Sleeping in a glass bubble

Brenda Brown,

Daylight slowly makes its way in through the car window on a recent chilly morning in San Leandro. It’s time to wake up and start the day. Muscles stiff, I sit in my car for a half an hour and gaze at people coming and going, as if in a trance.

Every morning this week, the routine has been the same. I am a 54-year-old college senior with a 3.27 GPA, and I’ve recently become homeless and have been living out of my car since June 30. I had been renting a room from a couple in their home and paid $570 monthly. They initially wanted the extra income, but after ten and a half months, they told me they wanted to remodel and I was asked to leave.

Since losing my own apartment in October of 2010, I have rented rooms from friends of friends, and through Craigslist and referrals. I have moved frequently, and have no family in the Bay Area to help. I spent 14 months looking for work, but found nothing. So I decided to finish school, live on financial aid and student loans and not look back.

Rent is high everywhere, and I have yet to find anything I can afford. Living in a car is not fun, but it beats a tent outdoors, or a shelter. I have sought out help through Student Services at CSUEB, and have so far just been provided with listings of food banks, places to take showers and some local shelters.

I have been taking my showers at a 24 Hour Fitness gym, where I’m a member, but living in a car can be depressing. I spend so much extra time digging through the clutter and things in my car, trying to keep it in order and make it appear as if I am living a perfectly normal life. It reminds me of my 80-year-old mother, who is in the beginning stages of dementia, looking aimlessly for things she’s misplaced.

More than ever, I now appreciate the usefulness of a dresser drawer or cabinet space in a bathroom, or to be able to stretch out and rest my body properly. Having to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night is the worst. In my small 2-door car, the seat only reclines back so far. Plus it feels like I’m sleeping in a glass bubble.

I am truly vulnerable and pray that God will watch over me so that I won’t fall prey to some heartless devil of a humanoid. I put up my sun visors at night, to shield some of the light from my laptop and to obscure people attempting to look in at me as they pass by. I sometimes feel like an animal in a cage or like I am on display. Praying helps to quiet my mind.

Living on financial aid and student loans alone is not enough, unless you are fortunate to have family, friends or parents willing to temporarily support you. I chose to rent my own rooms as opposed to share space with younger students, because as an older student I felt that the age difference would be difficult for everybody involved.

It is hard to seek employment when you do not have a place to live. I also have physical disabilities that don’t allow me to stand or sit for long periods of time. If you think there is no mental wear and tear that goes along with homelessness, think again. I have overcome drug addiction — 17 years clean as of April. I quit smoking cigarettes eight years ago and live with body aches and arthritis.

Being a student, first at Chabot and now Cal State East Bay, has given me a purpose in my life. It helps me to remain strong and focused.

While being in this situation, I have asked myself again and again, what is my part in my being here? Where did I go wrong? Where did I go right? How did this happen to me?

I had been employed since the age of 12, but I lost the most recent job that I held for eight years in Oct. 2008, as well as the apartment I lived in for five years and most of my home furnishings, savings, credit rating and good standing with the IRS. My unemployment stipend ran out, the first eviction came in 2010 and the $5,000 I had in savings was quickly spent on credit card payments in good faith that I would soon become employed, which did not happen.

I had never had a problem getting a job before, but the longer I was unemployed, the more difficult it became to get an interview. I tried temp agencies, did job workshops and sent countless applications and online resumes. But I realized I was now a number, not a person. I attended Wichita State University in Kansas in the early 80s, but didn’t finish. “Why didn’t I finish college when I was younger,” I thought? Maybe then I would not have been laid off.

I’d experienced homelessness previously, when I was in active addiction, but it was never as scary then as it is now. I was too numbed by the drugs to experience any real fear. I was young and felt that I would live for forever.

I’m grateful that I have a car and have managed to take good care of it. It is paid for, and I have insurance and a driver’s license. I typically pray that if I encounter cops while living in my car, I am not treated like a criminal because I am Black and homeless, although a recent encounter with campus police assuaged my fears. They were nice and more than understanding. One officer referred me to Ruby’s Place, a homeless shelter in Hayward, which was unfortunately full when I called.

While I don’t necessarily want to put myself on display by writing this, I have lived long enough to understand that my situation is temporary. If my story can help someone else in the long-run, then it will have not been in vain.