Three years ago, I sold and gave away most of my possessions and became intentionally homeless. At the time, I was 43 years old, working, and happy. But giving up a permanent home seemed to be the next and most obvious step in a pattern of downsizing that had begun years before.
In the beginning, my head swirled with doubt and scenarios of regret. Waking up in a warm familiar bed in my own apartment, surrounded by years of accumulated possessions felt safe and good—and there is a powerful comfort in always having the same place to come back to. But even after acknowledging the risks and uncertainties, I was ready for a major change, propelled by curiosity and a pull towards the unknown.
The Journey Towards Choosing a Homeless Lifestyle
Choosing an intentionally homeless lifestyle didn’t happen overnight. It was the result of a journey that had begun years earlier as I pondered the question: just how much stuff do I need for personal contentment?
Before I abandoned home ownership altogether in 2004, I had owned, (at different times), a single family home, a townhouse, a condominium, and a houseboat. Embracing the renter lifestyle in small urban studio apartments proved to enrich my life with increased mobility and happiness, yet I continued to wonder how to add even more freedom to my life. As I continued to be comfortable with fewer and fewer belongings, it was frustrating that rent was my largest recurring monthly expense. Even though I wanted to keep certain possessions, did I really need to have them with me in the same place all the time? I kept returning to the idea of intentionally omitting a permanent home, as I knew I could feel at home wherever I was. Courage came in deciding I would only be intentionally without a home as long as it was fun.
Little did I know, the universe would never fail to provide.
Taking the Plunge
As a freelance prop shopper and artisan for several theaters, and an already established cat sitter for many friends, I knew I was comfortable moving around from place to place. For the previous five years, I had actually maintained two apartments, one in Minneapolis and one in New York City. The regular change of environment had always been a plus, and work had always been steady as I fluctuated between the Midwest and the East Coast. But having two apartments, however small, added up to having many belongings.
Slowly yet steadily, I began the process of redistributing my possessions. The couch went to a friend who had always admired it, my almost-new bed went to a young woman moving into the building who had not yet purchased one, and friends with a nice lawn in a prime neighborhood hosted a garage sale. A few more of my things were stored in an awkward, unused porch located off the guest bedroom of my friends’ newly purchased home. My Minneapolis apartment building had a shelf in the lobby that had become the designated “free stuff” area. At the end of each day, I developed a habit of pulling out a few items in my apartment that I didn’t use regularly and which I didn’t feel emotionally attached to. If I still felt neutral about the pile when I woke up in the morning, I left it in the free stuff area where it would be adopted by new owners by the end of the day.
With recurring bills on auto-pay, paperless statements, no magazine subscriptions, a junk mail “opt out” subscription, and otherwise debt-free, my remaining hard copy mail such as end-of-year tax statements go to my parents’ address and there is little reason for me to access my mail more than once every few months.
When, finally, the possessions I chose to carry were whittled down to just the clothes I would wear, minimal personal care products and my iPhone, the prospect of orienting a new landscape and seeking out opportunities became an invigorating focus.
Acclimating to a New Way of Living
Perhaps as a way to process and clarify for myself, the bold decision I had just made, I became very open in discussing my lifestyle ideas with friends, co-workers, and even new acquaintances at social events. Because there were so many unknowns in my plan, that would only unfold as I went along, it was important to reach out to others—there could be no way of knowing which encounters might be serendipitous in helping to shape my quest for a life of mobility and freedom.
Inevitably, some reacted by brushing off my intentions with a comment such as, “That sounds like something people do in college.” But over time, it became clear that face to face communication naturally invited opportunities for temporary living.
Of course, as I started out, it was necessary to have cushions with friends, and I'm appreciative to still be welcome in those homes in New York City and Minneapolis for a few days here and there.
After wrapping up loose ends in Minneapolis, I traveled to New York City where I began work as the assistant properties manager for Signature Theatre Company’s production of Angels in America. It was June of 2010, and it was the first time I had been free from a lease or mortgage in over 20 years.
The city was scorching in July, as I combed Manhattan and neighboring boroughs for specific props. In the evening I took the subway to Union Square and walked to E. 18th St. where I stayed with two cats, Harvey and Max, as their owners traveled for two weeks. Later I stayed with the cat, Daisy, in Brooklyn and life began unfolding as I went along, each home serving as a temporary refuge from the chaos of the city.
Being without a permanent home completely awakened the gratefulness of being in a warm bed each night.—something I never thought about when it was simply part of a daily routine at home. Now, every evening I'm thankful and breathe deeply into my good fortune.
A Network of Friendships and Pets
However, more often than not I'm in others' homes for a week or more by myself, and this carries similar and expanded responsibilities, primarily in caring for pets and ensuring the security of the home.
