and we continue to see and hear about an ever-increasing number of homeless people in the U.S. Of course there are visible “street people” and those who are identifiable in missions, shelters, and transitional housing, but a much larger and inconspicuous subculture of “the homeless” has become very apparent. They do not “sign up” for anything; they are anonymous and self-sufficient. They are the


After an “introduction,” I am going to tell you about a most “exciting” new strategy for innovative housing! So, stay tuned….

If I say that I “specialize” in this particular subculture, it is because I do! I’ve “been there, done that.” Unless one has personal experience in being an “invisible”/undetectable homeless person, it is unlikely that even a dedicated researcher could spot the woman or man who mingles among us unnoticed during the day but sleeps in a “home” which is a vehicle, boat, or camper-trailer. I have been traveling the country for 30 years, locating, interviewing, and filming how one can survive quite nicely in alternative housing as well as creating self-employment. In the 2000 era, with housing prices soaring, company closings, and corporate scandals revealed which have wiped out promised retirement funds, innovative planning is imperative. Most people are just a few paychecks away from being “at risk,” from mortgage payments being too late to an illness that eats one’s bank account or a company outsourcing to a foreign country. Homemakers, of course, never received a salary, so if a husband doesn’t leave benefits, there is no Social Security check to retain “security.” I’ve seen too many foreclosures by widows who cannot keep their homes. I’ll talk about it later on, but using a reverse mortgage is a very dangerous game. The companies don’t tell you about the hidden charges that you must still pay for after taking out the RM. And such a RM is only available to those who have paid off most of their mortgage…which is not explained. The TV ads are deceptive….

From the 1970s, I focused on the main undetectable homeless population: single (or divorced or widowed) women over 50. Within the last few years, men are now copying the strategies that so many women have finessed. These new members of the subculture are almost all from middle-management and have been able to buy a used RV and live the masquerade lifestyle of a “retired” person. So, again, in 2006, I will provide the truth about who is homeless, why, and how they are surviving without identifying themselves to any government or private agency.

AND NOW TO ALTERNATIVE HOUSING “INNOVATION” : (Please remember that 3 dots […] means that I have left out some conversation and that 4 dots [….] means that I have either changed topics or ended the story before the interview was over.)

I am going to begin with a personal life story by Bill, who was employed for many years by [X corporation] and soon expected to retire with a handsome pension fund. While Bill and his fellow employees have NO retirement money now, his employers are bobbling their yachts at the piers of their mansions. I met Bill while I was searching through my “secret scrap place” for items for a woman living out of an RV not far from where I live: a large piece of glass, a huge pot, and thin brass railings. Bill was trying to find certain types of wood for beams. Being the only two there that afternoon, we chatted as we went through the “yard.” I told him why I was there. And he began his story:

“…I came back to the Eastern Shore about 2 years ago to visit a buddy who lost his job with [X] but has family with resources here. My granddad and dad were watermen on the Chesapeake Bay, but I went off to college and worked my way up the ladder to the management level. I was comfortable. My wife and children couldn’t take the way I acted-out my distress after losing my job and future. They left to live with my wife’s parents in AZ. I haven’t heard from any of them in 3 years.

I didn’t have any hope of getting another job because of my age and a few health problems. One day I was just meandering and came across what was apparently once an old barge. It reminded me of granddad and dad spending several weeks away from home while oystering or crabbing. It was flat-bottomed and wide. I remembered the way they called it a shanty. To me it said “houseboat.” But not like doing up a sailboat or workboat to live on. I had in mind a real little house on a shanty bottom…being able to live on the water without paying marina fees and hopefully hidden on some creek. I even figured I could build it so that I could haul it up on dry land if I found the proper place….

I put the best parts of the rotting barge on my truck and took them to my friend’s back yard. I asked him if he minded if I played around with it down by the water – which wasn’t his property, but unoccupied. He just shrugged and told me that I might have to shift it if anyone complained. So far, no one has.

Anyhow, I’m building up a rotted shanty-barge into a widened cabin that sits on a model of a scow. I’ve measured it as 10 feet wide and 25 feet long. I even have started to extend it for a deck so I can sit outside. I’d go mad just living inside the small closed area….I’ve got a wood stove installed with gravel and sand underneath and stainless steel panels between the stove and the wooden walls. A fire is all I need! I put the pipe on the wall side instead of the roof so rain doesn’t pour in. No problem with wood for cooking or staying warm. There’s too much dried wood all along the shore. And, I’ve insulated the walls for winter….Got a good bed, put up a first class metal roof from pieces found right here, and am reading cookbooks….

