“I Got Hit From All Sides”

A sound breaks through the night, reverberating within the four concrete walls.

Milton*, 63, awakes to a figure poised outside his door, fiddling with the lock, determined to get inside. Feeling for the baseball bat he keeps beside him, Milton’s eyes never break from the figure that continues to try to force its way inside.

This was life for Milton – cold nights living out of his 1996 Dodge Grand Caravan in a parking garage, protecting what little he owned.

But life wasn’t always this way.

Milton lived in Hartford, a small town within Madison County, Illinois. A veteran and member of Operating Engineers Local 148, he worked in St. Louis city maintaining building systems, a job he loved and performed for more than 20 years with a perfect attendance record. But without much warning, the company got bought out, wreaking havoc with an organization-wide restructuring and decreased hours. Thankfully, Milton’s position remained, but his hours were cut dramatically. Some time passed and the same happened again – leaving Milton with next to no time on the clock.

Bills became extremely tight. Before long, Milton couldn’t keep up. Despite health issues, he continued to work and even took on extra jobs outside of work, but it wasn’t enough. Within a matter of a few months, Milton went from working 40 hour weeks to just 8 and was forced into foreclosure. Like a series of dominoes, Milton’s life quickly began to tumble down around him.

Milton had nowhere to go and took what belongings he could from his home of more than 20 years and placed them in storage. But his streak of misfortune continued when the facility was broken into, leaving him with nothing except the clothes on his back.

As Milton puts it, he “got hit from all sides.”

Milton was destitute. Before long, a motto of “wherever I could live, that’s where I would go” defined him. Milton became a traveling nomad, taking refuge at truck stops, parking lots and garages with his van as his only refuge.

For nearly a year, Milton called a rolled-out sleeping bag in the back of his van “home.” He learned how to stretch a dollar – making an 8-hour paycheck cover the food, gas and other necessities needed to get him through the week. His days consisted of waking early, driving to work to make what little he could, showering and coming “home” to catch a few hours of sleep before waking to do it all again.

Milton did this practice day in and day out. On exceptionally chilly days, if he had enough gas to make it to work in the morning, he would run his heat for a few minutes before nodding off.

It wasn’t until a bitter cold night that others heard of his story and referred him to labor liaisons at United Way of Greater St. Louis. They teamed up with Local 148, and for the first time in nearly a year, Milton had a warm place to stay and a large dose of hope.

“I was out there alone with nowhere to go,” Milton said. “If it weren’t for United Way and the union’s assistance, I would probably still be sleeping in my van, going day by day hoping to make it.”

Today, Milton continues to work at the same company and has a place to call home. His hours, little by little, seem to be improving and being 64, he’s anticipating retirement.

*Name changed.