Last week I turned 45. I may soon become homeless.
I am not the stereotypical candidate for homelessness: I have a BA in English and a small business as a copywriter. And yet, my situation says something about where we live now in California—somewhere between a real roof and a virtual one. When your work doesn’t demand a physical address and you’ve lost social contacts and the web of connections they provide, it’s all too easy to find yourself hovering more or less nowhere.
Earlier this year the trailer park in Ukiah where I’d been living for nine years went from generally sketchy to frankly unsafe. It was familiar and semi-affordable, but a rent hike combined with dangerously lax maintenance (a leaky roof, a heater that shorted out, and more mice than I felt comfortable sharing my space with) motivated me to take action. It was time to go.
I frantically looked for a place but Craigslist and newspaper classifieds turned up nothing. My aunt in Santa Rosa offered to rent me a room, though her lease would be up before long; She’s steadily advancing up a waiting list for a senior apartment. When she moves, the house will be sold and I will be out of a room.
Housing in Sonoma County is a bit more expensive than in Mendocino County where I used to live. But in both places available housing is so scarce that prices are stratospheric. A studio can run you $975 or more; anything under $750 is snapped up before it hits the market. I applied for subsidized housing at two places that required me to send paperwork by mail, and I was refused a spot on their years-long waiting lists because my income is too low. On the other hand, because I run my own business and make $500 to 700 a month writing full time, I am not eligible for unemployment.
It wasn’t a shock to learn that I’m too poor for subsidized housing. In my twenties I applied for general assistance and was turned down—but not before a social worker advised me to have a baby if I wanted public money. There has always been a net under the cliff’s edge for people in dire straits, it’s just that cliff is crumbling a lot faster than even I would have expected. What little safety net remains might catch you if you fall hard enough to lose your home and job at once. But if you work full-time and get paid poorly for it, there’s precious little for you to grab onto.
Since the Internet was turning up no new leads, I dug into The Job Hunter’s Survival Guide, a recession-specific reboot of Richard Bolles’ classic What Color is Your Parachute? The self-evaluation exercises seemed like they might be helpful, and work and housing are snugly intertwined. If nothing else, the solution-oriented focus might shore up my resolve to keep trying. The same advice comes up repeatedly in the book: Take a group of friends out to dinner and compare notes. Ask 10 family members to help you with career path evaluations. This presented a problem.
There’s no comfortable way to admit this: I don’t have 10 friends and family members, or at least not the kind Bolles is talking about. I have relatives, sure, but other than the one I’m living with, they’re scattered around the globe and we don’t see each other often. I have nobody to call or visit, to have a cup of coffee with or phone to check in about matters great and small. In practical terms, I have no friends.
I should say I have no friends IRL, or “in real life,” because I have many virtual friends online. It’s satisfying to post something I think is funny and get an affirming thumbs-up in reply, and I have found a small group on Twitter via a blog I contribute to who are engaging and kind human beings. I have my own blog as well, and a network of editors around the country for whom I work. But even if upturned thumbs were redeemable for shingles, I’d have trouble putting a roof over my head with them. And a roof in a neighborhood without friends and neighbors means depending on those clicks for more than they can provide, like warmth and empathy and two-way exchange that isn’t sterile.
I’ve tried to figure out how I ended up friendless. Years back I lost a job when my ride fell through and I couldn’t get to work. My work friends hung in with me for a while, but without the job to provide context for our relationships, they eventually faded. Working from home in a remote location never replaced those lost friends, and not long after that I ended up homeless in 2004 for just over a year. Once I’d found a place to live I worked overtime to connect with my community, but was continually rebuffed. A coworker at my first job told me point-blank, “Everyone here is done as far as socializing goes. You’ll need to look elsewhere for that.”
But I had a laptop. So I would go home and scroll through Facebook, hoping to click and be clicked in return enough times to quell my increasing anxiety. It’s not coincidental that I felt hungry pretty much all the time back then. When I shifted to writing full-time, my labor connected me to people around the country and the world, though I myself was essentially nowhere.
In this way, my fingertip grip on yet another ledge has given way, but instead of a straight drop downward, I’m afloat, a sort of ghost. My work is virtual: It’s conducted, delivered, and sometimes even reimbursed online. I say I’m in Northern California, but as a freelancer, I could be anywhere and sending work to anywhere, for a third party client even farther out in the anywhere-o-sphere. It’s nice to feel a sense of global connectedness, especially since I haven’t traveled much. But if I can’t do enough piecework to pay ever-rising rents, I can’t establish myself somewhere concrete. This, in turn, makes it nearly impossible for me to access health care or other public services, including ones dedicated to helping people find housing. It’s better than landing headfirst on the concrete, but not by much.
Policymakers would probably view my situation as a simple need for affordable housing, but what I need is more complex. Yes, I need a place to live urgently, but if I end up somewhere too far from people, stores, and a post office I can walk to, I will end up feeling like I’m in about the same place where I am now. It’s exhausting to even contemplate. This demands that I leave the emotional safety of a life spent alone, meeting my needs with large batches of zeroes and ones, and that I grow myself back into a human being apart from my USB port.
That real person, who I have yet to become, needs a community to call her own with friends (if I’m lucky), neighbors, and social access, not access ports. I still believe this can happen, but in the years since I was first without a home, the world has changed in ways that have never really let me back inside. I can’t be the only one. Surely there are enough of us in similar need to take a stand and repair these societal disconnects, but it’s not a world we can engineer by mouse-click. We may need to go outside, to reclaim the commons for conversation instead of Words With Friends.
Heather Seggel is a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in San Francisco magazine, Women’s Review of Books, UTNE, The Toast, and many other places. She is currently between homes in Northern California.
This story was originally written for Zócalo Public Square.