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 firstname.lastname@example.org or on her website celiasue.com.