Survival Guide to Homelessness

No matter where you go, there you are.

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Staying Warm

Staying warm is one of the single most important problems facing a human being. If it were not for the need to stay warm, I believe few people would fear homelessness. There are only a limited number of strategies available to keep the cold at bay.

You can dress warmly. Wear lots of layers. Wear thermal underwear during winter. Wear more than one pair of socks at a time. If you are in a place that gets down to 30 or 40 degrees fahrenheit, wear earmuffs and wear warm gloves. The thermals are available in department stores. Try Target or Walmart first, Sears, JC Penney, and others after, to get them at the lowest available prices. Gloves and fleece earmuffs will be there too. For other layers at a discount price, try wearing multiple undershirts or check with Goodwill and Salvation Army for cheap, warm clothing. If even that is out of budget, an old hobo trick is to stuff your clothes with crumpled newspaper. It does help.

I always had three blankets in my car during winter, and one was always a Mexican, loosely woven blanket. The loose weave leaves air spaces that make for good insulation. The other two can be any inexpensive cotton, fleece, or poly blend you like. I avoid wool, because although it is an exceptional insulator, itchiness is simply unacceptable. You may disagree, particularly in freezing climates.

An astronaut's mylar blanket is always handy, too. They only cost a couple of dollars and can usually be found in army surplus stores and sporting goods stores in the camping section. Wrapped around you, they retain 95% of your body heat by reflecting it back at you. You can save less heat, but be more comfortable, if you simply place the mylar between a couple of other blankets. One of the problems with mylar is it can get slick with condensation from your body's sweat, and that is unpleasant and can cause a chill. If they're thin blankets, I recommend you fold the mylar sandwich all together, to make it easier to get ready for bed the following evening. The slickest way is to fold the blankets in half once and roll it like a sleeping bag.

Stores supplying camping gear will also have hand warmers. These chemical pouches run a couple of dollars a piece, but it is handy to have a few for particularly cold moments. You can optimize their value by using them under a mylar blanket.

Another great source of heat is a hot water bottle (usually available in drugstores). Buy a propane stove, again available in camping supplies for under thirty dollars. You are going to want one to cook with anyway. Propane bottles are about two dollars each and last quite a while. Boil some water and fill the water bottle before you find your final parking spot for the evening, so that neighborhood busybodies are not tipped off to your presence. Wrap the bottle in a towel to avoid leaks, or at least place a towel under it. Leaks will happen without warning. Boiling water is hotter than the rubber bottle is designed to take, but for the bottle to work most of the night, it has to be boiling. The leak will happen as it cools, and it will be slow. I never got burned by a leak, but caution is in order while filling the bottle. Scalding is a hazard. I usually went through two bottles per winter.

When all else fails, you can make sure the exhaust pipe of your car is not under the car cover, and run the engine and heater for a while. It is a giveaway that you are there, of course, but there are few people about on a cold night. I took the chance quite a lot some winters.

That is about the whole list, unless you want to get a steel barrel and start a fire in it. Best to do that on the outskirts of town.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Shelters are for Someone Else, Part 2

Shelter life is a life of waiting. You wait on the charity, the good feeling, and on the whim of others. You wait, and you wait, and you wait, and all the while tension builds, as you wonder whether you will get what you need.

Recently, as part of my research for this book, I spent a night in a shelter. As shelters go it was a kind and gentle experience. The shelter was located in Santa Cruz, California, a city friendly to the homeless, on the cutting edge of homeless advocacy and politics. There was no church service, no preacher, no active condemnation. Still the experience was brutal, and brutal in a way that the homeless are so accustomed to that no one even grumbled. No one even seemed to notice.

After much searching, I found the place, a complex of buildings and construction at 115 Coral Street. The website tells you that registration and check-in begin at 3:30pm, but that, like nearly everything told to me that day, was inaccurate. Sign up for emergency shelter actually begins and ends at 3:00pm, when everyone who will be taken is enrolled. The website says they try to never turn anyone away. In fact, most people who need a place to sleep are turned away. There is no sign to indicate where sign-in is, and I was easily mislead. In the end, I was turned away, rather gruffly, but I am a persistent investigator.

