Travel, Budget Beds, and the Homeless

Rick steves with mothers

I just gave a $4 million apartment complex for homeless women and kids to the YWCA. Let me explain why.

I know vacation travel is supposed to provide a break from the grinding reality of our workaday lives. But for me, travel and the peace of mind of having a roof over your head have always been associated.

Before “Europe Through the Back Door,” my travels were “Europe Through the Gutter.” Slumming through Europe as a teenage backpacker, life for me was the daily challenge of finding an affordable (i.e., free) place to sleep. With my rail pass, I’d sleep on a train four hours out, cross the tracks, and sleep four hours back in. I’d sleep on a ferry (covered by the rail pass) between Stockholm and Helsinki on successive nights to afford spending entire days of sightseeing alternating between the two most expensive cities in Europe. I’d sneak into my friends’ hotel rooms and sleep on the floor (restlessly and stressed-out…but free). I’d sleep free on the pews of Greek churches, on the concrete floors of Dutch construction projects, and in barns at the edge of unaffordable Swiss alpine resorts. How else would a white, middle-class American kid gain a firsthand appreciation for the value of a safe and comfortable place to sleep?

In my earliest days as a tour guide, I’d put people in terrible rooms just so they would better appreciate having a nice home as their norm. I’d intentionally not have a hotel reservation for my groups until late in the afternoon…just to put my tourists through the anxiety of not knowing if they’d have a roof over their head tonight. The intended souvenir: More empathy for the homeless. (This experiment was very short-lived. These days, of course, our tours pursue enlightenment more maturely, gracefully, and effectively.)

I traveled in Central America, where I learned civil wars that I thought were between communists and capitalists were actually between obscenely rich oligarchs and landless peasants. I hung out with poor Christians who took the Biblical Jubilee Year (the notion that every fifty years the land is to be re-divided and debts are to be forgiven) seriously…even though rich Christians assumed God must have been kidding.

Back home, one of my pet social causes has long been affordable housing. Twenty years ago, I devised a scheme where I could put my retirement savings not into a bank to get interest, but into cheap apartments to house struggling neighbors. I would retain my capital, my equity would grow as the apartment complex appreciated, and I would suffer none of the headaches that I would have if I had rented out the units as a landlord. Rather than collecting rent, my “income” would be the joy of housing otherwise desperate people.  I found this a creative, compassionate and more enlightened way to “invest” while retaining my long-term security.

This project evolved until, eventually, I owned a 24-unit apartment complex that I provided to the YWCA. They used it to house single moms who were recovering hard-drug addicts and were now ready to get custody of their children back. Imagine the joy of knowing that I could provide a simple two-bedroom apartment for a mom and her kids as she fought to get her life back on track. Imagine the joy of giving people who dedicate their lives (through their work with the YWCA) to helping these people in need the facility to better do their work. To me, this wasn’t particularly noble or compassionate…it was just thoughtful use of my capital. Working with the YWCA and the Rotary Club of Edmonds, I wrote an essay about this vision, and we publicized this creative way of putting a fortunate person’s retirement nest egg to work in a powerful way.

With the election of our president and the rise of a new, greed-is-good ethic in our government, I want to be more constructive than just complaining about how our society is once again embracing “trickle-down” ethics, and our remarkable ability to ignore the need in our communities even as so much wealth is accumulated within the top one percent of our populace. I’m heartbroken at how good people, dedicating their lives to helping others (through social organizations and non-profits across our society), are bracing for a new forced austerity under our government of billionaires.

So, inspired by what’s happening in our government and in an attempt to make a difference, I decided to take my personal affordable housing project one step further: I recently gave my 24-unit apartment complex to the YWCA. Now the YWCA can plan into the future knowing this facility is theirs. And I’ll forever enjoy knowing that, with this gift, I’m still helping them with their mission.

The gap between rich and poor in our country continues to widen. And I believe needs — such as affordable housing — will only increase as budget cuts are implemented. Organizations like the YWCA will need to pick up the slack. If our country truly wants to be great, we need creative thinking connected with our hearts. And it’s my hope that love and compassion can trump values of crass commercialism, greed, and “winners” beating “losers.”