Life from June 17th to June 20th was chaos for us. We were left physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted with a lot still on our minds. Even more upsetting was the forced realization that the cause for our total exhaustion, a short stay in a homeless community, was an inescapable reality for a massive number of people.
Disclaimer: This post will not feature any photos. It probably won’t be exciting or thrilling or fun to read. Instead, this post is going to be a lengthy, somewhat distressing write-up about a group of dramatically under-represented and abused people – the homeless.
Homelessness has been a topic Brooke and I think and talk about frequently, starting individually before we even met. Since leaving on our trip, however, we have had a handful of eye-opening experiences that have left us feeling frustrated and discouraged. In this post I’d like to address the following, in order:
- Our harshest and most recent look at homelessness
- The unclear definition or depth of homelessness
- Our being perceived as homeless since beginning our trip
- Active and potential solutions
- Final thoughts
Let’s get started.
1.) Superior, Montana
After leaving Leavenworth, we stayed one night in Moses Lake and one night in Spokane. Around this time, a family member contacted us to let us know that he would be on a WWOOFing-style project near the area we were traveling through on our way to Missoula. We were happy for the opportunity to visit him and added Superior, MT to our list of stopping places. On June 17th, we left Spokane and drove to Superior and followed the instructions we were given on how to find the place. The quality of the road gradually decreased as we drove farther and farther into the mountains. Right as we were starting to question whether or not we had followed the directions properly, we saw our family member standing in front of a large, durable metal gate. Family member opened the gate for us and provided a brief run-down of what was going on here: This was supposed to be a permaculture and sustainability challenge called “Ant Village” put on by landowner, permaculture enthusiast, and software developer Paul Wheaton. He implied we should brace ourselves for what would come next.
As we drove the remainder of the road into the middle of the village, locking the gate behind us, Brooke and I checked out the surrounding area. We spotted three vehicles, two of them clearly broken down. We also saw three structures that looked liked they were supposed to be tiny houses as well as a barrier wall made of branches that looked like it was inspired by Skull Island. There were also miscellaneous scavenged building materials lying around. The most common element tying the whole community together though was the trash – various plastics, metals, garbage bags, bad wood, and broken glass were common. We found (read: created) a place to park and hopped out for family member to give us the grand tour. He introduced us to four or five others in the community as well as his host, a woman named Shana, and her five children who were between the ages of 1.5-12.
The agreement family member had in place was as follows: he would show up in Ant Village to help grow food, tend animals, and repair or build shelters and structures in exchange for food and housing. What we all found there was not even moderately close to what was described. When I asked Shana, I was told that no food was actually grown in Ant Village and that there were no livestock or production animals. Additionally, upon closer inspection, the existing shelters were dangerous and exposed to the elements. They had been dug by hand a few inches into the dirt and used random rocks as the foundation. The walls for these structures were mostly used and broken pallets lashed together and filled with mud and pine needles. The roofs appeared to be “locally-sourced” untreated branches simply sawed off of nearby trees and secured together with a single bolt. They looked unsafe and we avoided them altogether.
We continued to learn about Ant Village throughout the day. First, there was no running water. Any water used there comes from rainwater collected in muddy pits or from two 20-gallon containers that are refilled by the owner of the one remaining working vehicle twice per week. Additionally, the only source of electricity in the entire community is from one medium sized solar panel because the use of larger panels is discouraged. Community members are also discouraged from visiting nearby towns or cities more than twice per week collectively and from speaking or interacting with other people in those places. They also have only a single gate key to share among all of them. Finally, structures are allegedly required to not be visible from satellite. The term “intentional community” faded from our mind and was replaced with more concerning concepts like “cult” or “captivity.”
By this point, we were now fully aware that all of the children were wearing dirty clothes. Their clothes are infrequently “washed” by rinsing them out in a muddy water pit. Four of the children went without shoes and three without underwear. We spotted fleas on their clothing and in our van afterwards. They informed us they had never been to school. We also learned that a dog was killed and taken by a mountain lion recently and we thought about the many times we saw the younger children wandering alone, usually crying, on the outskirts of the camp. Family member indicated that all but the youngest child had gotten cuts on their feet that week from the broken glass. Brooke noticed some extremely serious hygiene problems on Hannah, the 1.5-year-old girl, that would likely require medical attention. Around this time, we also witnessed Hannah urinate down her own legs. One of the siblings informed me that they were “teaching her to go outside” and showed me the fuzzy plants that grow in the area that they use as toilet paper. Nobody cleaned the urine off of Hannah for the full duration of our time in Ant Village.
