I don't have family or a spouse to turn to for help or support. Friends can't or won't help for their own various reasons and circumstances. I am totally on my own.

I never dreamed that homelessness would ever happen to me, let alone multiple times. The first time I was homeless in the winter of 2012, I lost my job and had to live in my car with my cat, spending one month in the middle of winter with $230 to my name. My car heater broke years ago. I remember waking up at 2 am one mid-December morning and discovering my cat's water dish next to my head had frozen solid in the 27-degree weather — inside the car.

The second time I became homeless, in the summer of 2014, I was working a part-time, temporary job for a small municipality while waiting for a full-time position to open up. My roommate gave me notice to leave so her daughter could move into the room I was renting. I had a grand in the bank at the time but couldn't find a rental situation I could afford. So once again, my cat and I lived in the car. This time, we went to a small, wealthy, temperate-climate Pacific Coast town, because the weather was in triple digits where I had come from, which turns the car into an unlivable oven. Each day I was harassed by police and park rangers because of the town's aggressive policies that criminalize homelessness. Though I found a new roommate after that horrible week, I lost the city temp job not long after I returned. I'd asked for a raise from $12 an hour to $13. When the city gave me a 23-cent raise, and when out of sheer disbelief I sought an explanation, I was told I should be grateful for any raise at all, because "temps don't usually get them." Then I was fired. "We don't want you here if you're not happy," they said.

I became homeless a third time last summer — again with a grand in savings — and lived in my car for a month and a half when my part-time, low-paying, temporary job ended and my roommate stopped paying her bills. My cat and I moved more than 500 miles to a cooler climate in another state, and for a month and a half we spent our days at a state park that had free wifi so I could look for work online, and inexpensive showers (50 cents for three minutes of lukewarm water). We spent our nights in the car on residential streets in town or a couple of industrial parks outside of town.

And in a few days, due to the sale of my rental house to wealthy buyers from Silicon Valley who don't wish to be landlords, I'll be living in the car once again — with a grand in the bank — because I can't find an affordable place to live. Since more than half of all Americans have zero dollars in savings, for someone like me to thrice sock away a grand on a paltry four-figure income was no small feat. It took an earned-income tax credit (EITC) from the IRS for being "working poor," and withdrawing retirement money from my last government job — and taking a stiff tax penalty for it.

This is what it looks like when you totally fall off the bottom of the economic ladder, and how it happens:

1) Homelessness is expensive

The longer you're homeless, the more basic expenses such as gas money, car insurance, storage unit costs, laundromats, and gym memberships or park fees for showering deplete your savings. Without car insurance, your vehicle can be ticketed and impounded. Gas hovers close to $4 a gallon in the summer, so just driving around trying to find a safe place to park for the night, or to do routine things like laundry or going to a job interview across town, can rapidly burn up your cash.  Laundromats are expensive. So are storage unit payments if you don't have enough room in your car for your belongings, especially the ones you might need again if you find a place to live.

When you're low-income, you have to have excellent money management skills, because you have to survive on so little. Everything is budgeted to the penny. Credit cards? A nonstarter if you're unemployed, low-wage, or homeless. So a simple problem — such as a car repair — that a higher-income person can eliminate with a credit card in five minutes can wipe out people living in poverty and put them on the streets or, worse, keep them there. It is much harder to climb out of poverty than it is to fall into it.

2) People think if you're low-income or homeless, it's because you're lazy or uneducated

In 2010, more than a third of all working adults with jobs that did not pay a living wage had at least some college education or a degree. According to 2014 census data, the poverty rate for college-educated Americans jumped from 4.4 to 5 percent. And post-recession, many older workers were forced to take positions they were overqualified for at less pay than before. Many government-funded job retraining programs are for trade careers (nursing assistant or pharmacy technician, paying on average $12 and $14 an hour respectively) that pay better than minimum wage but are still not living wages in most areas. Not "wanting" or "choosing" to work several different low-wage jobs for a total of 60 to 80 hours a week just to survive doesn't make anyone lazy: It points to the unfairness and inefficiency of the economic system, and the inequality inherent in it.

