One Woman’s Journey from Living in a Storage Unit to Living a Life of Stability

By    November 20, 2013

Becky Blanton

For Becky Blanton, the journey began when her father died of brain cancer in 2006.

Shortly after her dad’s death, Blanton quit her job as a newspaper editor in Colorado, packed up her green 1975 Chevy van, and hit the road with her cat and Rottweiler riding shotgun. As an avid camper and traveler, Blanton imagined the next year would unfold like one long road trip that would let her sort through the emotions of her father’s death while also seeing the country. All things being equal, she’d emerge with clarity and enlightenment.

Desperate Times
Within just a few months, however, Blanton—who’d been estranged from her father for 15 years before his death—began spiraling into a deep, unexpected depression. The freelance writing gig she was leaning on to sustain her travels dried up, and the money ran out. She eventually found herself living in a self-storage unit just outside Denver.

Most people think of the homeless as alcoholics and drug addicts, but that’s just 15 percent of the homeless population.
— Becky Blanton

“It was June, and living in the van was miserably hot. I needed somewhere to get away from the heat, and the storage unit was the only thing I could afford,” said Blanton, a native of Knoxville, TN. “I looked for rooms to rent, but I would have needed to get rid of almost everything I owned. Besides, most places wouldn’t let me live with my pets, and there was no way I was giving them up.”

The unit was small—10×20, or 200 square feet. Blanton already had been renting it to store her belongings while touring the country. It wasn’t climate-controlled, but it was far cooler than the green van she’d affectionately named Booger.

Meanwhile, managers at the Colorado facility (which Blanton didn’t want to name) looked the other way.

“After a few days, they knew what I was doing,” Blanton said. “But they knew me already, and they also knew that I used to be a police officer. I wasn’t doing drugs or drinking. I wasn’t causing problems. I had just fallen on hard times, and they were in a position to help.”

Becky Blanton

Survival Mode
Nonetheless, Blanton’s unique living arrangement didn’t come without challenges. For instance, she needed to camouflage her self-storage quarters from other tenants.

To accomplish this, Blanton collected cardboard boxes from nearby grocery stores and stacked them a few feet from the entrance, creating the illusion that her unit was packed floor to ceiling. Behind that secret cardboard wall, however, was a remarkable setup that included a bed, an ice chest, a small couch, a battery-powered lamp and a few posters taped to the corrugated sheet-metal walls.

“I’m a female. We nest wherever we go. So I made the place livable and even a little cozy,” Blanton said. “It wasn’t much, but it was comfortable.”

I found out a lot about what it takes to live in a storage unit. The key is remaining invisible.
— Becky Blanton

Blanton quickly found part-time employment at a nearby retail store called Camping World, where she earned $11.50 an hour as a night-shift customer service representative. Camping World also had an employee gym and showers, where Blanton washed up each day before her shift.

Whenever she could afford it, Blanton ate at local buffets, always arriving at the tail end of the lunch shift, when meals often cost about $5 less than the dinner menu.

“I found a lot of really kind people in restaurants. They would give me extra helpings of food or a to-go box without charging me for it,” Blanton said. “Cooks would also give me left over meat and bones for my dog.”

Becky Blanton and Koko

Getting Settled
During the day, Blanton scoured Craigslist for a variety of odd jobs. For instance, she reached out to a local psychiatrist who offered to pay $200 to anyone willing to be interviewed about depression. She also responded to the University of Colorado in Boulder, which was seeking someone to provide the voice for its automated phone system. She even got a part-time gig as a mystery shopper for a national chain of self-storage facilities.

“I’d call up storage facilities all over the country and ask them questions about their business, including whether or not they had homeless people living in their units,” Blanton said. “I thought that was just hysterical.”

What was perhaps most surprising to Blanton was how easy it was to settle into this new way of living.

I know what it’s like to feel invisible to the rest of the world.
— Becky Blanton

“I really didn’t expect how easy it would be to make it happen, which I definitely couldn’t have done without the support of the facility managers,” Blanton said. “And I found out a lot about what it takes to live in a storage unit. The key is remaining invisible. And you can’t tell anyone what you’re doing. Not your friends or anyone you meet. If you do, it will eventually get back to the manager.”

And while the managers at Blanton’s facility knew what she was up to, the facility’s off-site owners had no idea. Regardless, Blanton said she never really feared getting in trouble.

“The worst thing they can do is kick you out and maybe have you arrested for trespassing,” Blanton said. “But I was a cop at 21. I know how they think and how they operate, so I figured if it ever came down to it, I could talk my way out of trouble. But I’m glad I never had to test that theory.”

Becky Blanton TED

Moving On
For four months, Blanton thrived inside her tiny corrugated home, but when October rolled around, the situation became increasingly dire. Colorado’s nighttime temperatures often hovered around freezing. Without heat, her unit started feeling like a giant icebox. Blanton knew she had to move on.

So she packed up her van and hit the road once again, this time heading south to her hometown in Tennessee. For the next few months, she couch-surfed with friends and continued living out of her van. And her depression grew worse.

Eventually, it was a phone call from a friend that saved her.

