March 13, 2010

Through the Eyes of an Urban Camper

I try to live by the motto: “Refuse to have a bad day. Every day is a good day – some are just better than others.”  Lately however, each day is a struggle, not for survival, but for sanity in a world gone awry.  Perhaps most disheartening of all is knowing that my story is not unique in today's economy.  Maybe it would be better to start at the beginning.  After all, that is what beginnings are for.

Life was pretty good until that fateful day one year ago when the notice appeared, taped to the front door.  The house I had been leasing for over five years was going into a bank auction.  I had 10 days to clear the premises.  The absentee owner, after pulling out all equity in a booming housing market, had walked away from his mortgage payments when the market tanked. (A later check of public records showed he had taken out $60K in equity loans during the previous year. The house eventually sold for $80K less than he owed.)

Anyway, first came the mad scramble to move a three-bedroom house into a 10' X 15' storage facility.  Since that months rent payment had already been sent and cashed,  I didn't have funds enough for new accommodations until my next paycheck.  The dogs and I took to spending days at parks and sleeping in the truck overnight.  Two weeks passed before we found a new place.  Things were starting to look up again.  Then recession took firm grip on the throat of our nation.

Businesses faltered or just closed up.  Owners, faced with no work available for their employees, made tough choices.  My employer chose to keep as many on the rolls as possible, but cut schedules across the board to avoid mass layoffs.  Many complained, but I pointed out that they still had jobs, even if only part time.  Some threatened to quit and look for other work.  I wished them well and thanked them for their willingness to help by freeing up hours for the rest of us.  The short paychecks and mounting bills finally took their toll at the end of August.  The dogs and I were back out on the street.

Now, I was not new to this living on the street.  I went through a similar three-month exercise in the fall of 1996.  I learned the gas stations with restrooms in which to bathe, and the safer streets where I could overnight until the parks reopened in the morning.  I also learned which motels and hotels had guest laundries where I could wash and dry clothes, usually at less cost than commercial laundromats, as part of payday splurges for one night in a real bed and a long hot shower.

Everything was geared toward saving enough for more substantial shelter.  Even meal expenses were kept to a minimum, except for my animals who always got top drawer grub as reward for their loyalty.  The main thing I learned was attitude.  Instead of bemoaning my predicament, I chose to view it in the best light possible.  I still had a job, and my animals for companionship.  I refused to accept the brand of “homeless”, adopting the less pejorative self-description of “urban camper” instead.  I saw every day as a new adventure instead of another challenge. 

So it would be this time, or so I thought.  What I wasn't prepared for was the scope, depth, or duration of this economic downturn.  I have noticed distressing changes as unemployment continues to rise.

The faces have changed.  More and more out of work young men and women, even whole families, show up at the parks each day, seeking refuge from their daily plight.  Gone are the retirees who used to walk along lagoon pathways, play chess in the shade, or sit on benches feeding the birds. 

The retirees are now manning counters at fast food restaurants.  Life savings devastated, they wear name tags and paper hats for minimum wage in an effort to keep body and soul together.  Meanwhile a new generation populates their old haunts as homelessness continues to rise.

The mood has changed.  Confusion and agitation over finding themselves, many for the first time in their lives, without steady work and a nice house, have given way to anger and resignation.  Desperate fathers leave their wives and preschool children to wait in parks while they engage in futile searches for a job, any job, that might pay for the next family meal. 

Sometimes there is open resentment toward office workers who come to the parks during their lunches.  The newly dispossessed often view them as interlopers.  They react as if the office workers were out gawking at carnival freak shows of downtrodden.  Hopelessness is almost palpable as despair continues to rise.

Until this point, only a few select family and friends were aware of my situation.  So, why am I telling this story now?  Because it is important for others to be aware of the anger, resentment, and hostility brewing out of sight to polite society.  It is important for local, state, and national leaders to be aware of what their out-of-control deficit spending is doing to ordinary Americans. 

The people I see are not society's dregs.  They are, or at least were, the backbone of an energetic economy.  They are, or at least were, the guardians of a free society's principles.  They can be again, if given the chance.  I cannot predict an uprising or anarchy among these normally good people.  However, the seeds are sown.  Only time will tell if they are allowed to take root.

Dennis P. O'Neil


  1. Backbone is right saltwater. America is waking up to what is happening. They see that they wer'e betrayed and will educate Washington again this November. The Damage is extensive--but not reversable.

  2. I've already accepted the fact that thanks to the Congress/Senate, I'll be working until I drop dead.

  3. Blackwater,
    The damage is extensive indeed. How much can be repaired depends on how quickly we take action on the reversal process, and how willing people are to see it through.

  4. Gunny,
    I know that feeling all too well. All my original hard work to prepare for retirement was wiped out in the "Black Monday" crash of 1987. The Dot Com bubble burst cleaned out most of what I was able to salvage and rebuild. This last meltdown pretty much finished what the first two started. I expect that someday I will join those others - back where I started - wearing a paper hat and name tag for my remaining years.

  5. Yeah, with the excess spending and raiding of other government entitlement programs, I'm wondering where my future lies, since I'm only 25. Right now we're looking at higher taxes, higher unemployment, an extended recession, and an administration that seems not to acknowledge any of the previous woes. Even when this administration is gone, the damage has been sewn.