Homeless in Sobriety

By Stella Phillips 12/07/18

One friend found my homeless sober alcoholic life fascinating. She wanted to know if I smelled, where I went to the bathroom, and what I did all day. Once she even asked if I had a Big Book.

Silhouette of woman and dog and sunset, sober homeless alcoholic with dogs
When I was at the lake and wanted to believe that my dogs and I were invisible under those trees, people gaped at me.

From approximately 1 p.m. on June 5th, 2018 until around 11 a.m. September 5th, 2018, my three pit bulls and I lived in my Ford Explorer. Not only was I homeless with three dogs, but I also had over eight years of sobriety.

My car was packed. While most of my belongings were in a local storage unit, my dogs and I had to have the basic necessities. Inside my SUV were two doggy blankets, an ice cooler full of bottled water, ice, and hazelnut coffee creamer, along with a duffel bag crammed with clothing, doggy food and five gallons of water for my dogs.

Being homeless is expensive. I gave up on storing perishable food in the ice cooler because not only did I have to purchase ice every day, but the food spoiled because the ice melted rapidly in the 99 degree daytime heat.  Every day, I went to a local campsite and filled up the gallons of water for the dogs at a fish cleaning station, and every evening I bought a dollar burrito from Taco Bell or a veggie burger meal from Burger King. Somehow I was able to afford cigarettes and I smoked like a fiend. I felt insane.

For the first month, we lived under three trees by a lake; by the second month, we'd found a campsite by the Kern River owned by the Bureau of Land Management. While most people camped by the river, I discovered an isolated site that had several trees, boulders, a few makeshift fire pits, and a picnic table. The catch was that we could only stay there for two weeks, leave for ten days, and then return for a final two weeks. But naturally, I stretched our stay. The rangers liked me: I had my dogs on tie outs and kept the campsite clean because I had a lot of time on my hands.

While there was a porta-potty close by, there was nowhere to bathe. Luckily I found a bathroom at another campsite that had a shower. For $1.00 in quarters, I could shower for two minutes. For seven quarters, I could shower for four minutes.

AA and Homelessness

Despite the sheer lunacy that was my life, I did not drink nor did I want to drink, even though I was not attending 12-step meetings. What was my excuse? The temperature was about 82 degrees during the evenings and I could not leave my dogs in a hot car while I was inside a meeting hall. Besides that, I didn’t want to go to AA meetings; while I was homeless, I realized that AA was not my cup of tea.

And to top it off, talking with several of my AA friends made me feel worse than I already did.

“Life is hard. Look at me. Most of the time I struggle to pay my bills,” said Dorothy, with 25 years of sobriety. “I have to take it one day at a time or I will go crazy.”

Before I could say a word, she said, “I could be homeless, too. We are all one step away from being homeless.”

“Dorothy, you are not homeless,” I said.

“I know,” she said.

And then there was Stephanie who had almost 40 years of years of sobriety. While we used to be good friends, now I felt like I was an amoeba under a microscope, a fascinating specimen. She wanted to know if I smelled, where I went to the bathroom, and what I did all day. Once she even asked if I had a Big Book. I didn’t. Before we lost our home, one of my dogs chewed it up and I threw it in the trash. I started crying (and not because of the Big Book). She said: “I am at the 8 pm. Gotta go,” and hung up. Another time she called just as I was trying to light a citronella candle because there were bugs buzzing around the cheap lantern that I had bought from the dollar store.

“So how was your day?” she asked brightly, as if I was on vacation.

“I can’t remember,” I said. That was a lie. I remembered every single detail of a day that felt excruciatingly long. I remembered getting up at seven a.m. because the sun was blasting through my windshield. I remembered my dogs barking because there was some guy on a dune buggy driving in circles on the trails close by. I remembered charging up my Mac on an electric socket that was behind the post office. I remembered walking my dogs for an hour, which we did every day because it kept me sane, plus it was good exercise.

“My house is a mess,” she said.

“Okay,” I said, half listening. I could not light the damn candle because the wick was buried deep in the wax, and the flame from the butane lighter kept blowing out.

“The rats chewed up the cord behind the stove,” she said.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“I was so depressed today. But you know what? I have a roof over my head and you don’t. It’s all about perspective.”

After I quickly hung up, I lit the candle.

When I realized that my support system was a bunch of sober weirdos from AA whose noses were so buried in their Big Books that they could not see the world around them, I snapped out of my misery. One night when there was a full moon, I suddenly felt that there was a God and that He was watching over me.

Why Do Homeless People Turn to Alcohol and Drugs?

While I had no desire to drink, I understood why many homeless people use drugs and/or alcohol. According to my friend, Tony, who actively helps the homeless in Kern County, most of them use drugs or alcohol as coping mechanisms. Some smoke pot for anxiety. Others use meth. Homeless veterans often drink. “When you are homeless and have nothing to look forward to, you self-medicate. I would do something in a second to let the day go better,” he said.

That’s the sad truth. And I learned firsthand how people judge you when you are homeless. When I was at the lake and wanted to believe that my dogs and I were invisible under those trees, people gaped at me. I encountered a woman on horseback who threatened to call animal control. Luckily, I also met some good people. Kathy, a woman who often walked her pit bull, talked to me on a frequent basis. Sometimes she would drive by and bring dog food, bottled water, and treats. We exchanged phone numbers.

I instant messaged another old-timer friend, a fellow dog lover whom I had not talked to in years. Out of sheer desperation, I told him my situation. He told me that my life would get more comfortable if I went to meetings.

One day, I got a call from Kathy. Apparently, her friend Faith wanted to meet my dogs and me. When Faith and I met, we hit it off, even though one of my pit bulls freaked her out because he would not stop barking. The homelessness had not only worn me out, but had also traumatized my dogs. After three months of living in my car, we moved into Faith’s large house. I have my own room here, along with a bathroom. My dogs are happy. While Faith takes medication for her sometimes debilitating seizure disorder, pot also helps her. Sometimes she drinks. The pot and alcohol do not bother me for a second. I am happy. I can plug my computer into an electric socket in a wall. I have a roof over my head. I pay rent. And finally, I have let go of my friends in AA. I suppose it doesn’t bother them because they are too busy going to meetings.

And I am sober.

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