Just before her father died, Blanton had written an essay about the physical and sexual abuse he’d inflicted upon her, as well as how she came to terms with the trauma while he was on his death bed. The essay was called “The Monster,” and Blanton had sent it to “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert, who was looking for essays to include in his upcoming book “Wisdom of Our Fathers: Lessons and Letters from Daughters and Sons.” Russert liked Blanton’s essay so much that he decided to feature it in the final chapter of his book. But Blanton didn’t know this until she got that fateful call.

“So there I was, paralyzed by my depression, suicidal and curled up in a fetal position in the back of my van, when a friend called and said Tim Russert was on C-SPAN talking about me and my essay,” Blanton said. “That’s when I reconnected to who I was.”

Becky Blanton TED

Bouncing Back
Since then, Blanton’s life has undergone a remarkable transformation.

After emerging from her depression, she got a job working at a newspaper in Tennessee. In 2009, she gave a TED talk about her experience with homelessness. That talk caught the attention of Kissito.org, a nonprofit that seeks solutions to problems like poverty and natural resources preservation. Kissito’s vice president of business development liked Blanton’s TED talk so much that he asked her to write a book about his organization and the global charity work it does.

(To watch Blanton’s TED talk, visit http://bit.ly/1bBJyIM.)

Blanton, 58, now lives in an apartment in Virginia and uses a nearby self-storage unit as her office—this time with the owner’s knowledge and permission. She’s currently writing her second book for Kissito; it’s about a devastating hailstorm in Africa that wiped out crops and left more than 2,000 villagers without food or water. What’s more, she’s in the midst of two celebrity-ghostwriting projects and continues to advocate for what she calls America’s “invisible homeless.”

“Most people think of the homeless as alcoholics and drug addicts, but that’s just 15 percent of the homeless population. The other 85 percent have jobs, they try to seek out normalcy, they have kids and are desperate for some sense of self-esteem,” Blanton said.

“I was one of those people, and I know what it’s like to feel invisible to the rest of the world. And that’s the horrible thing about homelessness. You’re just out there. So you want something to give you a sense of a place, somewhere you can call home. That’s what I had at that storage unit, and it really did make a difference.”

Bottom two photos courtesy of ted.com; other photos courtesy of Becky Blanton

  • SpareFootTony

    I expected a fluff piece with an anticlimactic ending, but this is a truly inspiring story. Bravo!

  • selfstoragefinders

    Agreed, Tony. Great story and truly inspirational!

  • nozona

    Nice story but as a self-storage manager I’ve had this situation and want to point out a couple things. It’s heart-wrenching and we want to help. But the manager also has to keep it invisible, we put our jobs (and sometimes that includes our own living arrangement) on the line because it’s absolutely against all policies to be a living space.

  • GADAVE

    GREAT…now you glorifiy how a onsite manager went against their owners policy and allowed someone to homestead in a storage unit. Storage units are not zoned, built or furnished to be living quarters. As a onsite manager you have to apply policy to everyone across the board and NOT pick and choose whom it will or will not apply to. Had this woman been attacked, robbed, raped or murdered during the night how could the manager have lived with themselves for “looking the other way”. Yes, this story has a happy ending but it could have been very bad. PLEASE do not encourage others to follow this unsafe decision.

  • Storage Manager

    As a manager there is no way I would let someone live on site. We have a lot of customers who are with us to begin with because they are having hard times. 2 of our favorites right now have lost their home in foreclosure and their units are going up for auction for non-payment. As much as I wish there were more I could do for them, there’s no way I would let them live onsite. I would make phone calls for them, help them find services, as I have done for other tenants and do whatever I could but if I let them live on site, I might be living in the unit next to them when it was discovered. These managers did not do themselves any favors and certainly did not do a favor for their owner! Plus when stories like these get out on the news and web, people think it’s a solution to their own problems. All that has happened here is that it has now potentially put the rest of us in a bad position with people possibly thinking they can live on property and the managers will look the other way.

  • John Egan

    We in no way intended for this story to condone living in a storage unit. We simply wanted to tell the story of this woman and her harrowing journey. We will be publishing a follow-up article about how living in a storage unit is illegal, why it’s illegal, how storage facilities can cope with homesteaders, etc.

  • StorageOwner

    This violates prudent management on so many levels. It is a clear violation of the law, and the Manager should be held accountable for his/her actions. It jeopardizes the safety of everyone else’s belongings which have been entrusted to the facility. This action constitutes gross negligence, and it is a Blessing that an insurance claim did not have to be filed. The blatant disregard for the rules of the owner is grounds for termination. Any other manager thinking this is a good idea, should be willing to give up their job for the decision they make.
    If the facility had to throw the woman out, say in 0 degree weather in January, and the press got ahold of it, the consequences would have been quite dramatic.
    I hope another owner does not have to hire this manager.

