How to Survive Being Homeless

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I live in Los Angeles, confronted by homelessness daily. I'm lucky to never have experienced it myself, but I don't know anyone in this city who's never looked at a homeless person and thought to themselves, if just fleetingly, what would my life be like if I were homeless? Would I be able to handle it?

There are resources available on the internet which can help. A great one is the Survival Guide to Homelessness, an absolutely fascinating how-to guide written by a gentleman who was homeless for several years in his twenties, and lived to write about it. His writing is engrossing and his advice is practical, and I've reprinted a selection of my favorite passages below, though I recommend reading the whole blog from start to finish (it'll take you an hour or so, tops).

To put you in the mindset, I recently rediscovered most of my favorite documentary ever, 1984's Streetwise, on YouTube -- here are the first eight minutes. It's a heartbreaking work of staggering genius, about homeless kids in Seattle, with a few NSFW words. (Skip the first minute, it's just credits.)

Homelessness happens

The best preparation for homelessness is knowing that you could be, and looking at the resources around you with that in mind.

How secure are you really? How many paychecks could you go without before the rent, the mortgage, the credit card, and the car are not being paid? If you said two, you are doing better than most. If you would be immediately using whatever consumer credit you have available, you're like most of us. Like storms, earthquakes, and car accidents, homelessness happens. It happens to decent, hardworking people. It happens because our lives are a system, and when part of that system fails the whole thing can come crashing down.

The advantages of homelessness

Imagine working two weeks to pay for your expenses for two months. You can easily go to college with an income requirement so low. My expenses, excluding food, averaged $300 per month for the five years I was homeless. That included storage, mailbox, telephone or pager, gasoline, vehicle insurance, health club membership, dry cleaning, laundry, new clothes, and entertainment. I went to the movies a lot. Imagine what you could do with the time if your work week was two days and your weekend was five.

Get a car

There are two classes of homelessness, with car and without car. Without car is hard, very hard. I don't recommend it to anyone. If you are homeless and without a car, my best advice to you is couch surf. Stay with your friends until you can get a car. Sell anything you have to get a car. It is best if the car runs, but running is not essential as long as it is small enough to push.

A good parking space is difficult to find. It needs to be isolated, but your car can't stand out. It needs to be near other cars, but away from the prying eyes of property owners and tenants. It needs to be well lit, and yet your car should be unnoticable. Ideally your spot should be shaded from the morning sun. Such places exist, but usually you accept some flaws.

It is best to be under a streetlamp. A well lit area allows you to have the dome light on in the car without light shining out through your car cover, so you can read or write without fear. Light also deters thieves. Darkness has no real advantages.

Change up your routine

It's a bad idea to have a regular pattern, like always being in the same place on Tuesdays. Think about it. You might have been observed, and a complaint may have been made, but the police failed to catch you. If the complaint contains an observation of a pattern, they'll get you on the next cycle, the next Tuesday. Sound paranoid? Police have told me they were waiting for me.

On hygiene

Don't like a dry shave? Nobody does. Buy yourself some generic sex lube. It's only a couple of bucks at Walmart or Target or, really, any drugstore. A little dab and a disposable razor and you can get a nice shave. Rub a thimbleful of water over your face and wipe off to finish. It may sound funny, and of course your razor is ruined unless you rinse it out right away, but this works very well. It's one of my favorite tricks.

If you're in it for the long term, a gym membership is the only way to go. I had one with 24 hour fitness for the five years I was out of doors, and I calculate that it cost me under 50 cents a shower. Well worth it for the good shave, bright lights, and hot water, and on top of it I learned yoga and stayed in shape. It was also a nice, warm place to go when it was cold or stormy out and I just needed to get out of the weather.

"Homeless shelters are for someone else"

Everything takes so long. You have to sign up for the shelter at 3:00pm, but the van doesn't come until 4:00pm. You get to the church where you will spend the night at 4:20, but the free dinner of greasy chicken, bread, and green salad, with milk or juice won't be there till almost 6:00. Then camp pads and a couple of blankets each are passed around and 14 guys find a corner or a wall to sleep against on the cold floor. Stake your claim and then the majority go outside to smoke Top and discuss the presidential election. The consensus seemed pro Kerry, but who can tell? The power distribution in the conversation was a great deal more complex than I could figure out in a night. The entire group watches Jeopardy, then the television is turned off and people begin to settle in. 9:00pm the lights are turned out. I stared at the ceiling for three hours, then slept fitfully and uncomfortably until 5:20am.

Which is when they get you up. 5:20am.

It seems to me that you could wait to sign people into these shelters until 6:00pm or 7:00pm, assuring that people who found work that day might still be able to find shelter. Then people might find a way out of their difficulties. If it were me, I'd let people stay in the shelter until the sun began to warm the world up a little, and I would not return them to a closed hygiene center. I'd coordinate drop off time with the time the hygiene center opened. The total time controlled by the center was sixteen hours, from 3:00pm to 7:00am. That is two thirds of life regulated by the rules of others, one third remaining to try to build something better. Is it any wonder that they opt to simply pass a bottle between themselves? These are people who have little in the way of reserves, and you've just taken two thirds of their time.

How to look like you have a home so you can get and keep a job

Have work shirts laundered and pressed at a dry cleaner. Best is to hang them on a hook in the backseat of your car, but you can also have the laundry fold them and place them in boxes.

Get a cheap pager, and use it as your home phone. Tell prospective employers that a page is the best way to reach you because otherwise members of your family may fail to give you messages. When you can afford it, generally after you've found some employment, move up to a cell phone.

Get a mailbox at a UPS store or similar establishment, and use that as your home address. Don't get a post office box. PO Boxes are dead giveaways, but a commercial mailbox has a street address.

Okay, now you look like the rest of the housed world. Keep clean, wear a smile, and market the skills you have. You can add finishing touches to your look by keeping a nice haircut, and getting a $6 manicure at your nearest nail salon. Yes, men, too, can and should get manicures. Clean nails and hands convey the impression of wealth.

Wear sunscreen

Seriously, wear it. Sunburn is a terrible hazard to the homeless. You can get a sunburn even on overcast days, since the radiation that burns isn't even slowed down by cloud cover. Chronic sunburns can lead to open sores and infections. It is thought that skin cancer can be caused by only a few serious sunburns, and may show up decades later, so stay safe. A sunburn is a tipoff that you are homeless, in addition to being a health hazard.

Again, this is just a teensy sampling. Check out the Survival Guide to Homelessness for much more.

January 29, 2009 - 8:25am
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