I've always been a cat person and am generally more comfortable with cats than dogs. When living for the better part of five years in an 8 x10 single room occupancy in New York's East Village with no kitchen and a bath in the hall, I loved it and relished my unique space. Yet my friends with cats assumed every time they went away that I'd jump at a chance to have more amenities and elbow room in exchange for pet care, and this is how I became a regular cat sitter. I enjoyed spending time with the cats and this eventually prompted me to seek paid work during my free time as an independent contractor for Helen Adler of The Pet Maven, one of New York City’s premier cat sitting and pet grooming agencies. Although Helen offers overnight pet care, these requests are rare and my work with the company has been in providing once per day 30 minute home visits for the duration of the owners’ absence. Cat owners that I connect with through Helen remain strictly agency clients and must always book through Helen. Due in part to this trust, after eight years, I continue to do temporary work with Helen during her busiest time of year—the holiday season in New York!
In my three years of intentional homelessness I've had the opportunity to stay in many lovely homes that I'd likely never be able to afford myself in exchange for cat care. The majority of the time these are homes of co-workers or other friends and its treated as an equal trade. I’ve also been introduced to others who need cat care while they’re away and some insist on payment which is always appreciated though not expected. One such couple hosted a cocktail party to introduce me to their neighbors before I cat sat for three weeks, which led to further opportunities for cat sitting in the building. It helps to have a professional reference from the agency as well as from friends, and I build trust through being tidy, responsible, and quiet while staying in others’ homes.
Despite the occasional stress of moving from place to place as often as once per week, the benefits of being able to continue my freelance theater work and save money have made any hardship worthwhile. Whereas in the past I could save a nominal amount, cutting rent out of my monthly expenses allows me to save sizeable chunks sufficient for long term budget traveling.
That being said, when I’m feeling especially weary or my calendar looks too wide open for comfort, I sometimes opt for short term room sublets through Stephanie Diamond's Listings Project for creatives in NYC firstname.lastname@example.org which has connected me with some wonderful and interesting people.
Yet the single most rewarding benefit of the lease-less life has been travel.
Since I usually move about New York City with my 17" carry-on bag, I'm accustomed to living without many things, making real travel much easier. When I'm done with a freelance job or cat sitting gig I’m able to take off for a month or two for another destination without concern for home maintenance or for paying rent or mortgage—this is when I truly appreciate the choice I've made. Whether going to visit family, sublet in a different state, or explore Vietnam, Thailand, or Costa Rica for the first time, it’s a feeling of true freedom.
Letting Go of More than Just Things
Undoubtedly, my new lifestyle has required me to give up more than just material things. It’s difficult to form any lasting romantic relationship, let alone have a family when moving around without your own place. Although I’ve consistently been confident in my decision to not have children, sharing a long term intimate relationship has always been important to me and it’s something that I would like to have again.
I don't own a car, which is sometimes limiting, and the possessions I transport are so few that they fit in a single bag, which has definitely altered my personal style. Although I switch out clothes seasonally from items stored in Minneapolis, I usually carry a handful of different outfits centered around the jeans-tank top-pullover theme, with a nicer evening option tucked in. Luckily I’m never expected to dress up for work, and either people don’t notice or don’t care to comment on the fact that I wear basically the same few items all the time, including the same sturdy walking shoes and jacket every day for months.
For the occasional or spontaneous dressy event, I’ll pick up something at the thrift store and later donate it back. Books are read and then donated, too. At times I borrow a laptop, but my only personal computer for the last two years has been my iPhone.
I like to continually experiment with carrying less and although I sometimes miss being surrounded by my own things, the ease of mobility makes up for a lot. That said, the intentionally homeless lifestyle is clearly not for everyone.
While discussing my current situation at a housewarming party for friends in Brooklyn recently, someone remarked, "but you don't look homeless." Indeed, this word conjures a variety of perceptions, generally related to poverty, mental illness, last resorts and lack of hope.
But being homeless, with the support of so many mutually beneficial relationships, I’ve created a community for myself that is broader-reaching than living in my own apartment by myself. The peace of mind that I left behind in giving up my place has cultivated an openness in allowing the universe to provide. I have learned there is peace in trusting uncertainty, and of trusting that wherever we are in the world, we can be of help to one another.
An Abundant and Busy Life
This entire article was punched into my iPhone and I’m doing edits on a borrowed laptop as I sit on the porch of some friends in Minneapolis. Tomorrow morning I leave very early from the downtown Minneapolis bus depot for Montana, where I’ll be helping my sister prepare for a move, and subletting a tiny studio space from my friend, Wes.
I welcome long bus rides for the introspection time they provide, and also for giving an accurate feel for the distance traveled that’s not possible with air flight. I’ll spend it thinking about my journey over the last few years and assessing how long I may continue on this path. Already, I have people coordinating their summer vacations around my availability to stay with their pets, and I’ve committed to a three week cat sitting gig in New York in October which coincides with some prop work there. By the end of November I’ll be heading west to be with my parents for my favorite holiday—Thanksgiving—and after that comes the busiest time of year for Helen at the cat sitting agency. At the end of this busy time, I definitely see myself wanting to travel somewhere warm...
In short, I have a busy time ahead, much to be thankful for, and no nagging pull to seek out a lease or mortgage, gather up belongings and stay in one place. Life is bursting with abundance, and I am still having fun.