How one Vermont mother lost and learned everything
The story is strange but true: A Vermont girl finds success as a congressional page and college freshman, then gets married at 19, has three children by 25 - and suddenly finds herself single and homeless, raising her family in a car. And that's before she wrote it all down and sold the memoir to a major publisher. She now has a house and an underground hit.
"My own journey into homelessness did not begin with drug use, alcoholism or any of the other things we, as a society, so often attribute to such a downward spiral," Michelle Kennedy begins her book Without a Net: Middle Class and Homeless (with Kids) in America. "Instead, I followed my bliss right into the back of a Subaru station wagon."
By day, Kennedy was just another mother toting children and charge slips to the Laundromat and library. But by night, she was an anything-but-typical motorist circling around town for a clandestine place to park - and sleep.
"Making the leap from given-every-opportunity, spoiled-in-every-way middle-class child to boring, middle-class housewife and eventually to homeless single mother should be harder than it is," the 34-year-old Chelsea resident writes in her book. "In reality, it doesn't take much more than a series of bad judgment calls and wrong decisions that, at the time, appear to be perfectly reasonable and in most cases for the better."
Kennedy's tale has a happy ending. But the 158 pages that came before it are repeated daily by the homeless parents of more than 1 million American children, statistics show. Families are the fastest growing segment of people without shelter, now totaling almost 40 percent of the nation's homeless. That's why Kennedy is sharing her story.
"My idea was to let people see this through different eyes," she says. "I got good grades, I went to a good college, I was a page in the U.S. Senate. It's not just people who are alcoholics or panhandlers or drug addicts. People can make wrong choices and end up living in their car."
Growing up, Kennedy appeared to be steering in the right direction. Born in Baltimore, Maryland, she moved to the central Vermont town of Chelsea - population 1256 - when she was 12. As a high school junior, she served as a congressional page. ("Nothing exciting happened to me," she says in reference to the recent scandal.) Upon graduation, she won admission to American University in Washington, D.C.
Kennedy roomed with a boyfriend in an apartment just outside the capital. He was a computer technician with a head for numbers. Her mind leaned more toward adventure - "in my ever-growing stack of books: mushers, bush pilots, midwifes in the backwoods."
Scraping by for money, Kennedy learned she'd qualify for more financial aid if she got married. And so, at 19, she did. But turning her boyfriend into a husband distanced her from single classmates wedded to their studies and the Washington social scene. She dropped out of school after her freshman year and soon became pregnant.
Fourteen months after having a son, Kennedy gave birth to a daughter. At first, her biggest problem as a suburban D.C. housewife was spilled juice on the white carpet. Then she and her husband charged everything from children's toys to cable TV on their credit cards, and faced a puddle of red ink.
One day Kennedy noticed her husband reading a ragged copy of Henry David Thoreau's diary of simple living, Walden. The next night, he announced that he'd quit his job so the family could move north to a cabin in the woods.
By now Kennedy had two preschoolers and a third child on the way. But a month after giving birth, she followed her husband to an unnamed place off an unpaved road in the uppermost reaches of Maine. "A place where the majority of accepted currency is Canadian" is how she sums it up.
Their cabin had no electricity, no running water, no insulation - just a lone room with a kerosene lamp, a wood cook stove and some mismatched furniture salvaged from a Winnebago. Everyone slept on the floor that first night. "I lay there, awake, between my sleeping children, wondering what on Earth I had gotten myself into." She didn't know this was luxury compared to what was coming.
For Kennedy, the cabin was a time machine, propelling her back three centuries to the life of the pioneers. "Nothing could have prepared us for homelessness better than a year without the amenities that most people in the modern age take for granted," she writes. "Bathing became a ritual straight out of Little House on the Prairie. A large washtub in the kitchen area was filled with snow and then as it melted, water from the kettle was added. Eventually, a reasonably pleasant bathing experience could be had by anyone under 4 feet tall."
