From Whole Foods to Food Stamps

The recession has hit families where they live. For many, it's forced a change of address. Think about all those foreclosed homes and urban deserts: One in every 400 homes received a foreclosure notice last year. Unemployment is approaching 10%. Some families no longer have a place to call home at all.

That's the situation for Jamie Alden (not her real name), a single mom of four kids who found herself caught up in a series of recession nightmares that have left her homeless and jobless, but not hopeless. She's chronicling her adventures on The Boxcar Kids, where she writes with painful frankness about trying to find a job, help her kids thrive at school and keep her family together while living in a small travel trailer with her children.

The Boxcar Kids
Alden is a far cry from the stereotypical homeless person. A professional with a master's degree in anthropology, Alden had a career for over a decade in environmental science. She relocated to California after a doctor recommended the warmer, drier climate would help one of her children, who has a chronic illness.

Like a lot of relocating families, Alden accepted a job in her new city before she'd sold her house. So she rented it out, and rented a place near her new job.

Then the economy tanked. Her renters defaulted, and she used most of her savings going through expensive legal ordeals to evict them. She was left with a damaged home that she could not find new tenants for. Unable to make the mortgage payments and pay rent on her new home, she lost the house to foreclosure.

Meanwhile, her company started layoffs. “California has a little budget problem,” she says sardonically. “We couldn't work on any of our contracts.” She survived the first two rounds, but eventually her lack of seniority put her under the axe. As soon as he found out she'd lost her job, her landlord asked her to move out. “He knew I wouldn't be able to pay the rent,” she says.

Throughout the summer, Alden and her kids found themselves living in state parks in second-hand tents. She used free hotel stays she'd accumulated over years of business travel to buy them an occasional night of warm beds and hot showers.

Now they have a 26-foot RV they call home. The school district considers them homeless, but Alden doesn't. Homeless, she says, was when they lived in a tent and had to move every week. This is comparative luxury.

Alden named her blog after a series of popular early 20th century children's books about four kids who live a scrappy, happy life in a boxcar after their parents die, until they are rescued by a kindly, rich grandparent. There's no rich grandparent to rescue Alden and her kids from their boxcar. Instead, Alden is learning to navigate a maze of social services and getting creative about frugality in ways most of us have never considered.

She's not alone. Many formerly middle-class families have found themselves at least temporarily without a home to call their own. Foreclosures were filed against 2.8 million properties in 2009, while apartment vacancies are also at a 30-year high water mark. A lot of people are just not living in houses these days.

Where are they going? Many are staying with family or friends. Some are in shelters. Others are what Alden calls “alternatively housed” in RVs, camper vans, anything with a roof.

The best defense is a good offense
Alden's story, and the many others like it are a scary wake-up call for me. My own family is not so far from the precipice these folks fell off of.

We own a home, but don't have a lot of equity in it. We have a small emergency fund, but not enough to get us through even one month of normal living expenses. I've been putting all our money into debt repayment, not building up capital. We have some retirement funds that are still pretty hung over from the financial collapse in 2008.

In other words, we're a lot like many middle-class families: comfortable enough day-to-day, but not secure enough to withstand a major disaster. Time to make an emergency plan: Not just an emergency fund, but a plan that goes beyond bank and savings accounts. Here's what I came up with:

    • Be prepared.This means building up more of an emergency fund. Experts argue over how many months expenses you should put by, but no one seems to think less than 3 months is safe.

 

    • Be frugal. Living simply now means having fewer adjustments to make in the event of a financial catastrophe. Not only can you pay off debts and build up savings faster, but you're already living below your means. If the means suddenly shrink, you have a smaller gap to cover to make ends meet.

 

    • Be organized. Know your net worth, and keep tabs on all your accounts. When we were moving last year, I discovered a stock fund I'd forgotten I had. Those forgotten assets matter if your income dries out.

 

    • Protect your credit. Keep credit accounts open and in good standing. In general, running up credit card bills is Bad Plan Theater. If your plastic is what's standing between you and homelessness, reconsider your position. If you expect to be able to resolve your financial crisis within six months, charging some expenses might be a better plan than tapping retirement accounts.

 

    • Know your options. Do you have friends and family you could stay with in a housing crisis? Another career you could transition into if you had to? Valuable Stuff you could sell?

 

    • Be ready to learn. If you find yourself in a financial crisis, you'll be running a maze of social services at a time when you're likely to be exhausted and stressed. Being on top of the organizational and financial strategies I mentioned above will not only make you less likely to need these services, it'll make you better prepared if you do.

