“Nomadland” Helped Me Realize That I’d Grown Up Homeless
Watching the Oscar-winning film, I finally understood how much shame and stigma had influenced my childhood
I set a calendar reminder for the day Nomadland would be available to stream. My anticipation came partly from the chatter of film nerd friends, but mostly because I knew this was a film about people living in nontraditional housing—vans and recreational vehicles—just like I did as a kid. Though I had no idea the film would eventually win Best Picture—it wasn’t being heralded as the “one to beat”—I was not going to miss my chance to see a story that reflected my own experiences growing up. It had the arthouse promise of characters, not caricatures, living in homes that sit on wheels instead of foundations.
Nomadland, written and directed by Chloé Zhao, tells the story of Fern, played by Frances McDormand, who has recently lost her job and decides to live a nomadic lifestyle in her van (which she names Vanguard). The film is based on Jessica Bruder’s book detailing the lives of a real subculture: older adults who travel together in vans and RVs to find opportunity and community. In an early scene, Fern bumps into a family she knows from her life before Vanguard. After some pleasantries, the young girl that Fern used to tutor hangs back to privately ask Fern if she’s homeless like her mother says.
“I’m not homeless,” Fern says. “I’m just… houseless. Not the same thing, right?”
In her reluctance to accept the term “homeless,” Fern echoes the broader cultural antipathy towards anything that looks like failing—or opting—out of capitalism. (Even as a nomad by choice, Fern’s life is dominated by work.) For many of us, “homeless” is a word that first brings to mind sleeping on the street, the literal opposite of the American Dream, a failed state of being. In the game of American capitalism, being homeless is the blinking red and large font, punctuated by aggressive sound effects: YOU LOSE. Rarely does one get to play again.
Fern skirts the deeper shame for a more palatable, perhaps even aspirational, terminology: houseless, as in not constrained within walls. But the audience can see through this semantic trick—and for me, a question was already reverberating. My body tensed. I couldn’t concentrate on the story. My ears rang dully and my abs contracted in pulses like they were reacting to electronic stimulators.
Is it possible, although it surely can’t be, that I grew up… homeless?
From kindergarten to middle school, I lived with my parents in a 200-square-foot “fifth wheel” towable RV parked on a piece of Florida scrubland between my aunt and uncle’s small ranch-style house and a wall of oak trees. I’m not sure why it’s called a fifth wheel—it sits on four wheels and is meant to be towed by a truck, which would make it eight wheels. I never saw ours towed.
Only recently did I start talking about growing up in an RV. I was already married when I told my wife. School friends and college friends, people I’m close to even today, still don’t know. I lived in England for six years, a country where hiding the class you were born into means completely changing your accent, and sometimes your mannerisms and clothing. The amount of work to “play it posh” isn’t worth it, for most people there. But in the United States, a country that struggles to agree on whether class is determined by birth or bank account, it is easier to hide your roots. I don’t recall ever being asked what type of house I grew up in, so I didn’t have to lie—I just chose not to offer the fact that my home wasn’t a house.
But not talking about the home I spent many years growing up in made it too easy to stop thinking about it. When you don’t share your memories, even with yourself, you risk losing them; certainly you crush the opportunity to find pride in them. In America, shame for being poor, for not being able to take advantage of the promised Dream, quells our chance at building a culture of working-class collectivism and pride in what is, over what could be. Just because you can hide it, doesn’t mean you should.
I was prepared for Nomadland to force me to confront this chapter of my life. In fact, I wanted it to. In the past couple of years, I’ve tried to use my experience as a personal tool for building empathy with others from working-class backgrounds, without generational wealth or financial privilege. I’ve mostly shaken off the shame of growing up in a situation outsiders might consider “poor white trash.” But homeless? If I was once homeless, surely it would be a defining chapter in my life—and besides, could I identify as “homeless” when other unhoused people clearly had it worse? I didn’t sleep rough or live in a car. I always had access to a bed and a shower with warm water. Then the shock turned into more questions. If I had written about this in my college essay, would I have been accepted to a better school? Will my friends resent that I never told them this crucial nugget of backstory? If I was homeless, why wasn’t my family allowed to access social services?
Since my Nomadland-triggered confrontation with my past, any traces of shame have metamorphosed into nostalgia. I am letting my memories in, at last. When I think about that RV, I think about who may have lived in it before me, using it for recreation as intended. The mustard-and-rust ribbed plastic exterior hinted at a 1970s past life: perhaps a beautiful family with a mustached dad, trying to hit all the national parks, or a newly retired and fully pensioned couple who drove it down to sunny Florida and left it parked next to their new house, unused, when they accepted their declining bodies couldn’t handle the work of hitching and unhitching and climbing the two steps inside, two steps to the bathroom, and two more steps to the half-bedroom.
I say half-bedroom because that’s how I think of it, but that sounds like it means “half as much square footage as a standard bedroom.” The room—the only bedroom in the RV—is in fact small in floor space, but more importantly it’s half as high, designed to hover over a truck’s bed like the head and neck of a dinosaur. It’s smart design for a traveler, but for the stationery resident it’s waste, a shadow-giving overhang for snakes to retreat from sunlight. My parents let me have that bedroom, the bedroom, which I like to think is something most parents wouldn’t do. I don’t think the height of my bedroom ever entered my mind, even though in the pre-pubescent later years there I wasn’t able to stand up straight.
