Last summer TRP sat down for a Q&A with one of our unhoused neighbors: Bill. We hope his story helps build your awareness of the many circumstances that can lead to homelessness.
TRP: I’d love to hear your story Bill. Where are you from originally?
Bill: I’m from Nebraska and my birth family are from Michigan.
TRP: How did you end up in California?
Bill: After college, a friend and I got jobs at Chevron in 1991. The company moved us out here to California — the Bay Area. But, I ended up in apartment management…The Bay Area is so expensive it was nice to have the perk of a free apartment for years.
TRP: Where did you go to school?
Bill: I have a degree in Communication with an emphasis in broadcasting and a minor in music, from Colorado State University. I also attended a Lutheran College for a while in Nebraska.
TRP: Tell me more about your work.
Bill: I ended up managing large apartment complexes — 400 units and over. But I was not happy with my job and I wound up moving to San Jose with a new company. They then transferred me to Portland, Seattle, Phoenix…I even lived in Orange County for a while too. All that traveling went on for about 7 years. I remember doing some work with the Chamber of Commerce in San Francisco and seeing the homeless problem back then. And San Franciso is really harsh on discriminating against anyone. I learned that if you shake one person’s hand, you shake everyone’s hand. And you don’t ask questions…you don’t ask, “Are you gay are you straight?” I was able to find apartments for a few people who were homeless.
TRP: You eventually made your way to the Long Beach area. Tell me about what happened there.
Bill: My job was getting to be too much in 2008. Lots of layoffs and I was on call 24-7 (for minor things like a mouse being there) and the environment changed. It was very competitive and cutthroat. A woman I was working with even went to a mental health hospital for a week [due to the stress]. It’s the side of corporate America that is difficult and can throw someone into a whirl. Meetings started at 6:30 a.m. and I was on call all the time, dealing with 9 million dollar budgets until midnight.
TRP: Were you getting paid well?
Bill: I was getting paid really well. A bonus for me was $20,000 for the year. It was a 6 figure income. I was living really well. I had a great apartment for 11 years. I had a home office that I could write off. I got paid mileage. But I had to drive all the way to San Diego for emergencies. I managed all of Orange County and managed the entire Bay Area.
TRP: Tell me more about your time in Long Beach.
Bill: I lived in an apartment somewhat close to the riverbed and ended up going to the bars with friends. It became a hangout where I met people who were living on the riverbed. Got to know some of the people really well. A friend and I even spent all of Christmas together. And, like in any circle, once you know one person, you know more and more of their friends.
I went from managing 400,000 [units] to sleeping in my car. It didn’t happen overnight though.
TRP: So the people that you met during this time…were they all people living on the riverbed or experiencing homelessness?
Bill: I didn’t understand what homelessness really was. Because it doesn’t come with a face like, ‘these are a certain type of people,’ some of my friends had physical problems, some had mental illness or drug problems, and with some — the drugs had gotten the best of them and they had given up on life. One gal that I knew was able to start receiving social security because she was 63 and still wanted to live on the riverbed and not even get paid. The concept changes.
TRP: You’ve mentioned a nursing home before. How did you end up there?
Bill: I had eight broken ribs, four vertebrae fractured and that was from a friend beating me up during a drug rage. Shortly after, I had fallen and was hit by a car. And I broke my shoulder and fractured my hip. Then a girl who knew I wasn’t in love with her knocked my teeth out.
TRP: You’re still living in a nice apartment at this point?
Bill: Yes, a very nice one. Each person who caused this [becoming homeless] for me was either on drugs or abusing alcohol. And I was drinking too. Drugs weren’t what I was doing. But I knew that was the issue. But I still cared for the people. Even the one who put me in a nursing facility, I forgave him because it was out of character because of the drugs and the alcohol. Drugs can bring people out of character.
But I had to leave the skilled nursing facility a month early because five people moved into my apartment when I was gone for three months.
How did that happen?
A friend copied my key while she pretended to take care of me. Then she moved in. I couldn’t get her out, under the threat of being beaten up. So there’s a whole other realm of this life; people who say they have friends of friends who will beat you up.
So you have five people living in your apartment while you’re in a nursing facility?
