'What Was Originally a Temporary Plan Got Kind of Comfortable': One Man's Experience Being Homeless in California

Pacific Standard writer Jack Denton speaks with a childhood friend about the daily realities of living without a home.
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A homeless man walks down the street in the downtown Skid Row area of Los Angeles, California.

A homeless man walks down the street in the downtown Skid Row area of Los Angeles, California.

Last week, Pacific Standard published my dispatch from Los Angeles' Skid Row, featuring accounts from homeless people detailing police abuse, property seizure, and other difficulties of living on the streets.

Shortly after the story published, a 27-year-old man who we'll call Jake reached out to me to share his own story of homelessness. Jake and I grew up in the same tiny town in northern New Jersey. We played lacrosse together when we were little, and our parents were good friends. He attended my first ever birthday party, when I turned one. But over the course of our adolescence, we drifted apart. By the end of high school, we'd lost touch.

And now Jake was reaching out. After reading my reporting about other people's stories, he felt compelled to tell his own.

Jake has been homeless for three years, aside from intermittent stints in jail. He's spent a lot of time on the streets, but currently lives in his van, and is saving up to buy a mobile trailer. Jake spoke to me over the phone while working his job servicing electronics at a mall kiosk in suburban San Diego.

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On Becoming Homeless

I wouldn't have even considered it as even an OK temporary situation status if I had been living somewhere colder. I was out here in Southern California, and I had this sweet apartment that I got a really good deal on. But the place told me that I wasn't eligible to continue my lease one month before my first year there was up, so I just decided to crash in my car for a little bit. I figured, I'd love to get rid of some of my crap anyway. I needed to lighten my load a little bit. What was originally a temporary plan got kind of comfortable. There was some couch surfing at first and stuff, but eventually that gets to kind of wear on your friendships, so I learned how to sacrifice some comforts and save a lot of money. I was able to keep my hygiene pretty good because there's public showers at the beaches and there are also campgrounds that have private showers.

On Social Habits

Everything was so impermanent, and my social habits were geared toward permanence. I was meeting people and asking them the small-talk details of their life, and their attitude was, "Hey man, don't you realize we're only going to be friends for a day?" So it got to the point where I would hang out with people and never even ask their name. We were just passing across each other's paths. I'm kind of fond of it now.

On Trajectory

When you first get to this life, it's so shocking that anything can happen. And that really, really, fucks with people. Because our whole life, we're conditioned to always have a next step in our progress as a human to affirm that we are doing what we're supposed to be, and therefore that we are good. But when you're homeless, everything is kind of up in the air.

On Possessions

I lost my car through having it impounded one time, I lost another vehicle by going to jail, and the cost of getting it out—I don't have that money, and even if I did, I might as well just get a new car at an auction for 500 or 1,000 bucks. I've been at a point where I didn't even have a blanket or a tent, I just had maybe a bag with a few things. No personal ID, no bankcard, just kind of wandering around and finding a place to lay down at night, and finding a place to lie down and cover myself, even just with a piece of cardboard. There was about a month and a half where I couldn't keep my possessions for more than a day. I would fall asleep and my stuff would get stolen. All I had was a blanket.

On Safety

Some places you feel really uncomfortable because you can almost sense the [non-homeless] community being annoyed by your presence. And other times you're so frustrated by the challenges of day-to-day life that you just don't give a shit what anybody thinks.

On Gender

I think being a dude it was much more manageable. The girls tend to always be latching onto guys—not all of them, but a lot of them—because the guys are willing to pay for a lot of things. For a lot of these girls, it's like ... their hustle. Not in any sort of a sexual sense, but emotionally. And part of it is genuine, but another part of it serves its purpose. It's complicated.

On Being on the Move

I traveled around a ton. You're lost and driven at the same time. Things happen as you move and as you explore. And that in itself almost feels like progress, because you're always adapting and learning and finding new places. So you feel accomplished in a sense. And when a new factor enters the equation, you're kind of exposed to more opportunity. Things tend to get a little stale when you're in a situation for a long time.

On Meeting People

Meeting people becomes part of your profession. It's almost a job to meet people and utilize your other connections, and help people accomplish what they're looking for, whether it be buying something, or finding a place, or getting food. or even charging their cell phone. Just walking around, you get really good at assessing people's lives by their mannerisms, by their outfit.

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