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TEDGlobal 2009

Becky Blanton: The year I was homeless

July 23, 2009

Becky Blanton planned to live in her van for a year and see the country, but when depression set in and her freelance job ended, her camping trip turned into homelessness. In this intimate talk, she describes her experience of becoming one of America's working homeless.

Becky Blanton - Writer
Becky Blanton is a writer, photographer and former journalist who found herself homeless, but bounced back to tell her story and inspire others. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I'm a writer and a journalist,
00:15
and I'm also an insanely curious person,
00:18
so in 22 years as a journalist,
00:21
I've learned how to do a lot of new things.
00:23
And three years ago, one of the things I learned how to do
00:25
was to become invisible.
00:28
I became one of the working homeless.
00:31
I quit my job as a newspaper editor
00:34
after my father died in February of that same year,
00:36
and decided to travel.
00:40
His death hit me pretty hard.
00:43
And there were a lot of things that I wanted to feel and deal with while I was doing that.
00:45
I've camped my whole life. And I decided
00:49
that living in a van for a year to do this
00:51
would be like one long camping trip.
00:53
So I packed my cat, my Rottweiler
00:55
and my camping gear into a 1975 Chevy van,
00:58
and drove off into the sunset,
01:02
having fully failed to realize three critical things.
01:04
One: that society equates
01:08
living in a permanent structure, even a shack,
01:10
with having value as a person.
01:14
Two: I failed to realize how quickly
01:16
the negative perceptions of other people
01:19
can impact our reality, if we let it.
01:21
Three: I failed to realize
01:24
that homelessness is an attitude,
01:26
not a lifestyle.
01:28
At first, living in the van was great.
01:31
I showered in campgrounds. I ate out regularly.
01:33
And I had time to relax and to grieve.
01:36
But then the anger and the depression about my father's death set in.
01:40
My freelance job ended. And I had to get a full-time job
01:44
to pay the bills.
01:47
What had been a really mild spring
01:49
turned into a miserably hot summer.
01:51
And it became impossible to park anywhere --
01:53
(Laughs)
01:55
-- without being very obvious
01:56
that I had a cat and a dog with me, and it was really hot.
01:58
The cat came and went through an open window in the van.
02:01
The doggy went into doggy day care.
02:04
And I sweated.
02:06
Whenever I could, I used
02:08
employee showers in office buildings and truck stops.
02:10
Or I washed up in public rest rooms.
02:14
Nighttime temperatures in the van rarely dropped below 80 degrees Fahrenheit,
02:18
making it difficult or impossible to sleep.
02:21
Food rotted in the heat.
02:24
Ice in my ice chest melted within hours,
02:27
and it was pretty miserable.
02:30
I couldn't afford to find an apartment,
02:38
or couldn't afford an apartment that would allow me
02:40
to have the Rottweiler and the cat.
02:42
And I refused to give them up,
02:44
so I stayed in the van.
02:46
And when the heat made me too sick
02:52
to walk the 50 feet to the public restroom
02:54
outside my van at night,
02:57
I used a bucket and a trash bag as a toilet.
02:59
When winter weather set in, the temperatures dropped
03:02
below freezing. And they stayed there.
03:05
And I faced a whole new set of challenges.
03:07
I parked a different place every night
03:12
so I would avoid being noticed and hassled by the police.
03:15
I didn't always succeed.
03:18
But I felt out of control of my life.
03:20
And I don't know when or how it happened,
03:27
but the speed at which I went
03:31
from being a talented writer and journalist
03:33
to being a homeless woman, living in a van,
03:36
took my breath away.
03:39
I hadn't changed. My I.Q. hadn't dropped.
03:41
My talent, my integrity, my values,
03:44
everything about me remained the same.
03:50
But I had changed somehow.
03:53
I spiraled deeper and deeper into a depression.
03:55
And eventually someone referred me to a homeless health clinic.
03:58
And I went. I hadn't bathed in three days.
04:01
I was as smelly and as depressed as anyone in line.
04:04
I just wasn't drunk or high.
04:08
And when several of the homeless men realized that,
04:11
including a former university professor,
04:14
they said, "You aren't homeless. Why are you really here?"
04:16
Other homeless people didn't see me as homeless,
04:20
but I did.
04:22
Then the professor listened to my story and he said,
04:25
"You have a job. You have hope.
04:29
The real homeless don't have hope."
04:32
A reaction to the medication the clinic gave me for my depression
04:36
left me suicidal. And I remember thinking,
04:39
"If I killed myself, no one would notice."
04:41
A friend told me, shortly after that,
04:52
that she had heard that Tim Russert,
04:57
a nationally renowned journalist,
04:59
had been talking about me on national T.V.
05:01
An essay I'd written about my father,
05:03
the year before he died, was in Tim's new book.
05:05
And he was doing the talk show circuit. And he was talking about my writing.
05:09
And when I realized that Tim Russert, former moderator of "Meet the Press,"
05:12
was talking about my writing,
05:16
while I was living in a van in a Wal-Mart parking lot,
05:18
I started laughing.
05:20
You should too.
05:22
(Laughter)
05:24
I started laughing
05:25
because it got to the point where,
05:27
was I a writer, or was I a homeless woman?
05:29
So I went in the bookstore. And I found Tim's book.
05:32
And I stood there. And I reread my essay.
05:35
And I cried.
05:38
Because I was a writer.
05:40
I was a writer.
05:43
Shortly after that I moved back to Tennessee.
05:45
I alternated between living in a van and couch surfing with friends.
05:48
And I started writing again.
05:51
By the summer of the following year I was a working journalist.
05:54
I was winning awards. I was living in my own apartment.
05:57
I was no longer homeless.
06:00
And I was no longer invisible.
06:02
Thousands of people work full and part-time jobs,
06:05
and live in their cars.
06:08
But society continues to stigmatize and criminalize
06:10
living in your vehicle or on the streets.
06:13
So the homeless, the working homeless, primarily remain invisible.
06:16
But if you ever meet one,
06:20
engage them, encourage them, and offer them hope.
06:22
The human spirit can overcome anything if it has hope.
06:26
And I'm not here to be the poster girl for the homeless.
06:31
I'm not here to encourage you to give money to the next panhandler you meet.
06:33
But I am here to tell you that, based on my experience,
06:36
people are not where they live,
06:39
where they sleep,
06:42
or what their life situation is at any given time.
06:44
Three years ago I was living in a van
06:49
in a Wal-Mart parking lot,
06:52
and today I'm speaking at TED.
06:54
Hope always, always finds a way. Thank you.
06:57
(Applause)
07:02

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Becky Blanton - Writer
Becky Blanton is a writer, photographer and former journalist who found herself homeless, but bounced back to tell her story and inspire others.

Why you should listen

Primarily, Becky Blanton is a writer. She was a journalist for more than 22 years, working as a reporter, photojournalist and editor. Today, she is best known for her independent writing. Tim Russert selected her essay "The Monster," to be included in his last book, Wisdom of Our Fathers. On the heels of this success, Becky won a competition held by Dan Pink to come up with an additional lesson for his bestselling book The Adventures of Johnny Bunko. The prize was admission to TEDGlobal 2009, where she gave a talk on her personal journey through homelessness.

Blanton is now working on her first book, to be titled Staying Hungry, the Official Guide for Never Settling for What Life Puts on Your Plate, as well as a second about how her dog saved her life while she was homeless. The proceeds from the second book will be donated to The Humane Society. Blanton also continues to blog and post photos from her adventures at beckyblanton.com

The original video is available on TED.com
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