I banished my daughter to homelessness. I didn’t feel bad about it. In fact, I felt quite adult.
Sydney lived for years between two houses. She stayed with her mother most of the time and then with me every Tuesday and every other weekend. When she lived with me, we first inhabited a small house across the street from Gillham Park in Kansas City. She didn’t have her own room. My roommate took the other room in the two-room dwelling.
Until she was five, she shared a room with me. At first her bed was a crib. When she was two, I found her a single bed that I put at the foot of my own. She would always have to be in bed early, which left me a few hours to myself. Then, I’d sneak in, listen to her sleep, and fall asleep myself.
Later, when Sydney was six, we moved into a one-room house on the Westside. Again, she had no space for herself. My bed was a mattress on the floor, and she slept on a futon, again, at the foot of my bed. This arrangement changed after Virginia and I were married when Syd was eight. On the days she was with us, Syd slept on a couch in the front room.
Over time, the custody arrangement changed. Syd was eleven. We moved into a three-bedroom house just a few blocks away from my first house. During this time, she stayed with us every other week in her own room. We moved into our present house when Sydney was 14, and she had her own room again. This is when the trouble started. She came to live with us full time. By the time she entered high school, the problems with her house hygiene had escalated to nearly unbearable proportions.
But we persevered. For four years, our house was often filled with turmoil. She was a great kid, an intelligent woman with a quick wit and skewed, refreshing view of life. But she was a terrible roommate. She left her room a complete mess. It often looked as if someone set a bomb off in there. She threw her clothes everywhere. Books and magazines littered the room, as did art and art supplies, blankets, pillows, and tons of paper trash.
We could always track Sydney’s movements around the house by the piles of dishes, paper trash, and couch afghans thrown on the floor. The kitchen was always in a state of disarray. We could see where she made a sandwich on the counter. Jars of condiments stood with the lids off of them. The bread sack remained open, the contents drying out. She left dirty utensils and dishes on the counter.
For some reason, we found no way to inculcate a sense of propriety about these things. Other people have to use the kitchen, we said. Leaving the living room a mess only inconvenienced other people. We didn’t like having to pick up after her, just so we could sit down in a chair or watch television. When she was in the living room, she hogged the remote control and bitched up a storm when we wanted to watch something other than she decided.
We did everything. One time, I even gathered her things in trash bags and set them out on the driveway, hoping that she might see how much she invaded everyone’s space. Nothing worked. We tolerated and tried to convince ourselves that we needed to change our thinking and behavior since there seemed to be no way to change her or her habits.
This was only one aspect of refusing her reentry into the house once she moved out. The other was that she had no job and no prospects. She had been picky about the kinds of jobs she would work and seemed to eschew anything that she felt was beneath her. She took jobs she thought were fun and then lost them when she discovered that most jobs became uninteresting over time.
Don’t get me wrong. We loved having Sydney with us full time. As she settled into her new living arrangements, we frequently had very good times. We often ate family dinner at the dining room table. We watched movies together. We did family things. We took vacations and weekends away. She was always a kind and loving person. But she just didn’t know or felt it was important to keep up after herself.
As she approached 18 years old, she began to look forward to moving out of the house. I cautioned her that she should get and keep a job for a while and save some money before she took off on her own. Sydney, however, had a very different idea of independence. As soon as she landed a job, she moved into her brother’s house in a suburban area far from the center of town.
Her brother, Beau, was six years older. He was not my son but we never, not once, referred to Beau as Sydney’s half-brother.
That poor guy was upside down in his house. He bought the house during a rocky marriage and at the top end of the housing bubble. He had a variable-rate mortgage that started with an attractive monthly payment. Like many millions of Americans, he found that mortgage payment rose far beyond his means. His wife left him for another man. He thought, hey, if I have roommates, I can keep the house.
Unfortunately, he took in his cousin, Marc, and his sister. Both of them had jobs and paid rent. For the first months, everything was fine. Then Syd and her cousin both lost their jobs. They ceased paying rent, and there was nothing Beau could do to convince them that the house payment overwhelmed him. His job paid well, but it only barely made him through a $1,500 house payment and other bills, as well as food for three people.
Syd would call and repeat to me a familiar tale of woe. She couldn’t find a job. She left her car in the driveway for lack of insurance. I begged her not to be picky. She lived in a part of town where people had to own cars just to get around. “You will have to walk, at first.” I said. But after you have a job for a month or two, you will be able to buy insurance on top of paying Beau rent. Walking to work would tax her, make her get up early and plan to leave for work an hour before she had to clock in. Go down to the grocery store and get on as a cashier or stocker. There’re fast-food places always looking for help. Any number of restaurants lined the streets near where she lived. She would have none of it. She didn’t apply for jobs. She sat at home.