As the sun started to set, we wandered to the makeshift outdoor kitchen. As food was prepared and served on dirty dishes, we did our best to contribute what we could to stay sanitary, including our own food supplies and clean water. We finished eating and hurried back to the van to discuss everything that we had seen that day. Family member told us about a four-day-old Youtube video uploaded by a couple who had reviewed this project and it confirmed everything we had seen that day. Some online searches about Paul Wheaton and Ant Village also shed some light on the place, like how he charges $1200/year to live there and provides no paperwork whatsoever. We decided it would be best to get family member into Missoula for the day so we could talk to him about everything that was going on.
On Sunday morning, we got family member and drove the 40 miles into Missoula. He was showing obvious signs of stress, anxiety, fatigue, and was approaching severe dehydration. We got fed and hydrated and treated him to a shower (which had been unavailable to him for over a week) and a haircut. We discussed his reasons for being in Ant Village and the reasons the others had shared for staying. What it boiled down to from our perspective was a lack of resources to leave and find a better situation. Almost none of them had vehicles, phones, homes, or jobs and it sounded like they spent their last bit of money getting there. It seemed to us that either 1) there was no obvious path for the people in Ant Village to improve the quality of their life or 2) there was no desire for that, which seemed unlikely to us because it was so unimaginably awful there and because nobody seemed genuinely and honestly excited about it.
We convinced family member to stay at a homeless shelter for the night and to reconsider his options. We had to make the hour drive back to Ant Village for him to recover the rest of his personal effects and then make the drive a third time to return him to the Poverello Center. We brainstormed together for most of the evening about alternatives he had that weren’t Ant Village since it had been so damaging to his health in the short time he had been there. Surely there was another family member who could offer him temporary respite until he is able to get back on his feet. Surely there was another Workaway or WWOOFing opportunity for him elsewhere in a healthier environment. Family member compiled a list that night of family and friends he could reach out to for some support.
On Monday, I was back to work. It was an especially long day for me because of the energy investment we had made over the weekend. In reaching out to investigate and help with everything, we had shared a portion of the burden. Unexpectedly dealing with that huge amount of uncertainty is tiring. Brooke and I were doing double-time all weekend to keep all our spirits high and attitudes cheerful and efforts focused on fixing what we could and working around what we couldn’t. We met up with family member after I was finished with work to get updated on what he had planned since Sunday night. His best course of action was to fly to some of his relatives in Las Vegas where he could stay until he is able to find an opportunity more like in practice what Ant Village was in theory – An intentional community where labor is exchanged for food and housing. We agreed that that sounded like the best choice and helped him book a flight and got him to the airport where he could rest peacefully until his plane left early on Tuesday.
Tuesday was the hardest day for us. Our energy was replenishing but the question haunting our minds since Saturday was now demanding an answer. What should we do about the children in Ant Village? It was difficult to tackle to say the least. Was it our responsibility to do something? Were we obligated to intervene? Or were we simply overreacting because the lifestyle was so different from ours? If something did happen, is foster care going to be the better alternative for them? How do you tell who is right or wrong in this situation without passing personal judgement on the decisions of others? We had wrestled with these questions for several days and reached out to the people we felt could provide the most useful opinions and accurate answers.
Ultimately… We decided we had to tell the police. Brooke and I mutually agreed that the conditions the children were enduring at the time were most definitely unfit. We went to the Missoula County Sheriff’s department and were told that Superior was actually in Mineral County and that we could have to go to their county sheriff’s office instead. We made the drive a fourth time and were greeted there by a friendly dispatcher who provided us with the paperwork needed to give our testimonies. I even went so far as to provide all of the photos I had taken that weekend as well as coordinates to the camp and detailed driving instructions that would otherwise be unavailable.
