By John Lawrence
My daughter was entering the freshman class at UCSD in 1992 and the plan was for me to move out of our condo where we had lived for 18 years and in with my girlfriend. Renting out the condo would bring in $1000. a month and let me pay for a good share of my daughter’s college expenses. After about a year when the relationship didn’t work out, I decided that rather than rent an apartment which would cost me what I needed to pay my daughter’s expenses, I would go homeless instead.
It wasn’t that I was desperate; I could have rented an apartment. I just decided I’d rather collect rent than pay it, and not only would I be saving $1000. a month in rent, I wouldn’t have a cable bill, an internet bill or an SDG&E bill either. Such a prospect appealed to the Scotsman in me.
I had a Ford E-150 work van which was set up sort of like a camper. The rear window popped out for adequate ventilation with the front windows open a crack. I had 4 inches of foam on the floor covered with indoor-outdoor carpet. It was quite comfy with my double sleeping bag and two pillows. All the comforts of home as far as I was concerned. I got a tension rod and some curtains to seal off the back compartment and added double layers of tinting for the side and rear windows for privacy.
I called my vehicle a WSUV – Work, Sleep, Utility Vehicle. It functioned well for me for all those purposes. I chose my night time sleeping spots very carefully. I scouted them out. First of all the road had to be level; second it had to be in a place that would not attract attention. I chose to be among other parked vehicles in good neighborhoods. There was nothing about my vehicle that would identify it as anything other than a work vehicle with ladders on top.
I had pre-selected spots and wouldn’t pull in till 10:30 PM when the neighbors were hopefully asleep. Then I was up and out of there by 6 AM. In a year of doing this I only got rousted out by the cops twice, and once was my own fault for getting cocky and disobeying my own rules. I parked on a cul-de-sac with no other vehicles around me and attracted the attention of a neighborhood watchman. After making me stand on the street by the hour, the cops finally let me go. I went a couple miles to a more secure parking place.
I googled homelessness and found a blog by a guy who called being homeless “distributed living.” The concept was simple. Instead of doing everything under one roof, you did different things in different places under different roofs. That was exactly what I was doing. It’s also called urban camping. When I pulled out of my parking place at 6 AM before my fellow citizens had gotten up (except for a few dog walkers which I always had to keep an eye out for), I headed for the YMCA where I did my morning ablutions – shaved, brushed my teeth etc.
Then I swam my laps, showered and started my day with a juice from the case of Kern’s juices I carried with me and some vitamins. Then I headed over to Starbucks for my morning coffee. A few years later, after I had stopped using that particular Starbucks, I went back and one of the girls remembered my name. Amazing.
After my juice, vitamins and coffee I headed over to 7-11 and picked up a bag of ice for my cooler. In it I had cold water, Pepsi and other stuff that needed refrigeration like stuff for sandwiches. I had Tiger’s Milk bars for lunch and fresh fruit that didn’t require refrigeration.
Then I went to my my first window cleaning job. Most of the time I did two jobs in a day or, if it was a really big job, I only did one. I was able to keep in contact with customers and schedule jobs thanks to the miracle of the cell phone which allowed me to dispense with a landline as well as a fixed residence and expedited my “distributed living.”
After work, if I was really sweaty I headed back to the Y for a shower. Then I settled into my evening “home” where I did what I usually did if I had a real house to live in. I read, listened to music and blogged on the internet. Sometimes I did research on my project on Social Choice. I found the best place that suited all these multifarious activities was the San Diego State library, mainly because it didn’t close till 10 o’clock at night and had free Wi-Fi.
The city library closed too early to accommodate my schedule. I took my back pack with my books, laptop and CD player which I listened to with ear phones and spread out on a table hopefully where it was quiet and there were not a lot of students kibitzing over their homework assignments or other less dutiful activities.
When the library closed, I headed out to one of my pre-selected parking spots, and, if everything was kosher pulled in unnoticed by the local denizens. I did make some special arrangements for my situation. If I couldn’t make it to the Y in the morning before peeing, I had a bottle for that purpose. Before leaving the library at night, I always made sure I went to the bathroom and brushed my teeth. My sleeping accommodations were comfortable providing the neighborhood was quiet.
Occasionally, I was awakened by a motorcycle blasting through the neighborhood at 3 o’clock in the morning. I had spent years sleeping in a sleeping bag when I was in a domiciled situation but that’s another story. Sleeping in a regular bed is not all it’s cracked up to be despite Jerome’s commercials.
During this period I took my daughter out to eat once a week to keep up with how she was doing in college. I got together with friends. I even dated. In fact there was nothing I couldn’t do that I would have done if I had been living in an apartment. I was a contradiction in terms – a homeless landlord, a worker who was also a capitalist – and I was happy about all the revenue that was coming in both from my work and from the return on my investment (ROI).
