Once homeless, a Farmington man traveled 9,000 miles across 48 states to raise awareness about the problem.
For nine months in 2001, Greg Staffa lived a lie and no one at the time knew.
In April of that year, Staffa found himself homeless and living out of his car. Five months later, he was unemployed. Rather than go to a shelter, he used amenities at a local community college. He still went out at night to hang out with friends, but immediately after would go find a 24-hour grocery store to park his car for the night.
"I did things to not feel homeless," recalled Staffa last week. "You kind of kid yourself to keep your own sanity."
Seven years later, Staffa owns a townhouse in Farmington, a job with Northwest Airlines and a new car. But he hasn't forgotten those months he spent sleeping in the backseat of that 1993 Mazda.
From Sept. 6 through Sept. 14, Staffa traveled 9,068 miles through 48 states to raise awareness about the homeless - specifically the efforts of a California nonprofit to help those in need. The nine-day road trip was also a personal spiritual journey, Staffa said.
"For me, it kind of represented a fresh start to put that period behind me," he said. "It gave me time to reflect on where I've been and where I'm going."
Staffa got the idea of a road trip for the homeless after hearing a Fox radio segment in April about the California program. The New Beginnings Counseling Center, a homeless outreach organization in Santa Barbara, had organized safe parking locations for people living out of their cars. It struck a chord with Staffa.
"I had to create a black tent to hide under in my car [in 2001]. If they did look into the car, they wouldn't notice me. There was this guilt feeling and this program tries to take that away," Staffa said. "With people hurting, the last thing they should feel is guilty for being in a bad situation."
Although Staffa took his road trip to raise awareness for the California initiative, he thinks his efforts have broader relevance. He hopes more states and cities follow New Beginnings' lead.
"For me, it wasn't a California issue. It wasn't a Minnesota issue. It was a nationwide issue," he said. "I just crossed through 48 states and I never saw a sign that says 'Homeless Ends Here.' It's about finding the best programs out there to help people."
Staffa, a real estate agent for Keys4U Realty, started preparing for his trip in August. He bought six large maps from AAA, pasted them onto cardboard pieces and marked out his route. He spent a lot of time on the Google maps site, tracing a route that would take him to places he's always wanted to visit, such as Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon.
"My biggest fear was to get home and realize I had missed Delaware or something like that," Staffa said.
At 3 a.m. on Sept. 6, Staffa left his apartment with his maps, a GPS, a few changes of clothes and some food. He used his iPhone to give Twitter updates and send messages to friends keeping track of his progress.
By the time Staffa had returned home Sept. 14, he had spent about $1,000 on gas and a couple hundred dollars on food and other expenses. He slept in his car the entire trip -- and he said he got the best week's sleep he's had since he was homeless.
"It was an amazing experience," Staffa said. "With the election and everything, we're always hearing about America being broken up. This is a red state. This is a blue state. In driving, I never saw a red state or a blue state. It was just America."
Jeannine Aquino • 952-882-9056