Moab “Dirtbaggers” blur the line between homeless and not

Editor’s noteThrough a grant from the local media associationThe Salt Lake Tribune reports on homelessness in Utah communities outside of the Salt Lake Valley.

Moab • Mike “Marlow” Mewborn likes to say he’s “homeless” – not “homeless”.

The 63-year-old writer and avid outdoor enthusiast gave up his four walls about 15 years ago and chose to make a living off his bike and a few other essentials after realizing he was happiest when he was outdoors most of the time spent outdoors.

First he spent summers in Jackson, Wyo., and winters in Mexico. A few years ago, however, he made the switch to living full-time in Moab, where he and his elderly greyhound, Flix, sleep in a man-made cave in the hotter months and camp at the hostel in town in the colder months.

Despite not having a home, he represses the idea that he is missing something. “Many so-called homeless people feel more at home than people living in an ordinary suburban lot,” he said.

“Because to have a home you have to have a relationship not only with what you live in, but also with the landscape and the seasons and the weather, the other species, your neighbors. And more and more I see that people who live in the standard template household are kind of cut off from all these things.”

Mewborn is part of a proud group of Moab “dirtbaggers” — or “skids,” as he likes to call himself — who shed the constraints of job and home to embrace outdoor recreation.

But with some people volunteering to camp or live in vans, and others eager for a roof over their heads amid the city’s housing crisis, the line between the community’s homeless and non-homeless can be blurred.

Grand County Commissioner Mary McGann says it’s common knowledge that there are “two types of homelessness in the community.”

The first group is chronically vulnerable and fits better with the ‘traditional’ view of homelessness. The second consists of people living in their cars, either by choice or because they can’t find other accommodation in the booming tourist community.

“You’re your guy in the service industry — your maids, your cooks, your waiters, your waitresses, your people who navigate the rivers, give tours,” she notes.

[Read more: ‘Done with Moab:’ Now living in his car, longtime community DJ says the town is unaffordable]

While most people in this category don’t seek homeless services, it can be difficult for providers to identify who needs their help and who chose this lifestyle, said Liz Donkersloot, housing resources coordinator at the Moab Multicultural Center.

“There are so many people who live life in the van,” she noted. “And then there’s this really fine line between, well, are you homeless and living out of your car by choice, or are you doing it because you have to and awkwardly have no choice?”

Sometimes, she said, it comes down to how each individual defines their experience and how much choice and agency they had. “Do they have these resources, do they have these connections? Can they go to work?” she said.

The Southeastern Utah Housing Authority has repeatedly offered Mewborn a place in an affordable housing unit. But as classical music echoed through the chill of the cave he was staying in, he said he wasn’t interested in settling down just yet.

“I’m always like, ‘Can you call me back in about 10 years?'” he said. “It would just be death to end up in a box like that.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Liz Donkersloot, Housing Resources Coordinator at Moab Valley Multicultural Center, on June 3, 2021.

Pushed into van life

Sock Beachum – a longtime Moab resident who lives in a Ford Escape with his partner and two dogs – said he was recently surprised when a friend jokingly used the word homeless to describe him.

“I’m like, I guess I am, aren’t I?” thought the 38-year-old bicycle dealer. “But neither am I. My car is my home, so it makes no sense to say that.”

He and his partner have been camping in the SUV since losing their home a few weeks ago, he said. And although he didn’t choose this lifestyle, he still enjoys it.

He loves to cook on a two-burner camp stove with the desert spread out before him. He even appreciates the lack of privacy and the ability to see his neighbors while relaxing or making coffee at his picnic table.

“Sometimes I can share food with passers-by. I might not do that within my walls,” he said. “As a person who has often retreated into my privacy and not thrived, it has compelled me to say, ‘Well, look, you have no privacy now. What are you going to do?”

This living situation is just the latest in unconventional living for Beachum since he moved to Moab some seven years ago.

He has traded work for housing, helping to grow basil and vegetables at a local farm in exchange for accommodation in a converted bus. He later rented a small shack where he had to draw his water from a tap in the winter when the water pipes were shut off.

And he also sees many other Moabites in unusual accommodations, from school buses to retrofitted vans.

“I definitely see a UPS truck regularly,” he laughed. “This guy in Moab camping outside is gonna blow music out of that UPS truck.”

The limits of lifestyle

While Beachum isn’t sure when he’ll be moving back into his own four walls, others who’ve enjoyed the van life say the experience definitely has an expiration date.

Mike Stimola, owner of Moab Canyon Tours, lived as a dirt digger for a time, enjoying the freedom that came with not having a home.

But like many people who stay in Moab for the long term, he eventually drifted from that mindset when he realized the supposedly liberating lifestyle was more expensive and limiting than he once thought.

“I find it ironic that a lot of people say, ‘Oh, I live in my car so I’m not tethered,'” he said. “But oh, I have to spend three hours in the library tomorrow so I can charge my phone.”

Outdoor guides in particular return exhausted and hot from trips, and all they want is a quiet, air-conditioned home to recharge in.

Instead, faced with the lack of affordable housing, many of them have to continue camping or return to apartments overcrowded with roommates. Grand County Commissioner Gabriel Woytek said he even spoke to a river guide who sleeps in a storage unit.

At one point, Grand County Commissioner Jacques Hadler dealt with the lack of workers’ housing by having his bike shop employees camp out in the company parking lot and giving them access to the shop’s outdoor bathroom and shower.

“If they were working at 7:30 or 8 the next morning, it was convenient for them to just sleep in their van in the parking lot,” he said.

But the Moab police eventually cracked down on the campground, forcing its employees to move farther afield onto public lands to find places to sleep. Grand County commissioners also recently decided to restrict camping outside of designated areas in an attempt to address concerns about the proliferation of RVs on private property.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Moab, a city of 5,400, swells in the thousands week after week from May through November as tourists visit Arches National Park and outdoor enthusiasts come to hike, bike , camp, 4×4 ride and walk the Colorado River, February 19, 2021.

Before the bans passed the commission, both Hadler and Woytek spoke about how camping is often the only option for local workers. Woytek later noted in an interview that the housing struggle becomes apparent just by looking at Moab.

“I can drive around a few blocks here in town and I’ve run out of fingers to count how many people are clearly living in an RV or RV in someone’s driveway,” he said.

Woytek’s house was once one of them. With Grand County also suffering from a lack of child care, Woytek’s mother spent some time in an 18-foot mobile home on the family farm so she could help care for the commissioner’s 4-year-old daughter.

And until the affordable housing crisis abates, Moab’s RV-crammed driveways will continue to be a fact of life and locals will wonder if they can live in a city that has overpriced them, he said.

“It would be a real shame that with this kind of labor shortage or general housing shortage,” he said, “we’re driving out these important people.” Moab “Dirtbaggers” blur the line between homeless and not

Joel McCord

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