People also believe if you're homeless, it's due to moral failure or "poor choices" on your part, rather than a broken economic system, as if nearly 40 years of stagnant wages in America were your own personal doing. Blaming personal failures for your circumstances merely provides an excuse for not responding to the real causes of homelessness.

3) Lack of affordable housing is the leading cause of homelessness

After the housing crash in 2008, many people who lost their homes to foreclosure moved into rentals — and stayed. When fewer people buy homes, rental markets tighten. The number of renters across the United States grew by about 5 percentage points between 2006 and 2014, to just over 43 percent. Tighter lending policies, student loan debt, and stagnant wages discourage renters from buying. In the most desirable housing markets in the country (such as the West Coast, where the tech hubs are), population growth has outpaced new home construction, driving up housing and rental prices faster than gains in income can keep pace. When home prices rose, it priced people out of the market, keeping them in rentals. Rents then soared due to demand. All of this, in turn, made it even harder for renters to become homeowners, completing the vicious circle.

Poor households, naturally, took the brunt. I started feeling the rental squeeze in 2010, when at the age of 40 I moved in with a roommate to try to stay above water. Research shows that a $100 increase in rent is associated with a 15 percent increase in homelessness. As the Atlantic recently reported:

The housing-cost squeeze faced by the poorest households is deeply disturbing. The share of income devoted to rent by the lowest-income households increased from an already whopping 55.7 percent to a staggering 62.5 percent. No other income group spends more than 30 percent of their income on rent. Lower-middle-class households saw their rent burdens grow from 27.4 percent to 30 percent. Upper-middle-class households went from 18.5 percent to 20 percent, and the richest households from 12.5 percent to 13.5 percent.

Simply picking up and moving to a state with more affordable housing isn't a solution. Many states with cheaper housing also pay lower wages, offsetting any savings and keeping the proportion of income to rent high. Low-wage workers in places with higher minimum wages, such as Seattle or San Francisco, earn far less than an affordable housing wage for their area, but the situation is similar in cheaper places, too: It's just as difficult to afford $700-a-month rent on $10 an hour as it is to pay $1,200-a-month rent making $14 an hour.

Even if you find affordable housing and a job paying a living wage, you can still end up struggling: Affordable housing is often located miles away from the downtown business cores of major cities, resulting in long, expensive commutes each day that eat away at already sparse paychecks. Plus, it's expensive to move to another state, given the cost of gas money, a moving truck, etc., so it's possible to end up trapped in a bad situation where you are if you can't afford to relocate.

4) Lack of a living wage means you won't be able to afford housing

"Since 2000, rents have grown roughly twice as fast as wages, and you don't have to be an economist to understand why that is hugely problematic," says Stan Humphries, a chief economist at the real estate website Zillow.

Thirty-seven years (and counting) of wage stagnation and decline compounds the problem significantly. The federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour has not been raised since 2009. Had it risen in connection with productivity over the past four decades, the minimum wage would be more than $18 per hour today. Gains in productivity were previously tied to increased wages, but now those gains go to CEOs and shareholders instead. Combined with horrible trade agreements unfavorable to workers such as NAFTA, weakened labor unions, global competition, and a high cost of living that has far outpaced wages, people are left struggling to make ends meet.

Most jobs created post-recession are in low-wage industries, with 44 percent of new jobs paying no more than $13.33 per hour. The same type of administrative work that I was paid $15 to $20 an hour to do in 2000 now pays only $11 to $12 an hour — without benefits, holiday pay, or sick leave. If you don't work, you don't get paid, period.

Full-time work at minimum wage is not enough to lift someone above the poverty line, let alone afford housing. Critics argue that a higher minimum wage will discourage companies from hiring, but studies have shown that two-thirds of all low-wage workers are actually employed by large corporations. Those corporations are earning profits much higher than their pre-recession levels, but those gains go to executives and shareholders rather than to employees. Low-wage employers such as Walmart and McDonald's won't hire older, college-educated workers anyway, because they are overqualified and will quit when something better comes along. Without a living wage, working people will continue to live in poverty and rely on public assistance such as SNAP and Medicaid — and be blamed for their predicament.