Bill: Yeah. And I’m physically disabled for the rest of my life…
After that, I had been evicted because the landlord didn’t like these people coming and going. I was gone, but paying the rent. I wound up losing three apartments over their behavior. The third was because I was waiting for Covid relief. I owed from March until October. I had another apartment right before Covid and while I was waiting for Covid relief to come through, I was evicted again because I couldn’t pay rent. I even said [to the landlord] “Hey, if I pay you 25% when I get my relief, will you still evict me?” And they said they would. My dad was helping me with rent at that time because of my injuries. I told my dad to stop paying. I decided I wanted out of the place. The fear got me.
TRP: What happened then?
Bill: If you looked at me you wouldn’t think that I was homeless but I was living in a van, and then my car. I never had to live on the streets, fortunately…I was grateful to find the Multi-Service Center they gave me a list of shelters…Eventually I called a local shelter and got checked in on March 28th 2022.
TRP: Has your experience made you less trusting?
Bill: Yes, it has. I also learned about the people who stuck by me, who are my true friends and there are only two or three people left that I was close with. The truth came out.
TRP: What are the things you want for your life now?
Bill: Not knowing is some fun. I want to keep my head and not panic. Live the way I want to live. I came from a family that worked really hard for what they got and their efforts have shown and they have beautiful homes, some are happy and some are not. Money doesn’t make you happy. But it does make me happy to do what I want to do. I just want to be happy and stay in touch with family and friends…and not ever get caught up.
People I say I allowed it, but I was taken advantage of. I didn’t believe people would steal from their friends. I trusted people.
TRP: There’s a lot of talk about affordable housing. Is that something that you want or hope for?
Bill: Well, I’ve been approved for Section 8 so I know how it goes. And I’m very grateful because I was approved quickly because of my medical conditions. But I had also applied for social security and disability so no matter what the first year on section 8 is still 40% of your income. Your income – not the apartment – so they’ll pay whatever the difference is… Almost normal rent is what I have to pay with section 8 — that’s not good enough. I’m thinking of leaving California.
TRP: How much would you maybe have to pay?
Bill: $1141 a month, even with Section 8. But I’m not discounting what it does for other people. If you only have an SSI income of $400 per month they’re going to pay 40% of $400 but mine is higher so it’s going to be 40% of that. And I can’t get a roommate unless I’m married. Or I had children and I don’t have either of those. It’s a good program but it’s not easy.
I can get a 2-bedroom for the same price if I had nursing care, but they’d have to live with me 24/7.
TRP: How much do you get per month from social security?
Bill: $2700 a month and a deduction of $170 for medicare and a minimal fee for something else. With Section 8, $1141 would come out of that.
TRP: So you could have a place but there are a lot of stipulations around it? So you’re just figuring out what you want to do?
Bill: The pay from SSI and disability will go further in Nebraska. And I have three cats…right now they’re in my old place and the neighbors are spoiling them. An organization called Pets for the Homeless is paying for my flea medication and things like that.
Some people won’t want to change. You have to be in for curfew, and most of the homeless’s lifestyle is nightlife. And by the riverbed at night it’s really pretty and stuff. They’d have to give it up.
TRP: You know that our mission is to open a day center hopefully. What would be most helpful to have during the day?
Bill: Toilets and showers. The basics; laundry — even paid laundry. The basics so we can have clean clothes. Water, and something when you’re really out there on the streets. I walk around with something to moisten my throat during the day. You’re always wandering around waiting for a bus. Backpacks. Lockers for people where they can lock things up so they don’t get their stuff stolen.
TRP: What’s your hope, Bill?
Bill: You’re a part of the solution, and I am too because I work at a mission [shelter]. When the work is done, I’m still walking the streets. I do my work by being kind to people. I don’t have any enemies right now. I always try to practice what my grandpa taught me…do unto others what you would have done to yourself.
TRP: If you could communicate one thing to someone who doesn’t understand how people end up homeless, what would that be?
Bill: The old cliche – walk a mile in my shoes…if you have them.
TRP: Anything else you want people to know?
Bill: Learn as much as you can from the people you’re helping…Just listen to what they need and know that some people are really angry, so smile at them in the morning. Just say hello and smile. Compassion, understanding other people — just do your best to be kind and never take for granted the fact that you have a job and they don’t. Don’t get a better-than-thou attitude and know that maybe anyone can get in this situation and be hopeful that they can get out of it.