 

If you're partnered, it's probably a good idea to talk over a family disaster plan with your better half. You know, before you're living in an actual disaster. These conversations always go better when they're hypothetical.

Making an emergency plan was a bit like making a will; we had to think about what would happen to our kids, our stuff and our estate should we suddenly be unable to care for it. It was no fun, I hope to never need it, but I'm glad to have done it. For more tips on emergency planning, check out Philip Brewer's article on Wise Bread.

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LiveCheap.com
LiveCheap.com
10 years ago

Welcome Sierra. I like this post because it reminds the middle class that they are not that far from being poor. A job loss, bad investment, etc. and most are not more than a few months away from a serious problem. Those that have relied upon easier credit for the last 20 plus years are having a rude awakening in the last two. I think what this post really reminds us all about is that the poor are increasingly the former middle class and it isn’t some crazy scenario that gets them there. Many middle class families are starting to… Read more »

b-bo
b-bo
10 years ago

this post is really kinda pointless. the only thing interesting was the link to the boxcarkids blog that actually has an interesting and sad story to chronicle and I was sad to see that it doesnt look like her blog is monetized at all. this post is useless filler. how many times can the same basic common sense that is all over this blog and others be repeated under the guise of a “guest post” aka SEO link exchange filler post. I mean the only point of this article was basically to say check out this other real-deal blog thats… Read more »

Joseph
Joseph
10 years ago

Great post Sierra.
It is a great description of what life throw at us – and sometimes when that happens there are moments even when the best laid plan just do not work. @ livecheap brought a great point that the middle class are not far away from being poor.

Getting out of debt is the great place to begin getting an emmergency plan started.

Kevin
Kevin
10 years ago

No mention at all of the father?

DreamChaser57
DreamChaser57
10 years ago

Good job, Sierra – timely and thought provoking post. I think the middle class naively takes solace in their degrees and salaries and think that those things collectively represent an impenetrable fortress against calamity. We look upon the indigent with pity, disgust, and often very little empathy and assume that we cannot ever be similarly situated. Our homes are not an ATM machine, our retirement accounts are all too often our lifeline. When I read Bach’s Automatic Millionaire, one of the things that he said that resonated the most with me was “how many hours do you work for yourself… Read more »

Sam
Sam
10 years ago

If anything good comes out of this awful economy, I hope it is a return to sustainable family economics. Many families are living paycheck to paycheck but they are also buying or leasing new cars, buying flat screen t.v.s, the latest I-device (I-Pod, I-Phone, etc.) and generally keeping up with the Joneses. For some reason, I was ahead of the game, timing more than anything as we had gotten married in 2006, and resolved to pay off all unsecured debt in 2007. And in 2008, before the economy tanked, we had beefed up our emergency fund. Killing the credit card… Read more »

ABCs of Investing
ABCs of Investing
10 years ago

Wow, a shocking story. It’s too bad she doesn’t have more of a support network.

Mikael
Mikael
10 years ago

This post somehow solidifies a feeling I’ve had for sometime now: That one of the most important things in life is to have strong roots, to have extended family around you and to be intimately familiar with the place you live over decades. When modern society shows it’s dark side, we have to fall back on traditional means of social services: kin, extended family and so on. I am European and I understand that US has social mobility and willingness to relocate on the scale we’ve never had. But when you are willing to move at any given time you… Read more »

Kate
Kate
10 years ago

I think that this brings up an interesting perspective. Too often, we look at the indigent and think they must’ve done something wrong. While there are a number of things Alden could have done differently, I can’t be judgmental. She lived life with an optimistic attitude hoping that things would work out well and believing the hype that our culture throws out about continued spending. I believe in taking personal responsibility but this is a great example of the situations in which a greater societal network are really needed. I can’t help but think about the growing disparity between the… Read more »

TosaJen
TosaJen
10 years ago

I (sole wage-slave for a family of 4) just got laid off from a job a few weeks ago, and I have to say that living by most of the strategies has made us feel very safe during this transition time. I wouldn’t feel safe with anything less than a year of emergency fund, however. I know too many people who have been out-of-work for longer than that. Our story is the boring one about keeping renters in our house and managing it ourselves after buying and moving into a duplex nearby. About knowing exactly what all our luxuries are… Read more »

Lakita (PFJourney)
Lakita (PFJourney)
10 years ago

Sierra,

This story is such a wake-up call (and killer title by the way)!

This line summed it up:
“comfortable enough day-to-day, but not secure enough to withstand a major disaste”

I’ve often reflected on the “dangers” of being in that middle income bracket and unaware…you summed it up perfectly!

