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Lauren Bahre and her husband have been living in a tent for five months.
She said they are known as “the working homeless” because their low incomes do not cover the rent.
This is the story of Bahre, told to Jane Ridley.
This, as told in the essay, is based on a conversation with Lauren Bahre. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I worked at a hair salon in our little resort town in Maine. Wealthy clients were talking about the second home they had recently purchased nearby.
They said they wanted a blast before dinner at a fancy restaurant. I thought, “I’m coming home for a bowl of cereal.”
My husband, Benji, and I live in a tent. And as we head into winter, we are increasingly worried about being homeless.
I left my position as receptionist at the salon in May. I couldn’t handle the stress of having to look presentable all the time. The owner yelled at me once for wearing a pair of open toe sandals with dirty feet. I had to choose between not swimming or washing in a 40 degree river. I couldn’t afford nail polish, let alone a pedicure.
Benji and I are classified as “working poor”. He’s a barista at Starbucks, and I’m now employed by a cannabis dispensary. Hours—we make $17 and $15 an hour, respectively—are wildly variable and never guaranteed.
We didn’t want a formal eviction notice on our court records
We don’t have a roof over our heads because we don’t have enough money to rent an apartment. Rent in our area is over $1,800 per month, plus utility bills. The cost has more than doubled in the past two years. Long-term leases are hard to come by as landlords do short-term rentals on Airbnb. Houses sell for high prices to city dwellers who want a second home in a nice location.
Things started to turn sour after my mum – who owned the two-bedroom apartment where we had lived with my daughter for four years – initiated formal proceedings to evict us. We couldn’t make rent for January or February. Mom and I had always had a rocky relationship, but I never thought she would kick us out.
We lived paycheck to paycheck. Then I lost my job at a bagel shop after being sick for a month with COVID-19. I ended up with a nebulizer because it left me with asthma and potential damage to my lungs. My husband had it too. He missed two weeks of work.
My mother said the next steps would be dealt with in court. We moved out of the apartment in mid-March to avoid having a formal eviction on our records, which would make finding new accommodation nearly impossible.
But we couldn’t even begin to afford anything. One of the worst experiences of my life was driving my 13 year old daughter to Cape Cod, MA to live with her father. My ex is a good guy, but I didn’t know when I would see my child again. Gas was expensive and our 18 year old Subaru Forester needed a lot of repairs.
You feel vulnerable when you have no place to retreat
We dropped off my daughter and spent the night at a rest stop on the Massachusetts and New Hampshire state line. Then we moved to a Walmart parking lot. We laid the car seats and used plywood as a base for a bed. We piled blankets on until it was comfortable.
Signs said you couldn’t park overnight, but at least eight other vehicles would be parked nearby. We used Walmart bathrooms, keeping a low profile to avoid suspicion. You feel vulnerable when you don’t have a suitable place to retreat.
A friend lent us a roof rack where we put our things, which we kept to a bare minimum. The biggest challenge was being perpetually wet. We stored our clothes in plastic bins to keep them as dry as possible.
The weather started to improve towards the end of April. A New Hampshire non-profit organization called Way Station gave us a tent and other camping gear, such as sleeping bags and a tarp. We drove to the White Mountains National Forest and found a spot. It’s first come, first served. There is well water but no facilities like toilets or showers.
The main rule is not to stay in the same place for more than 14 nights. The rangers will move you if you don’t comply. After that you are not allowed to camp within 10 miles. Some of the other campers are curious and ask why you’re there all the time. The rangers have been around, and we’ve been around at least seven times now.
On the kitchen side, we have installed a small two-burner stove that runs on propane. We eat a lot of carb-rich foods, including noodles that you can get for a buck, macaroni and cheese, and just about any type of potato. Anything that won’t spoil.
There have been times when I can’t stop crying because of our situation
We have learned to fend for ourselves, at least for now. There is a nearby river for washing. We wear our bathing suits to enter. But we’ll go naked if it’s hot and there’s no one else. The heat is actually harder to bear than the cold. It’s exhausting being outside when you don’t have a place to cool off. At least you can bundle up in the winter.
Looking back, the first few weeks of camping were the hardest. It was a combination of being away from my daughter for so long and being afraid of the unknown. There have been times – mostly on the way home from work – when I can’t stop crying. I’ll think, “I’m done for the day, but I don’t have a home to go to. I just have a tent.
My husband was my rock and kept me sane.
We didn’t really publicize our situation. When someone finds out that you are homeless, it becomes uncomfortable. It’s scary for them.
Benji and I received a lot of advice from the association that gave us the tent. They said the latest census showed more than 4,000 homeless people in Maine. But these are only those who declared themselves homeless. We are on the waiting list for Section 8 housing, but they told us it would take five to eight years. We applied to the general assistance fund, but were turned down because our income was deemed too high.
Right now we have a daily debate about what to do next. We are barely getting by and not sure how we would pay for even a cheap winter rental. At this point in our lives—I’m 36 and my husband is 30—we could get an apartment only to lose it immediately.
The stereotype of a homeless person is that of a person whose drug use has caused them to sleep rough. But that’s not our situation. It is becoming harder than ever to be poor in this country.
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