For Jay Wheeler and his twin brother Joe, their lives were on track in 2006. The two had a tree service business and were making around $1,500 a day. But that would all change.
Wheeler and his brother grew up in Wichita, Kan., and had the capability to do anything they wanted in life. At the age of 30, Wheeler started working for himself.
“We grew up wealthy,” Wheeler said. “Our adopted father was a doctor so we never wanted for anything growing up.”
It wasn’t long until the twins purchased the equipment and started their tree service business. The two traveled across the state and eventually into Texas.
It was an early morning in June 2006 when the twins’ lives would change.
“Joe looked out the window at the hotel at about 5 a.m. and told me, ‘It’s gone,”” Wheeler said. “At first I thought he was joking, but then I realized he wasn’t.”
Wheeler and his brother were staying at a hotel in Arlington when their truck full of equipment was stolen. The two quickly called the police and their insurance company.
While the two had both their truck and equipment insured, the company refused their claim.
“They told us we were out of the coverage area,” Wheeler said. “Although we had some money, I knew we needed to hurry up and get jobs.”
After explaining their situation to the hotel manager, they were able to find jobs with another hotel in Dallas as security guards. Along with the wages the two were earning, they were able to live in the hotel for free. For a while, things looked up for the brothers.
After 10 months of working as security guards, an argument with one of the managers led to the twins leaving. According to Wheeler, the manager was known to get employees in trouble with the law.
“I’ve seen her do it to others, and I didn’t want her to do it to us,” Wheeler said. “We packed our stuff and left for a different hotel.”
While Wheeler and his brother had some funds, the two knew it wouldn’t last long and began researching where to go next.
“After a lot of research, we decided to go to San Diego,” Wheeler said. “We heard there were a lot of jobs there and if we did become homeless, the temperatures would be better.”
The twins bought themselves bus tickets and started making their way to San Diego, but discovered their luggage had been lost while at the bus stop in Albuquerque, N.M. The brothers decided to wait on their luggage before continuing their journey.
“We were there for about two days,” Wheeler said. “It was a very nice place and we decided to just start over there.”
For 10 months, the brothers worked as day labors and lived in one of the hotels. Earning $50 each a day, the twins were struggling to get by.
“We were barely making enough money to survive,” Wheeler said. “During the week, we were fine. It was the weekends that were taking up all our money.”
Since the brothers weren’t able to work the weekends, they found themselves losing money. Before long, the day work started to slow down and eventually the twins were out of jobs. The brothers found themselves relying on overnight homeless shelters to keep them off the streets, but several bad experiences led the brothers to search for an alternative to the shelters.
The twins decided once again to head toward San Diego.
After arriving in Flagstaff, Ariz., the brothers learned the bus stop closed at 11 p.m. and had to get a hotel room for the night because it wasn’t safe to wait outside the bus stop.
“It was 3 a.m. and we went to a hotel,” Wheeler said. “They told us check out time was going to be 9 a.m., so we decided to check in at 9 a.m. so we could have an entire day and night to rest.”
The brothers found a Denny’s nearby the hotel to wait for check in time. Once 9 a.m. hit, they checked into the hotel to rest.
On limited funds, the brothers knew they would have to spend a night outside. According to Wheeler, they slept for a few hours behind a dumpster. The two then attempted to set up camp outside the city limits.
“We had a hard time trying to find a place to stay,” Wheeler said. “The places we tried we were either trespassing or loitering.”
As the twins made their way past a fire station, a firefighter on duty asked where they were going. After explaining their situation and plan, the firefighter warned them about the dangers — including freezing temperatures and the possibly of getting robbed — and simply asked if they had anyone they could call.
The brothers remembered about their long lost sister, Donna Harris, who they met many years ago. The firefighter offered the brothers his phone to call.
“We just never thought about it,” Wheeler said. “We hadn’t seen her in 18 years. As soon as I remembered I had her number, I realize we should have called her sooner.”
Within an hour of their call, Harris wired her brothers money for a hotel room and made arrangements for them to come to Conroe, where she managed an apartment complex.
“They help us so much,” Wheeler said. “You need someone to help you get out or you’re going to be stuck.”
Since moving to Texas, Wheeler and his brother’s situation has greatly improved. While the brothers haven’t fully recovered from their initial loss, the twins are back in business for themselves — operating a carpet cleaning business.
“You can go from being well off to homeless overnight,” Wheeler said. “All it takes is one storm or insurance issue to change everything you know.”