I went over to the River Street Shelter, a place for alcohol and drug rehabilitation, and waited. When one of their coordinators started taking people in from a long waiting list, I was there asking if they had a bed I could use for the night. They didn't. No chance. But, they were taking in a new guy for the first time, and he already had a seat on the church bus, so that guy took me over to the first guy (the gruff one) and told him he wouldn't be needing a bed. So I was in.

Like I won the lottery.

This was getting really painful, and it was only starting. I'm asking for help, over and over, asking for someone to make my life okay for me. And the worst thing is, I know that because I am getting the bed, someone else isn't.

The Rules
There are rules everywhere. In the same center where you sign in for the night's shelter, there's a "Hygiene Bay". Toilets, sinks, lockers, showers, television, laundry, get in line and use what you want. There were no lines in the afternoon, either, so just use what you need. But there were rules, rules, rules posted. On the refrigerator, You touch you die! Staff only! On the wall, No dumpster diving or 30 day ban! Another flier reads, No parking bicycles! And chalked on a board, Parents, your children must be with you at all times! In the agreement I had to sign to be allowed into the shelter for the night were the admonitions No weapons! and No sex! and Maintain a minimum level of hygiene! Everything was punctuated with exclamation points, as if the force of the orders would otherwise fail to impress itself upon us. Everything, it seemed, was punishable by thirty days expulsion.

On the church van, it was no better. Three identical flyers were taped up in the van. Here there was little punctuation. Here, in fact, there were not even capital letters, and yet the force and aggression of the rulemakers were not lost on me. Here is how it read, word for word:

rule on bus
1. no eating on the bus no drinks without lids
2. no throwing trash on floor
3. no fighting, no yelling, no races comments
4. nothing in aisle, bring only what you can carry

failure to follow these rules will result in night out

The dramatic increase in font size on rule four made it clear that this was a more important rule than no fighting, or yelling, or "races" comments.

These rules everywhere made it seem as if the very furniture was berating us. Perhaps this is the source of some of the violent thoughts so commonly expressed by my fellows in this adventure. We passed a store selling china, and one of the men commented on how much he'd like to throw a rock. Others grunted. It's hard not to have a dark mood in such a toxic world. It's hard not to have a dark mood when those offering you life sustaining services are constantly threatening to deprive you of those services. Those threats were not idle. Make no mistake, the majority of the men in that community of homeless spent the night sleeping in the open. The demand for shelter so outweighs the supply of beds that any reason is a good reason to expel someone from the program.

The Waiting
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. You don't choose when the day is over. You don't choose when the day begins. With a bit of a sardonic grin I dared to say to the coordinator, "you know, when the sun is not out, we call it night." He wasn't amused. He simply said, "Well in 19 minutes the bus is leaving." The driver also spent the night, so really, I think we could have negotiated. Threat and control were involved in every exchange, though. So, off we went, and arrived at the original place just after 6:00, ready to take a shower. The hygiene bay, however, doesn't open until 7:00. So people stood around, fueled by a little coffee and no breakfast, and passed a bottle of bourbon that had been poured into a two liter Diet Coke container. Happy hour is in the morning because the shelters won't take you if you are drunk.

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.

The Utter Lack of Privacy
The most dismal thing about a lack of privacy is that it forbids expression of dissent or resentment. This was the horror George Orwell traded on in his classic 1984. Even if only expressed to oneself, in a private moment, with a frown, a scowl, a grumble, expression of resentment is necessary to good mental health. In the shelter there was never a moment when I could scowl and decompress about my experience. There was never a time when those in power were not near.

On a purely aesthetic level, fourteen old men sleeping on the floor of a church snore more than I would have ever believed, and that was not the worst of it. Greasy chicken and ill health caused flatulence more impressive than I can effectively describe. While these men bathed regularly, the smell of methane was not conducive to easy sleep.

There is an ethical issue I should address. Was I justified in taking a bed, when I was perfectly okay without one? My answer is an unequivocal yes. I cannot know what the center is like by volunteering. I cannot know what this place is like by interviews. I can't know this place to tell you about it until I walk the mile myself, not until I wear the shoes of the visible homeless. I've never put those shoes on before, and I didn't like the fit. Maybe, because I've told you why, you will realize that homelessness must be done right, must be planned. If you realize that, then you can make sure that you never need the shelters.

