Homelessness and You:
~A Short Primer~
Welcome to the exciting world of the dispossessed. No matter what the circumstances that caused this, you are now counted among the dregs of society. Until further notice your well-being, and opinions count for diddly squat to the bulk of the populace. You are essentially a non-person. If you are to get through this and make out the other side you need to know a few things. Things I had to learn on my own.
The key thing that you’ll need to do is locate a few basic services.
- Entertainment and Information Services
This is the most import of all necessities, and fortunately the most easily obtained. Most cities or towns of any reasonable size has some religious group, social service or other outreach organization. Notable organizations I have encountered include The Salvation Army, St. Francis House, The Krishna’s, local/ state social service departments.
The level of service varies based on local and state laws and the availability of resources of a given organization. There is generally at least one if not more locations, generally a church or homeless shelter, that serve prepared meals daily. Get to know all of the available meal times and locations in your area, in some cases there are different venues that serve on the weekends. In some cases you will be asked to sit through a sermon or a short prayer prior to the serving of the meal. These people are doing you a favor, the least you can do is pretend to hear them out, even if you don’t believe a damned word of it.
You may be able to obtain, by of food pantries or similar services, a bag staple grocery items; canned goods, breads, pastas, etc. These services are often of limited availability, usually confined to use a handful of times per year.
In increasingly rare circumstances temporary food stamp assistance may be available in your area. All areas are trying to reduce homelessness, and have settled on a strategy of making it increasingly harder to survive to do so.
Given a lack of available permanent storage, and a limited carrying capacity you will be spending quite a lot of time in the same set or two of clothes, so make sure they are comfortable. Everything has its limits however so knowing how and when to obtain more is important. You can usually find a charity in the area that has a clothes closet available or offers vouchers for use in various thrift outlets, again The Salvation Army is a good place to start for these services.
Select clothing that is durable, and easy to clean. Dark colors and cotton are your friend here. Pay special attention to footwear. Most of your days will be spent walking so make sure to select shoes based on quality and condition, regardless of how silly they may look. A clean pair of socks are always welcome.
If it is possible to select accessories, stick to those that increase your ability to carry. A good, well made backpack, shoulder bag, or purse is indispensable. The only other useful items in this area are belts or suspenders, and possibly a wallet. It’s not so much for money but a wallet is good for keeping track of your I.D., if you lose that you may just be screwed.
If you think you will just be able to crash at a homeless shelter, you are probably wrong. Besides needing clearance from the local police department before you will even be considered for admittance, most shelter spaces are either taken or reserved for women with children, and when you think about it that makes a fair bit of sense. The options this leaves you with are few.
As far as just getting some sleep goes, most places will roust you for sleeping in parks at night, but you should be fine if you just nap there during the day. Inclement weather is another matter that you will need to deal with however. If public places are your strategy then know where to find a convenient overhang or awning for rain, the police are less likely to bother getting out of the cruiser in a downpour. Colder weather simply requires more clothes and a blanket or two. If there is a freeze warning, or other dangerous most shelters will admit more people under emergency provisions.
In many locales there is a tolerated nest of transients, often refered to as Tent City. For reasons of safety and sanity I do not recommend these places. Much of the population there is composed of people who, for one reason or another, are not welcome at the shelters or feeding places. In general it can be assumed that this also a haven for violent criminals, dug abuse, and prostitution. I speculate the reasons these camps are tolerated is due to an issue of containment, they are a ready-made collections of suspects for the authorities to go conveniently raiding when they need to look like they are doing something about crime in the area.
My best advice is to keep floating as close as you can, for as long as you can, to normal society. Make a few kind-hearted friends and never abuse their trust. When times get too rough you can generally hole up for a few days, surfing on couches or camping out in van or other vehicle. Just make sure that under no circumstances that you over stay your welcome if you have any intentions of keeping them as friends.
An often overlooked factor is how hard it is to maintain any sense of cleanliness. Pay attention when you go to the shelters or soup kitchens, usually somewhere is offering laundry and shower facilities even if it is only one or two days a week. It may seem gross to use a public shower after some grubby homeless man, but remember you are some grubby homeless man and unless you wish to remain that way it’d be best if you just grow up and take care of matters. Most such places also will offer free disposable razors. Take one wether or not you plan on shaving, you never know when you’ll need something sharp that is legal to carry.