I had paid my mortgage off years earlier so the rent I was collecting was almost pure profit minus taxes, insurance, maintenance and HOA fees. Some friends said that I should have rented an apartment. I guess that was what you were supposed to do, but I was used to not doing what you were supposed to do. My unconventional life suited me.
I had distributed my living situation among my WSUV which I used for sleeping and work, the YMCA which I used for showering and swimming, and the San Diego State library which I used for relaxing and edification. I was living off “the fat of the land” as was George and Lennies’s dream in Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.”
I was using public roads not only for commerce (getting me to and from jobs) but also for sleeping, public or semi-public facilities like the YMCA and the library at San Diego State which was open to the public. I also used these same techniques when I traveled having researched libararies and YMCAs in San Francisco, Portland and Seattle where I spent a fair amount of time. In San Francisco I parked my WSUV near the Stonestown mall and bought a transit pass using public transportation for getting around. My Y card was good at the Stonestown YMCA and any other YMCAs when I was away from my home base.
Living off the fat of the land, or in other words public amenities, was something I endeavored to be good at. In Scandinavia they have a law called allemandsretten which means that you can camp out anywhere you choose even on private property so long as it’s not right in someone’s garden. This represents the fat of the land, public rather than private amenities. It’s all good. No need for a motel. In my case allemandsretten was finding a parking place on a public street for my WSUV. It had to be level of course.
Eventually, I found a good deal on an office for $150. a month in the heart of downtown Encinitas right above Roxy’s Ice Cream. It was an office which also afforded me living accommodations. I even teamed up with Joe on satellite TV. All the comforts of home. I took my dates downstairs to Vigilucci’s for Italian food. With what I was saving on rent, I could well afford to.
bob dorn says
Make this a book. I’d read every page.
GEORGE LEATHAM says
some times i would like to dump the hassle and travel and live just in the camper. but then real life sets in have kids and grand kids to help and love. like the story.
Mike wofford says
Wow, amazing John. I loved the “homeless/capitalist” irony too.
Mike Sherbin says
Dick ****, of Sussex, has done this for years, and now, for years has a motor home that is his only home. He visits here in Florida in the winter to avoid heating costs and finds places including Walmart parking lots to enjoy whatever is local to the area.
you make this sound as if this is your story and I find that hard to believe. You should clarify that. I believe that the book “Bridges of Madison County” was a stolen manuscript and the author’s attempt and 2 further books showed that.
Doug Porter says
John Lawrence is a regular contributor to the SD Free Press. We’ve known him for many years. Some of us go back more than 4 decades to the original SD free Press. You, we’ve never heard of. So you can believe what you want to: John really did what he says.
Betty DeGroat says
What a great article, you are an amzing man.
John Lawrence says
Thanks, Betty, I see all the home boys and girls are commenting on this one. Thanks for your continued support. All the best to you.
John Lawrence says
Well, Mike, I’m sure I’m not the only one who has done something like this, but I can assure you it really happened.
Virginia Sanchez says
This was really good story I enjoyed reading it, too bad a woman would not be able to do the same
John Lawrence says
You’re right. It would be a lot more difficult for a woman, but if a woman can hike the Pacific Trail from Mexico to Canada, doing something like this would be child’s play
Lori Saldaña says
Actually…. I did it for a year during graduate school, while leadiing outings around the Southwest as my part time job. I had a ’71 VW Westphalia camper at the time, made many trips to Joshua Tree, local mountains, Colorado River etc.
I realized I was spending Fri-Sun in the mountains, rivers or deserts, and most of my Mon-Thu in the classroom, so when I moved out of a place with very few belongings (besides camping equipment) I decided to make living out of the van a way to save money, and focus on finishing graduate school while working as little as possible.
It also helped that my Master’s thesis was related to the outdoor activities I was leading.
A few years later I bought a small sailboat and lived a simple life onboard. Unfortunately, it was an El Niño year- I remember getting up early one morning and slipping on ice on the dock on San Diego Bay… but also having the time to go up to Mt. Laguna for some X-country skiing across the meadows.
So- women can live the “urban camping” lifestyle. As John points out: choose sleeping places carefully, avoid sticking out (a little trickier with a VW “hippie” van vs. Ford work van), have a good health club membership and know the good coffee shops with free WiFi… and also some understanding friends with couches when the weather takes a nasty turn.
John Lawrence says
A woman after my own heart. Good for you, Lori. I hope more people see the possibilities in this lifestyle. One can still live well and be productive while living an alternative lifestyle and saving money.
Grace Rich says
It took me a long time to recognize that his was your story, John. I thought it was someone else. Of course you have always been flexible, innovative, and creative and so smart so I am not really that surprised.