John Spieker stood on the back porch of his newly rented Bailey, Colorado, home, thankful for his Good Samaritan landlord and worried that his previous home, parked in the driveway, wouldn’t get him to work the next day.
His 1977 Toyota Dolphin camper, which Spieker rescued from a salvage yard, had carried him, his wife, Katie, and 4-month-old son, Jacob, from Florida to Colorado earlier this summer, a cross-country sojourn in search of work. He was uncertain it could handle the 14-mile commute the next morning, but he’d make do. “I’m gonna get up extra early every morning like I have been, and if it [the camper] doesn’t get to work, I’m gonna hitchhike,” Spieker said last week. “I have a wife and a son to support.” Spieker had been making $12 an hour plus commission at his information technology job in Trenton, Florida. Katie was working part-time in a candle shop, and between them they pulled in a little more than $2,500 a month. But Katie, 21, quit to have the baby, and they moved into a bigger, more expensive house to accommodate their larger family. As June approached, Spieker, 36, was told his hours and commission were being cut as Florida’s economy sank. “It got to the point where $6.50 an hour with a house just ain’t gonna happen. I was trying to do good for my family, but what can I do” he asked. His last day of work in Florida was June 30.
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With Florida’s unemployment rate at 10.6 percent in June, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, he investigated where prospects might be better, settling on Colorado (7.6 unemployment), and if things didn’t work out there, North Dakota (the nation’s lowest unemployment at 4.2 percent). The Spieker family prepared for the trip by holding a yard sale a few days before they were set to leave Trenton, a town of 1,800 near Gainesville. They dutifully cleaned up the home they rented but could no longer afford. “You’re not going to pay the rent, you get out of the house, you know” Spieker said. They hit the road with $1,000 in cash, a cell phone, some food and what clothing they could fit. The rickety old camper required some minor repairs along the way: a new battery strap after being bounced around on a rough Alabama highway, some brake work after one stuck near St. Charles, Missouri. Spieker said he sold wire art in taverns during the journey to earn extra money. He was teased by opportunities that didn’t pan out. “I never actually saw this before, but some towns are actually putting billboards up that say ‘This town has jobs,’ ” he said of his travels through the nation’s heartland. “I actually went to check it out,” he said. “They’ve got a couple jobs, but nothing really great. They’ve got some jobs I’m not qualified for, in the medical field,” he said. Still without work after arriving in Colorado, the Spiekers lived “out in the woods” for a few weeks. They didn’t consider themselves homeless, John Spieker said, “just camping.” Using computers at a local office supply store and the library, Spieker and his family have been able to tap private and public assistance to care for themselves. A local church has taken care of some day-to-day needs. “I went down and talked to them and said, ‘Hey this is what the situation is, if there’s any help available.’ They said they could probably help us out with food, baby needs,” Spieker said. “And we’re actually going to apply for medical assistance.” As for food stamps, Spieker said he’d rather the program be used on the infirm than someone like himself who could provide — no matter how meager the fixings — for his family. “I’m sure there’s other people out there that don’t have the motivation or the ability [to work] that can use the food stamps,” he said. Katie doesn’t fret about the family’s circumstances either. She said she leaves “all the financial details up to John.” “My main job is to take care of Jacob,” she said. Life got a bit easier on July 20, when Spieker landed work at an auto parts store. A person he connected with through an online forum offered the Bailey house for $350 a month rent, a $400 discount off the normal price. The home’s owner is working a temporary contract construction job on the other side of Colorado, Spieker said, enabling the deal. But the “For Sale” sign out front and real estate agent’s lockbox on the front door remind Spieker about how temporary his lodgings may be. While he’s grateful for the auto parts job, nothing is certain there either. A national chain is trying to take over the independent retailer, he said. “It’s a struggling company,” Spieker said. “At the same time, he’s busy enough to where he needs three people behind the counter.” He’s making $10 an hour. But he knows that won’t keep his family housed when the cheap rent goes away. “At this point we have a place to stay for two or three months. He said ‘maybe three, probably two,’ ” Spieker said, recounting his landlord’s words. “I like it here. I just need something better-paying,” he said. If he didn’t find something soon, he said, “At this point, I’ll be right back into the same scenario.” But for the moment, the Spiekers are enjoying what they have. “The house is great. It’s a one-bedroom, it kind of looks like somebody decided to build an A-frame. It has a really, really nice view,” Katie said. Drinking in the surroundings on the back porch, John Spieker agrees. “I have the most awesome view,” Spieker said, looking at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. “I can’t bring myself to walk off the back porch.”