The new phrase is unhoused. Homeless is out. I didn’t have to look it up. Having volunteered at a day shelter for the last nine years, I already knew the answer.
I did so anyway, because my sweet friends keep trying to convince me that we are not, in fact, either homeless or unhoused. They resist the label because they love me, and because being homeless, or unhoused, is an unpleasant, socially awkward situation; it is vulnerable and unstable and none of the things you want for a friend.
Except that we are. Unhoused. Our belongings are packed in a garage in central Virginia, and I no longer have employment. The question of where my daughter and I will lay our heads on any given week is a bit of an unknown.
It is temporary, I know, and we are not on the streets. We are fortunate enough to have family and friends to visit, with couches and spare bedrooms to share. But to say that we are not homeless, or unhoused, undermines the deep, emotional toll that accompanies such uncertainty. We are joining the ranks of a rising number of Americans who have lost their sense of security and belonging.
Each of those numbers is a story and a life, and for many it will take years to rebuild what they will lose in this crisis. There are connotations and assumptions that come with the term homeless, most of which imply guilt and helplessness, as my friends are so aware. I’m not sure that a new name will change that, but I do hope that writing this will change some of those misconceptions and debunk the myth of Americans’ earned security.
As I attempt to banish a looming sense of failure, it is impossible not to think about every decision I have made that brought me to this point. I was young when I had my daughter, halfway through college and still learning about life. But I knew, even then, that security and stability would need to become my greatest priority.
I became a planner, attempting to predict every possible scenario and creating contingencies accordingly. I made it a priority to finish college and even went on to earn a master’s degree, carrying the debt for both degrees myself. Perhaps I might have chosen a higher-paying career than teaching, but I believed in the vocation. Even better, it would allow me to be on the same schedule as my daughter.
As a single parent, especially without the aid of child support, life becomes a perpetual game of whack-a-mole. You poise yourself to anticipate every unexpected expense, but still, they pop up. There are trips to the ER, car repairs, field trips, new shoes. Saving becomes nearly impossible. Emergencies end up on credit cards, which you then work weekends to pay off. Life becomes a constant juggling act of time. You stretch yourself to a 60-hour workweek, and then 80. You realize what you’re capable of. You stave off exhaustion. You try to weave a safety net, but it is often an impossibility.
And then there are all the circumstances you can’t control. Five years ago, I took a job teaching at a boarding school in central Virginia. My daughter was 9 when we moved onto campus. Though the salary was significantly lower than the local public schools, living on campus offered a sense of community for both of us. I didn’t feel like I was raising her alone. I loved that on any given night we could have dinner with 50 other people, and as a bonus, I didn’t always have to cook. I worked with amazing and awesome people and planned to stay until my own daughter graduated high school. But life does not always go as planned.
“Life becomes a constant juggling act of time. You stretch yourself to a 60-hour workweek, and then 80. You realize what you’re capable of. You stave off exhaustion. You try to weave a safety net, but it is often an impossibility.”
A year ago, a series of administrative and policy changes spurred nearly half the faculty and staff to leave. I made the difficult decision to stay. Though I too felt conflicted by these new changes, I was not in a financial position to abandon both my job and home. In addition, my daughter had one more year of middle school; it seemed best to allow her to finish before making any big moves. And so, I kept stability as my priority and made a plan. I picked up extra weekend work and doubled down on my efforts to get out of debt. In the meantime, I hoped that things would calm and staying might be an option.
And then 2020 arrived. On Jan. 27, my mother arrived in the dead of the night to tell me that my brother had taken his own life. I will not attempt to articulate here the physical and emotional toll of this event, but suffice to say that my entire reality shifted. It took the last of my reserves to finish the school year. (I might have been the only teacher who was relieved at the onset of online classes.)
The emotional stamina required by my students was great, especially given the extra responsibilities of boarding school life. Mental health issues were prevalent among our students, but without the employment of a licensed counselor at our school, that burden often fell to the faculty, who were also responsible for the students during evenings and weekends. Not a year had gone by when there was not a student who had expressed suicidal ideations or actively attempted it during the school year. I knew almost immediately after my brother’s death that I could not make it through another year.
In February, I gave the school notice that I would not be renewing my contract. I had six months to find a job, which seemed like ample time. I was almost out of debt and knew I could successfully get there before the summer came. My daughter would be transitioning to high school that year, which made it a particularly good time to move. I had a workable plan and firmly felt it was the best decision.
