Lauren Bahre and her husband have been living in a tent for the last five months.
He said they are known as “the homeless workers” because their low incomes are not enough to pay their rent.
This is the story of Bahre, told to Jane Ridley.
This essay is based on a conversation with Lauren Bahre. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I used to work at a hair salon in our little resort town in Maine. The wealthy clients would talk about the second house they had recently bought nearby.
They would say they wanted a blast before dining at some fancy restaurant. She thought, “I’m going home to have a bowl of cereal.”
My husband, Benji, and I live in a tent. And as we approach winter, we are becoming increasingly concerned about being homeless.
I quit my salon receptionist job in May. I couldn’t deal with the stress of having to be presentable all the time. I was once yelled at by the owner for wearing a pair of open sandals with dirty feet. I had to choose between not bathing or washing in a river at 40 degrees. She couldn’t afford nail polish, let alone a pedicure.
Benji and I are classified as “working poor.” He is a barista at Starbucks and now I work at a cannabis dispensary. Hours ($17 and $15 per hour, respectively) vary and are not guaranteed. Our combined average salary is $2,400 a month. It’s above the federal poverty line, but still not enough to pay rent in the place where we both grew up.
We did not want a formal eviction notice on our records from a court
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 a month, plus utility bills. The cost has more than doubled in the last two years. Long-term leases are hard to find because landlords make short-term rentals on Airbnb. The houses are sold at the best price to the people of the city who want a second home in a beautiful place.
Things started to go wrong after my mother, who owns the two-bedroom apartment where we had lived with my daughter for four years, started formal proceedings to evict us. We had not been able to pay our rent for January or February. Mom and I had always had a volatile relationship, but I never thought she’d kick us out.
We lived paycheck to paycheck. Then I lost my job at a bagel shop after being sick for a month from COVID-19. I ended up with a nebulizer because it left me with asthma and potential damage to my lungs. My husband got it too. He missed two weeks of work.
My mom said the next steps would be taken up in court. We left the apartment in mid-March to avoid a formal eviction on our records, which would make finding new housing almost impossible.
But we couldn’t even begin to pay anything. One of the worst experiences of my life was taking my 13-year-old son to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to live with his father. My ex is a nice guy, but he had no idea when he would see my son again. Gas it was expensive and our 18 year old Subaru Forester needed a lot of repairs.
You feel vulnerable when you don’t have a place to retreat.
We dropped off my daughter and spent the night at a rest stop on the Massachusetts/New Hampshire state line. Then we moved to a walmart parking lot. We put up car seats and used plywood as a base for a bed. We bunched up the blankets until it was comfortable.
Signs said no overnight parking, but at least eight other vehicles would be parked nearby. We used the bathrooms at Walmart, 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 to place our belongings, which we had reduced to a minimum. The biggest challenge was being perpetually wet. We store our clothes in plastic containers to keep them as dry as possible.
The weather started to improve at the end of April. A nonprofit organization in New Hampshire called Way station He gave us a tent and other camping gear, like sleeping bags and a tarp. We drove to the White Mountains National Forest and found a place. It is by order of arrival. There is well water, but no facilities like toilets or showers.
The main rule is not to stay in one place for more than 14 nights. The rangers will transfer you if you don’t comply. After that, you are not allowed to camp within 10 miles. Some of the other campers are nosy and ask why you are there all the time. The rangers have circled and we’ve moved at least seven times.
As for the kitchen, we have installed a small two-burner stove that works with propane. We eat a lot of carbohydrate-rich foods, including dollar noodles, macaroni and cheese, and just about any kind of potato. Anything that won’t go bad.
There have been times when I can’t stop crying over our situation.
We have learned to get ahead, at least for now. There is a river nearby to wash us. We use our bathing suits to enter. But we’ll go naked if it’s hot and no one else is around. Heat is actually more difficult to deal with than 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 camp were the hardest. It was a combination of being away from my daughter for so long and fear of the unknown. There have been times, mostly on the way home from work, when I just can’t stop crying. I’ll think, “I’m done for today, but I don’t have a home to go to.” I only have one tent.
My husband has been my rock and has kept me sane.
We haven’t really broadcast our situation. When someone finds out that you are homeless, it becomes awkward. It scares them.
Benji and I received a lot of advice from the non-profit organization that gave us the tent. They said the last census showed more than 4,000 homeless people in Maine. But those are just the ones who reported homelessness. We are on the waiting list for Section 8 housing, but we were told it would take five to eight years. We applied for the general assistance fund, but were turned down because our income was deemed too high.
Right now, we’re having a daily debate about what to do next. We are barely getting by and we don’t know how we would even afford a cheap winter rental. At this point in our lives, I’m 36 and my husband is 30, we could get an apartment and lose it right away.
The stereotype of a homeless person is someone whose drug use led them to sleep rough. But that is not our situation. It’s getting harder and harder to be poor in this country.
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