Tent Life: Reflections on Experiencing Homelessness as a Child

As a child, Barbara Abelhauser lived in a tent with her family. Today she is a bridge operator and writer. Photo by Amy Sassenberg courtesy Barbara Abelhauser.
As a child, Barbara Abelhauser lived in a tent with her family. Today she is a bridge operator and writer. Photo by Amy Sassenberg courtesy Barbara Abelhauser.

As our community grapples with solutions to homelessness, it’s vital that we understand and center the experiences of people who are directly affected by this issue. Many thanks to Barbara Abelhauser for permission to re-post this personal account of living in a tent as a child. It originally appeared on her blog, “The View from a Drawbridge.” –Denise

Written by Barbara Abelhauser, author of the new book “A Bridgetender’s View: Notes on Gratitude

Every day here in Seattle I drive past little homeless encampments. They seem to be everywhere. They gather under the overpasses, in the little clumps of forest, and even on the sidewalks. Their tents are ragged and dirty, and usually they sit amongst a field of garbage. It’s heartbreaking to witness, especially during a pervasive harsh winter drizzle.

This always stirs up a complex stew of emotions in me because I spent a good portion of my childhood living in a tent. Yes, we were that poor. From an adult perspective it astonishes me that we as a family managed to sink that low. But often you can only deal with the cards with which you have been dealt.

There are many aspects of tent life that people don’t even think about. Here are some.

You never know when you’ll have “company.”

My sister once crawled into her sleeping bag and was hit in the knee by a scorpion. We had to rush her to the hospital. My other sister accidentally stepped into a fire ant hill and had such an allergic reaction that her throat closed. Another hospital visit. Since our tent experience was in Florida, we also had to contend with snakes, spiders, mosquitoes, lizards, mice, and cockroaches.

People will accuse you of being lazy.

There was a complicated set of circumstances that caused us to live in a tent, but laziness wasn’t one of them. I have worked since I was 10 years old. There wasn’t a single member of my family that wouldn’t have moved heaven and earth to get out of our situation. It’s just really hard to focus on shelter when you are struggling to obtain adequate food and clothing. This pervasive attitude that poor people need to just snap out of it and get with the program has got to change.

None of your possessions are safe. Ever.

I’ve yet to come across an efficient way to lock a tent. I never knew when I was going to come home from school to find that things had been taken from me.

It’s impossible to stay healthy.

I had bronchitis for, literally, years. My lungs are permanently scarred. You’ll also be exposed to ringworm, scabies, lice, colds, flu, athlete’s foot, sunburn, heat exhaustion and hypothermia.

There’s this constant state of shame.

As a child, you’re self-conscious enough without having to hide the fact that you have substandard living arrangements. You don’t invite friends to visit you. That would be totally out of the question.

It’s nearly impossible to stay clean.

Sweep and scrub all you want. You’re going to track in sand and mud and bugs. Think of it as camping times 1000. And your shower and bathroom facilities are going to be 100 yards away if you’re lucky, and that fact isn’t going to change if you’re sick or it’s raining or you have to pee in the middle of the night or the temperatures are in the low 30’s.

You have no privacy.

Forget about having a room to yourself. You have nothing to yourself. And you are most likely surrounded by other people who live in tents as well, and just as with the general population, a certain percentage of them are bound to be predators. And again, tents don’t lock.

Nothing in your life will ever be dry.

Try storing clothing long term in a tent some time. Now throw in your school books, your food, what few worldly possessions you manage to keep from getting stolen. Then mix that with a thin wall of tent fabric between you and every torrential rain. Toss in humidity for good measure, and the added threat of mold.

Expect to battle depression.

As if the constant anxiety of worrying about where your next meal will come from isn’t enough, now cover yourself with a wet wool blanket of gloom so that everything seems to take 10 times as much energy as it should. (And it probably does, because you’re constantly sick.) Then multiply that by years on end and tell me how easy it would be for you to maintain a positive outlook.

Most people drive past these homeless encampments and think, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Not me. I think, “Please, God, never again.”

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  • Barbara Abelhauser

    Thank you for sharing my blog entry! I’m honored. And the student homelessness statistics below that are horrifying. I wish I could meet every one of them and tell them not to lose hope. I made it out. They can, too.

    • We agree; those statistics are horrifying. Thank you for being a strong voice for change.

  • Raney

    Thank you for your feisty and yes sometimes funny description of being homeless as a child. I was moved and learned a Lot! I lived in Florida but in a nice apartment Not outside in a tent. OMG. I can’t really imagine being out with the hot weather and rainy and beasties of all types and sizes. I’m glad it was posted and you are an excellent writer. I’m glad you made it it after 10 years. I agree that no student shld hv 2 learn with such heavy backpack of burdens. I hope our go vt can get their rear in gear 2 provide sufficient services to end this drain on their precious minds.

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