I would add brainstorming ways to create multiple streams of income to the Emergency plan.

Excellent article

Becky
Becky
10 years ago

Just another reason to not have all those kids…liability.

Birth control is cheaper than children.

Molly On Money
Molly On Money
10 years ago

Alden had a savings that she used at the appropriate time. This seemed to help but she had several emergencies back to back (foreclosure and job loss). I’m wondering now how much of an emergency fund should I have?
I’ve been single with a child (I am not advocating getting a partner just for security) and this reminded me how much more on the financial edge I was before I had a partner even though I was making the same amount of money I am now.
Great article Sierra- I can’t wait to read more!

Lisa
Lisa
10 years ago

I work in an emergency shelter for women experiencing homelessness, and I can say for a fact that this story is not an anomaly. There are definitely women who stay with us who have BAs, MAs, and used to have great jobs. As for those discussing support networks… it’s true that family and friends are important. But you can only stay with them for so long before they’re financially unable to help you out.

This was a great post.

Meg
Meg
10 years ago

Great post! It’s a good wake-up call for those of us who feel “comfortable” with our savings and spendings – we need to realize that we can do better, because you never know when the other shoe will drop.

DreamChaser57
DreamChaser57
10 years ago

Enjoyed reading all of the comments, especially Poster #7. This post also speaks to the importance of carefully evaluating the pros and cons of life altering decisions, avoiding reactionary decisions based on emotions. So many people casually throw out the option of renting a home you’re unable to sell; no one talks about the inherent challenges of managing a property long distance, the possibility of losing property insurance if the house is robbed while it’s empty, the emotionally draining process of eviction which involves such a huge commitment of time and money. In this instance, a doctor suggested moving to… Read more »

David
David
10 years ago

If she cant feed herself then she cant feed another kid for 3 times a day times 365 days a year times 16 years. I guess homelessness is the price she pays for not using condoms.

whiteboybrent
whiteboybrent
8 years ago
Reply to  David

idiot. she adopted the children when she had a good income and a stable job.

Shane
Shane
10 years ago

If anything, this post just reassures me even more that my emergency savings can never be enough. I’ll laugh the day someone tells me I save too much.

Julie
Julie
10 years ago

I’d like to know where the father of these four children is, too. I can’t imagine how scared and stressed Jamie & her kids must feel. We save a lot, but if multiple emergencies popped up (especially health or legal ones), we’d be up the proverbially creek. I can’t imagine how families who are in debt survive. @DreamChaser57–you’re doing the right thing by working on your debt first. Houses, and all their expenses, will still be there in a few years, and you’ll be more financially-ready to become first-time homeowners. The hardest thing about societal pressure is that it’s like… Read more »

Adam
Adam
10 years ago

Great post, thank you for it! Like Dreamchaser57, the biggest problem I have with this story is that they up and moved to California, which ultimately caused the family to become homeless, on the advice of a doctor so little Timmy could breath the drier air? As a single person with no kids and a Masters degree + Professional designation, I don’t really fear the scenario faced by Jamie for myself. But my brother has 4 kids, and used to have a very comfortable upper middle class lifestyle but now is at the mercy of my parents to support his… Read more »

elisabeth
elisabeth
10 years ago

I know JD likes to keep the site as politics-free as possible, so I’m going to write this as carefully as I can to avoid specific political statements. BUT I do think that there is an element of citizenship that needs to be considered. We all do have a responsibility to think about what kind of society we live in. Some posters have spoken about social capital, but we can, should, I’d say, also think about societal capital — what we think is the proper local, state, and national safety net we provide for ourselves and for each other. Our… Read more »

HollyP
HollyP
10 years ago

Adam, having grown up in a family which fostered other children, I would avoid placing my kids in a foster situation. It is so disruptive to the children, and may leave them with a lifelong question about who they can rely on. My parents were very generous and loving to the kids who came to live with us, but the kids only got to see their parents for a few hours a week. The rest of the week was different everything – different schedule, different parents, different sibs, different home… plus sibling groups can rarely be placed together if there… Read more »

Rosa
Rosa
10 years ago

There used to be a lot of people in my city living in tents in friends/relatives backyards every summer – young immigrant men up here during the housing boom working construction jobs.

Now I’m wondering how many of the RVs I see permanently parked in driveways are housing people. We had a bad run of landlord foreclosures that caused their innocent tenants to become homeless.

