I have lived back inside for six months now. Five years on the road in campers and tents with no inside showers or bathrooms, and now six months of showers whenever I want them, and the walk to the bathroom being across carpet not down trails.
I had previously been homeless on a few occasions in my youth, sleeping outside on sidewalks in big cities, finding doorways with bright lights so I could feel a little safer, and then couch surfing and shelters. Living on the road is not quite homeless, you have a home, it is just your home doesn’t look like other people’s home. Your home has wheels and moves. Your home has canvas or metal sides and not wood and brick. Your home needs plugging in and septic tanks emptying, your home exists in various states of distress and can slide off into a ditch given one wrong move trying to turn round on a highway that has got boggy on the edges, requiring tow trucks and rescues. It is extremely disconcerting feeling your house slide off the road and sink, tipping precariously as a kind passer by pulls you and the children out of the driver’s cab door. $350 that little escapade took us. We had made a wrong turn to get out of the way of a nasty accident on the 101, and ended up sliding off the highway ourselves.
Living in a camper is considerably nicer than a tent. You have windows you can open, a chemical toilet inside, beds are a little more civilized, and you have a way to cook inside. I had three burners and an oven that didn’t work in the camper. Tent living is a little more tricky. When I had to do it, I made sure I stayed in the wilderness, deep in state and national parks. I kept a campfire burning, and a rhythm to my days. I got up and boiled water collected the night before from a communal spigot. I had a little camping stove, which worked well for boiling water, alongside a few pots and canteens. As the water boiled I would build a campfire and get the children together. They would be unwilling to move, especially if it was cold, but up they would get. Washing with baby wipes, a trip to the campground bathroom, a little dry shampoo on hair. We could not always afford to camp in places with electric or showers. There was always a porta potty or a vault toilet, some of these campgrounds were very primitive.
I would have a small pile of wood already gathered, and start to piece together a fire and try and get it going. Children would be sent off hand in hand to find more wood. Little twigs and moss to get it going, larger fallen pieces to stack up and feed it. They would go to camps that had been deserted and pick up the firewood that was left there. This was usually the expensive ready chopped and dried stuff for tourists, and burnt well. A little char on it made no difference – it was all going to ashes. Their hands gloved, scarves round their necks, waterproof jackets. It was all we had after we tried to get away from Pig.
Shelters all had men who say they are women in them. I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t. I also don’t cope at all with being watched and told what to do. I didn’t feel safe sharing with men who said they were women. I didn’t feel safe with men in shared accommodation. Now I had left and due to his abuses I was also undocumented. We were really in the shit. If I tried to leave, then more Hague charges. I basically had no chance to keep my kids with me a while longer unless I hit the road. This was the only way I could keep us safe and together.
Billy turning up in his camper saved us from this harsher reality. The camper was elderly, but he had kept it clean. There was still the frequent moving from campground to campground, up and down highways. There was still the need to find showers and bathrooms. There was still the daily hum of finding firewood, making food, keeping the camp clean, and coping with no electricity, no signal for a cell phone or internet, long treks to water sometimes, and the need to keep our dump tanks emptied, but all this was encased in metal on wheels. It was livable. It was bearable. I started to enjoy the road.
I found as long as we were moving, as long as we were travelling, I enjoyed life. As soon as we stopped for extended periods of time, trying to live in a 26 foot camper on wheels, then it became a grind.
When I left Billy and came to SF with my son, we had been outside for five years. We had not had a shower inside for almost that entire time. It was incredibly hard to move from forests and isolation to a city and concrete. It was hard to stay in one place. It was hard as we both felt encased and stultified, halted and restrained. It was hard to adjust. Once there was a family of four, and that became three…and finally reduced to just the two of us. We have never been just the two of us before, and we were both pushed into another period of mourning and sadness. All of a sudden the losses felt more defined. We were cut adrift, just me and the Boy.
He goes through his fitness regime inside, instead of going for long runs like he used to outside. He sits and watches television almost hypnotized by it – the kid had not had a TV that entire time. After a few weeks he turned it off again, except for the baseball. He still showers twice a day out of the glory of simply being able to do so.
He stood there turning a faucet on and off on our first night inside, laughing. “Ma….look…hot running water!” I wondered with him. It is indeed a miracle.
I don’t know if we will ever get used to living like other people – inside four walls, in the same place. Despite it feeling alien to us even now, we both love the comfort of a place inside to stay. As hard as it is, despite the intimidation and the suffering of the actions of men around us, we are safer, and life is more normal. Now we just have to try and find a way to continue to stay in a home, within four walls, and more importantly together. Together is the most important thing of all.