The people who staffed this center and the church had charity and kindness in their hearts, and yet the experience was excruciating. Let me teach you a better way. Shelters are for someone else.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Employment

Everyone knows you can't work when you are homeless. Homeless people couldn't hold down a job if you gave them one. You'd have to supervise them all the time. They have no skills. They're probably illiterate. They have no moral values. If they did, they wouldn't be homeless.

Nonsense. What does it take to convince you to set aside what everyone knows? Homeless people come from all parts of society. They become homeless by choice or by circumstance. They have all levels and all kinds of skills, and homelessness has nothing to do with moral values.

Being homeless does not mean you are disabled. It doesn't mean you can't hold down a job. Holding down a job may require that you camouflage your homelessness, though, depending on what kind of work you do. If you are a white collar worker or a service industry worker, you must keep your secret hidden. Here is a brief prescription for maintaining the illusion of a home.

Read and follow the advice in the section on hygiene. The foremost giveaway of homelessness is bad odor.

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. They will have extra creases if you get them boxed. Take them in just three at a time, and get them out in groups of three. This will help you to keep them crisp. The dry cleaner will become your closet. Don't let anything stay at the cleaners for more than 30 days. Keep your cleaning tickets in your glove compartment, where you can find them.

Fold slacks flat and place them where they will not get rumpled. I usually kept them in my car's backseat. You don't need as many of them. Two or three pairs of pants will take you through a work week. People don't notice how often you change your pants. They notice your shirt.

Socks and underwear can be stored in a pillowcase, and even used as a pillow. Undershirts, casual shirts, and casual pants should be folded in half lengthwise, rolled, and also stored in a pillowcase. This is the most efficient possible use of your space.

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. The address will read 1234 Anystreet, PMB123. PMB stands for private mailbox. When you give your address substitute a pound sign (#), or Apt. Never write PMB. This will not affect delivery of mail.

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.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Controlling Desperation

There is nothing so bad that it will not pass. If there is one thing the world teaches it is that all things change. If you cannot think of what to do, if you believe that all hope has gone, if you are tired of trying, then pause. Breathe deeply. Do you have any money at all? If you do, spend it on a good meal, even if you are spending every dime. Get a good meal, and sit in a warm place eating it, with friendly people serving it. Eat and enjoy, and think about good things. Think about your favorite color, your best friend when you were in grade school, how flannel feels when you rub it between your fingers. Think about those gold coin chocolates that always made you feel rich even though the chocolate was waxy and tasted like tin. When you were a kid, you had a knack for feeling rich when you had next to nothing.

There is nothing so painful as desperation. Nothing so counterproductive. Now that you are feeling good again, nothing has changed, except you. You are different. Now you can think. Where will you sleep tonight? What will you do tomorrow? Don't focus on what you can't do or haven't got. You have a lot of resources, if only you will recognize them. Try to identify your most pressing problems individually, and find a straight line to a solution. You need a warm place out of the rain? How about a hotel lobby, or a hospital waiting room, or a laundromat, or a bus station, or a fast food restaurant? You need to clean up? That's easy. You need some food? You can fill your belly on less than a dollar's worth of rice. I'm not going to teach you any techniques in this section. That isn't my point. My point is that to begin surviving, you need to change your head. Abandon anger, desperation, depression, melancholy. Embrace confidence, strength, abilities, resources. Be positive, by all means.

Years ago, before I decided to be homeless and make it work, I was staying with relatives and my welcome had suddenly worn out. I was so angry my head started to pound. The anger was a mask for my desperation. I had, perhaps, $300, barely enough to stay in a seedy motel for a week. I've got to find a real room, I thought, but $300 won't move me in. I went down to the liquor store, steaming, bought a newspaper, and started scanning the classified ads. There was nothing, nothing, nothing, and my mood became darker, almost violent, though with no outlet, no target. This was, after all, my problem, my fault.

