Sunday, 6 October 2013

0 living expenses: living in a shack in New Orleans

Only the stairs to the front entrance of a house remain from the passage of hurricane Katrina
Sarah is the daughter of a priest. James is a professional bass player.  Chuck is studying to become a math teacher. And Tom has a master's degree in public health.
All four have been voluntarily living in temporary housing since last summer, on two lots of land bought by James for a few grands. The land is situated in the 9th Ward, the hardest-hit area by hurricane Katrina back in 2005.

The hand-made shack in the foreground, and trailer in the background
Sarah lives in a small, oval-sized trailer. Chuck and Tom alternate between a tent and a shack, which the three young men built themselves.  And James has plans to build a bigger house in the fall.

Why would four young, educated people with savings in the bank choose to live in such conditions?

"All four of us have lived in a community, and know the benefits of it", explains Chuck, 26.

I smile, remembering the moment when I first entered the shack, Chuck showing me the elevated mattress I would be sleeping on for the next two nights (I was couch surfing). As soon as we entered, Chuck frantically picked up a pair of folded jeans on the mattress, and examined the spot where there had previously been a tear:  "I love living with a woman!", he exclaimed.
I should learn how to sew, I told myself.

The shack has a bunk bed, two windows, a tiled roof, shelves, and a sofa chair
However, one thing distinguishes this community from others:  they have absolutely no living expenses.

For Chuck, avoiding these expenses is a thrill: "I think there's a sense of enjoyment when you find a way to be resourceful. It's like when you find a good deal online. It's the same thing: I find a way not to pay for rent, shoes, clothes, food. It's fun.".

Free shoes, clothes, and food are all found in one smelly, but treasure-laden place:  the dumpster.

Practicing it as a daily activity, these young adults have become experts at dumpster diving. They know which dumpster to go to for sushi on Tuesdays; for untouched pizza any day of the week at 10:05 pm after the pizza shop closes at 10:00 pm; for clean, new clothes that somehow ended up in garbage bags; and for one day-old fruits and vegetables.

A dumpster is full of strawberries,
spinach, and bananas
Chuck and Sarah enjoy still-hot pizza fresh out of the dumpster
But choosing this lifestyle is not only based on 'fun'.

Tom, in particular, is motivated by a political ideology: "Not spending money is an objective of mine. I think governments do a lot of evil, life-destroying things that I don't want to contribute to through taxes".
All four 'neighbours' are acutely aware of the environmental impact (or lack of it) that their lifestyle induces.  They collect rainwater in large cylinders, and use it for washing their clothes, bathing, and cooking.

"We don't use any electricity", says Chuck. "If everyone lived the way we did, we wouldn't need coal, gas, hydro-electric dams, etc.".
Chuck is fishing for crabs in the Industrial Canal of New Orleans

What about jobs?  Is it feasible to have one step in the professional world, and the other in the dumpster?
"Absolutely", says Chuck, who aspires to become a mathematics teacher.  "You just have to keep your professional and your personal lives separate. You have to show up to work looking good, smelling good, with a tie and a nice shirt.  Then when you get home, you take it all off. You have to live a lie".

I was deeply inspired by these four individuals. It takes courage to live with minimal security, with no revenue, and in contradiction to societal and familial expectations.  But they are young, smart, healthy, and in no hurry to satisfy anyone's expectations but their own.
Power to them.


  1. Great post Karina. Whatever you do, dont show these pictures to my mom!

  2. I don't think I said the second comment, or if I did, please retract it because it is a poorly stated position and one that I am not aligned with. Other than that, nice written snapshot in time, i feel slightly famous!

  3. Love this blog Karina.

    Tom...wat is your current position in regards to contributing toward comfort and technologies? What have you decided or aligned to? Thanks.

    Andy (Paddy's Irish Pub, Cusco, Peru)