  • keisha green

    I think the policy and law law is pure bs… We all choose to do something illegal at one time or another. I feel like society has become crippled without any back bone. Running to the police or whoever is in charge any chance they get. Literally afraid probably tremballing in there presence. What happened to people today seriously… If you a manager recieving i dont know 15 dollars an hour lost your job house and had kids… had absolutley no where to stay… Youd probably want the same option … i do not think that living in a storage unit should be long term… but, if someone is trying there best with employment hygiene and trying to make it… i think that they should be allowed an opportunity… i know it is not there job to care… but shit it sure seems like they do care enough to call 50 … xp

  • Diva Dime

    I agree with you on some aspects, Keisha. It’s all grossly illegal and clear violations of prudent management until it becomes one of us. Obviously, the chances of it becoming those who OWN/MANAGE storages are les likely than those whom utilize them; because of this reason, it’s extremely hard for some people to fathom “looking the other way” in this type of situation. I whole heartedly agree with your metaphor. I am sure many of these storage managers would contemplate doing the same as the woman in this story, if faced with the same predicaments. Upon reading the entire story and every single comment, what stood out to me the most was the frightening fact that more people favor law than they favor helping a person in dire need. Sometimes, doing the right thing is doing what’s right to us; not others. Who will care for those whom cannot care for themselves?-DivaontheDime

  • beckyblanton

    I’m the woman in the story and I appreciate ALL your comments. I lived in the unit perhaps 25% of the time and tried to live in my van whenever I could so I didn’t jeopardize the owners jobs. I slept during the day, there’s no law about what you do when you’re in your unit, and I didn’t do drugs, drink or do anything to jeopardize the safety of those around me – no fires or cooking etc. Part of being human and compassionate is knowing when to bend or even break the law. There are millions of Jews alive today because a handful of people put compassion ahead of law. I don’t advocate living in a unit, but I do want to point out that a person is MUCH more likely to be raped, mugged or killed outside on the street than inside a unit. If you DO find people living in a unit, please try to connect them with other services and don’t call the police. The police, jail etc. can be so much more destructive. I understand your concern with your facilities safety, and the safety of your customers. This couple knew my story and could verify what I told them by going online. It’s up to you. Come judgment day God will look at who you helped, not how many laws you kept. I thank this couple and owe them so much – they let me use tools to get my van livable, and they didn’t judge me. They had been harassed by the police and suffered under the heavy hands of a sheriff intent on destroying their business because they kicked him out of a unit where he stored stolen property. There is no black and white in any business. If you toe every line one day you will find yourself in a situation where you need mercy and compassion and consideration yourself. I thank all of you who have written to share your story and to admit you too “look the other way”….I think that is much easier to live with than knowing people froze to death without shelter. If you do want to obey the law, then at least start learning who to contact and what social services agencies there are. Be legal, but be kind. We are all people with a story that could be your story one day.

  • Christy Schmall

    Agreed! BRAVO

  • Christy Schmall

    “Store not your treasures on earth” “hen you take care of the LEAST of mine you take care of ME” – Jesus Christ

  • Christy Schmall

    Do you REALLY think you wrote something on here we ALL didn’t already KNOW?. so She can freeze to death as long as she doesn’t do it in YOUR storage facility, RIGHT? we get it.

  • Christy Schmall

    YOU don’t have to defend or explain yourself to ANYONE. KARMA is a bitch baby and it comes swiftly and from outta NO where.

  • WGM

    Amen! Right on the Nail!

    Be.the.Change + Love.and.Peace
    http://Www.Facebook.com/WGM1234
    *Jesus DIED for YOU*…

  • Tick-Tock

    Thank you so much for caring enough about the animals you love so dearly. My situation is very similar with 3 beloved pets. I would never sacrifice them. We will make it. And to the poster who rants on storage living, Your hard times are right around the corner in the form of economic collapse. What is YOUR gameplan?

  • Tick-Tock

    If you ever read this: in my city there are hoards of people trading EBT cards for storage unit living. Also for car repairs. The black market is emerging…and a heads up to all the law callers, the corporation don’t give a rats as* about you…when it all goes south, you are on your own.

  • Tick-Tock

    Just a heads up on ‘your job as owner’. All storage facilities will shut down if the economy gets any worse. Look it up yourself. By your rant you are truly an burros butt of epic proportions….

  • OhNoesNotAgain

    Let us know where your facility is so we can boycott you.

  • Trace Wikes

    “Do not encourage this *unsafe* decision”
    How safe would her alternative have been? Also she was working to build herself a way out of her situation. Had she been attacked, robbed, raped…it’d have been far better for it to occur during a car break in or whilst she was sleeping beneath a bush? Do you not think that “could have been *very bad* ” ? I do hope that you never find yourself in this situation. May you always be safe and warm in a home somewhere ! PLEASE encourage others to follow an even worse unsafe decision…. O.o
    My mother had a saying: There, but for the grace of God, goes you or me. In other words, hard times or tragedy is no respecter of people. It befalls us all.

  • jacob v

    If I had a penny every time a homeless person tells me they are homeless due to them not wanting to give up pets. I guess feeding and caring for a pet is more important to them than caring for themselves or their own relatives or kids… selfish idiots get what they deserve

  • John Judge

    I agree….the “pets are like or kids” garbage is way over the top. I am a pet lover (german shepeard of course) but if it came down to me or Fred…well….I love ya Fred, but in the end you are an animal, NOT a child.

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