Editor's Note: We recently received the following email from a reader named Keith Luethke, who shared a powerful story about how he barely made ends meet and survived living out of a car for two years.
This story is a reminder that survival isn't necessarily about facing a large-scale natural disaster or collapse of society — it can also be about struggling through tough times on your own, and using every resource at your disposal to stay safe while you work to improve the situation. Keith's email gave us a renewed appreciation of the small joys in life as we enter the new year. We hope you also find it encouraging.
If there’s something in life you really want, you’ll do whatever it takes to get it. In my case, I wanted a bachelor’s degree. I was accepted into the University of Tennessee in 2006, and had enough money to pay for my books and classes, but didn’t have a place to live on campus. Undeterred about such a trivial thing, I decided to live out of my Subaru Forester. I’d already obtained an Associate's degree from a community college, but it had drained nearly all my financial funds. All I had to do was stick it out for two measly years and then I could hang a university degree on the wall.
Above: Although Keith doesn't have any photos from that time period, he made his home in a car similar to this one.
I wouldn’t recommend this lifestyle to anyone, but I learned how to truly survive in the modern world without housing for two years.
I had a simple plan. First, I bought a parking tag and always parked near a museum where a guard monitored the property. This is one of the most important aspects of being homeless for any period of time. Safety while awake and asleep is vital to survival in an urban setting. If I needed help the guard was always within walking distance. This cut down on the risk of my car getting broken into or anyone messing with me. It’s easier to sleep at night knowing somebody decent is around.
Secondly, I purchased a stainless steel tumbler. I can’t stress enough how important it is to have a cup with a lid. I could fill it up with water from any fountain on campus, or warm up water in the cafeteria microwave and shove a pack of ramen noodles down into it. It’s great for soup as well.
Thirdly, another critical part of modern survival is money. I was able to get a job on campus working part-time, which turned out great because I had a little income to buy a cooler for storing drinks and food, and I also purchase a small solar powered fan to chase the lingering summer heat away.
Fourthly, I needed clean clothes and a place to shower. Luckily, my tuition covered use of the gym which had a shower, and there was a campus laundromat which I used once a week. Being clean cuts down on being sick. I’ve heard stories from homeless men about how they’d lock themselves in the bathroom at public restrooms and take a sponge bath. I never had to do this, but I would’ve if it came down to it.
Above: The university library served as a daytime refuge for Keith, as well as a place to study.
The only factor I’d overlooked was the weather. In Tennessee it’s still blazing hot well past summer and into October. At night I would crack the windows and run my small fan but I’d still end up sweating and burning up. When the library opened up at six in the morning I’d be the first one inside soaking in the A/C, filling up my cup from the water fountain, and sleeping in a comfortable chair until my classes started later in the day. Although I was sleeping in my car at night, the library had become my sanctuary. In winter they’d even offer free hot chocolate and cookies every Friday.
Winter nights in my car were always the worst. I didn’t dare to turn on the heat for fear of being spotted by the guard. No matter how many blankets I used, the cold would always find a way in. Every night I would place a blanket from the steering wheel to the backseat. The driver’s seat would be laid down flat like a makeshift bed, and I had another blanket for warmth underneath. If anyone shined a light into the car, they’d only see blankets. And yes, from time to time I did see flashlight beams, but nobody ever knocked on the window or came for me.
There were nights when it was so cold I could see my breath and shivered until sunrise, and opening up those beautiful library doors was sheer heaven from the bitter winter.
While in class I made friends, went to free events that offered free food, and I turned an eight-floor library into a daytime home. It was rough, but after two years I got what I wanted. More importantly, I learned to value the little things in life and to work hard for what you want out of the world. It’s amazing what a person can do if they really want to.
Years later, I finished my Master's degree online from the comforts of my home. I’ll never forget the lessons I learned from being homeless for two years, and the things we take for granted each day.