A wood-colored (everything had a “wood look”) sliding door, expandable like a xylophone, separated the bedroom and the bathroom, the central of the three divided areas, which was small but could almost pass as a house bathroom except for the toilet. In lieu of flushing, you stepped on the lever by the floor that released water into the bowl and slid open a hole as your shit trap-doored into a holding tank. Over time, you learned to do this quickly so the stink from the tank was minimal, but too fast and your shits got decapitated on the way down, and you had to do it again.
A couple steps down from the bathroom put you in the main body of the RV, with the kitchen on the right, a diner-style booth on the left, and a sofa bed just beyond where my parents would sleep. I remember racing in from an hour or two of humid outside play to grab a Sunny-D or to suck frozen colored punch from long plastic sleeves. Like most families, we never sat at the booth, preferring to squeeze in tight on the groovy-patterned sofa bed and watch the small TV my dad was able to force into the built-in bookshelf with some minor carpentry.
My eyes widened at the families living in big, beautiful homes on the morning cartoons and daytime soaps and evening sitcoms. Although I was a young child, I should have been able to notice my own experience in the white working-class shows of the ‘80s—The Simpsons, Married… with Children, Roseanne—but instead, I saw these families as aspirational: two-story homes, moveable furniture, bedrooms tall enough for wall posters, and an address.
Late that night, after the Nomadland credits and union logos scrolled their way up my screen, I typed words into the search bar expecting a clear answer: does living in an RV make you homeless?
Result 1: “RVs are indeed not fixed and we do park them at campgrounds. You could make a good argument that we are homeless.”
Result 2: “A person with an RV is considered homeless if they don’t have amenities that make it a suitable place for habitation.”
Result 3: “If they are living in an RV, they are one step from probably being homeless.”
Result 4: “Technically yes, but it’s a few steps up from living in a tent or in a car.”
Result 5: “So the local government says it’s illegal to live in an RV permanently, but being totally homeless is perfectly okay with them.”
Then the algorithm started to bring in articles from the “tiny home” community and traveling retirees. Not the same thing. I found out that the government defines homelessness, and classifying a child as homeless falls under the guidelines of the McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987. Although the law doesn’t specifically say “RV = Homeless” in a large font, it draws lines between those living in an RV to travel, and those “stationary” living in an RV due to financial problems. That was us. My dad was finding any pilot work he could while studying for expensive commercial flying licenses that might have given him access to fancier jobs in fancier planes, while my mom was temping as a secretary at a cancer hospital. The serious money problems came when my mom—who, like all the family, had no way to access affordable health insurance—needed emergency sinus surgery. Outside of our home, we probably passed for middle-class, but inside the RV, we were a legally homeless family who didn’t even know it.
Trying to figure out whether I would be considered homeless if I lived in an RV today was almost an intellectual exercise. More important was the question of how my childhood could have been different if I, or someone, had been willing to accept that designation at the time. Maybe my family could have been supported better? If my parents had been able to move past their own shame and ask for help, would we have been flagged in the system to receive assistance with living expenses, medical care, food subsidies? To get the answer, I sent an email to the homeless liaison of my old public school system, the person tasked with identifying students who might qualify as homeless, determining their homeless status, and offering support to the student with reduced or free lunch programs, free transportation, and other social services. I explained my childhood housing situation, and asked: would I have been considered homeless?
Her response came back: “the short answer is yes.”
So there it was. Throughout the period of my life where The Letter People taught me the alphabet, where I peed my pants during Duck Duck Goose, saw creased Playboy centerfolds in the bathroom, sat with a class full of shocked children watching a Space Shuttle explode, daydreamed during the repetitive orders to “just say no,” refused to give the Pledge of Allegiance because my family was Jehovah’s Witnesses, debuted on a lunchroom stage in a white Benjamin Franklin wig, and where during homeroom my co-host and I would go live on closed circuit television with a “Welcome to W-G-A-T-O-R,” I was also homeless.
The homeless liaison also sent me a few links so I could do more research. These helped me understand a few things. It isn’t easy to get parents to admit to homelessness, so much of the language of these pamphlets is there to ease the shame and help a parent to understand that it’s okay to accept help. It feels like a very American problem to have to convince a struggling family that it’s okay to accept government aid. This was the 1980s and Reagan was still ranting about “welfare queens” while successfully dismantling the social safety net. I expect my parents were not desperate enough to accept financial assistance which came with even more shame. I vaguely recall a childhood conversation:
“Do you want me to apply for a lunch card?” said my mom.
“No, it’s embarrassing,” I said. “Everyone sees you take it out in line.”
I’m not sure how most schools logistically handle food assistance today, but I hope for the sake of all those children that they never have to pull out a brown card printed with the bold and all caps FREE LUNCH CARD, holding up their hungry classmates as a cashier hunts for the stamp.