At just this rather difficult moment a man in his fifties approached me, hand out, and rage flooded over me. The man saw it, and withdrew his hand, stung. He began to turn. I called out, "Wait." I pulled out my money, peeled off a twenty, and handed it to him, and he, maybe even more frightened now, thanked me and left. For me a spell was broken, and I began to laugh quietly at myself, at my rage, at the terrible seriousness I was approaching life with.

The worst thing about my situation was my attitude, and I paid twenty dollars to change it. It was a bargain at twice the price.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Shelters are for Someone Else, Part 1

Twice I've gone to a shelter, both times as a teen. These experiences are why I don't back the faith-based initiatives that the federal government has promoted in recent years. These places, these pockets of hell staffed by well meaning, misguided people, these are the most degrading, humiliating, stigmatizing places in the world. I've actually never spent the night in anything called a homeless shelter. I preferred to return to the cold, rather than sit in the pew.

Let me tell you about my first time. Long term stable homeless living as an adult came later, but I was also a teen runaway. I was sixteen, but looked older. They can't let you in if you're under eighteen, unless it is exclusively a youth hostel. I approached the shelter, and was confronted by two very large men, security I guess. I told them I just had to lay down, didn't they have a cot I could sleep on? They said no. First I had to sit through the service. Exhausted and cold, I agreed, and I was taken into a pew. The preacher was chastising us for our sin in a rhythmic way, almost singing. If it were not so mean a message, I might have found it comforting. A supplicant converted, tears in his eyes, crying out testimony, confessing his bad ways and begging for forgiveness. The scene was surreal, as if I had a fever. I thought this stuff only happened in movies.

Appalled, angry, I stood up. I didn't need to be yelled at. I didn't need anything but a place to sleep. A warm place was what I needed and I was being attacked for my sins by someone who knew nothing about me, someone who knew nothing about the thirty other unhappy souls in the room seeking not God, but simple human comfort. As I stood up, two ushers came toward me, stern, gesturing me back to my seat. Big men. Scary. I was outnumbered, outmuscled, humiliated, but I was leaving. I waved them back. I said, "I want to leave. Show me the door."

A change came over them. Their eyes became shaded, and they escorted me out. No violence. No anger. They didn't ask me why. They didn't ask me what I would do now. They didn't care. I wasn't one of them.

Maybe it's different when shelters are run by Red Cross or by FEMA. I don't know. I've never been to one of those and am not likely to go to one, not even if my house were torn down by a natural disaster. Homeless shelters are crowded. You have to line up for beds at most shelters in the mid-afternoon, making it impossible to have both a job and a bed on the same day. You move through the shelter like a cog on an assembly line, from soup kitchen to bed, with no freedom to vary from the program. Personal security is low, and you are likely to have things stolen as you sleep. And more important than any of that, homeless shelters deprive you of dignity. They scream out that you have failed to take care of yourself, that you need.

No matter how much you need, you shouldn't feel that way.

I believe there is no tougher job than being a beggar. Nothing is harder than asking for compassion from people who hold you in contempt. Begging does a service, because it is a reminder to the fortunate that they could fall too, but it is a service I cannot perform.

We, each of us, deserve more dignity. Shelters are for someone else.

Postscript
Bother! I guess I've got to go stay the night at a local shelter. Be watching for the next installment of Shelters Are For Someone Else.

Truck Stops

There is an exception to the rule that gas stations are bad places to clean up, and that is a truck stop. These were never on my radar until recently, and tonight was my first time using one for a shower. One thing you'll find is that you don't have to find all the possible solutions to your problems. You'll find solutions that work, get a routine going and look no further. When you do that, you're home. You aren't homeless anymore. You've found your comfort zone. Tonight though, for the sake of research, for you, I put my body, and my pocket money, on the line.

There are certain franchises that have set up specifically to cater to the needs of truckers. They've got phones and phone cards, internet connections, special fueling areas, attached fast food restaurants, trip insurance, video game arcades, snacks, ephedra supplements (legal, though dangerous, stimulants), and most importantly showers. One of these chains is Pilot. I'm sure there are others, depending on where you are in the country. They space themselves out about every 100 miles, and all the truckers know where to find them. There are even maps that list their locations, available on their website and I'm told, predictably, at truck stops.