Kennedy viewed it all as an adventure. When her husband left for a week at a time to work as a logger, she'd read books such as the biography of the first woman to win the 1135-mile Iditarod dogsled race across Alaska. Soon after, Kennedy was raising her own huskies.
Then her husband lost his job. To make ends meet, Kennedy became a bartender in a nearby town. One day she received a call at work. It was the hospital. One of her dogs had brutally bitten her daughter's face.
Some 300 stitches later, Kennedy learned that her husband hadn't been watching the children. Within a month - just after Mother's Day and the removal of her daughter's stitches - she cashed her $150 paycheck, packed up her youngsters and left her husband.
Kennedy spent almost $100 on gas, food and a motel room by the time she reached the small harbor town of Belfast, Maine, 150 miles to the south. She remembers that it had been snowing at the cabin. But when she saw the coast, the sun was burning bright.
Kennedy noticed that a new pub and grill was about to open. She asked if they were hiring. A week later, she was waiting tables and helping behind the bar. "If I couldn't give [my children] cable TV and brand-new clothes, then I could give them this - days at the beach," she writes. "And I would give them running water and electricity and a normal school in the fall." But first, she'd have to live through summer.
Kennedy settled into her $40-a-night motel room. Cheap, she thought. Then she multiplied that out to $280 a week and $1120 a month. Her waitress job paid $2.12 an hour plus tips. On a busy Friday, she might make $100. But on a typical Tuesday? Perhaps only $10.
She checked out of the motel the next morning. Scanning the classifieds, she learned that a one-bedroom apartment would cost $550 a month. Landlords, however, required the first and last months' rent and a security deposit, a total of about $1500. Kennedy barely had $15. Why didn't she turn to her friends and family? She writes in the book, "The fact is that I was tired of having to ask for their help. I wanted to prove to them, to the world, and to myself that I didn't need my parents, or a husband, to bail me out all of the time."
She surveyed the possibilities for camping out: A small beach at the end of Main Street. A state park a few miles outside of town. A nearby truck stop with a pay shower.
Then she thought about her children: Matthew, then 5; Lydia, 3; and Alex, 14 months old. A babysitter would cost $3 to $4 an hour per child. With three, that would total almost $300 a week. And so Kennedy parked her car just outside the restaurant's kitchen door, tucked her trio in the backseat and went to work.
"Even with the knowledge that what I am doing is for the best and knowing that the children are, indeed, safe, my anxiety still works on me like a jackhammer," she writes of that time almost a decade ago. "Between every drink I make and every wipe of the bar, I am thinking: 'What kind of mother would let her kids sleep in the car?' 'What kind of mother would tend bar for a living?' 'What kind of mother would take her kids from their father and think this is a better life?'"
After work, Kennedy would drive to a secluded spot, lay her head on the steering wheel, and fall asleep.
"Well, I always wanted a house on the water," she'd think to herself, "and now I have one."
Waking up, she'd wash at a truck-stop shower. Hungry, she'd cook ramen noodles on campground grills. She stored clothes, cooking utensils and bedtime books in three plastic containers stuffed in the trunk. She banked her tips in a videocassette box in the glove compartment.
Kennedy quickly discovered that you need to be rich to be poor. Without a refrigerator, she couldn't spend $2 and change for a gallon of milk, but instead had to pay $1 for a single-serving pint. Without a pantry, she couldn't buy staples like cereal in bulk. But with a steady paycheck, she didn't qualify for food stamps or housing assistance.
She lived this way for a week, then a month, and then an entire summer. "Cramped in the fetal position in the front seat of the car, while the kids are stretched out in the back, I yell at God in my head," she writes in her book. "But what's he going to do? There are far bigger problems in this world than us living in a car."
The solution, Kennedy would discover, was growing in her glove compartment. Two months after she started to waitress, she counted up $1000 in savings. A month later, she found a two-bedroom apartment for $550 a month. More incredibly, the landlord didn't require the last month's rent.
