10 Things I learned from being Homeless
In 2005 I moved to Asheville alone in my 1992 Dodge Caravan Van. I was 21. This was before #vanlife was a thing, and living in your van didn't mean you were cool- it just meant you were homeless. Before I continue, I have to acknowledge the vast difference between my situation and chronic homelessness- there's no comparison. Though I was barely making enough money to afford very much, I could have sprung for an apartment with roommates if I had chosen to. I decided not to put the little money I was making towards adventures and savings. I lived full time in that small van for over a year. It, and its contents, were everything I owned in this world.
In the decade-plus that would follow I started a residential and Commercial Cleaning business. My income was slowly rising, but my housing choice remained modest for the same purpose. I graduated from van living during those years and lived in several small vintage trailers (all without air conditioning and without running water), a tent cabin, and a yurt. It was over those years that I was able to save to Start Asheville Glamping. Here's what I learned:
This was a vintage airstream I lived in circa 2014 - the subfloor was so gross and rotten that I set my tent up inside the trailer! (look at me Acadia girl!- Love that doggo)
1.) Less is More: Living in a van and then living in spaces under 400 square feet, you quickly learn that things get cluttered FAST. This forces you to be mindful of every item you choose to purchase. Every item I owned was intentional and served a purpose. There were no items of clothing sticking around that didn't get worn weekly, for example. This also inspired me to invest in quality over quantity (within my budget). I chose to spend a little more on things that would last. I continue incorporating this philosophy into my life now because, if I'm honest- clutter makes me feel like shit.
2.) Be Aware of your surroundings: The night before a week long backpacking trip I parked in a dark empty parking lot when I was completely exhausted. Earlier in the evening I had been kicked out of a state park parking lot by the park ranger patrolling there. Though leaving your car overnight was allowed- sleeping in it was not. I was in the middle of nowhere so after driving for awhile I stopped in this empty country store lot. Thankfully I locked all the doors because around 1am I was jarred awake by the sound of the drivers side door handle clicking. Heart pounding, I grabbed my headlamp just in time to see someone running back to their truck.
Needless to say, I moved (ended up parking in the back of a cemetery), but I did not sleep a wink that night. I'm sure the person just intended to steal valuables thinking the van was empty, but it still rattled me. After that, I always made sure to park in well-lit parking lots or out of sight from the main road. Walmart parking lots were my favorite because a security guard roved the parking lot all night. I try not to be paranoid, but I continue to pay attention to my surroundings + the people around me (or not around me).
3.) Make Saving Money a Priority: No matter how great your current financial situation is, things can change and go south very quickly. I think most of us had that point driven home this past year with the pandemic. While living in my van, I prioritized putting 25% of my paycheck into my savings account. Such a high percentage would not have been possible if I was also paying for housing, but any amount you can set aside adds up.
Think you can't save? Try keeping reoccurring monthly payments to a minimum (even app subscriptions add up!) and making a choice to eat in more than out. My only bills for a few years were my cell phone bill and my car insurance. This Nest Egg became a security source for me and allowed me to make bolder choices because I knew I had enough money to get me through several months without working. I ended up Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine for six months- and my saving strategy was what made it possible. We carry that on today even though it sometimes takes discipline not to dip into the savings. We nearly exhausted it last year.
Summiting on Mt. Katahdin after hiking 2,170 miles. It was so cold as you can tell from my missing hand :)
4.) Maintenance is not optional: Whether it's your vehicle, your home, or your body- properly maintaining it is essential to keep it from failing you. When my vehicle WAS my home, this point was driven home in a significant way. Unfortunately, I learned that lesson the hard way after choosing not to replace an old battery even though it had given me trouble before. I ended up stranded on a forest service road and had to walk 5 miles to get cell service. Don't ignore small problems- a little maintenance now can save you major headaches later.
5.) Sacrifices pay off: I once had a frenemy who was the queen of constant snide passive-aggressive comments designed to try to cut me down (you know the type). We met while I was living in a gutted airstream when I owned my residential and commercial cleaning business. She once said, "I would never live like you do; it's way more important to spend money on being comfortable-no offense!".