For seven bucks tonight, at my local Pilot, I got a key to a small room, number six in a hall filled with eight or ten identical stalls, and one larger stall set up to accommodate the disabled. Well lit, the rooms have a beautiful mirror and sink, a toilet, an oscillating fan, hooks to hang clothes on, and a shower stall. Conveniences include a fresh towel, a washcloth, a paper bath mat (one is tempted to ask why), some of those tiny soaps you might find in a motel, a built in place to sit down, and plenty of hot water. After each shower a maintenance crew cleans the stalls and sets out fresh towels and soap. I brought my own shampoo, and used that instead of the soap, because frankly, soap is just nasty.

The place was identical to a good motel room without the bed and t.v. For seven bucks, I have no complaints. It's too much money to use daily, but for that time when you haven't got a gym membership, if you have a local truck stop, this beats a day pass to the gym. Private, safe, and clean, this is a five star solution to the problem of getting clean. Treat yourself sometimes. A good shower can change your whole outlook on living.

Bonus! Reader Tip

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Hygiene on the Road

You've seen the movies. On road trips you've done it yourself. You pull over at the Shell station, find that the bathroom is not filthy, just ill appointed, a galvanized steel toilet and sink, cracked tiles, a scratched steel mirror, rusty pipes, a small pool of water somewhere near the middle of the room. You lock the door behind you, do a half strip, wash under your armpits with frigid water, shave, brush, someone knocks, hurry up in there, you finish, gas up and leave. That's a shower at the Lincoln Hotel, the Volkswagen Motorlodge. That's Zen and the Art of Homeless Living. Everyone knows it. Jewel describes her life in a van, prior to recording stardom, in just this way. If that's the way you want to bathe, be my guest, but day in, day out, you're going to get pretty stinky and pretty tired of it.

It's important to know some "roughing it" techniques. Below I will teach you to make an adult version of baby wipes in a bottle, for a scrub down in the car, and offer you a great alternative to a dry shave, but first, let's talk about available facilities, and last, let's talk about a real shower.

Restrooms
Of the three types of restroom baths available, for those days when a shower is out of the question, gas stations are the worst. Gas stations are just slightly more sanitary, on average, than a portapotty, and frequently the water doesn't work. Gas stations are for those moments of desperation, when your creativity has failed you. This is equally true for public park and bus station restrooms. I'd rather spray down with a garden hose, or with the wand at a do it yourself car wash stall. That's not terribly fun either, but if you have a bathing suit, you can make it work. That is for the bold, for you are bathing in full view. If that's your style, you might also consider the showers that are often on public beaches or at public swimming pools. They're cold, but free.

Fast food joints are somewhat better than gas stations for a quick wash. Many allow you to lock the door and scrub up privately. Many require quarters for entry, though, or are for customers only, and maybe it's me, but I don't like having to run a gauntlet of minimum wage hall monitors to get to the lavatory. Laundromat restrooms rank higher, but nearly always require quarters to enter.

That leaves supermarket restrooms. I always favor these. They are always free, and the employees will tell you where to find them without any resistance at all. Unfortunately, they often aren't very private. No locks. Happily, they are not heavily trafficked. When you simply need to use the restroom, this is the best type of business to approach. Other interesting places to find a restroom are the lobby of a hotel and any floor above the fourth in an office building. Why above the fourth? Because many office buildings lock restrooms on the lower levels, and don't bother to higher up. Just go in dressed decently and pretend you've gone to the wrong floor if you are confronted by a security desk when the elevator doors open.

Creativity at the Dashboard
Sometimes you'll have neither time nor the inclination to search out a restroom or a shower room. Take heart. You can stay clean another day with one or two preparations while you sit at the wheel of your car.

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.

A dab of sex gel will help you comb out your hair in the morning, too, and it disappears completely into the hair, as if it were never there.

For washing up, make my homemade, adult version of baby wipes in a bottle. First, find some hand and body lotion that has a scent you'd like to wear, buy some baby oil, and get some relatively scent free shower gel or shampoo. Pour a couple of teaspoons of each into a small water bottle, say half a liter. Maybe skimp a little on the baby oil and be a little generous with the shampoo. Fill the bottle halfway with warm water, cap it and shake to mix. Now take a napkin from your favorite fast food place, saturate it with the mixture, and give yourself a good wipe down. It takes the smell off, trust me. Add a bit of witch hazel to the mix if you like an astringent quality.