Staying relatively clean won’t just make it easier to keep interacting with regular folks, you’ll feel a lot better about yourself too. You will probably stay a lot healthier to boot, if I need to explain why you obviously failed health class. Pay special care with your teeth, you can get tooth brushes for free usually. I made the mistake of neglecting this area and now suffer from a host of preventable tooth and gum problems.
Entertainment and Information Services
Just being out and about watching society unfold offers nearly unlimited potential for amusement in and of itself, sometimes however you need to do something a bit more specific to pass the time, or you need to get a hold of someone or get current on recent events. In this case you’re best friend is the local library.
The library is a public space that is well equipped to serve may of your needs. It is crucial, when entering a new town to know where the closest library branch is. In addition to the obvious rows upon rows of books, there you will find access to newspapers, periodicals and local maps that will help you get the lay of the land. Here also is internet access, you may need a library card to use the computer services. Most shelters, even if they aren’t able to take you in, will assist you in getting identification and allow you to use their address for mailing purposes. This will make it possible, or at least easier, to obtain a library card.
Seriously, you’re homeless, you have a lot of time on you hands. Read, educate yourself, it’s for your own good. At the very least brush up on your favorite authors. My time spent on the streets is how I got fairly well acquainted with H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Philip K. Dick and a few others. It kept me out of serious trouble.
No matter who you are, you are going to go quite mad if you don’t talk to people. There are two groups of people you have to maintain social graces with, The Homeless and Normal Folks.
It’s easy to see what you have in common with other homeless people. It’s important to maintain relationships with them. They often have solid information on what’s going on in town, and are generally willing to talk to new people. If you need to know where to find something or get access to services they’ll usually point you in the right direction. The thing is that, even though they are people just like you are there are a few hazards to bear in mind when dealing with them. Most people you encounter that are in your situation, if they spend enough time on the streets they like to feel like they are in control or doing you some special favor that you should one day pay them back for. Also a good number of them are addicts of some kind, and if you get involved with their lifestyle they will happily drag you to hell with them just for the company. Lastly, you know nothing about these people except what they tell you, I once found out I was hanging out with a wanted murdered because a cop spotted us walking down the street one day and arrested him, and nearly me as well.
I have mentioned already about keeping relations with normal society. If you ever want to get out of this situation in one piece it is critical for you to make yourself acceptable to some small corner of society. There are always ways of meeting these people, at coffee houses, outside of music venues. They might choose to associate with you for the novelty of the experience at first, or because life on the streets gives you access to connections they don’t have. They will probably be from the younger crowd, impressionable, idealistic, very easy to take advantage of. Be careful, don’t be the guy that’s just hanging around to ask for money or just looking to sell or score some drugs. These people can find you places to stay and potentially a job.
Every person that you find who is willing, for whatever reason, to interact with you is a resource, you need to treat them as such. You need to be able to discern their usefulness and spend time cultivating that relationship accordingly. It is useful to remember that most people you meet regardless of their role care little about you as an individual. Even social workers and outreach staff aren’t so much concerned with you as they are with the problem you represent, so don’t feel bad about taking the upper hand if the situation allows it.
In time you may be able to make a real and lasting friendship. Until then you are a hustler, get to know this about yourself, get comfortable with it. Chances are you’re going to be doing it for a while.
Devising an exit strategy
In the end there is nothing guaranteeing your reemergence into normalcy. It is mostly up to you spotting and exploiting opportunities as they come up. Relying solely on the good will of others, or worse expecting any kind of real assistance from government agencies is going to be a dead-end.
The only proven way to get out of this situation is getting into a position where you can obtain a source of income, and in time be able to afford a place to live. Legitimate work is preferable in the long-term but not quite as immediately lucrative as criminal activity. The irony of course is in the difficulty of finding legitimate, gainful employment when you are obviously a vagrant. I am afraid your prospects are only good for the jobs no one else wants.
Still, I advise an honest job no matter how menial the work or little the pay. I mean you’re a bum, it’s not like you’re too good for a fast food restaurant, or digging ditches. It is hard justifying taking abuse for very little upward mobility but, the longer you stay on the streets the harder it becomes to get back off them. There are plenty of people out there who have chosen vagrancy as an occupation, if you need motivation to eat a little crap at work now and then go have look at them.
Well that’s about all there is, I hope your stay on the bottom rung of society is as short and as pleasant as possible.