After living with family who let us down in a bad way and left us with nothing, my wife and I were suddenly homeless.
Looking back from where we are now, two years later, it almost seems unbelievable that we were on the street for 48 hours. I’m thankful on a daily basis for things I used to take for granted, like a warm meal or a place to sleep.
The experience taught me to take life’s turbulence with a pinch of salt… but also how to ensure it never happens to us again, because it was one of the hardest trials I’ve faced.
How My Wife and I Became Homeless
How did this happen?
Our plan was to move from one state to the next within South Africa. We reluctantly agreed to live with my wife’s family for a couple of months until we got everything together… but things soured quickly.
Rent went from “pay your own way” to an increasing weekly payment that tapped into most of our savings. Which, it turned out, were not as safe with family as we thought.
We had our savings account card and some cash. But we left the cash with family members, who took little bits until nothing was left.
After about three months, things reached a nightmarish peak when we confronted them about these “loans.” The fight escalated, and we were told to get out.
We had nowhere to go.
Being Homeless for 48 Hours
Some of our friends were out of town, and others just couldn’t fit two more people into their already-cramped one-bedroom apartments.
Eventually, we were offered a night of shelter by a friend of a friend who had heard about our situation — but not before our 48-hour countdown was over.
Until then, we were stuck.
We saw how the shelters in the area worked (and why people avoided them) as well as some of the realities of being homeless.
Here’s what we learned.
Homelessness Can Happen to Anyone
It’s not always bad decisions, financial ruin or alcoholism that leads to people being homeless.
What if you went to work and faulty wiring caused your house to burn down? Never say never, and judgment doesn’t help anyone.
After our experience, I’ve become more involved with skills development to help people get off the streets — and I’ve learned a facet of kindness by being on the other end.
Shelters Might Not Help You
While there are great, reputable shelters, at the time, none in our area fit the criteria.
According to past inhabitants we ran into, some homeless shelters imposed forced begging for lodgings (with a percentage going to the shelters). Others refused to help husbands and wives together: One man had been split up from his family 10 years ago and hadn’t seen them since.
After seeing we had no other option, we took shelter under a tree on the grounds of a nearby church. Though it was an incredible view of the stars in the freezing South African wintertime, we’d rather see it by choice next time.
We were left with nothing but the clothes and computer in our laptop bag, but my wife and I combined forces and did what we could to get out of it.
Yes, we could have sold the laptop, gotten some money and stayed in a hotel — but would our story have gone differently?
We were both established freelance writers, so we used that laptop instead, and plugged it in at every coffee shop we passed. We rewrote resumes, translated, pitched and wrote like crazy, and it got us to the point where we are now: freshly moved into a new house and looking ahead.
Have a Disaster Plan in Place
It’s always better to be prepared. Now, we discuss even the worst-case scenario when we sit down to work out our budget.
Our disaster plan involves talking about our money, building an emergency fund, keeping our credit score clean and, as freelancers, preparing for quiet times. We’ve also discussed things like life insurance — something that’s unlikely to enter most people’s heads until they’re forced to deal with the reality.
Savings Can Save You
My wife and I had some money in a savings account that got us through the worst of our experience. It was less than $100, but we could at least offer someone we hitched a ride from money for the effort, and pick up some food.
If you have more savings (which we always try to do now!), it’s the difference between sleeping on the street or spending a week in a hotel.
Valuables are Valuable
Savings aren’t just cash. Getting evicted means selling a ring you’ve been keeping around, your guitar and your coin collection.
My wife and I managed to grab one of our guitars from the house — though we had to carry it around, blues-style. We sold the guitar for $300 some time later, and it was enough to cover the deposit on a new place.
Even if you’re not in a tight spot, there’s money in re-selling valuables.
Avoid the Danger of Getting Stuck
We heard a lot of stories from others, some who had been living on the street for decades. They had gotten stuck.
How? Dead-end jobs, doing the same thing on the streets for too long and giving up.
I heard a lot of schemes and pipe dreams from people on the street. They were going to use the day’s money to buy this, then that, then use THAT money to do something else…
It’s dangerous to get stuck in any situation — even if you’re not homeless!
Apply this to your job and home life: Never stagnate. Keep moving forward.
Realizing What’s Important
If anything, this experience strengthened our relationship tenfold: We stuck together.
We learned it’s not about how big your TV is. It’s about 1. how smart you can be with what you have, both in terms of cash and talent; 2. how well you can plan; and 3. how well you can work together.
Ingenuity is what saves you.
After our 48-hour ordeal took us to the streets — and under a tree! — we were offered a night of shelter by someone in town. It was only one night, since the woman had to be out of town again the next day, but it gave us time to clear our heads. We found another place to stay, which became our home for about a year.
Work started to come in slowly, but surely, through old and new contacts. Shortly afterward, I sold one of my first features about endometriosis to an Afrikaans magazine. More publications followed, and the rest, so far, is making history.
We’re a tightly knit unit and we’ve learned how to tackle the challenges that life will inevitably throw our way. Life will always have ups and downs, but the future looks good.
Your Turn: Have you ever dealt with a sudden financial emergency or housing crisis? How did you get through it?
Alex J. Coyne is a freelance journalist, writer and language practitioner. He has had several appearances on radio (including Kaya FM and Radio Namakwaland) and his work has been published in publications like People magazine, The Dollar Stretcher and more. Sometimes he even likes to play guitar.