I was homeless for six-and-a-half years. But I believe not being hopeless got me out of it.
When a recession caused my writing and public relations business to tank in 2002, I gave up my apartment in Palm Springs, California, and started living at campgrounds in the back of my 1998 Toyota pickup.
I usually stayed in the southern California desert. But every summer, when it got too hot, I drove to camp in Montana, where I once lived.
At first I was still making a little money, so I camped at developed campgrounds with flush toilets, tables, and fire rings. But after a few years I was subsisting mostly on Social Security retirement and couldn’t afford such luxuries. So I stayed at primitive campgrounds with outhouses, or once in a while at a Wal-Mart parking lot. I ate at campgrounds or fast-food joints. I got on lists for subsidized senior housing.
In winter, the desert temperatures dropped as low as thirty degrees at night, and I snuggled up inside my sleeping bag on top of an air mattress. Sometimes I had to pile blankets atop my sleeping bag and sleep in several layers of clothes. When it rained, I covered my leaky camper shell with a tarp.
In the back of my truck at night I meditated on the Lord’s Prayer. On Sundays, I went to church. I prayed for my family members, including my three brothers and two adult daughters, whom I never heard from. At first I prayed for work and a home, but eventually I accepted my situation, and it caused my stress to disappear.
Like Jacob in the Bible, I once asked God to come down and fight me like a man. But it did no good to argue with God, as Job also learned in the Bible. But even getting angry with God, I found, was a form of prayer.
I was better off than many homeless people. I had my truck and some Social Security income. I became eligible for Medicare, and that was a blessing with medical bills. My life wasn’t so difficult if I didn’t dwell on it.
My faith, once minimal, deepened as grappling with the difficulties and the evils of life turned me more to God. I knew where I was going in the long run, and it wasn’t just to a campground.
In December 2008, I finally got to the top of a waiting list for an apartment in a complex for low-income seniors. Two charities helped me with the security deposit and the first month’s rent. I retrieved my possessions from a storage unit, and opening my boxes was like an archeological dig into my past life: a TV, a stereo, suits and ties, photos of my daughters in happier days, a computer that was now obsolete.
After years of being homeless, I finally had a bed to sleep in and my own bathroom and kitchen. I could even use a heated pool to soothe my aching muscles. Every day in those first few weeks seemed like a gift.
The whole experience was a life lesson in the power of hope and faith, something that sustains me even today.
Les Gapay, a freelance writer in Rancho Mirage, California, was a staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers and a public relations consultant for Fortune 500 companies. He is working on a book of spiritual-inspirational essays and another about his life.
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