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A Life in Boxes: What it's Like Being Homeless for Ten Years

When I lost my home, I turned to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But I slipped through the cracks of the bureaucracy.

Heather Seggel

Heather Seggel

Photo by Rowena Naylor via Stocksy

Today I set out to make a recipe I like. I had prepped and parboiled the ingredients when I realized I didn't have my food processor. I was able to improvise a solution with an immersion blender, but this has happened so many times recently I feel like I am cycling between fast forward and rewind over and over again. My food processor, you see, is packed in one of several boxes piled in the garage and an overstuffed hall closet. I haven't been fully unpacked for eleven years now.

In 2004, my father and I became homeless. I've told the story so many times before, it's part of the fast forward-rewind, but in brief: Our landlord died and her kids elected to sell the house. Neither my father nor I had any savings and we were left with no other option but to buy some tents and adapt ourselves to a new lifestyle: sleeping either at a coastal campground or on the floor of a relative's house. It was worse than it sounds, for a multitude of reasons—campgrounds limit your stay and somewhat reasonably frown on the homeless as ruining everyone else's vacation, one of the family members where we were crashing was strung out on crystal meth.

This was devastating for both of us. This was the house I grew up in; it was the house my mother died in. My family had lived in rural Sonoma County for thirty years. I had worked for local businesses and tried to be part of my community, but when we hit a wall there was no support available. When my dad and I finally found a place to stay it was 70 miles north, in a dingy Ukiah trailer park.

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Resettling in this new place wasn't easy. Our neighbors in the park were difficult people; the police were a constant presence. Disdain for Sonoma County and its perceived privilege popped up often enough in conversation that I stopped telling people where I'd lived previously. And while I threw myself into making local ties—again working for multiple local businesses enough that I was recognized by customers when I was out walking in town (I don't drive)—it wasn't enough. When my father died and I needed help staying local after escaping from a genuinely unstable landlord, it turned out that of all the ties I had developed in almost a decade, none were strong enough to help me. I was on the road again, this time back to Sonoma County to stay with family. A rewind.

Moving in with a family member was, as it so often is, regrettable—and not a place to stay very long besides: My aunt made it to the top of her waiting list for an affordable apartment and I had to hustle out of her place, this time to another short-term room rental. I have now overstayed my time here, packed almost all of my belongings in an effort to stay out of the way (which means I don't know where the damn food processor is), and am once again looking for a place to live. I have absolutely no hope about the process or my prospects. I feel like I've unspooled.

My income is ­too low for low-income housing.

I just applied for and missed out on a place back in Ukiah that amounted to 90 square feet plus a bathroom. No kitchen. If you Google "90 square feet" you'll find an article about a tiny place in Manhattan, and the tenant who simplified her life—using Marie Kondo's book as a guide, naturally—so it could fit into a perfect little nest. Ironically, she has on her walls two pieces of art that often adorn mine (when I have walls): Patti Smith's Horses on vinyl, and a print reading, "Your heart is a muscle the size of your fist; keep loving, keep fighting." I used to like that sentiment, but having fallen into the same residential crevasse yet again, my heart feels more like a raisin, and defeat has leeched a lot of the fight out of my bones.

That tiny place in Ukiah I won't be moving into was appealing for its reasonable rent, but also because I am on a waiting list through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for something called a Housing Choice Voucher. When I reach the top of the list, it means that if I find a place that will accept my voucher, my rent will scale up and down with my income, but the landlord is paid in full no matter what. It's subsidized housing, just with more options for where to go. It also means the place has to pass a very elementary inspection that my rented trailer would never have survived, increasing the chances of my being in a safe home. To most people, maybe a home without mice and rats and as many as seven leaks is something to take for granted, but when you've experienced the alternative, it takes on special value.

When I moved back to Sonoma County I added myself to the waiting list here but knew it was a fool's errand: A year ago the wait was estimated to be six to eight years; it's currently seven to ten. I learned just recently that my own wait would most likely be even longer because my address (despite being a temporary one I must vacate) is in the county seat. This means I will be continually moved to the last place in line behind not just seniors, veterans and the disabled, but also those from rural zip codes. This news went hand in hand with my experience trying to get waitlisted for a low-income apartment through the county's biggest supplier—they immediately denied me a spot on the list for low-income housing because my income was too low. That bears repeating: my income is ­too low for low-income housing. No matter that in a lifetime where I've never once made three times the rent in a single month, I have always paid on time and in full. Just, "Nope."

I have measured out my life in temporary spaces.

It was during the application process for that 90 square foot "efficiency unit" that I called the Community Development Commission in Ukiah—these are the people who administer the county's HUD programs—and asked about my status on the waiting list. I found myself slowly drifting into something like shock as the clerk explained to me that ever since I'd moved out of the county and sent them my change of address, I was no longer moving up the waiting list in Mendocino County, either. This time, it's because I was located too far away. I have called HUD's San Francisco office twice now but have not had my calls returned, and two emails explaining this situation in detail and asking for assistance sorting it out have been met with generic, non-responses. "Thanks for your interest. Here is a list of waiting lists, should you wish to sign up for one." I honestly don't know what I'm going to do.

It has been challenging to keep my current employment as a writer stable while I bounce from place to place. Since a lot of my work comes through the mail (books for review, and checks for those reviews), each displacement has left a stress fracture on my working life. Checks left behind. A sensitive document delivered to a past address, whose new occupants made no effort to forward it. Complaints from my boss that I seem detached and unenthusiastic on the page. With no permanent option on the horizon, my next move will likely be another temporary stop, but I have measured out my life in temporary spaces. I am hungry to have a home again, but I'm worried my home is here, frozen in place on two lists each asking me to wait forever.

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From camping, to two different trailers, to these last moves, I have been living out of boxes and plastic bins for over a decade now. The trailer park was an address, sure, but the fact that I could never unpack there meant it was never a home. I've always thought that was something I had to look forward to. And I find myself packing again. Packing is a dance of constant reversal: Reopening packed boxes to find things I still need while I wait for a place to open up. This isn't a good life, this constant instability and the uncomfortable awareness that wherever I am I'm not wanted.

While making phone calls and trying to find more housing resources I am constantly referred to homeless shelters, which either haven't opened for the season yet or are already full and also require a waiting list. Being homeless with my father conferred two benefits: He had a car and he was a man. In one of the campgrounds where we stayed, a fellow homeless camper developed an interest in me that I did not reciprocate. Having someone to hide behind was a matter of personal safety. When I think about trying to do it on my own, I can't take it all in or face it as a possibility. It's too much. I can't seem to love or fight for my life right now, but surrender is not an option, either. So I keep packing and unpacking the same boxes, praying for some justice after going far too long without.