DreamChaser57
DreamChaser57
10 years ago

@ Adam (Poster #16) – DH and I do not have children yet so I am sure other posters who are parents are better equipped to speak to your question. I just wanted to say that my mother has been a Clinical Therapist for many years and has spent a lifetime working in the social service industry. The horrors of foster cater are too numerous and disconcerting to name for our purposes here. I would think it better to have your children with you rather than subjecting them to foster care and introducing the feelings of abandonment and rejection and… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole
10 years ago

Story is encouragement to donate to a local food bank.

It is really rough out here in California. The cost of living is so high, social networks are so small, family is often very far away.

Carol
Carol
10 years ago

Thanks for posting on this. Important wake-up call for some who have never lived through poverty.

Adam
Adam
10 years ago

@Holly & DreamChaser57, thanks for your replies. As someone without kids, I had viewed keeping them with you and living in unsafe tents as something a bit selfish…not putting the kids interests first but putting your need to be with them ahead. I would think that the psychological impacts of being homeless and living in a tent would be about equal to the abandonment felt by having to go into foster care temporarily. But I appreciate what you’re both saying, that its worse to be separated. I just wonder how the mom would feel if her young daughter was raped… Read more »

Justin
Justin
10 years ago

I saw an article online (Yahoo!, maybe) that said that credit card companies were sending out menacing letters letting people know that they are lowering credit limits and that the company might not be able to loan funds “even in an emergency.” This could mean even further problems for even “average” people (who don’t have much of an emergency fund, etc.) who find themselves suddenly unemployed. Along the lines of what elisabeth(#17) wrote, I think we could all evaluate not only our responsibilities from the point of view of a society (politically), but also our responsibilities as individuals. I think… Read more »

sandy
sandy
10 years ago

Shouldn’t the govt. be involved in tracking down dad? In most states, there are services devoted to that. If dad is deceased, she should be getting a generous SS check each month, w/ 4 kids. One thing is for sure…we all need to learn to live way under our means. All the latest gadgets out there, and Mc mansions are drianing our pocketbooks, and not enough is being put in safe, liquid places. Learning to say “no” to myself and my family for things that aren’t important, like latest Ipods and big tv’s have been helpful in beefing up our… Read more »

EE
EE
10 years ago

@Adam – actually, I think a summer of living in tents at State Parks sounds like an awesome adventure! I think this is a great post, and #7’s comments really resonate with me. One of my best friends is in a similar situation. Both she and her husband are extremely well educated with degrees in engineering, but the best place for their jobs are in different parts of the country and, well, they followed the “wrong” job (his) and then he got laid off. Now they’re jobless, stuck in a part of the country without family or many job possibilities,… Read more »

Charlie Boy
Charlie Boy
10 years ago

It seems as though there is a fine line between a middle class family and a homeless family living under a bridge, which I have seen as I am from South America. The difference may be one paycheck for struggling families who made the mistake to allow themselves to be in that situation. We can blame the government, but the truth is that it’s not the government’s fault. Granted, the government is out of control with its spending, and that will hurt us all in the long run, but nobody put a gun to anybody’s head and said, “all right,… Read more »

Tyler Tervooren
Tyler Tervooren
10 years ago

Man. Stories like these are exactly what I need to remind myself how good I really have it.

Suzanne
Suzanne
10 years ago

Great post. Sad situation. Once again I am left with the question of whether it’s better to pay off debt or have a larger emergency fund. Personally I have a 4 month fund saved up and am frequently torn between using additional money to pay off student loans or wait until I have 6 months saved. I hate seeing all that interest go out the door while I have money in the bank. But a disaster like the one in this post makes me think I should make a 6 month EF the priority. (I am single with no kids).… Read more »

Little House
Little House
10 years ago

That’s an amazing story. It seems like Jaime is one of those people who turn negatives into positives. She also seems very intelligent and resourceful. I think having an emergency plan is a really good idea, but thinking outside of the box is also helpful. I also wouldn’t say that Jaime is “homeless” if she is living in an RV. I think of this as a form of housing, especially since she went from sleeping in a tent at a state park (something my husband and I have talked about if times got tough) to living in a more stable… Read more »

kaitlyn
kaitlyn
10 years ago

This is something I totally did not need to read right now. Giving up my job to move across country without necessarily having a job lined up first is scary enough.

I work in the same field as Alden also in Cali. It’s tough here. Environmental science is heavily based on government contracts. When a government has a $22B deficit, they don’t like to shell out money for land development.

