The week before Christmas, after 61/2 years of homelessness, I moved into a city-owned senior housing apartment in Rancho Mirage, Calif., near Palm Springs. I had been on the waiting list there for several years.
For the first few days, I marveled at my good fortune. I had a bed again. A kitchen. A bathroom. They were luxuries I had grown used to doing without.
It was surprisingly easy to become homeless. A recession hit, and my freelance writing and public relations work dried up. By June 2002, I could no longer afford my rent, and so I had to give up my apartment.
At the time, I thought that living in my Toyota pickup truck would be temporary. But finding an affordable place to live proved overwhelmingly difficult. With most of my belongings in storage, I camped at public campgrounds and once in awhile at a Wal-Mart parking lot, staying in the deserts of Southern California in the winter and spending summers in Montana, where I had once lived.
I had just about given up on finding a place. Then, in early December, I got a phone call saying my name finally had hit the top of Rancho Mirage's housing list for low-income seniors.
The apartment was small but nice, in a complex with orange and palm trees. I knew that I wanted it, but my problems weren't quite over. I didn't have enough cash to pay a security deposit and the first month's rent, which is calculated at 30 percent of income. The apartment manager suggested contacting some charities.
Two of the groups couldn't help. But Desert Samaritans for the Elderly, a local group that provides aid to seniors in crisis, offered to assist me with the initial rent. The director of Jewish Family Services in Palm Springs said he would find funds to help with half my security deposit.
When I said goodbye to the host at a campground where I frequently had stayed over the years, he was pleased for me. “You've suffered enough. Enjoy,” he said.
I moved into the apartment during a heavy rainstorm, glad to not be at the muddy campground, and over the next few days began adjusting to my new life. I bought groceries, cleaning supplies, a shower curtain and bath rug, all items I had had no need for while camping. I retrieved from storage my microwave, TV, bed, computer, stereo and clothes I hadn't thought about for years, including suits and ties I had had no need for while homeless.
My things were wrapped in newspapers from the spring of 2002. There were stories about the Chandra Levy murder case in Washington, and about Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant playing together in the playoffs for the Los Angeles Lakers. I could hardly believe 6 1/2 years had passed. It was like an archaeological dig. Here were the pictures of my estranged adult daughters in happier times. Here were the CDs I had forgotten I had.
Every day now seems to me like a gift. One of my delights was finding my toaster and having an English muffin with jam, a morning routine that belonged to my former life. I am eating healthier meals now that I don't have to rely on fast-food outlets. It's up to homeless
There were times when I was homeless that I felt like Job in the Bible. Sometimes I got angry at God, but prayer and meditation helped me to cope and to accept my situation.
I pray for people I know who are still homeless. In California's Coachella Valley alone, there are thousands of seniors and low-income families on waiting lists for subsidized housing in the various desert cities. And with so many people being hit hard in this latest recession, there are likely to be more people driven into homelessness, as I was.
A formerly homeless vet recently wrote to me that if I wanted to change my situation, I had to do it myself, as almost no one would assist me. Unfortunately, for many homeless people, that's true. I'm grateful I had help.