When the final notice came in the mail, we disregarded it.
“What does this mean?” I asked my dad, since it was the first time I’d ever seen one of these notices. We’d been receiving “final” notices for years, he told me. He showed me the stack he was keeping in his room: 90-day notices, all warning of eviction, dated months and years apart. My dad had been hiding them to keep me from worrying.
He explained to me that our landlord, who had inherited the property from his dad and never really wanted it, had not only stopped fixing anything, but also hadn’t been collecting rent from my dad for years. Our landlord had stopped paying the mortgage on the home, likely because he couldn’t afford to. My dad had taken over the utility payments directly when the landlord stopped paying those too, which was the only reason we’d continued to have gas and electric in our apartment. There was a leak in the apartment above us that sometimes dripped through the ceiling in the bathroom. When the boiler in the basement kicked the bucket, it was up to my dad to find someone who could fix it.
We had been living in our two-bedroom apartment, one of four in a multifamily home, since my mom died in 2004. While it wasn’t my childhood home, it was the first place I called home after she passed away — where my dad read books to me because that was what my mom always used to do, where I took my first girlfriend home to meet my dad, where I opened my college acceptance letters.
My dad was a disabled night-shift cab driver. I was a 21-year-old college senior without a job lined up for graduation. Between us, we had less than $500. No Roth IRAs, no retirement accounts, no emergency funds we could just “dip into.” We had a 1998 Buick Century with over 100,000 miles on it that would sell for nothing.
I didn’t completely believe my dad when he said that everything would be OK, but I chose to ignore the notice too. I had no financial means to address it. Even when I did get my first job out of college just two weeks after graduation, it paid barely over minimum wage. I saved as much money as I could, even though I was helping my dad with groceries and bills every month. I was terrified that at any moment we would be forced to leave, but I had nowhere to turn.
Then it finally happened, almost six months after we got that “final” 90-day notice.
I’d just moved out of my dad’s apartment and into my own when the notice came telling him to vacate the premises within 48 hours or law enforcement would be present on Monday. I had never been on the lease because my dad became a tenant when I was a minor, but there was still a nice envelope with my name on it informing me that I could no longer live there.
“I have no place to live,” my dad told me when he called me with the news.
I told him he could crash on the couch in my living room, so he packed everything he could fit into the Buick and drove around all day until I was out of work. Everything he couldn’t pack into his car, like all his furniture, his computer, many of his clothes, and all of his household appliances, would be taken to a privately owned storage unit.
That night, my dad’s sentences were short and he sounded numb and detached. I was completely heartbroken.
I couldn’t say that we’d had no warning, but every warning we were given was essentially useless to us. When the final 48-hour notice came, that gave my dad two days to... do what exactly? With no money to his name and barely able to eke by with income from driving the cab, he didn’t exactly have options.
There were no resources provided with these warnings that could help us, not a legal contact who could walk us through the process. I can’t imagine how much more difficult the process would have been if English were our second language or we were undocumented immigrants.
After a few days, when the shock began to wear off, I started helping my dad figure out what to do next. He couldn’t stay on my couch; I lived with my girlfriend and our one-bedroom apartment was nowhere near big enough for three. My dad’s erratic sleeping schedule from years of working nights also made cohabitation challenging.
That wasn’t our only challenge. When I called the storage unit to get more information about my dad’s belongings, I waited on a line that rang and rang, with no one ever picking up and no answering machine. When I finally got through to someone, the owner was gruff and rude. He told me that I’d have to pay thousands of dollars to pick up my dad’s stuff, and I was required to take it all at once. I could pay his workers to haul off whatever I didn’t want, but that would cost an extra couple hundred dollars that I did not have.
We ended up making it work for two months with Dad sleeping on our pull-out couch in the living room. When he was ready, I helped him check into a hospital to receive a diagnosis and treatment for his traumatic brain injury, the result of an accident as a cab driver, and other disabilities. He stayed in various hospitals for 11 months, paid for by his health insurance. The entire time, I was constantly afraid he’d be told he had to leave.
“Most people don’t realize that they’re statistically closer to becoming homeless than they are to becoming billionaires, but I do.”
Every time he called, I worried it would be to ask to stay with me again. As much as I love him, having an extra person in a one-bedroom was very stressful, and it put a strain on my ability to get enough sleep for my full-time job while also getting my schoolwork done for my graduate program. He was also understandably very depressed and anxious about his situation, and it was tough to remain hopeful about both our futures.
I spent a lot of my free time making phone calls and helping him fill out paperwork so he could receive Social Security benefits as a disabled widower, and researching places people in emergency situations could live — most of which required money that my dad didn’t have.
For 10 months after the hospitals, he stayed with his childhood friend in Florida, and last year he finally moved into a sober living home, where he now lives and works. Although he’d been sober since I was 4, sober living was a good option for him when he had nowhere to go.
Although his landlord had violated dozens of health codes and practically skipped town, my dad never had any legal recourse as a tenant. The bank took over the property when our landlord defaulted on his mortgage, and instead of allowing us, the only current tenants, to remain, it chose to evict us, which is legally within its right.
I’m glad I was around to help him through the process. All told, it took him almost two full years to figure out a stable long-term living situation, and there’s no way he would have been able to do it on his own.
After the eviction, it took another six months and multiple calls to empathetic lawyers in the area before I learned that, by law, the storage unit was obligated to at least let us come by and retrieve personal items that didn’t have any monetary value.
While my dad was in the hospital, my girlfriend and I spent an exhausting, dirty, six-hour day on the floor of a dilapidated warehouse, while two storage unit workers watched. We pulled apart the remnants of my dad’s life like a jigsaw puzzle; everything was packed tightly into the smallest corner of the storage facility, belongings stacked on top of each other, with chairs and boxes and bed frames all forming a depressing puzzle.
The entire floor of the storage facility was packed with the belongings of people who had been evicted. I couldn’t stop thinking about the people who weren’t as fortunate as my dad had been — people who had absolutely nowhere to go, who didn’t have family or friends who cared about them.
The storage unit workers told me that sometimes they find a dead body inside when they go to clear an eviction, because the person has chosen to end their life. My dad admitted he briefly considered the same thing when he got his final notice, but decided not to because of me.
I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to my dad’s home, the way many college grads do when their parents officially retire and move into a downsized apartment, a nursing home, or a nice condo in Florida. Instead, I sat on my knees on a warehouse floor saying goodbye to my dad’s kitchen table and the big computer desk he used to sit at when he was playing online card games.
There were some items I wasn’t able to get from the storage unit, things that were too large to take or that I couldn’t find among the stacked, heavy boxes. I had to let go of those things I don’t have — old photographs, cards and lamps that my dad’s mom made — and move on with the memories that I do.
Some nights, I wake up from nightmares that someone is forcing me out of my apartment without warning or that my dad has shown up at my door, suddenly homeless again, even though he has money in savings now and we both have enough financial privilege to have options.
The trauma of being poor, so poor that your home and your ability to choose can be taken away, still lives with me every time I decide whether to get a Starbucks latte or not. Most people don’t realize that they’re statistically closer to becoming homeless than they are to becoming billionaires, but I do. And that knowledge never leaves me.
There were one or two times in that first year after my dad’s eviction that I was late on my rent by just a few days and came home to a notice taped to my door, warning me that if I didn’t pay by the 15th, the management company would start the eviction process. I called my dad the first time I saw one, panic in my voice.
“That’s not the final notice,” he told me, before launching into the legal process any landlord has to follow in order to evict a tenant. I didn’t want to hear it. As soon as I had my paycheck, I paid my rent in full. I don’t believe in taking chances anymore.