POINT OF ORDER: Nomadland: Houseless vs. Homeless by C. Ellen Connally

Frances McDormand in “Nomadland”

Nomadland received three Academy Awards in 2020: Best Picture, Best Director (Chloe Zhao) and Best Actress (Frances McDormand). It also received three additional Academy Award nominations, numerous other awards and acclaim at film festivals around the world. After seeing the trailer when the movie was first released, I decided that it would not be a movie that would interest me. Maybe I should blame my bad judgment on Covid, which stopped my frequent trips to the movies, or maybe I thought the plight of senior citizens living in trailers was not relevant. Either way, it was a big error in judgment on my part.

Last week on a visit to my favorite free bookstore — the Beachwood Branch of the Cuyahoga County Library — the book upon which the movie was based, Nomadland (W.W. Norton & Co. New York, 2017), caught my attention. It was listed by the New York Times Book Review as one of the 100 notable books of 2017.

As I perused the first few pages, I realized what I had missed. The author tells the story of a significant and growing segment of the American population, thousands of Americans — mostly senior citizens — who live literally paycheck to paycheck; social security check to social security check; temporary job to temporary job, while living in their van, RV or cars. Though some would consider them homeless, they describe themselves as houseless.

The author, Jessica Bruder, is an award-winning journalist who focuses on subcultures and the dark corners of the economy. She spent three years researching and living as a part of this little-known population of America that has come to be known as vandwellers. Their vehicle is where they spend their waking hours, eat, sleep, defecate, bathe and maintain their possessions, all on wheels. They have no permanent address, which becomes a problem for such things as voting, vehicle registration, and government identification cards and benefits. This is the lifestyle some choose, and some are forced to choose.

Bruder describes a population of mostly senior citizens who have either aged out of their chosen career, are victims of plant closures, or workers whose jobs were replaced by advanced technology. Many are formerly upper-class entrepreneurs and business executives who are victims of the financial failures in the early 2000s that wiped out the equity in their homes that they relied on as their cash cows or were devastated when their retirement investments were lost in the stock market or to bad investments. As the price of affordable housing soared, especially in large urban areas, with no financial assets and only meager social security benefits, they were forced to find alternative lifestyles. Vandwelling is their solution.

The movie centers on Fern, an amalgamation of several people depicted in the book. She and her late husband worked for United States Gypsum, the company that made sheetrock for most of the 20th century.  In 2010 they learned that the company was shutting down. The town where they lived, Empire, Nevada, was one of the last traditional company towns in America. It provided subsidized housing and furnished water, sewers, trash removal and internet, all as a benefit of employment. Then it all came to an end. The plant closed. The town died. The U.S. Post Office abolished the zip code. Everyone had to leave.

A widow with no children, no job and no place to go, Fern put most of her possessions in storage and moved into a van. Her life became a series of moves, chasing seasonal employment in RV camps in the summer.  There she worked long hours, doing such things as cleaning toilets, registering and orienting new residents and cleaning the campgrounds, in exchange for minimal wages and free rent at the campground. There was no such thing as a forty-hour work week, although that was what her salary was based on. She was on call most of the time. And when business was slow, her hours were cut with an accompanying reduction in income. In winter months she followed other vandwellers to Amazon warehouses located in warm climates who sought seasonal workers.

Amazon comes across as something between a strict taskmaster and Simon Legree, hiring thousands of people over the traditional retirement age to work long hours, doing repetitive tasks and walking ten to fifteen miles a day around their warehouses. Generic painkillers are free for workers with aching muscles and joints. Name brands like Tylenol must be purchased in the lunchroom vending machines.

Amazon relies on or preys on, depending on your point of view, this pool of laborers who are desperate for employment. With the additional benefit of free or low-cost rentals in RV parks in or around their plants, Amazon and the workers develop a symbiotic relationship. Just don’t stay in the RV park past your work period. Your free parking ends with the job. And don’t get sick or injured.

 With few skills and a varied work history, Fern and people similarly situated seek work at casinos, fast food restaurants, amusement parks, county fairs and flea markets and just about anywhere they can earn money.  A flat tire or engine problem with their vehicle spells disaster.

Vandwellers face problems that are unknown to just about everyone reading this article. Parking — a place to leave your vehicle while you work or sleep — is a major one. Many state and national parks allow free or inexpensive parking, but most stays are limited to fourteen days. Such places as truck stops, Walmart parking lots and all-night diner parking lots are all places sought out and listed on websites for vandwellers.

Such common necessities as taking a shower can be a major obstacle to vandwellers. Truck stops like Flying J charge as much as $12 to shower. Over-the-road truckers who buy large amounts of gas get free credits, something not available to vandwellers. And if you have gone to a laundromat recently, you will find it’s not cheap. A thirty-pound load averages $5.50. For the use of a dryer, the prices generally run about $2.50 an hour. It adds up when you are trying to live on a $500-a-month social security check.

There are also the problems of health and dental care. Many pharmacies do not want to fill a prescription if you do not have a permanent address. Trips to Mexican border towns where dental care and prescription drugs are affordable are common.

The book describes in depth the blight of vandwellers who are forced into “boondocking,” which means parking on vacant land where there is no connection to water, electricity, sewer or the amenities that come with a trailer park. There are descriptions of proper use and size of buckets in lieu of toilets on websites for vandwellers and at meetings called roundups where like-minded souls gather.

Legislation in many cities and states makes this lifestyle difficult. Laws that make it illegal to sleep in your vehicle or limited parking areas in national and state parks are good examples. Websites and veteran vandwellers advise newcomers to keep their vehicles as plain as possible, in hopes of blending in with the general population or being mistaken as someone’s work or construction vehicle. Standing out attracts the police and inquisitive neighbors. .

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Renewal last year estimated that about 582,000 people were homeless in America. That’s about the size of Baltimore, Maryland. It’s not clear if the number of vandwellers is counted in that number. In climates, such as ours here in northern Ohio, the number of vandwellers is relatively low. They concentrate in warmer climates, especially those where they can find seasonal work.

Every day the population of vandwellers gets older. Some facing declining health decide to ride off into the sunset and die on their own terms. Both in the movie and the book there are examples of people with no family and no place to go who are facing life choices as they age. One woman, interviewed by the author, said that her two dogs and their welfare kept her from committing suicide.

Vandwellers are the forgotten Americans. Check out the websites listed below devoted to the lifestyle and decide if you could survive.  The websites tend to paint a rosy picture, but both the book and the movie show that life on the road is tough, lonely and often dangerous. If you take the time to watch the movie or read the book, I suggest that have a box of tissues nearby. There are lots of sad stories, especially about fleeting friendships as people move on to other job and opportunities or to follow their own pipe dream.

And another hint, most people will reflect as I did on the verse in 1st Corinthians “But for the grace of God, go I.”  And in my case, thank God for Ohio Public Employees Retirement System.



C. Ellen Connally is a retired judge of the Cleveland Municipal Court. From 2010 to 2014 she served as the President of the Cuyahoga County Council. An avid reader and student of American history, she is a former member of the Board of the Ohio History Connection, and past president of the Cleveland Civil War Round Table, and is currently vice president of the Cuyahoga County Soldiers and Sailors Monument Commission.  She holds degrees from BGSU, CSU and is all but dissertation for a PhD from the University of Akron.


Post categories:

One Response to “POINT OF ORDER: Nomadland: Houseless vs. Homeless by C. Ellen Connally”

  1. Mel Maurer

    Thanks for this Ellen. A needed reminder of the many layers of life in this country. I’m in favor of controlled imigration and support of allied countrys – but this Nomad Country needs our help too.

Leave a Reply