For the estimated 10-to-12 million Americans who’ll be homeless for at least one night this year, the impact is devastating enough when you lose your own place once. For me, it is an emotionally crippling blow, a wound that won’t heal and will stay with me for the rest of my life.
So imagine what it is like if you are doing what the Republican Party says we all should do without help from anyone, especially the government: You struggle mightily and manage get back on your feet, only to have your life snatched away again when you discover that homelessness can strike twice in the same spot.
This isn’t about homeless people who find a temporary place to stay, such as a friend’s spare room or a government-paid motel room, and when the welcome or aid runs out are back on the street. I am referring to people who overcome huge odds to get themselves re-established only to find themselves back on the street for a second time.
If you don’t believe it can happen, then meet Sam, Marcy and their three children ages eight, 10 and 15. It happened to them.
In 2007, they lost their Las Vegas home in the first round of foreclosures hit the city. The subprime mortgage that a broker talked them into taking out a few years earlier exploded in their face. Originally, the interest on the new mortgage was several percentage points lower than the loan they were refinancing, so they were delighted that their monthly payment went down. But no one told them that after the first few years the interest rate would jump dramatically. Unable to meet the higher payments when Sam lost his distribution business and Marcy was laid off from her data base maintenance job, the couple faced foreclosure.
Sam, who is 43, was accustomed to reading the fine print in contracts because, he says, “in my business, when I still had it, what you didn’t read would cost you money.
“I never saw the section that said our rate and payments would more than double,” he adds bitterly. Claiming that despite reading the new mortgage document closely, the clause was hidden deep in a long paragraph that had nothing else to do with future rate increases or payments. Worse, Sam says, once a real estate lawyer pointed it out to him before the first court hearing that led to foreclosure, it was written in a way that seemed to be deliberately confusing and obtuse.
“I’m not sure the mortgage company’s attorneys could explain what they wrote,” Sam maintains. “Christ, mine missed it the first time he read the document.”
Once they realized they were facing eviction, they sold as much of their furniture and appliances as they could. Between yard sales and advertising on Craig’s List and other sites, they generated a few thousand dollars cash before the Clark County Sheriff arrived at their door to toss them out.
“We felt like dirt,” Marcy, who is 41, recalls. “Even though five other homes on our street had been foreclosed, it doesn’t make you feel any better as you drive away from your house.”
The family owns a trailer that they use for vacation camping trips in the Sierra Mountains of northern Nevada and California. With the armed gendarmerie keeping a close eye peeled to make sure they didn’t take the door knobs or anything else that now belonged to a bank, the family piled food and as many clothes, dishes and other small items as they could fit in their car and the trailer, and headed for a campground near Hoover Dam.
“What’d they think we’d do?” Sam wonders bitterly, noting that the snarly, overly suspicious demeanor of the sheriff deputies had everyone in his family feeling like criminals. “The kids got really freaked when the cops insisted on looking in bags they were carrying out that had their clothes and toys. Shit, we weren’t going to pull down the plasterboard (walls) or make off with the door bell, for Christ sake.”
As they settled into what passed for their new “life,” Sam continued working as a night manager of a convenience store, a job he landed after his business went bankrupt. Marcy found a job with a temp agency and worked anywhere from three-to-five days a week as a typist, saying with a laugh, “Now I know why Mom made me take secretarial lessons in high school!”
Since school was on summer break at the time, the eldest daughter looked after her sisters during the day, and cooked dinners for the family because Greg was still asleep and her mother didn’t return to the campground from work until nearly seven. Marcy says she feels terrible about putting her eldest in the position of surrogate parent and daycare worker. “A teenager should spend summer vacation hanging with her friends, not wiping runny noses, putting Band Aids on skinned knees or playing Old Maid with her kid sisters.”
Marcy also admits to feeling a bit guilty. “If we hadn’t lost our house, she wouldn’t have to be doing any of this. Of course, there is an upside, sort of. (She) told me that she’s making double sure she doesn’t get pregnant for at least 10 years!”
Being able to keep their sense of humor – even if it’s a bit macabre at times – while homeless may be one of the reasons why Sam and Marcy were able to step back from the brink of disaster. That they were each able to find jobs also helps since a lack of steady employment keeps many formerly middle class homeless people from being able to return to a life that approaches normalcy.
Because they had two small but regular incomes, “we finally saved enough to be able to rent a townhouse back in Vegas. We only spent money on essentials,” such as food, gas and the campground fees, Sam states. For example, the family didn’t buy new clothes until the girls outgrew what they were wearing and all three girls agreed to sacrifice movie nights, pizzas and buying video games. Since their cell phones weren’t on a contract, Sam and Marcy downgraded from smart phones and the girls agreed to use theirs only for emergency calls.
“We all had the same goal,” he says, “and that was to be in a home again.”
As a result, homelessness ended after 11 months. The townhome they rented was smaller than their own house but “compared to the trailer, it was like moving into a palace,” Marcy remembers. It had three bedrooms – their home was four plus a small den where visiting relatives and friends would stay – so the two youngest girls doubled up.
“The place was sparse …” because they’d sold as much of their old stuff as they could before being foreclosed “but we rented furniture for the bedrooms, the dining area and a sofa,” Sam tells me. Most important, the girls were able to attend the same schools they’d been in before the foreclosure. When school started and they were in the trailer, the family’s homeless status was kept hidden from school administrators ‘lest the kids have another major disruption in their life by being forced to change schools and have to make new friends.
Just as the family’s life was returning to normal, the roof fell in again.
“It was like getting slammed with a body blow,” states Sam, “twice.”
They had been in their rented town house for roughly eight months when they received a registered letter from a bank telling them that the owner of the place had been foreclosed and they would have to vacate in 60 days. Sam spoke with his lawyer who told him he had no choice. Sam says with bitterness in his voice, “We wanted to sign a lease when we rented the place but the owner didn’t want to. So we had no protection.”
To make matters worse, the bank was claiming that Sam and Marcy owed back rent because the owner had no records showing that they’d paid him. Fortunately, thanks to Sam having once owned a business, the couple did and sent copies of their receipts so, Marcy states, “at least we didn’t have to pay twice.”
Nevertheless, they were homeless for the second time in less than two years.
“Being back in the trailer was maybe the worst thing that could’ve happened,” Sam laments. The family tried finding another place to rent but given their limited budget, “what we looked at in our price range was either in a bad area, or it was filthy, or it was too small.”
“The girls were crushed,” Marcy adds. “The little ones think it’s their fault somehow.”
As Gus and Marcie continue to look for an affordable apartment or house to rent, they are more fortunate than many homeless families.
All five of them remain together; many families have to split up, either because one parent goes to another city to look for work or there isn’t space in shelters that accept men, women and children. Both parents have jobs, if low paying; finding a job is a job in itself for most homeless. The trailer bought years ago for fun is now their home so they have a stable roof over their head; few of us who are homeless enjoy anything close to stability in our life. And they can eat regularly, although they sometimes must rely on a food bank between paychecks; there are days when I cannot find a church or agency serving a free sandwich.
But rents being asked for apartments, town houses and even single family homes might well be softening softening. According to the Las Vegas Sun, foreclosures are rising again in the city. As other people grapple with the struggles of homelessness, Gus and Marcy may be able to get their family back into another permanent place – hopefully one they can stay in for a while.
Follow Charley on Twitter @SuddenlyHomeless.