Joon and Tae (not their real names) spent the past year hitchhiking across the U.S. and Canada. Tae, 23, is the gregarious one, with a knack for diffusing awkward situations. Joon, 22, is quiet, stoic; she seems to take everything in stride. It's a good combination of qualities for a couple who have weathered a series of adventures that are often a combination of tedium and risk.
By late summer they were sick of traveling. With no money or job, the couple took up residence in an abandoned house in Knoxville. Squatting is illegal, of course, hence the pseudonyms. Tae and Joon live there without paying rent and without permission from the owner. They live without running water, and, until recently, without electricity. Now they run an extension cord from a neighbor to power a lamp and a radio. In a small downstairs room they have a composting toilet.
"It's actually just a five-gallon bucket full of shit and sawdust," says Tae.
They learned about the house from a friend who had visions of turning it into a squatters' housing co-op. But he had to abandon the house after two weeks due to a mold allergy. Now he sleeps in his car.
The house was seriously uncared for. Once a handsome craftsman-style home, since the early '90s it has been owned by a series of landlords, according to kgis.org. A few years ago someone bought it, started improvements, then abandoned it unfinished. The house was left open to the elements. People did drugs in the house and trashed it. Tae points out graffiti on the walls and describes drug paraphernalia he found in the house. Neighbors were unhappy with the situation. Although repeatedly contacted, the owner, who owns several neglected properties in Knoxville, and lives in a large house in a new development, failed to take action.
When Tae and Joon moved in this summer, their neighbors liked that the couple put a lock on the door and started fixing up the place. They quarantined the worst of the mold in the downstairs rooms by spreading plastic over the doorways. They keep the interior as pristine as possible, and mostly live in one cozy upstairs bedroom. Tae showed me another upstairs bedroom.
"This is our next project," he said, "we plan on making it a guest room or something."
Earlier that day, Tae's parents, "upper-middle-class kinda uptight white folk" from Alabama, had come into town to visit them in the squat for the first time. It was a little awkward.
"They don't understand. They just tried to keep their mouths shut," says Tae.
Privately, Tae's mom asked Joon, "Are you really okay with this?"
"Yeah," said Joon.
After a year homeless and jobless, the squat is a transition. It's also an experiment, a domestic adventure. Tae just landed a full-time job in the food industry, Joon works part-time grading papers. In their free time they volunteer at various local organizations. At home they read books, play cards, or draw. They have two chairs drawn companionably close, a table covered with books, and a nice draftsman table they pulled out of the trash.
"These chairs came out of the trash, the mattress came out of the trash, that table came out of another abandoned house," says Tae. "It's remarkable what's available for free. This house is furnished from things we found in the garbage. And the house, it was basically in the garbage, too."
A few weeks after I visited, the couple moved out. Joon was in the house alone one night when she heard people downstairs. They barricaded the door, but another night the couple returned home to find a smashed window and their tools and extension cords gone. They decided the house was not safe, and moved in with friends. Tae just got paid, and they are looking for an apartment to rent. Their domestic experiment over, the house is once again empty.
"We haven't completely given up on the house," Tae says, "we still want to fix it up, but we need to keep people from breaking in. We just want to help out the neighborhood."