Also in the email: a link to a video called “Elmo’s Message to Children and Parents Experiencing Homelessness.” This was clearly meant as a way to communicate with children on their level, but to me it was a belated reckoning with a past I never confronted. Elmo explained to me that no matter where I lived, I deserved an education. Elmo said that Elmo is thinking of everyone out there that’s having a hard time. Elmo blew me kisses.
One outcome of this period of poverty is that I don’t have any videos of me as a child—video cameras were expensive. To verify and stir my memories, I turned to the street view function of digital maps. I went on a virtual walk around where the RV used to be parked. I was hoping to see at least a small patch of off-white sand peeking from the grass, a legacy for the home that kept my family sheltered. I wanted to find anything that proved my experiences were real, that I didn’t dream it. Maybe four little marks of discoloration where the tires once rested, a monument to the good times spent there, like the dance parties where we stuffed pillows in our pants to poke fun at the large butts we all had in common. But the grass was thick and emerald and there was nothing.
A few feet away, across the property line, there used to be an infinite open field with a handful of horses. Now the barbed wire fence has been replaced with a tall wall on the periphery of a new housing development of squeezed-in McMansions with Spanish tile roofs. Zoning laws pushed poor white people into this semi-rural area, where they could find land that allowed trailers.
Now, the growing middle-class subdivisions, filled with young families yearning to be commuting-distance to the city, are eliminating one of the few advantages my family had to living here: space. But even worse for those on the wrong side of the wall, those ugly, hulking houses are now an unavoidable reminder of what isn’t, and may never be, attainable.
I heard that when the McMansionistas go into their backyards, only a few feet from the dividing wall, my aunt and uncle get a kick out of mocking them in loud, posh British accents. It’s endearing to me that to them the young, middle-class family walking into their ratio of an acre, is deserving of the vaudevillian accent for “rich.”
I’m not Fern. I may have lived it, but she lives it. She is working class. She is homeless.
Nobody who met me would assume I was working-class, and they might be surprised to learn I once was; the New York City media world is not assumed to be spilling over with the formerly homeless. But I think it’s important that people like me tell their stories. Even if the United States does, finally, create a strong safety net that can help people struggling financially, it will still be one of our nation’s great challenges to convince those in need to raise their hands and ask for help. My family was able to hide our homelessness, after all—and we hid it because we felt like we had to. We need to educate citizens that the American Dream is now the American Illusion: it’s not true that anybody can achieve a middle-class existence just by working hard. “Grit” and “bootstraps” are false narratives. We need authentic working-class stories to unshackle us from shame, and undo the damage of Reagan’s nonexistent “welfare queens.”
Sharing our stories of poverty doesn’t just help society. It helps us as individuals. I’ve been able to forgive my parents for the shame that kept them from seeking help. That little camper was regularly filled with joy. By remembering being homeless, I’ve recovered memories almost lost. Joining them on the annoying errands of RV living–trips to the hardware store with my dad to refill propane tanks, doing loads at local laundromats with my mom–gave us routine bonding times where we could talk and tell our stories of the week. They worked hard and did everything they could to give me some normalcy, and it breaks my heart that they’ll probably never stop thinking it was somehow their fault. America.
I don’t know where the RV is now. But I miss it. It wasn’t a house, but it was my home.
After we left it, an uncle towed it 30 miles away to the country’s most popular skydiving center, at an airport in Central Florida, amongst various other RVs. In Nomadland, a group of nomads travels together from town to town, taking up odd jobs to get by, while still taking advantage of the mobility inherent in mobile homes. The skydiving center housed a similar group: adrenaline junkies who traveled around to find work as skydiving instructors, videographers, and jump pilots, moving from airport to airport in order to afford to do something they loved. I’m happy to know the RV had another chance to travel, fulfilling what it was born to do.
As I was entering middle school, my dad was getting regular pilot work dusting crops for farmers and towing banners for the beachside sunburned. My mom’s temp job turned into a full-time job—with health insurance for the entire family. We emptied and locked up the RV. We drove a rented moving truck a few miles away to a double-wide trailer, in a small trailer park full of mostly single-wides, across from a large open field that now is a Walmart. Finally, we climbed our way up to “trailer trash.”
When I first stepped into the thousand-plus square feet of double-wide, I just ran. I ran down the hallway, in and out of the four bedrooms and two bathrooms, through the separate kitchen and the separate dining area. After years in the RV, I was thrilled to live in a trailer. I finally had an address. I finally had a bedroom that let me stand up straight.
My experience with Nomadland is an example of the importance of storytelling that has specificity—specificity that can only come from lived experience. Sure, the creative team of the film is not made up fully of people who escaped poverty; director Chloé Zhao is the daughter of a steel executive and step-daughter of a famous comedic actress. But I believe actress and producer Frances McDormand was able to pull from her proudly self-described “white trash” upbringing: abandoned by her birth parents and adopted by an ultra-religious couple that lived a nomadic lifestyle moving from church to church. Nomadland would not have been possible without the real stories from the book it’s based on, including those of the film’s cast members and real-life nomads, Charlene Swankie and Linda May. Because of Nomadland, I was inspired to share my own story—but more than that, because of Nomadland, I finally understood what my story was.