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
10 years ago

Heh, I take exactly the opposite viewpoint of everyone else towards this story. The horrible catastrophe that this woman suffered was a long camping trip and living in an RV? I could live in an RV no problem. All this story does for me is serve to reinforce that as long as I have my health and my sanity, I’m in no real danger due to economic factors. This woman played out the “worst case scenario”, and it’s the same scenario people I know are in by choice. If you live in an RV for mobility and frugality reasons, people… Read more »

Kyle
Kyle
10 years ago

Tylers,

What is the name of that video? That sounds interesting:)

Cely
Cely
10 years ago

This post was a great reminder for me as well. FYI, her blog has a link for donations. If the story hit you as it did me, perhaps it’s worth sending her a few dollars. (I realize this might be controversial.)

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
10 years ago
Bryan
Bryan
10 years ago

Yikes, some of these comments are brutal. Looks like she’s responded to the “Where’s the father?” question here:
http://theboxcarkids.wordpress.com/2010/02/25/achieving-dubious-fame/

Read her blog.

Frugillionaire
Frugillionaire
10 years ago

Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Sierra.

It’s a great reminder of the value of living frugally when times are good — to lessen the pain if/when things turn bad.

Adam
Adam
10 years ago

Tyler, the difference for me is that there are 4 kids at stake here, not just Jamie. Even if living in a tent or RV for Jamie isn’t a catastrophe, it can’t be good for the 4 children to not have a roof over their heads. I’m not sure everyone is up for living in the arctic eating caribou, nevermind young kids.

Shara
Shara
10 years ago

I don’t know enough about this woman’s situation to make judgements. But I am often disturbed by the comments that follow a story like this about how many people are one step away from disaster. Many people are, but it is due to their own decisions. I think most of us will wind up at some point in our lives where disaster would ruin us, and I agree that we need to have compassion for people who wind up in those situations, but being in a situation where we COULD fail, and staying in that situation in perpetuity are two… Read more »

Shara
Shara
10 years ago

@Adam I’m with Tyler. Kids are resiliant and they DO have a roof over their heads. If it rains, they stay dry. If it’s cold they have the means to stay warm. It might not be ideal, but it’s better than the conditions in which many people raise good kids. In my experience (which is admittely limited) kids feed off parents’ energy. If a parent thinks a house isn’t good enough, then the kids won’t. But how many people do you know that says “I grew up poor, but didn’t realize it at the time”? I know a lot, including… Read more »

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
10 years ago

@Adam: If anything, I think kids do better than adults in situations like this. A sheet metal roof keeps the rain off just as well as one made of shingles, and kids don’t have the viewpoint that they’re failing at life because their home has wheels. If the kids are in school, fed well, and have time to go play outside, they’ll grow up just fine regardless of what their house looks like — the biggest problem will be the judgement they get from others when they get older, from people who assume that a house with wheels means you’re… Read more »

Krista
Krista
10 years ago

One of the most shocking things about this post for me comes from the comments. I can’t believe how despicable people can be – I’m looking at you David #16. But then again, you obviously didn’t read the post. She had no problem feeding herself or her kids until she lost her job.

I wouldn’t wish a job loss on anyone, but what I do wish for you, David is that if you should fall into a similar situation as this woman, that your karma plays itself out.

chacha1
chacha1
10 years ago

Well-written post, Sierra. I read stories like this and am thankful all over again that I never had kids … little hostages to fortune. I’ll bet “Jamie’s” kids are doing fine, though. For most of the kids I’ve ever known (including myself) security is in the parent, not a structure.

Once she gets settled again they will all look at it as a great adventure. Also, I’ll bet that those kids will never question the need for an emergency fund … and that they will be very slow to buy homes.

Jennifer A
Jennifer A
10 years ago

I’m curious – what does wholefoods have to do with this article? It was a bit misleading, even if it was for the sake of “art”. Other than that, my takeaway is… Are we all ready for this to happen to us? Dire situations seem to happen even to the most educated and financially stable people. Is there any way she could really have prepared for it and still not end up the way she did. We can only save so much – even saving 25% of your income doesn’t seem enough anymore to prevent foreclosure or bankruptcy due to… Read more »

partgypsy
partgypsy
10 years ago

I thought this post was an eye opener but ultimately inspiring. It is true but the grace of God go I, and anyone who understands that can feel blessed with what they DO have, and strive to protect it more. If you can’t understand the message behind that sentiment, I can’t help you. The knee jerk “blame the victim” responses are missing the point.

Brent
Brent
10 years ago

@Shara Nice point. The kids will be heavily influenced by their parents.

Too many times in today’s society, parents what more for their kids because they didn’t have those things when they grew up. However, this usually only hinders the kid instead of helping.

Also to those that are hard against her for having too many kids, there are no mistake kids…..if there is, then you are probably the exception. Just something to think about.

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