How to survive if you ever become homeless

News & Politics

The statue on my desk is among my most prized possessions. Carved from wood, it depicts a slender, wizened old man walking barefoot with a sack of grain in his hands. His face is ancient, tired, indifferent. One cannot tell if he is a mystic or an impoverished victim of a great catastrophe. Perhaps there is less of a difference between the two than one might imagine.

I keep this statue in daily view because it reminds me of a fundamental truth about man and his default state: homelessness. Harrowing as it is to consider, we are by default homeless, never promised a secure haven or a good night’s rest. From the placid warmth of my hard-won home, I remember my time on the streets of America — more than a thousand nights of vagrancy in 48 states. Contemplation of this somber-faced wooden man reminds me to be grateful for the four walls I now own — and it reminds me that my possession of them is hardly a guarantee.

The“it will never happen to me” mentality is seldom held by the wise, and it is never held by astute observers of history and its unexpected cruelties.

Had you asked a well-heeled Yugoslavian commissar in 1989 if his son might be eating rats on the other side of four years, he’d probably regard your inquiry as disgusting and offensive. Ask the same question of an American banker in 1925, and he’d be just as indignant. Yet both the Yugoslav Wars and the Great Depression did indeed compel even the wealthiest scions to experiment with alternative meats — including the flesh of the rat — for the sake of keeping themselves alive. The“it will never happen to me” mentality is seldom held by the wise, and it is never held by astute observers of history and its unexpected cruelties.

The disaster few consider

What is true on the historical basis of time is as true of individual biographies. Tornadoes, house fires, break-ins, crippling injuries, blinding chemical accidents — a litany of grave misfortunes can visit almost anyone more or less at any time. An entire industry has emerged around this basic understanding these days. Books on survival and “prepping” are on the shelves of practically any bookstore or library, and even more online videos and articles on these subjects circulate widely. Yet one flavor of misfortune seems to go undiscussed more often than not — the possibility of becoming homeless.

This may be because quite unlike a war, a hurricane, or a carjacking, the idea of becoming homeless is distinctly humiliating and embarrassing. Even the most dedicated practioners of the “prepper” mindset make the fatal error of assuming that it can’t happen to them. Of course it easily could. An international banking crisis could render one’s savings a stack of Monopoly money. Downsizing, AI, civil unrest, or home insurance bankruptcies could jeopardize the exceedingly fragile mechanism by which most people keep a roof over their heads. And even if one’s brother or friend might have a guest room, the social realities of “crashing” at a buddy’s house are often far more complicated than most imagine, quickly straining even the closest loyalties to their outermost limits.

Accept your fate

Then: The first night comes. You’ve tried to bargain with it, to deny it, to imagine it was all some kind of sick cosmic joke — that the hurricane didn’t really come, that no one would really let someone so indispensable fall to such a humiliating state — but alas, it’s begun to rain and the sun has been down for hours. Your cell phone plan has been shut off. Your suit is looking dingy, and there are some exceedingly colorful characters looking right at you from the other side of the street. Police lights go by, and you’re on your last cigarette.

What now?

Well, for the first, buck up. Any student of military history can tell you that morale matters on the battlefield — and it matters as much or more on the street. The minute you stop feeling sorry for yourself is the minute that you’ll work up the gumption to rise to the challenge you’ve been faced with. In fact, it shouldn’t even be seen as a challenge so much as a fabulous opportunity.

Like the great flaneurs of old Europe and the famous vagabond-poets of auld, so long as you can master the art of illegal camping and have enough hustle in you to put together a meal or two every day, you’ve suddenly entered an aristocracy of self-owning men who have the sort of agency over their time that most rich men dream of. The library, the waterfront, the prettiest streets in the city — or even of other cities, should you decide that traveling homeless is your flavor — all of it is now for you.

Take an inventory of your resources. Are you wearing warm clothing? Do you have a pocketknife? Are your shoes suitable for muddy, forested terrain? Wherever you left, you probably took a bag with you — did you have the foresight to bring a steel pot, a tarp, a length of cord, a good sleeping bag? Or did you fail to do these things because you presumed that this could not happen to you? Whatever the case, take a good inventory of your personal effects and your money situation, and keep it memorized for clear decision-making.

Get a bike

The first task is to get a bicycle. Nothing else matters more than this, not calling Mom, not finding cigarettes, not finding a place to sleep. Power through every adversity in service of obtaining a bicycle — even if it requires your last dollar. It would be a dollar well spent.

This is because the bicycle is the only way to dramatically increase your power as a lone wolf in any environment in America. To walk 20 miles might take all day, but to bike it might take an hour and a half. When on a dangerous street, the pedestrian can only evade threats by outrunning them; with a bike, you are the fastest thing on the street. If a job offer comes two towns over, the walker cannot take it, but the cyclist can. But most of all, by riding a bicycle you can transport yourself outside the range of other homeless people. This is a massive advantage.