Ultimately, Beau had enough. He decided to short-sell the house and get out from underneath the huge payments and his spongy relatives. He had fallen in love with a woman in New York, who lived outside of Buffalo. He secured work there and made arrangements to live separately from his new love until her divorce was complete.
Sydney called me one day and said she had thirty days to vacate Beau’s house. He’s selling, she said, and I need a place to live. Can I move back in with you?
After a period of reflection, during which I considered Syd’s background with us and her future on her own, I said no.
“But, dad,” she said, “I don’t have a job. I don’t have the money for a deposit for an apartment. I’m going to be homeless.”
“Listen,” I said, “I know everybody. We can get you temporary shelter. There are places you can eat and where you can use food pantries. Some places even have clothes. You will be cared for. It may not be in the manner you want, but you will not starve. Unless you want to, you will not have to sleep on park benches or under bridges.”
She was angry and hurt. I went on, “Sydney, this is your time. You will either become independent or dependent. If I let you back into this house, you will have no incentive to get a job or an apartment. I would be carrying you. I can’t, in good conscience, take this time away from you. This is your defining moment. Take advantage of it.”
It wasn’t difficult to turn my child away. Of course, I worried. What happens if she doesn’t find a job? What if she has to live in shelters and get her food from food pantries? Will I be doing her a favor by relegating her to a life of abject poverty, if she decides that proverty’s the way she wants to go?
I remembered my first attempt to live on my own. It wasn’t pretty. I didn’t really know how to provide for myself. I had a job, but I was a drunk, and drinking meant more than either a job or a steady apartment. But I had one thing going for me, and that was a sense of priorities. If I made enough money to pay the rent, then I would be legitimate. I would have a place to drink. I would have my bills paid.
It had to happen. My parents had moved out of town. I couldn’t go home.
These priorities were based on drinking. If I had a job, a place to stay, and enough to drink, I was on top of the world. That was what I settled for. There were times when I had to choose between eating and drinking, and drinking always beat out eating. I made just enough, no more. I saved nothing but I was drunk all the time and that’s what mattered.
I maintained that kind of life for many years. At some point, it was bound to come apart, and it almost did. I was almost to the point of falling off the map. I was alone. At one point, I even chose not to have a phone because there was no one to call. Only by dint of a scholarship, which I received only because I was a student with an above average grade, did I escape complete homelessness and beggary. I was that close.
After I sobered up, things changed drastically. Without the option of drinking, I had extra money in my pocket. I saved a little. Over time, I wound up with jobs that paid greater than minimum wages.
By the time Syd called and asked to move back into the house, I was twenty years sober. I had dealt with hundreds of alcoholics, many of whom just wanted someone to care for them, provide them shelter, or give them enough money to make it to the next drink. I saw how dependence subjugated them to lives of poverty and woe. I also saw in them my own shitty life before I sobered up. Had someone or some people to care for me, bail me out of jails, get my out of close scrapes, I would have kept drinking, probably until I wound up begging on the street for my next drink.
With this experience, then, I told Syd that she had to do what she needed to build her own life. Letting her back into the house would have allowed her to continue her own bad habits. She wouldn’t get a job unless she found something she really liked. She wouldn’t face the lessons that twenty year olds should learn.
She was scared. She wheedled her way around and brought up her impending homelessness again and again. But I’d set my heart on her innate ability to survive, to manage her own affairs, or, at least, learn to try to manage those affairs.
Two weeks after I told her she had to find her own way, she called me up and told me she had a job—and a roommate! The job paid little but with someone to share expenses with, she would be just fine.
I was happy to see her develop really quickly over the next months. She discovered that roommates mean heartaches, disagreements, disputes over who owed what for which bills. She negotiated these difficulties. She learned, over time, that her piggishness and bad habits alienated other people. She had to keep the apartment tidy. She had to clean up after herself.
Six months after I told her she had to find her own way, she called me and thanked me. She could see, she said, just how her bad habits would have persisted without the impetus to build her own life. She began to define herself as an adult, she said. Saying no to her, she asserted, was the best thing that ever happened to her.
I look back on that time and compare her progress to where she is today. She is self-sufficient. She has her own apartment—she’s decided that roommates are more trouble than they are worth. We recently gave her a car. She could have bought one on her own, but we decided that she may use the extra money for college, with which she has a spotty history. She has done without a car for years because of her bad driving habits—she wrecked two cars in a short time and gave up driving. She rode the bus and walked to work. Now, she’s free to pursue a social life she never experienced before. Plus, her gain was my gain. I didn’t have to go through the pain of selling the car, which is an older model that would have done me little good in the way of money.
In short, sure, we helped her out with a car. But that’s very different than allowing her to be dependent on us for food, clothing, and shelter. I threatened her with homelessness and the gamble paid off. Even if it hadn’t, my decision would have set well with me. My experience as a dependent drunk worked in her favor.
I am nothing but proud of my little girl.