Home > Stories > “I Started Living in My Car…” – Peter’s Student Loan Story

“I Started Living in My Car…” – Peter’s Student Loan Story

Peter O’Lalor has had a difficult life by any standard. In 1960, when he was just three years old, his mother was forced to put he and his four siblings in an orphanage. A series of foster homes followed, though he was returned once, at age ten, to his mother and lived with her for a year until she passed away.

By the time he reached his third foster home, Peter says, “I was an elective mute.” Despite his difficulties, however, Peter was an intellectual child. He read adult-level books – “My first book, at age seven, was the biography of Deborah Sampson, the woman who impersonated a man to fight in the Revolutionary war,” he remembers – and he excelled at art. He was an altar boy for seven years and once dreamed of becoming a Franciscan Friar.

After high school, Peter worked various manual labor positions and spent time traveling, often living with relatives. He visited many parts of the United States as well as France and India, ultimately settling in Massachusetts where he worked in human services and often found himself advocating for persons with mental retardation. When he was 28, he began thinking about college, and, on a whim, he dropped by the admissions office of Mount Ida College to get some information. A month later, he was a student there, and four years later, he graduated with a double major in history and psychology, two awards, and $17,000 in student loans. It had seemed like a small price to pay, and he was hopeful about the future.

After graduation, Peter took a job at a psychiatric hospital, while he awaited graduate school, which he expected to begin that following September. That’s when his luck took a turn for the worse. He was working as a team crisis leader and one night, two months into the job, he found some other staff members who, he says, were abusing a patient. He tried to intervene and was assaulted from behind by one of the staff. He suffered an injury to his spine and was left unable to work. His health insurance denied his claim, and while waiting for his Worker’s Compensation claim to go through, he found himself homeless. “I started living in my car, wearing a cervical collar, and sleeping in rest areas,” he says.

Nearly a year later a settlement was reached through Workers Compensation, and he was awarded $6500 in back pay. In 1995, he moved in with his girlfriend, and they were eventually married. In 1998, he entered the Massachusetts School of Law, hoping to become a lawyer. This is when his student loans came back to haunt him. When he had first lost his job, he had put his loans into deferment, but over the course of the next few years, he had gone into default. He began to receive phone calls demanding payment, and he wasn’t able to get any more credit to help pay for his law school expenses. The school tried to help him, even offering to waive his tuition, but in the end he couldn’t afford his other education-related expenses, such as books, and he was forced to drop out.

In 1998, he declared bankruptcy for his medical bills, but his student loans were not discharged. Since then, he has held a variety of jobs, including a two year stint as an adjunct faculty member at a college in New Hampshire. He recently lost that job after the school’s administration changed hands, and a book deal* that he had through the college and a major university press fell through.

Every year, the federal government confiscates Peter’s tax refund.  He says he’s made thousands of dollars in interest payments over the years, but when his lender contacts him, those payments aren’t acknowledged. This year, he says, “they took my stimulus check as well.” His original loan of $17,000 has ballooned to $33,000, and he still has no way to pay back his debt. He expects to be paying interest on the loans for the rest of his life.

“So I’m still struggling,” he says. “I have always advocated for those who cannot help themselves, and ironically, I can barely help myself now.”

* For more information on Peter’s book, please see The Never Realized Republic: Political Economy and Republican Virtue, available at http://tinyurl.com/3oork6.

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