And then ... COVID-19 hit. Six weeks after my brother died, quarantine began. One altered reality morphed into the next, and I struggled to keep my bearings. In a very short time, nearly every aspect of security I had known was thrown into the air ― family, job, home. Still, I was grateful for the reprieve of isolation. The weariness of my grief wrapped itself inside the silence of the world. I taught my online classes and began to look for a new job. I picked up work with Instacart to supplement the weekend income I had lost. I finally climbed out of debt. But the real and lasting effect of COVID-19 was just becoming apparent. Web searches for available jobs went from 40 pages to two. Schools instated hiring freezes as they scrambled to figure out the next steps. Companies were laying off employees, not hiring more. Still, I sent my resume everywhere I could. And I packed. Regardless of whether I found a job, we would still need to move off campus in July.
Each new day required a swell of energy that I had to conjure out of thin air. I felt myself retreat from friends, a low-grade resentment forming toward the comfort and certainty that existed within their own lives. Well-meaning friends sent listings for housing rentals that were two or three times my budget, an indication that few had a concept of the limitations of a single parent’s teaching salary or what it means to not have the financial safety net of a second income or set of parents. I was suddenly and acutely aware of the building blocks that undergirded the middle and upper classes. My perceived entry to the middle class came by merit of my education, but every day I was more aware of the invisible divide that kept me from knowing real security.
So many of those around me firmly believed that they had earned their station in life through their own hard work and self-discipline, unaware of the advantage they were given when their parents paid for college or their first car, the down payment on their first apartment or even their first house, the family connection that gained them access to an internship or first job, the money sent in an emergency, the nest egg, the inheritance, the beginning pieces that guaranteed their future, should they stay the course. There was an intrinsic sense of rest built into their lives, an absence of striving that I had yet to know. And, if I am honest, I felt a sense of failure that I had worked for so long and still not yet achieved that state of stability for myself and my daughter.
July came and still I had no job. I moved our belongings into a garage. Our dog went to one friend’s house and our cat to another’s. We began the carousel of visits to family and friends, not wanting to burden anyone for too long. Pieces of our lives pocketed themselves into different spaces, scattered across the city. As I write this, I have the ongoing sensation that I am forgetting something, leaving something behind.
“I was suddenly and acutely aware of the building blocks that undergirded the middle and upper classes. My perceived entry to the middle class came by merit of my education, but every day I was more aware of the invisible divide that kept me from knowing real security.”
Daily tasks have become twice as difficult ― staying organized, creating routine and finding time to apply for jobs are all more challenging when you are on the move. My daughter is enrolled at the high school in the district where we used to live and will begin virtual classes there, but I do not know what school she will actually attend once in-person classes resume. It is a small miracle that she can attend school wherever we happen to be. There is still much to be grateful for. We have friends and family who have security and space, and my education and resume will eventually offer me a path forward. I realize that is not the situation for everyone; for some, the effects of this derailment will last a lifetime.
My fear, and I know it is shared by many, is that the chasm between socioeconomic classes will irreparably grow through this economic downturn. Already, the city of Charlottesville, where we have lived for the past 10 years, faced an affordable housing crisis. A recent study released by the Charlottesville Low-Income Housing Coalition found that housing costs here have increased by 88% since the year 2000. And while the median salary for white households increased by 103% in that time period, it most definitely did not for teachers or minimum-wage workers. (Note that the intent of the study was to reveal racial disparities that exist in Charlottesville’s housing community. Income among Black families increased by only 17% in that time period).
Staying in Charlottesville would likely mean continuing to exist in a financially precarious situation. As a frame of reference, the median household income here is $89,000, significantly more than New York City and almost as much as the Bay area’s tech-laden economy. Watching that number grow is like sitting outside a club that you’re not a part of, but that most of your friends belong to.
I don’t regret the life I chose or my decision to single-parent. But I also did not imagine that it would be this relentlessly hard for this relentlessly long. I know that soon, all of this will settle. We will find a new home and put down new roots. My daughter will enroll in a new school and make new friends. This will become another stepping stone, an experience to learn and grow from and for which to be grateful. But I also hope this time of crisis forces our country to think about what we value, the way we structure our society, the things we reward and give our money to, the space we take and the space we create. I hope this time changes us all.
Dana Ainsworth is a freelance writer and educator in Charlottesville, Virginia. You can find more of her writing at untethered.blog.