Opinion

Homeless but not hopeless

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Ialways sort of dread Thanksgiving, and not just because I am alone or because no one invites me to dinner. For me, the holiday marks the start of cold weather, and I know it will soon be uncomfortable to sleep outdoors.

For the last 6 1/2 years, since the previous recession caused my writing and public relations business to tank, I have been living in the back of my 1998 Toyota Tacoma pickup, which now has 369,000 miles on it.

For three seasons a year, I tend to stay in Southern California. Every summer, when it gets too hot here, I head for Montana, where I once lived. I try to follow the good weather, which is easy to do until winter. Recently, I've been staying out by the Salton Sea, where temperatures have been in the 80s during the day and about 55 at night. In weather like that, I can just use my sleeping bag as a cover.

A few years ago, when I was still making a little money, I used to camp at a developed campground with toilets, tables and fire rings, but now that I am subsisting mostly on Social Security, I can't afford it. Now I stay at a primitive campground at the water's edge. It has outhouses instead of flush toilets, but I have come to like its solitude and lack of pavement. In the morning, I can watch cranes and pelicans by the thousands.

It gets dark early now, so I spend evenings in a library or at a fast-food joint that has TV and watch the news or a ballgame. I often stop at Wal-Mart to get supplies and use the bathroom before heading for camp. Once there, I gaze in awe at the constellations and wonder what's out there.

Around this time of year, the desert temperatures drop into the 40s at night, and I snuggle up inside my sleeping bag atop an air mattress. In December and January it gets colder still -- sometimes below freezing -- and I have to pile blankets atop my sleeping bag and sleep in my clothes and a sweat shirt. Once in awhile it rains hard. A few years ago, I could afford a Motel 6 in bad weather, but no more. Now I cover my leaky camper shell with a tarp.

On Sundays, I go to church, and in the back of my truck at night I meditate on the Lord's Prayer. I pray for my estranged family members, including a granddaughter I've only seen once. I used to pray for work and a better place to live, but now I just accept my situation, which has relieved a lot of stress.

Like Jacob in the Bible, I once asked God to come down and fight me like a man. But it does no good to argue with God. There's no response. Nevertheless, I keep praying and offering praise. Even getting angry with God, I've found, is a form of prayer.

I still hope to have a home again one day. I've been on lists for subsidized senior housing for years. In early 2007, I got to the top of the list, but I had to turn down the apartment I was offered because I didn't have enough cash for rent and deposits. I am now back on a list in the Palm Springs area, and was recently told I'm No. 185.

For now, I will just try to get through Thanksgiving Day, and then Christmas, without thinking much about the holidays or about my two adult daughters, whom I never hear from anymore. Last Thanksgiving, I went into an Indian casino in Palm Springs and walked past the steaming buffet tables of turkey and other delicacies, but they were too expensive for me. I ended up getting a sandwich at a fast-food joint. Stores and libraries were closed so I walked around a park, read a newspaper and watched ducks in a pond.

This year probably will be about the same. I've gone to free dinners for the poor and homeless in the past, but I don't like the atmosphere and have gotten sick from the food.

I have a lot to be thankful for this year, and I know I am better off than many homeless people. I have my truck and some Social Security retirement income. Gasoline prices have come down. I also became eligible for Medicare recently when I turned 65, and that has been a blessing with healthcare bills.

My life isn't so difficult if I don't dwell on it. At night I fall into a peaceful sleep. My faith, once minimal, has deepened and increased. Grappling with the difficulties and evils of life has turned me more to God. I know where I am going in the long run, and it isn't just to a campground.

Les Gapay is a freelance writer and public relations consultant in California. He is a former Wall Street Journal reporter.

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