You can brush your teeth with two mouthfuls of water, one to rinse your mouth with, and one to rinse the brush with. It isn't that hard.

Shampoo? 16 ounces of water can get the job done on short to medium hair. Put a bowl on the ground to catch the water you use to get the hair wet and use it again to rinse with. Conservation takes on new meaning when you don't have endless running water at your fingertips. You can do things in creative ways.

I don't like to do this too many days in a row. I've always been a real fan of hot showers.

Locker Rooms
Showers. Beautiful hot showers are available at the locker room nearest you. You can find a locker room on campus, if you're a student, or if you pretend to be a student. Colleges often don't check student id to get into the shower room. No one seems to take advantage of this fact, which always sort of surprises me, because there are certainly a lot of homeless students, but the locker room on campus does not seem to have entered homeless culture. That's good for you. It's good for me. If a lot of people start using them, colleges may decide to restrict access.

The most reliable shower, though, is a membership at a gym. Watch out for contracts. You don't need to be signing one. You don't know where you will be in two years, and no one needs Bally's trashing his credit. Clubs, including the YMCA (which tends to be more expensive than the competition) will charge an initiation fee of a couple of hundred bucks, and then you pay monthly dues of 20 to 40 dollars, depending on the level of access you want. You want unrestricted access to the shower room and plenty of convenient locations. Other features matter only if you like to work out.

If you can't pay the initiation fee and you want to spoil yourself with a shower, get 10 or 12 bucks together and buy a day pass. It only gets you in for the day, but the water is nice and hot and there is plenty of it. If you feel like putting up with a sales pitch, it is often possible to get into the facility for nothing for the day. That trick only works once at most gyms.

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.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Advantages of Homelessness

You'd be surprised how many advantages there are to a homeless lifestyle. While there is an aspect of difficulty and hardship, there is also an element of easy living. I was made homeless by circumstances, but I stayed homeless by choice.

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.

I went to museums, libraries, volunteered, went to concerts, went to college, watched trials at the local courthouse, spent time with friends, played chess, practiced yoga, read, went to movies, and spent time just thinking.

The freedom is awesome. It is also somewhat daunting. It is hard to be prepared for so much time on your hands. In a strange way I felt a kinship with prisoners. The time can draw out and overwhelm you, so don't be surprised by this experience. Depression can sometimes attend this amazing freedom. In the end, the freedom to do as you please is addictive.

There are advantages to homelessness. You are no longer slave to a wage.

I'm not a bum!

You may be thinking, who needs this? I have a home. I have a life. I'm not one of those bums.

I'm not a bum either, and I never have been, but in 1996 I had a reversal of fortune. I'd gone off to college and it just didn't work out at the school I'd chosen. Unhappy, I dropped out and headed back to my hometown. With dropping out my financial aid came to an end, and I found myself nearly broke and without an income stream. Homelessness followed quickly and naturally from the situation.

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.

What you are more than who you are will determine the resources that are available to you. Women can rely more easily on family than men can. A man who runs to his parents suffers an amazing ego shot, in addition to the abuse he takes from others. Certain ethnic groups are good at supporting members until they get on their feet, immigrant groups for instance. If you are a single, young, strong man, of American birth, then you, my friend, have no one but yourself to depend on. If you are a teen runaway, you have people actively trying to exploit you. If you are a young woman without family resources, you really ought to prepare for this possibility before you have any idea that you might become homeless. A young family? You need to have a plan in place.

It is good just to think about these things, whether you prepare or not. If you think about how to be homeless successfully, comfortably, then you are 80% prepared just from putting your mind into that space. The best preparation for homelessness is knowing that you could be, and looking at the resources around you with that in mind.

I'd like you to forget what you know about the homeless as you read this book. The ideas that we've been taught about who they are, the veterans, the mentally ill or retarded, are simply stereotypes, and they contain much more fiction than fact. If you are already homeless, you must dismiss these stigmatizing images, and when you see someone that matches the stereotype, deal with the individual. Very often they will have deep knowledge that will help you to live well. If you can get that knowledge, well, you may see that bum with new eyes.