The fifth and final 40-mile stretch was when we felt relief. All the concern, stress, frustration, shock, and confusion had taken its toll and we were happy to put it behind us. We hoped that Wednesday would see life return to normal but all of our ideas on “solving” homelessness were now stained with an awful dose of reality. Just how many heads does this beast have?
2.) What is homelessness?
Shana didn’t view herself as homeless. She told me, verbatim, that she “was living the ideal lifestyle” and swore she “wouldn’t change it even if [she] could.” I definitely don’t view myself as homeless. So what’s the difference? I distinctly remember helping a woman jump her car a few weeks ago. I used all my nonexistent automotive skills to let her know it was either an alternator or a battery failure. She told me she didn’t have the money for something like that. I didn’t prompt her for a reason why she might be short on cash but she took the initiative there and told me it was because she was homeless like I was. I blinked. It dawned on me that I was wearing pajamas and had climbed out of a van at dawn in a Walmart parking lot. We were both living out of our vehicles. Why, then, did I think that she was homeless but I wasn’t?
Internal assertions started flooding in. For starters, I was employed. I’m not just employed either – I have an amazing job that takes great care of me and allows me to travel. I have a savings account with money in it. The van is registered and insured and I have internet and phone service and a gym membership. My license has a physical address on it (Thanks, mom!) even though I don’t technically live there. Still though, the woman with the dead battery had a point: I didn’t have my own address. But if you’re homeless by choice, are you really homeless?
After asking myself that question for months and evaluating it as many ways as I can, I think the answer is a simple “no.” Given my recent experiences, I wouldn’t call myself homeless. I have safety nets and backup plans and all the resources I need to secure an address. In fact, those are all contributing factors that allow me to live in this van and travel in the first place. I believe that homelessness is the status of being unwillingly trapped in the vicious cycle that prevents you from moving up in life.
There are studies that prove how it costs more to be homeless. Education in poor areas is generally lower quality which usually damages an individual’s ability to get a job. Groceries and rent cost more in poor areas because business owners know people there have fewer options and can’t buy in bulk. Single parents have even fewer resources available to them. So do people of color, women, the disabled, and immigrants. People living in poverty are almost always extorted into staying there and rarely, if ever, have the opportunity to get out of it. In all of my interactions with homeless people, I have felt that only a very narrow percentage of them are “gaming the system” and are only panhandling because it’s the easiest avenue. The vast majority of them are kind people who were deeply disadvantaged in the past and have not had the ease getting back up that they experienced when they were knocked down.
Whether from economic crises or mental illness, I think that homelessness cannot be intentional. There are alternative lifestyles that you can participate in without a house (vandwelling, workaway, etc.) but my opinion is that homelessness is something that happens to you rather than something you choose.
3.) The Homeless Look
The other eye-opening experience we’ve had since starting our trip is an insider view at how homeless people are treated. Although we aren’t homeless, many people are quick to view us like we are. That almost always consists of… Doing their best not to view us at all, which can include but is not limited to requesting we get out of their view for them. Shockingly, it seems like the most widespread response to homelessness is to ignore it. A huge number of cities have actually criminalized homelessness. How can you do that to people? How can you take the one thing they might have left, a place to sleep, and take that away from them?
Sadly enough, that appears to be the crowd favorite. It doesn’t happen often to us because we are pretty good at blending in, but we have been asked to leave parking spots and have been denied accommodations for apparent homelessness. Walking a mile in their shoes made us realize just how shitty those shoes are. Cities install spikes on flat surfaces and handrails on benches to keep people from sleeping on them. The homeless are regularly harassed, ordered to leave, physically or verbally abused, and psychologically isolated. I can’t think of a better way to describe it than “disgusting.” The concept of going out of your way to make life more difficult on a person you don’t even know because you don’t like looking at them is sickening and repulsive to me. It strikes me the same way as any other types of prejudice. Admittedly there are people and organizations genuinely dedicated to helping and rehabilitating homeless people but they seem few and far between.
4.) What can be done?