I have a water collection system on the deck and inside there’s a compost toilet. I’m a living example of being ecologically correct, for everything is recycled. What someone threw away, I’m using to live with – or on or in!

I think a lot while I’m working. Why don’t I do something useful with what I’m learning? Instead of searching in vain for another job, why not teach how to regain shanty-living to some other men who have never heard of it? This is a college class. Maybe I’ll become a professor of “survivor living.” Shanty boats were meant to be towed by the old Bay men, but I’ve got an outboard motor, a satellite dish when I’m ready, and a cell phone. I’m working on the theory that I can make it landworthy with wheels, but that’s a long way from where I am now!”


I talked to Bill about a week before we had terrible storms with unheard of amounts of rain days on end and his inland town was flooded with up to 6 feet of water. He had invited me to come and see his model shanty and take photos, and I was looking forward to including them here. The roads and some bridges were washed

away. He can’t get to “our scrap place” either, so I have no way to find him. I never asked for his cell phone number and I doubt if he remembers my last name. I can only hope that he was on his floating home, but I don’t think it was water-worthy yet. 



2006 cont

Ramblin’ through PA and for a change, got lost and ended up in a forested area somewhere between King of Prussia and the route I wanted to New Hope. I crossed what looked like a small lake or a flooded stream (?) where children were fishing. I got out just to stretch my aching back and watch them for awhile. My eyelids began to droop and I’m not sure if I nodded off for a little while, but when I looked again, the boys were gone. I drove around, looking for a sign to my expected route, and found what is probably one end of that lake. I saw a boat…once, I assumed, a fair-sized yacht. It certainly wasn’t going to be welcomed in any marina where the boats are newly painted and have proud “parents.” I watched a man with a beard and that certain look of an old hippie. He was scraping the hull while it was mostly pulled-up on the ground. I got out of the car and walked over to where he could see me. I didn’t want just to “appear” in front of him; it was a very private area and I suspected that he didn’t want uninvited guests. I sneezed (half real and half faked) and he looked up and stared at me. I waved. He didn’t wave back, but went on with his scraping. I had the feeling that I needed to talk to him, so I went back to my car and got out a new boxes of really good crackers (Carr’s) and two sodas. Fearless, (I’m not always logical) I walked back and got closer to him. I held up the food and yelled that if he’d like a snack, I had food to share. He wasn’t exactly friendly, but he nodded what I wanted to be a “Yes.”

Figgy took the crackers and a soda and I sat while he continued to scrape. This is his story:

“…worked in a computer company for years near Philly and they went under about a year ago. I got along on what I had saved up for, uh, well, maybe 15 years. I was goin’ to retire in another 5 and take a trip in the boat I was plannin’ ta buy, but no benefits would be comin’….I was losing it. Money, home and job gone, and at my age, who’d want me?....My wife had cancer and she died, and my two girls are married to guys I don’t like to be around. You know, real snobs with three-piece suits and BMWs. So I don’t bother my girls for help….

I found this old fool (the boat) just falling apart on the river bank, and figured that maybe I could fix her up and use her for some kind of a hobby on the water….I’ve done a lot already. This is just the grungy stuff. Inside, I’ve fixed her up so I can live in the cabin. Got a kerosene stove, a bed, and a pump for water from a barrel. I got a piece of glass for a new window, and I’ve fixed the roof so it doesn’t leak. I still have to caulk the hull, so I won’t put her in the water until I finish making her waterproof.

I know a couple of buddies who were lost after the company closed who are living with relatives and hate it. I asked them if they thought about living in a boat, and after the teasing, they liked the idea….Tomorrow, we’re meeting to see if we can get more boats that no one really wants, you know, too much work just to get them seaworthy. (He laughed) I don’t mean “the sea” in the sense of travelin’ too far. Just around a lake or down the river and back to a place where we can have company together. The loneliness is the worst part of not having the wife around, and then not seeing my girls too much. But my buddies and I have so much to talk about that we figure that we’ll make our own neighborhood bar with our boats tied up near each other….We’ll share our monthly checks in a pool and hope to get better food than we have now. One of the guys gets disability pay and the other has a monthly check from his son in Oregon.”

There is much more to his life story, but the important part is that he and other men are looking to make homes in renovated boats, and they are interested in the camaraderie of others. A “community” is what they are talking about, and that is what interests me A LOT!! So, along with living on wheels, living on the water is becoming an alternative lifestyle that may not be emulating a CA or WA marina, but it will suit many people who do not wish to be in a mainstream shelter or group housing situation.