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Image: Lawrie Covey, a resident of Elkhart County, Ind.
Carissa Ray  /  msnbc.com
Lawrie Covey is struggling to make ends meet as her unemployment benefits are running out.
By John W. Schoen Senior producer
msnbc.com
updated 11/20/2009 4:04:28 PM ET 2009-11-20T21:04:28

At the edge of this town, at the end of a long driveway, lives Lawrie Covey, who's at the end of her rope.

At 58, she’s been out of work for two years after decades of working in the RV industry. The irony is that she soon may be living in an RV.

“This is the longest not being able to find a job I’ve ever been through,” she said. “I never, never in a million years expected to be this long unemployed. I have a lot of skills. I have a lot of history. I have an associate's degree. I can’t even get a job cleaning rooms at a local motel.”

Signs of life in the RV industry here are welcome news for the few hundred workers recently called back to a handful of manufacturing lines. But for Covey, along with many of the more than 14,000 other jobless workers in Elkhart County — and nearly 16 million nationwide — life remains a day-to-day struggle.

Covey's troubles were compounded about a year ago when her son, who splits the $1,100 monthly rent, lost his job after eight years as night shift foreman for a local manufacturer. The landlord recently agreed to cut $100 off the rent, but she expects her heating bill to begin rising with the cold weather. To supplement her unemployment check, Covey sells blood plasma twice a week for $50.

“The electric bill, that’s the one that we have a hard time getting hold of,” she said. “We had to keep the computer on in order to keep our job search going. We use the Internet a lot; it’s a lot cheaper to file six job applications from the computer than it is to get in your vehicle and spend a quarter-tank of gas six times to drive into town.”

A 20-year-old, tan, Ford F150 pickup truck sitting in the driveway is showing its age. The truck is paid for, so the bank can’t repossess it, but Covey recently discovered it needs a new radiator.

“It’s like an ugly girlfriend, nobody knows why you keep her,” she said. “But it works.”

Having grown up in an RV family, she has fond childhood memories of a family trip west in the early 1960s to deliver a trailer to a customer. She remembers Yellowstone Park and Route 66, when it was still the main artery running though the heart of the West. That was when St. Louis, Mo., was still the gateway to a land of seemingly limitless opportunity. It was the beginning, she says, of a “lifelong love affair with the western part of the country.”

That wanderlust supported three generations of families who devoted their lives to the RV business. Since she was a child, Covey has seen the industry suffer multiple booms and busts.

“This is the worst,” she said. “I went through the whole '80s thing when van conversions took off, and then it fell out and everybody was out of a job. I went and got a job as a bank teller. It was a long time before the RVs came back after that. So I won’t work for another RV-related industry. I can’t. This is like the fourth time I’ve got nailed with this. Just about the time I get out of the hole, I lose my job again.”

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Covey recently got a good lead on an office job; she was one of a handful of roughly 300 applicants who was called back for an interview. It was the first interview she’d had in a year. But she learned this week that the job went to someone with more accounting experience.

“Part of the problem is that you can’t get a job now if you have a bad credit rating," she said. "If you’re out of work for two years, your credit rating doesn’t exist anymore. What are you supposed to do?”

Covey recently registered a commercial cleaning business as a sole proprietorship, got a federal tax ID, and is looking to sign up customers by printing out business cards from home, making up fliers and taking them around to local businesses to “see what shakes out.”

To help feed herself and her son, she’s fallen back on her experience growing up on a farm. On a recent visit, she gave a tour of a coop full of egg-laying chickens. She bakes her own bread and harvests wild mushrooms from the back yard. Last year, she grew fresh produce and canned tomatoes for winter; this year, her garden was a bust.

“My family teases me: ‘Mom uses everything but the oink from the pig,’” she said. “If we’re still here through this next year, I’m going to go get a couple of baby pigs and put them up here next to the garden, and they can eat the weeds that I throw out. Then come fall, I’ll butcher them. I used to do that down on the farm.”

But it’s far from clear where she’ll be next month, let alone next year. Her son’s unemployment benefits recently ran out, and she’s trying to make her check stretch even further. With jobs scarce and the financial lifeline of unemployment insurance running out, she’s living week-to-week, unsure whether she’ll be able to pay the rent through the winter. Because of Congressional confusion over a recent extension , shethinks she's down to her last unemployment check, but she's not sure. So she’s plotting her next move.

“We’re starting now to get rid of the things we probably don’t need to take with us anymore,” she said. “I told (my son): ‘If it gets down to the end of November and we can’t make December’s rent, we’re not going to have much time to get rid of some of this stuff. And it’s going to be winter.'”

Her experience in the RV industry hasn’t gone completely to waste. Uncertain about next month’s rent, Covey recently bought a “vintage” trailer for $600 and fixed it up with some help from her parents. The color, she says, matches her truck.

“It was trashed on the inside,” she said, offering a tour of what may soon be her new home. “The walls were ripped out of it; the cabinets were all ripped out. There were some leaks. And it looks like there were a couple of bullet holes through it.”

Having spent time visiting and living in the Southwest, she figures she can get by in a warmer climate with the trailer providing a roof over her head.

“It’s a lot easier to be homeless if you’re not freezing your ass off,” she said. “If it only gets down to 35 to 40 degrees for a little while, I can stay warm enough to sleep. In Arizona, the desert gets kind of cold, and it can freeze up. But you’ve always got the sun coming up the next morning and it warms you up again. I can live in that.”

Another potential card in her hand: she figures she can sign on at a warm-weather campground that will let her park her trailer for free in exchange for doing chores.

Still, it’s tough to plan from one day to the next.

“If you don’t hear from me again, it’s because I don’t live here anymore,” she said.

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