5) Even if you do have a job and savings, landlords can make it impossible for you to get a lease

More than half of renters in America pay over 30 percent of their income in rent. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) via its excellent housing study "Out of Reach," there isn't a single state in the US where a full-time, minimum wage worker can afford a fair market rate one-bedroom apartment while paying less than 30 percent of their total income. In 2015, the hourly wage a person would need to earn to afford housing is $15.50 for a one-bedroom unit (assuming a fair market rate rent of $806 a month) and $19.35 for a two-bedroom unit (assuming a fair market rate rent of $1,006 a month). In two of the West Coast states where I have lived and worked most of my adult life, those wages are far above the sub-$9.50 minimum wage of both states.

Because the tight rental market is so heavily stacked in landlords' favor, many of them now require proof that you make a certain percentage more than the rent when you submit your rental application. Here are examples from some current ads in my area:

  • We require documentation of income such that the monthly rent payment is no more than 35 percent of monthly gross income.
  • Our one-bedrooms start at $820, and our two-bedrooms start at $870. To qualify, we do require an income of two and a half times the rent or a minimum of $10,000 in a US bank account.
  • Your gross monthly household income must be no less than three times the amount of monthly rent.
  • You must have verifiable monthly income, and your net income amount should be approximately three times the amount of rent per month ($2,700 total/$900 month rent).

Those requirements — just for apartments with three-figure rents — put the upfront move-in costs at well over $2,000, far more than I have in savings. Even when I was working full time, whether at $12 or $15 an hour, I didn't gross, let alone net, $2,700 a month.

Landlords don't care that you have no debt or criminal history and a good rental history — if you are unemployed or homeless, you are out of luck. And you absolutely cannot tell a potential landlord (or employer) that you are homeless, let alone that you were three times prior. Homeless people are so routinely discriminated against by both landlords and employers that several state legislatures have passed a Homeless Bill of Rights to try to protect them from discrimination because of their status.

"Landlords think that just because a person is poor they will be a bad tenant, but there are no studies to show that they have worse outcomes as tenants," says Michele Thomas, director of policy at the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance (WLIHA). Discrimination against homeless job applicants prevents them from breaking out of poverty and from obtaining housing. It's worth noting that 25 percent of homeless people are employed but just don't earn enough to afford rent.

6) Politicians won't help

Poor people don't vote, so most politicians ignore them — especially at the federal level. The homeless constituency is invisible. With all of their time spent on day-to-day survival, the homeless don't have time to advocate for their own needs.

Most cities still throw money at social services instead of building low-income housing and housing for the homeless, failing to understand it's called "homelessness" and not "servicelessness" for a reason. The mostly nonprofit providers of social services are known as Continuum of Care providers, whose mission is to secure federal, state, and local money to provide services that deal with the result of homelessness, such as shelters, day-use centers, etc., rather than prevention. Addressing and solving the root causes of homelessness is not their job, mission, or focus.

This misdirected focus creates expensive bureaucracies to administer the programs, and drains funds away from addressing the problem directly, for example, by building more affordable housing.

In the past decade, national homelessness experts figured out that the best way to end homelessness was to give the homeless a permanent roof over their heads first, rather than services. The approach, known as Housing First, has been independently vetted and declared a success, because it is far more cost-effective to provide housing than having the homeless population drift through shelters, jails, emergency rooms, and the streets. Direct-housing programs work, but cities have been slow to either enact or fully fund successful programs like Housing First or Rapid Re-Housing, because the decision-makers are slow to realize that only housing solves homelessness.