Ya, well "Becky": 'Entrepreneurship is living a few years like most people won't so you can live the rest of your life like most people can't'. I now have a beautiful home and we've grown a business that I love. It is worth all of the hard work that goes into it. (also happy to report that I now avoid toxic people like the plague) It didn't happen overnight (it took over a decade) but it was well worth it.
6.) Experiences over Things, Always: This was the whole reason for my chosen living situation- to spend my money on experiences over things. Over the years, this truth has become more and more profound to me. Time spent with the people I love is more valuable than any pretty trinket ever could be. My father really ingrained this philosophy in us as kids. We didn't have money for expensive vacations or flashy cars, but my father always prioritized taking us camping and backpacking for several weeks every year. My favorite memories growing up are of time spent with my family in New Hampshire and Maine while camping and staying in cabins. Our lives were RICH. The value of experiences and time with the people we love is part of what inspired me to start Asheville Glamping.
Dad Gave me my love of the outdoors and camping- here we are in Maine. Miss this guy so much!
7.) This brings me to my next lesson People will Judge you: homeless or not(and that is OK!) Just like "Becky", other people passed judgments over me. Some innocently and some less so. Until I grew a thicker skin, these judgments stung. One of my well-meaning clients discovered my alternative living situation and (out of pity) offered me a room in their home. I was mortified. This was when I moved out of my yurt to start renting it out (it was Asheville Glamping's first rental), and I was living in a backpacking tent with my dog. I still had my cleaning business for several years while getting Asheville Glamping off the ground in my 20's. I tried to explain that my living situation was a choice and that it served a purpose. Though kind folks, they didn't get it, and the pity looks never stopped.
Another woman I knew actually told her younger brother not to "fraternize" with me once she discovered I lived in a vintage trailer. Bless her heart.
Many people I talked to did not understand my dream of opening an alternative lodging business. Even friends and family worried I was wasting my time. No one else was doing it at the time and the word "Glamping" had not made its way into the American lexicon yet. Reactions ranged from "are you crazy?" to "no one is going to want to do that!".
People judge. It's ok- it's human nature- The truth is that we are all a bunch of judgey Mc Judge-a-lots. Judging is simply our attempt to create a hierarchy of better than/less than, superior to/inferior to. Judging others is often a mirror if we allow ourselves to examine the reasons we pass judgements on others.
Being Judged is only a problem if there is a direct correlation between the way you feel about yourself and the opinions of others.
Believe in yourself. Do not live for the approval of other people. You'll always lose if your barometer for success is how others perceive you. Do I need to say it louder for the people in the back?
8.) It helped me believe in the Impossible: Living in my van and in tiny houses was all about making something work that seemed impossible to other people. I was constantly problem solving. I learned to take showers at the gym, what meals were easiest to cook on my camp stove, and how to think outside the box in general. Just because other people think it's impossible doesn't mean it is. Like the Queen in Alice in Wonderland said " Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
9.) It taught me that we waste a LOT of time: When I was living in my van I felt free. I didn't have a couch, a tv, or the internet so there was no time spent just lounging around. Less lounging time meant that I was in much better shape without even trying to be. When I wasn't working I was spending my time hanging with friends, backpacking, or working on building Asheville Glamping. Of course it helped that my van living days were before the age of the smart phone. Eventually I had the internet in my pocket and definitely got sucked into Facebook in my later vintage trailer living days. Once I recognized how much time Facebook was robbing me of I QUIT it like a bad habit. I did not delete my account but I can honestly say I have spent less than an hour on the app in the last year and have posted twice.
When you don’t spend time working on yourself and your passions you spend time and money worrying about things and people who do not matter. I'm not going to lie, I still get sucked into Netflix now and again but I try to right myself when I feel like the "balance" is shifting to the dark side.
10.) We'll be fine: Since I learned that happiness is not tied to my living or financial situation I know that I'll always be fine. Last year we bought out first home just a few months before the pandemic struck (prior to that we were living in a yurt!) . Asheville Glamping was shut down and though we had some money saved- we definitely considered the possibility of our new home going into foreclosure if we had to remain closed long term. I don't want to ever lose our home...but rather than being terrified- I knew that no matter what happened we'd be A-ok. Happiness doesn't come from stuff and success should never be based on where you live.
Thanks for reading friends! If you're ready to book your spring getaway now is the perfect time! See you at camp!