Lauren Bahre and her husband have been living in a tent for the past five months.
She said they’re known as “the working homeless” because their low earnings won’t cover rent.
This is Bahre’s story, as told to Jane Ridley.
This as told to 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 small resort town in Maine. Wealthy clients would talk away about the second home they’d recently purchased nearby.
They’d say that they wanted a blowout before having dinner at some fancy restaurant. I’d think, “I’m going home to a bowl of cereal.”
My husband, Benji, and I live in a tent. And as we head toward winter, we’re increasingly worried about being homeless.
I quit my receptionist job at the salon in May. I couldn’t deal with the stress of having to look presentable all the time. The owner yelled at me once for wearing a pair of open-toed sandals with dirty feet. I had to choose between not bathing or washing myself in a 40-degree river. I couldn’t afford nail polish, let alone a pedicure.
Benji and I are classed as the “working poor.” He’s a barista at Starbucks, and I’m now employed by a cannabis dispensary. The hours — we earn $17 and $15 an hour, respectively — vary and are not guaranteed. Our average combined salary is $2,400 a month. It’s above the federal poverty line, but still not enough to make rent in the place we both grew up.
We didn’t 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 upwards of $1,800 a month, with utility bills on top of that. The cost has more than doubled in the past two years. Long-term leases are hard to find because landlords do short-term rentals on Airbnb. Houses sell at top dollar to city folk who want a second home in a beautiful place.
Things started to go wrong after my mom — who owned the two-bedroom apartment where we’d lived with my daughter for four years — started formal proceedings to evict us. We hadn’t been able to make 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 store after getting 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 that the next steps would be dealt with in court. We left the apartment in mid-March to avoid getting a formal eviction on our records, which would make it almost impossible to find new housing.
But we couldn’t even begin to afford anything. One of the worst experiences of my life was driving my 13-year-old to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to live with her dad. My ex is a good guy, but I had no idea when I’d see my kid 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 my daughter off 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 put down the seats of the car and used plywood as a base for a bed. We’d pile on blankets until it was sort of comfortable.
Signs said you couldn’t park overnight, but at least eight other vehicles would be parked nearby. We’d use the Walmart bathrooms, keeping a low profile to avoid suspicion. You feel vulnerable when you don’t have a proper place to retreat.
A friend loaned us a roof rack where we put our belongings, which we’d cut down to the bare minimum. The biggest challenge was being perpetually damp. We stored our clothes in plastic bins to keep them as dry as possible.
The weather started getting better toward the end of April. A non-profit in New Hampshire called Way Station gave us a tent and other camping gear, such as sleeping bags and a tarp. We drove up to White Mountains National Forest and found a spot. It’s first come, first served. There’s 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 move you if you don’t comply. After that, you’re not allowed to camp within 10 miles. Some of the other campers are nosy and ask why you’re there all the time. The rangers have circled, and we’ve moved at least seven times now.
As for cooking, we’ve set up a little two-burner stove that runs on propane. We eat a lot of carb-heavy foods, including noodles you can get for a dollar, macaroni and cheese, and pretty much any type of potato. Anything that’s not going to spoil.
There have been moments when I can’t stop crying because of our situation
We’ve learned to get by — at least for now. There’s a river nearby to get washed in. We wear our swimsuits to go in. But we’ll go naked if it’s hot and nobody else is around. The heat is actually harder to handle than the cold. It’s exhausting being outside when you don’t have a place to cool down. At least you can bundle up in the winter.
Looking back, the first few weeks of camping were the most difficult. It was a combination of being away from my daughter for such a long time and fear of the unknown. There have been moments — mostly on the drive back 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 has been my rock and has kept me sane.
We haven’t really broadcast our situation. When someone finds out that you’re homeless, it gets uncomfortable. It’s scary to them.
Benji and I have gotten a lot of advice from the nonprofit that gave us the tent. They said the latest census showed more than 4,000 homeless people in Maine. But those are only the ones who reported themselves as being homeless. We’re on the wait 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 away because our income was considered too high.
Right now, we’re having a daily debate about what to do next. We’re barely scraping by, and we don’t know how we’d pay for even a cheap winter rental. At this point in our lives — I’m 36, and my husband is 30 — we might get an apartment only to lose it immediately.
The stereotype of a homeless person is someone whose drug use resulted in them sleeping rough. But that’s not our situation. It’s getting harder than ever to be poor in this country.
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