It was so anticlimactic. After three months of living in her car, Kennedy had a home. "All it took was one nice person willing to just take a chance."
In her case, there were two. She's grateful to the landlord - and to John Hogan, the coworker who fell in love with her the moment she asked for a job.
That was the summer of 1997. Kennedy went on to marry Hogan and to give birth to sons Liam in 1998 and Jack two years ago. In between she started writing a series of nine parenting books with titles such as Eating, Sleeping, Tantrums and Manners. Then she read Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich's firsthand account of working a low-wage job.
Kennedy grew angrier with every page. "The girl can write, don't get me wrong, but she's a single woman who rented a car and had money and an insurance card to fall back on." Kennedy knew poor people didn't have such safety nets. She typed a 2500-word rant. To her surprise, Salon.com printed it in 2001.
"I just wrote it and sent it," she says. "That was it. I was never going to write another word about it."
Then an agent suggested she tell the rest of the story. Kennedy spent a year reshaping her homeless summer into a work of fiction, "mainly because I was really ashamed and didn't ever want to admit to people, especially those that I knew, that I had ever been homeless."
The agent rejected it. Kennedy threw out the novel and tried again, this time sticking to the facts. Viking published the hardcover last year; this past winter Penguin released the paperback. The books came just after she and her family had decided to buy her parents' old place back in Chelsea, a halfway point on the back road between Barre and South Royalton.
"You worry about what people are going to think, and I've had my share of negative comments," she says. "Why didn't I give my kids up for adoption? Why did I have so many kids to begin with? Why didn't I leave the bum sooner? Why didn't I stay with the bum longer? People say, 'You made such dumb decisions.' Well, at the time they seemed to be perfectly reasonable decisions. I thought I was making choices for the better."
But Kennedy has reaped praise from reviews in The New York Times and the Washington Post, and won Elle magazine's Readers Prize. The Lifetime cable television channel flirted with turning the book into a movie. Talk-show producers penciled in and then erased an on-air interview.
"I almost got on Oprah - twice. The book teetered on that border between being really popular and not, and it just didn't quite make the jump."
Her memoir, however, continues to spin a story. "Even though it's not a New York Times bestseller, it seems to have created an underground - people who deal with homeless and poverty issues, high schools, book groups. I'm shocked by how many college classes are using it. You think of homelessness and poverty being issues people don't want to talk about, but people are really interested."
And so Kennedy continues to speak out. She travels once a month for author appearances, be it to Seattle last September or Tennessee this coming February. Unlike big names with big fees, she'll speak in exchange for transportation, food and lodging.
"I used to be concerned with showing in concrete terms that I was successful, but now I'm trying to leave less of a footprint. I'm trying to get people to understand the correlation between consumerism and poverty in this country. You go to a soup kitchen and a guy's really poor but he doesn't understand that he doesn't need to pay the cable bill. He doesn't have to have television. That's not a requirement for living."
Kennedy practices what she preaches. She has given up credit cards and cable TV. She fuels her household with her garden, her woodlot, her sheep and llama - "I just kind of like them to mow the lawn" - and wages she and Hogan earn from occasional work, "because being a not-well-known author doesn't pay very well."
For Kennedy, letting go isn't just a physical action but also a state of mind. "I am so much more relaxed as a parent. A lot of my feelings were buying into a culture that says if you're not providing certain things for your children, you're a failure. My kids don't need to have iPods - they'll be just fine. I've changed in so many ways. I am not nearly as judgmental as I used to be. I am less materialistic. I want to write a book called Zen and the Art of Parenting: The Chill-Out Manual."
Kennedy has traded in one other thing: her old car. She now finds shelter in a loving husband, five healthy children, a farmhouse in Vermont and a career that lets her travel cross-country. Some might say she has it all. "I just don't have any of the money," she says with a laugh.
And if she did? "I wouldn't change a thing - except I'd pay all my bills on time."