Wherever large groups of homeless people congregate, police presence — which is not a great boon to you now — will be high, and many highly dysfunctional people will be on the prowl. If you’ve ever read nice stories about the surprisingly warm brotherly love of the homeless encampment, forget them. And if you have any ideas about going to a shelter, forget them too. The others are not your friends, and the institutions designed to help the homeless more often than not entrap them in a web of bureaucracy and stagnation. Get on that bicycle and ride more miles than a person high on methamphetamine could reasonably walk. Once you’ve done this, you are now as safe as you can hope to be, and you’ve entered a league within the world of homelessness that positions you for success. The bicycle effectively removes you from the threats posed by other homeless, which is the first and most important basic need to secure.

Get some shelter

But there are other needs that will immediately rear their heads. Hunger, cold, and wet will quickly bring you to your knees if inadequately addressed. A soaking-wet, sleep-deprived, half-starved homeless person is going to have a hard time getting hired anywhere. You’re going to need, at the barest minimum, a tarp and a blanket. A dollar-store shower curtain can suffice as a tarp, and one can often obtain blankets from thrift stores for a dollar or two. A bootlace tied between two trees can lift the tarp up off your blanket; failure to do this could result in condensation soaking through the blanket and leaving you chilled to the bone. Beneath you, a few lengths of cardboard will insulate your body from the cold, heat-sapping ground. Employing this method at the far edges of cities along riverbeds, drainage ditches, interstate medians, and bridges where there is no sign of other homeless will allow you to get through a couple of weeks of nights while you seek work.

Think like an illegal immigrant

Work is not hard to find for a homeless person: Think like an illegal immigrant. Report to the contractor bay at Home Depot at 5 a.m., offering workingmen a hand with loading their materials onto their trucks as a way to begin a conversation about whether they’d hire you for a day’s labor or more. If other migrantes are around, simply say the word “trabaja” and they will understand what you are doing. Or, if construction labor is not something you can do, use the computers at a public library to make a list of restaurants to visit. Find the roughest-looking line cooks — preferably on a smoke break out behind the building — and ask if they’d pay you same-day cash for a shift as a dishwasher or potato-peeler. It should not take long to get one who’ll nod and motion you into the kitchen.

Though it may appear humiliating, the mentality of the industrious homeless person is made of the same stuff that built America

Work as consistently as you can, building up a sum of cash. Defend it with your life — keep the bills in your boots or your underwear if you have no access to a bank. Spend money only on your daily bread — and stay away from alcohol. If you smoke, hang out outside law offices and courts, where moneyed lawyers often drop cigarettes from which they’ve taken only a puff or two on their way into trials and meetings. When it comes to cooking, keep in mind that most gas stations have free hot water with which you can make cheap noodles; look for a red handle on the coffee machine. A coffee cup with some ramen will be enough to keep you alive while you work up a few hundred more dollars.

Bootstrap your way out

As you find your bankroll begins to grow, you can improve your camp. Get a real sleeping bag that will be good for chillier weather. Get baskets and bags for your bike — and a bike lock. Find a decent tent, preferably with a bug net and a floor — but cheap enough to where if it gets stolen, it wouldn’t be a devastating setback. Look for a white gas camp stove at Walmart or any outdoor supplier, as well as a small metal pot — now you can cook more substantial meals with items from the grocery. Without refrigeration you can’t keep meats and perishables, but with a stove, you can fry up steaks in a park near the grocery store for more substantial sustenance to keep you focused at work. And with a pour-over coffee filter, you can start making that morning cup that comes in handy for early-morning wake-ups.

This routine is the definition of “bootstrapping” one’s way out of the most dire economic calamity that can befall an American citizen. Though it may appear humiliating, the mentality of the industrious homeless person is made of the same stuff that built America. Our forefathers had to be every bit as resourceful as they settled the Western plains or started from nothing as immigrants to the shores of Plymouth or Brooklyn. The entrepreneurial mentality of the resourceful survivor is not a distant piece of history; it is still the living essence of survival for many homeless Americans today. One can continue in this fashion for several months and build up sums in excess of several thousand dollars; this can prove sufficient for either an efficiency apartment or for a small piece of rural acreage in the hinterlands where a man can build a house. I’ve seen numerous people do the latter — searching the internet for a parcel in backwoods counties lacking building codes and finding them for less than $5,000. Arrive by Greyhound bus, buy a bicycle, and start over until one’s income proves sufficient to build a small cabin and eventually buy a truck. This is the American dream in its most primitive and ancient form.

This article is by no means an exhaustive account of how to be homeless in America. It is only the barest introduction to how one must think to survive on the street. Pray that you never have to do it, but never think that it could not happen to you. Homelessness is, after all, the default state of man. You are only protected from it today by a shockingly fragile network of economic and social factors that can easily wear thin.

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