Ideally, all people should be guaranteed a living wage and healthcare, but that doesn’t seem realistic in the U.S. in the near future. Government programs don’t always work for people without either a physical address or a social security number or for people who have exceeded their benefit limits. Homeless shelters help but are constantly above maximum capacity and are underfunded. Consequently, they have to choose between placing limits on how long they can serve a person or turning away newcomers or both.
Brooke and I have concentrated most of our thoughts on a new type of solution. We have a running list of all the requirements a person requires for their needs to be met and to get back on their feet. We envision a facility with scaleable or dynamic housing that is energy neutral and revenue drawing. The revenue generated would go towards any expenses the property would have and any leftover funds could go towards a new location or improving the quality of services in that unit. We have a list of ideas that would minimize overhead and maximize health and human interaction for the visitors. Once the idea is more polished and prepared, we would like to do anything we can to put it in a place where it can become a reality.
On an individual level, we can still make an impact. Brooke and I have gotten into the habit of always taking our leftovers when we leave a restaurant. We never toss them because ninety percent of the time we find somebody to give them away to. We also got out of the habit of providing change or cash and instead offering cheap, non-perishable foods or water. Providing weather-appropriate clothes can also literally save lives. We’ve been seeing community gardens and community food banks that operate like take-a-penny-leave-a-penny in some cities and those appear to be very helpful. If you are a business owner, finding an excuse to hire a homeless person could change their life. Offering transportation to or information about homeless centers in the area can also be helpful. Something as easy as making eye contact and saying “Hello” can be a humanizing experience for a person who feels locked outside of and left behind by society.
It sounds cliche but you may only have to spend a few dollars to save a life. You don’t have to go far out of your way to do a lot of good for somebody.
5.) Parting Gifts
Homelessness sucks. It really sucks. It can destroy lives, careers, and families. It just looks like a problem that society would rather sweep under the rug than try to handle. I’m certainly not experienced or an expert, but is this really such a big issue that it’s better to ignore than to make steps towards fixing it?
Economically speaking, it makes sense to work on solving homelessness. The average cost of supporting a homeless individual is between $14,000 and $18,000 per year, which is mostly jail and medical expenses. There are an estimated 560,000 homeless people in the US. When a homeless person is provided with reliable shelter, their homelessness-related jail costs decrease by 100% and their medical costs by over 60%. I’ve never in my life spent $14,000 per year on rent. A rough estimate using my own math and data available on the internet suggests that if the money spent on dealing with homelessness were instead concentrated on solving it, the problem could already be at least halfway handled. Those previously putting a strain on the system could instead secure jobs and housing and begin supporting it. Police and hospital resources would become more available. Plus, that’s 560,000 American lives freed from a migratory death sentence. If it costs more to keep people homeless, why are we doing exactly that?
I encourage you to share this post and leave comments. The more people talking about it, the better. Something needs to be done.
Past this point are useful/informational links and resources:
- The Poverello Center in Missoula, MT. This is a helpful facility in southwestern Montana which feeds 200+ people per day and provides almost as many cots to sleep in at night. They also have outreach programs to help their clients get education, jobs, and housing. – www.thepoverellocenter.org
- A comprehensive 71-page document published by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty that details how homelessness is criminalized and how that negatively affects… Everything else. This is loaded with hard facts. – No Safe Place
- A very informational Radiolab episode that goes in-depth with a homeless woman to show just how easy it is to find yourself homeless and how hard it can be to go back Radiolab Presents: On the Media: Busted, America’s Poverty Myths
- The National Alliance to End Homelessness is a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that has been attempting to handle homelessness from the legal side for years – http://endhomelessness.org/
- A handy site for finding help near you – http://www.homelessshelterdirectory.org/
- WWOOF is a program that offers you an opportunity to try out “nonmonetary exchange” in other countries, wherein you work in exchange for food, shelter, and the experience of a lifetime – http://wwoof.net/
- Workaway is mighty similar to WWOOF – https://www.workaway.info/
- HelpX is might similar to Workaway and WWOOF – https://www.helpx.net/
- A NY Times news article with helpful statistics and dollar figures – http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/10/us/homeless-rates-steady-despite-recession-hud-says.html
- A [very liberal] infographic about relative spending – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/11/homelessness-christmas-decorations_n_2276536.html