7) Living with a roommate is the fastest but most problematic way out of homelessness

Living with a roommate will often cost far less than a private apartment or house, and will get a roof over your head for protection from the heat or cold. But you can end up scraping the bottom of the barrel as far as living conditions go. Not once, but twice, I was offered the "opportunity" to sleep on rugs and furniture reeking of pet urine for "only" $400 a month! No, thanks, my car is free and isn't nearly as disgusting and uncomfortable as that.

Also, living with roommates at middle age to escape homelessness is far different and much less benign than generally congenial and flexible college roommate scenarios. Just because a person has a roof over her head — and you don't — doesn't mean that she is sane or safe to live with. Whenever I place classified ads looking for a room to rent, I always get sex-for-rent offers from men. And dealing with someone else's drama, such as drug or alcohol abuse, can be far worse than living in your car. You already have enough problems and trauma of your own; you don't need other people and their issues adding to your vulnerability.

One of my roommates had a mental episode and stopped paying her bills. My next roommates, a retired couple, would snoop through my papers and personal belongings while I was at work. Another roommate became unhappy with me because I didn't want to become her drinking buddy. The bottom line is that your roommate is the leaseholder with all the legal rights to your living space, and can give you notice to move out at any time for any reason. This means you can be tossed back out onto the streets in short order with essentially no recourse, and your problem of trying to find an affordable place to live begins all over again.

8) People who are uncomfortable with homelessness in their communities want you to be invisible — and the penalties are stiff if you aren't

Seventy-one percent of San Francisco's homeless population were once residents with homes, but that didn't stop a young tech worker in the city, Justin Keller, from writing a brutally insensitive open letter to the mayor and chief of police about the "riff raff" homeless in his city. Keller stated: "We live in a free market society. The wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city. They went out, got an education, work hard, and earned it. I shouldn't have to worry about being accosted. I shouldn't have to see the pain, struggle, and despair of homeless people to and from my way to work every day. I want my parents when they come visit to have a great experience, and enjoy this special place."

Homeless people try to stay invisible to survive, because if someone complains to the police, the homeless risk being jailed or fined for violating "no overnight camping" laws or having their vehicle towed and impounded if they are living in it. It's exhausting and stressful trying to find work, stay clean, and keep the car running, especially when many people don't want you in their neighborhood, their parks, or their libraries, the last bastions of the homeless.

It's hard to sleep at night due to street noise, all while remaining vigilant that no one notices you are sleeping in your car (window condensation from breathing is a huge tip-off). It's difficult to hide the fact that you live in your car, because people will see you come and go, and if have a pet with you, it's a dead giveaway when you take it out for walks. My old beater car doesn't blend in at all with nicer, late-model vehicles that line the streets of the neighborhoods where it's safest to sleep.

Living in a car is a step up from street homelessness, but isn't much safer: Homeless people are 13 times more likely to be the victims of violence than housed people. And homeless women are inherently vulnerable, with higher personal safety risks than men.

Society's message to the homeless is abundantly clear: You don't matter, because you don't have money. There are so many ways to get down on your luck, or become homeless, and so few means to escape. Economic inequality and a system built to perpetuate it is the problem — homelessness is the result for people without a safety net. A rising economic tide doesn't lift all boats — it merely drowns the poor. It's understood that most people in life aren't going to be high-wage earners on par with doctors and lawyers, but that doesn't mean working people should have to live on the streets or in vehicles.

In a few days, I will yet again put the key into the car ignition and have no place to go, not enough money for housing, no job or prospects, and $1,000 in savings to survive on until it's gone or I somehow find a job and a place to live — whichever comes first. It looks like this is going to be the new normal for me in this economy. It's not about the prime of life or possibilities anymore; it's about what will I have to learn to live with from now on.

Sadly, I'm far from alone in working-class poverty. Even more sadly, in one of the richest countries on Earth, some people are choosing suicide rather than enduring the oblivion of poverty. The poor and the homeless are not looking for luxury. This is about meeting basic needs. It's not living — it's survival, and it's miserable.

Veronica Harnish is the author of the book Car Living When There's No Other Choice. Visit her blog.

First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at firstperson@vox.com.

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