500 days as a homeless nomad

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There are goods and bads of not having a house by choice. Not paying rent is an obvious one. To me the best part probably was accessing and experiencing many styles of living. I didn’t really plan to be homeless for a year, it just happened out of opportunity, and freedom of not having ties. When I left my position in Indiana, summer 2013, I gave away all my furniture to my colleagues. I rented a car to drive back to DC. But I first also did a couple of trips to donate most of my clothes, all kitchen stuff (dishes, blenders, food, … ) and various books to Salvation Army. What was left, everything I owned fit inside the trunk of the car: a luggage with clothes, a box with books and a rucksack with gear (climbing, running), and another with electronics (computer, and a drone, included). The least I’ve ever owned. And I liked it. I felt free.

The plan was to head back to Washington DC, a city I love. But there was a possibility I had to move to San Francisco since I was joining a startup with offices in both places. So I was not “moving back”, I was just moving myself, in the literal sense. Some friends were moving away for 2 months, so I offered to pay their rent since the timing was perfect. And this nomad experiment started, for more than year and a half I lived with no house. I lived at friend’s places while they where out, on Airbnbs, on hotel, on spare rooms, on the floor, on travels, … What started as an organic transition, became a way of life. I could avoid the high cost of settling in and the commitment of a year-long leases, furniture, silverware, bedding and other usual expenses. Living costs that are specially high in the cities I spent most time (Washington DC and San Francisco). Thinking of the shared economy, I offered myself to pay the rent’s of friends when they were out, taking care of the pets, … and yes, sometimes just abusing our friendship and crashing their spare room or floor for a few nights (I really tried to avoid that).

In essence the “living costs” becomes extremely elastic. I could crash the cheapest Airbnb in SF or a super sketchy road motel in L.A. (never again), or I could treat my mother visiting San Francisco on a Victorian row house in Castro. I learnt the good Airbnb choices, the tricks of using Hotwire, favored cheap overnight flights, and lengthen my work trips abroad. I could work anywhere, so tried to extend them so I could learn more of the places I visited.

Sometimes it felt like cheating the system. Like once when I worked in SF until 6pm on a Friday, took the last plane to L.A., rented a car, slept on a crappy road motel, spent time with friends there and ran a charity marathon on Sunday, to fly back Monday 6am and be the first one in the office. And it all was cheaper than staying in SF those days at the typical SF hotel at +200$/night. Combining work and non-work, I went to Spain, Italy, Poland, UK, Denmark, Greenland, China, Mongolia, Panama, Mexico, Dubai, Russia, Morocco, … On DC and SF I also got to live -shortly- at basically every neighbourhood I wanted.

During this nomad phase I met a lot of people. Specially via Craiglist and Airbnb. It was weird to explain I was local but nomad, so I would (half) lie sometimes that I was just moving in or out. With some people I really connected, so I would meet them many months later for coffee. It felt a bit like parents catching with the kids that emancipated from home. I still have contact with a few of them.

I don’t know if due to my extensive use or not, but Airbnb contacted me to take part on a new service they were trying (Airbnb Events) where the host just invites Airbnb-ers in town to hangout. It was super fun (albeit a bit odd with so many photographers). Unfortunately Airbnb Events never launched.

Moving that often meant I reduced my belongings even more. I basically had my box of books at some friend’s place, a suit and a small stash of clothes at both offices. So I only had to fly with my laptop. I even bought the same cheapest bike on Amazon twice (one for each office). Less clothes means you rotate them more often, so a few times I just reordered the worn clothes on Amazon and trashed or donated the used ones when it got to whichever office I was at.

In general I don’t think being nomad is economically advisable. With my best efforts I could average 80$/night, but any mistake, like cancelled trip or Airbnb cancellation would throw me to the industry pool of expensive hotels, or asking friends to crash their places. It also meant I always had to follow a rather complex system of calendar alarms, reminders, budget tier decisions (do I want it cheap now, or do I treat myself). If I found a good deal, a set of trips or sub-rents, I could relax for a month or two, but at the worst it meant overlapping reservations chains starting with Craiglists, Airbnb, Hotwire and hotels.

This absolutely uncommitted settlement predated over the rest of my life. I became extremely uncommitted to anything. How would I make plans for next week or even 3 days in the future If I didn’t know If I would sleep around there, on the other side of the country, or the world. Any material gift would feel awkward, since I had to ditch it immediately, or somewhat make room for it on my tight system. I started finding normal questions odd. Like when entering the US, paying taxes, or a first date asks “Where do you live?”. My natural answer would be “What do you mean?”… even when the most accurate answer for most of us would probably be the office (since we spend there most of the waking time).

Two months ago I left that life. I decided to sign a year lease in DC. The nomadic life was fun, I learnt a lot, and offered a lot of uncommon moments and though processes. But it was also very taxing in my mind. Signing the lease was oddly a relief, and gave much much mental space to focus on my new job and other things, instead of where I would sleep next week. Still it was very uncomfortable to buy forks, or bedding for the new place. I love sleeping in my bed, but I can’t help it to have a very minimalistic place now.

My new “experiment” is that everything I have is bought online (Ikea, Amazon and From the Farmer is 99% of all I need). My friends tells me it looks like an Airbnb spot, and I guess it makes sense.

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