Get Comfortable Lying

I've read that the average American lies 25 times a day. I don't know how you would test that, certainly not by a survey, but I can believe it. Those lies, mostly, are little white lies. Slight embellishments on the truth. Despite that, Americans place a very high value on truth. On the playground, the worst charge one child can make against another is, "he's lying!" Political scandals center not on national security, not even on sex, but on honesty. One lie can end a politician's career. Your culture has a love affair with the truth, and because of that, most people are pretty bad at lying. You need to get good at it, at least in defense of one specific area, your privacy.

People are going to ask you all day where you live. When you go to the doctor, try to get a mailbox, try to get a cell phone or a pager, when you are interrogated by the police, when you want to join a supermarket club, when you want to get a storage unit, they'll ask. They'll want your home phone number, too. If you don't provide these pieces of information, and prove you are a member of the housed public, they will deny you services.

You don't have any time for that. You have problems you are solving just as fast as you are able, and the last thing you need is to be arguing with some salesman about the fact that the reason you want a cell phone is that you don't have a phone. They don't care. They just need you to fill in the little box on the form. So make up a phone number. What are they going to do, check?

Even in the unlikely event that you were caught, it's meaningless. It is perfectly legal to lie to the clerk at the grocery store. The worst they can do is deny you services, which they would have done if you told the truth.

You are a member of the counter culture now. Welcome. Truth is a value of the culture your life is running counter to. You're going to have to get comfortable modifying that value a bit. Your private life must be kept private. Lying defends it.

Lying is a survival skill.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

The Importance of the Car Cover

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. The car can be in any condition, damaged, new, old, used, stinky, cruddy, rusty. Who cares? It is a car. I don't even care if you can drive. Get a car.

If you can't drive, you're going to want to fix that. That's for another time, though.

A car is shelter. A car is a place to sleep. A car is a mobile storage unit. There is no other device that will do as much for you, short of ending your homelessness. But a car, on its own, is not enough. If you sleep in your car in a city, you will meet with local law enforcement. There is nothing quite so unpleasant to wake up to as the sound of a baton hitting a window beside your head. Take it from one who knows by experience.

To provide for concealment, get yourself a car cover. Cover the car and while no one is looking slip up under the edge, open the door as far as you are able, slip into the car, close the door and go to sleep. Whack, whack, whack. What the hell? Meet your local sheriff.

It isn't quite enough to have the car and to use the car cover. Car covers have a nasty habit of being blown about by wind, and you can easily be uncovered as you sleep. An even bigger complicating problem is that car covers attract car thieves. Your car will be an even bigger target for thieves because of your necessary choice of parking locations. To deal with this problem you will need to tie the cover down at four points, front and rear bumper, and both sides. I usually send a line underneath the car (by attaching a weight to the line and tossing it under) and tie the sides of the car cover to itself. This procedure makes it more difficult to get into the car, but if thieves or police come, you will have warning and time to compose yourself before you have to face the problem.

Car Thieves
There is a combat element to homelessness, but as every martial artist you ask will tell you, the best way to win a fight is not to be in the fight. Car thieves are easy to deal with, if you understand the psychology of thievery. Thieves will be attracted to a covered car, because they will believe that it is more valuable than the average vehicle. After all, the owner is taking good care of it. The thief will approach, leery of police, and to a lesser extent worried about being observed by citizens. He will begin trying to remove the cover, and you will hear the commotion. Adrenaline will course through your body, and you may be tempted to yell. Don't.

Be patient. Be sure it is not a cop. Look through the cover, to the extent you can. Search for glints that would reveal a badge. Look for the beam of a flashlight. Look for the red and blue strobes that reveal a police vehicle. Look for these things, because police require different tactics.

