The Dr. Is In

How I Became Homeless (the First Time)

From: Wes Browning


I have been homeless four times. The first time was when I was in graduate school studying for my PhD in Math at Cornell, in Ithaca NY. I supported myself in graduate school by working as a teaching assistant. That paid tuition plus a stipend of $300/month. I tried to find other part-time work to supplement that income, but everywhere I went in Ithaca I heard "You're a student, aren't you? We don't hire students." Ithaca exemplified the Town/Gown-problem in those days. The population of Ithaca, excluding Cornell, was about fifteen thousand. With Cornell it was thirty thousand. So the "Townies" resented the University's impact on their affairs.

But they didn't all resent the student's money. An extended Greek family catered to the housing and dining needs of students off campus. The available housing, which was mostly in houses owned by various members of this one family, consisted mainly of small rooms with bed and closet, shared bathroom down the hall. Some buildings had shared kitchens, some didn't. The place I lived in my first three years was very cheap, only $60/month, but had no kitchen so I was forced to eat out all the time. After buying books, and paying to eat at cafeterias I generally had nothing left over. In fact I came to Cornell with $2000 in savings from work I had done as an undergraduate, and after three years I had only $200 in savings.

Then I was evicted from my building. No reason was given. I found out I had no recourse. Ithaca at that time had very little rent control. My lease was up, my landlord had chosen not to let me renew it, that was the end of it.

I next discovered as I looked for another apartment that the available apartments were no longer owned by members of the Greek family. One man with a fresh business degree and sizable capital (everyone suspected from an inheritance) had been buying up all the property. There was now no place to rent that this man did not own. And now that he owned it all, he elected to double and triple the existing rents. Furthermore he required six month's rent in advance, in a market where two month's rent had been customary.

The least costly apartment was now $120/month, so I would need $720 up front to move in. Impossible. I spent the next year couch surfing and sleeping on the floor of my office in the math department. That being against the rules, I had to train myself to sleep on a hard floor without moving or snoring so as not to alert the campus security who walked the halls every three hours. It took me 10 years to unlearn that. I lost 20 pounds that year (I was already underweight), saving my money up to be able to rent an apartment the next year.

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