Where I was: Lessons from as a homeless college student

After reading a piece in Forbes about the realities of the poor status here in the States, I decided to open up about a time in my life when I was homeless. While you read this remember, I don’t want your pity. I want you to use this story to empower yourself to climb out of whatever hole you are in and move on with your head held high.

But first, let me explain how I got there through a series of bad choices.

Black mould is toxic and can cause health issues.

Living in Lafayette while going to school has its ups and downs. If you can find a place that you can afford on a very strict student budget, you’re likely to be living in a place run by slum lords. The floors are giving out, the walls have black mould in them, and all the windows and doors leak cold air in so your utility bill skyrockets in the winter without some creative work.

Not all places are bad. If they aren’t run by slum lords, but still affordable, then they are out far enough that you need a car or a lot of time to take buses in to campus. I used to live in them before I picked up a part-time job to help offset the cost of living, then I routinely found myself abandoned on campus with no way home because my shift ended after the last bus left the area.

Sick of the two options I was facing, I devised a third. I did the math for mortgaging a house. It would be cheaper to buy a house than to rent, doubly so if I had roommates. My best friends (R and Q) were also sick of the renting scenarios, so we went in with a plan to buy a house, then split the mortgage, insurance and utilities for a grand total of $400 a month each. We had the problem of not wanting to be stuck with the house, so we looked around for a person that would be in the area permanently, and thus want to go in with us. We found a fourth party (D) without a problem. D was a really affable fellow that I knew well from playing D&D, so we decided to go for it.

That’s where the problems started.

I didn’t take the time to vet anyone. I should have, but I wanted to trust my best friend, boyfriend, and good friend that I’d know for years. How could I not?

Within a few months of us moving into the house, we started to come across problems. My best friend lost his job, my boyfriend wasn’t even trying. The weight fell on myself and D. As co-owners of the property, the weight was heavy. The mortgage was under both our names, so all problems would come down hard.

And come down hard they did.

Within 4 months R and Q were only contributing 10% of what they needed to contribute. D was spending money frivolously, and didn’t keep up his end of the bargain in a timely manner. Often times he would contribute his part late, and thus late fees ate into everything we had. The weight fell squarely on my shoulders, and I couldn’t do it. I bowed out not so graciously a few months later by moving all my belongings to a storage unit, then moving myself into the lab where I worked. I had nothing but a sleeping bag, a few changes of clothes, and an understanding, compassionate professor.

Despite of that manoeuvre, the boys still stayed on for a while not paying a single thing, then moved out one at a time when I shut down the utilities and bank foreclosed on the house. I watched helpless as my credit score was destroyed, my reputation was destroyed, and the financial institutions’ trust in me would be forever destroyed. Somehow, that made a zero balance in my bank account with bills to pay, no food, and no home diminish in importance. I realised that I broke down when I went completely numb from the full weight of the situation.

Money is finite, and there wasn’t a way out.

I looked at what I had, which was barely more than determination and a job. It was two weeks till my next paycheck, I had no food, no money, and I still had classes to go to and a job to perform at. I realised money was a finite thing, and I had no way out of my predicament. Luckily, I was a student so I was able to sneak into meetings and eat the free pizzas they bribe people with. I joined Women in Science which had a free luncheon every month. A friend, Fred Chu, brought me all the noodles I could tolerate when he came to visit every other week. All in all, I was able to eat 3 – 4 times a week like this. Most people eat ~21 times a week with 2 – 3 meals a day.

I was literally starving. 

Click image to learn more about this image.

The farmer scolding a young boy for destroying his trees while taking apples. Portsmouth Herald (Portsmouth, New Hampshire) Sep 13, 1899

I stole food for the first time after the first month of living like this. I was hungry, and the apple on someone’s lunch tray looked so inviting. I tried to rationalise it because the person I stole it from was wearing expensive name brand clothing with all the expensive accessories to go with it. But in all honesty, you just can’t. I took the apple off some else’s plate and walked away. I cried with pleasure as I ate the apple. It was the first food I had in just over two days, and it tasted amazing — a welcome change from cold greasy pizza.

The next day I stole a sandwich off someone else’s lunch tray where I was studying at, and the next day I swiped a banana from a different person as I walked by. I got to be quite good at picking up food casually, and I even began to feel less guilty about my actions. This meagre food I stole sustained me between free pizza, the luncheons with Women in Science, and other left over things from other meetings around campus.

Slowly, things started to change.

I worked hard at keeping up appearances. I went to all my classes, did all my homework, worked hard, deposited my paychecks into the bank and stole food to get through for three months. By month three, I was able to gain some equilibrium. I balanced a budget and stuck with it. I was able to buy a little food that I could prepare in the office microwave. I made sure to get vegetables to put into soup and sugary, nutrient dense fruit to snack on every couple of days. Life was looking up as I finished my undergrad degree.

Things really turned around, though, when a Chinese couple, Hui and Liang, reached out for help with English. I love helping people learn, so I enthusiastically volunteered my time and friendship. When I was looking for something to do after I graduated, and hopefully something that could help me get to grad school. Hui and Liang pulled some strings for Fred and I to teach English at Hebei College of Finance in China. This saved my life. The school paid for housing, utilities, and we got a hefty stipend that covered food, and enough that I could send home to pay off a few bills hanging over my head.

I wish everyone in a similar situation was that lucky.

Every part of our journey is a learning experience, and when you are down on the bottom of the barrel it’s a lesson in strength, perseverance, and character. You learn a lot about yourself: your strengths, your weaknesses, what you are willing to sacrifice for your dreams, and your character. Would you steal food to survive? A lot of preconceptions about the way things are crumble, and you learn to see the world through different eyes.

You learn a lot about your friends: Which ones can you count on, and for what? For how long? It’s eye-opening to see who will be there for you when you fall so far from grace. It’s even more interesting what you do about it. I walked away with my head held high. Notice, I don’t blame them for what happened here. It just is what is. I’m also not friends with these people any more. They wounded me deeply, then did nothing to help. I’m still paying the price financially for all this.

You learn a lot about life: Things that happen in life are rarely black and white. They are shades of grey, even when they appear black or white. Was I in the wrong for stealing food? Yes. I didn’t go to the homeless shelter because that would have taken time out of my day that I desperately needed to be in class or work. That would have been the legal way to do things, but it didn’t fit into my schedule. It was a choice I made, and I admit that it was wrong. But it also wasn’t malevolent.

What you learn is deeply personal, and it will impact the rest of your life.