Now, when you are sure it is a thief, lean on the horn. The thief, terrified by the unfamiliar will retreat. In all my years in a car, I only had one thief return for a second try. They all ran away, and only one came back. That one did not return after a second blast of the horn. This plan works for several reasons. One is that the loudness of a car horn attracts unwanted (for the thief) attention that a car alarm never brings. People are looking out their windows, getting angry. The thief imagines that soon they will be coming out of their houses, calling the police, making noise complaints. His imagination isn't even focused. He just knows that he didn't plan this, and for a criminal any unplanned event is frightening. If you had yelled instead, he might have continued to attack. A thief may be well prepared for a fight. He may even welcome the chance to mug you. He never considered the possibility that a horn would sound though, and that scares him, because he has no plan. He runs.

Police
Now the police are another matter entirely. One thing you definitely do not want to do is present a police officer with an unfamiliar and frightening situation. Police are dangerous, and they are trained to press the attack forward when confronted with novel problems. Novel equals criminal in the mind of a police officer. Don't scare them.

Once you are certain it is a police officer, you need to establish communications. Ask them to identify themselves. Who's out there? They'll tell you it's the cops. Placate them. Let them know they have nothing to fear. Tell them what you are doing. Okay. Give me a minute. I need to put some shoes on. Okay, I'm opening the door now. Okay, I'm coming out. This is going to be a bit unpleasant for awhile. They're going to ask you what you were doing. They're going to tell you that you can't do that. They're going to require you to move on. Be submissive. Don't argue. Don't tell them much. Tell them your girlfriend, or boyfriend, kicked you out and you haven't figured out where to go yet. If it doesn't fly, don't worry too much about it.

They're going to want to search your car. My advice is not to consent to the search. If you have anything even vaguely illegal, weapons, drugs, whatever, do not consent to a search, but I advise you not to consent on general principles. Remember, too, that it is not unknown for a police officer to plant evidence. It's harder for them to do that if you don't consent to the search. The fourth amendment states:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Trust me, they do not have a warrant. You may worry that they could charge you with sleeping in your car. Tell them you weren't sleeping, they came along and made that impossible. You were meditating. In any case, it is a law used to give the police power. I have spoken with city attorneys in several cities and emailed several more around the country. Every one said that they do not prosecute people on the basis of that law. For awhile I asked police to charge me because I wanted to challenge the law on human rights grounds, and each time the police said they preferred to let me off with a warning. The danger of these municipal ordinances is that they empower the police to threaten the homeless. They do not empower them to prosecute the homeless. Know that and you take their power away.

Introduction to the Project

I spent nearly five years, from mid-1996 to the beginning of 2001, homeless, or as I liked to call it with a distributed household. I had storage, shelter, mailbox, telephone, shower, bathroom facilities, cooking equipment, and transportation, even access to television, radio, computer equipment, and ac power. I had the essence of a home. It was simply more geographically scattered than is traditional in our culture.

I'm not the first to do what I did, to live homeless well. I'm not the first to find advantage in homelessness. It is a well kept secret that homelessness can be freedom and comfort can attend it. The secret is well kept because revealing that you are homeless in this society is dangerous. There is stigma. There are even laws prohibiting it. Imagine that. There are laws against being homeless. Let me say that one more time. There are laws against being homeless.

There are laws against sleeping in public, in your car, on the beach, anywhere in the public view. It is the only law that I know that prohibits a behavior that is involuntary. You must sleep. There is no choice. You must do it. If you do not sleep for approximately one third of your life, you will suffer. The less sleep you get, the more physical and psychological symptoms you will suffer, until your mental faculties break down, your grasp of reality disintegrates, your self-control disappears. Your body will make you sleep, and if you use stimulants to avoid it, you will rapidly begin to become psychotic, with unpredictable mood swings, displays of aggression, and hallucinations. Nevertheless, the law in nearly every municipality forbids sleeping unless you are rich enough to afford a house or hotel to do it in. It's a human rights violation, but I will get back to that.

I've been thinking about writing this book, a guide to living well, for years. People think it will be easy to be homeless, that it is a lazy choice. Nothing could be further from true. Homelessness is very hard work. Homelessness can be very uncomfortable until you solve some basic problems. It is vital, for instance, to have a place of concealment. It is vital to assure that you will be warm, and to provide for safety, and for hygiene, and for communications, and even for a source of income. If you are newly homeless, you will not be meeting all of these basic needs, and to the extent that you don't, you will pay for that. This book will teach you to meet those needs effectively and fast.