Survival Guide to Homelessness

No matter where you go, there you are.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Sweet Charity

I am not a beggar. I don't have any experience at begging. I do know that begging is an unpleasant profession, and the vast majority of beggars really do need some kind of help. The stories of con men begging are just that, stories. Those stories are there to comfort people as they turn their hearts away from those in need. In this way they are similar to the condemnation stories, which claim that a beggar will use what he receives for unworthy purposes, like alcohol or drugs. Let me just say this about that, a long-term alcoholic that has not had a drink cannot hold down food. It is arrogant and unkind to presume that we know what others need.

There's a story about a man who served in the Peace Corps. He was working with a small agricultural village, without much in the way of resources. After telling his father about the people he was working with, his father generously offered him $10,000 to build a school with. The man, wisely, said he needed to talk to the people about it, and when he did, he found they didn't want a school.

The people said a school wouldn't do them very much good. The children are needed to do work at home and would not have much time to use a school. Instead, if given ten thousand dollars, they would like to have a well, so that the children didn't have to carry water from miles away, and they would like to have a soccer field, a place for the kids to play and for families to gather.

If you give to those in need, I suggest that you give, and then give no further thought to the gift. Give thought to those you wish to help. Give them compassion. Don't try to be certain that the gift is used as you intended. In fact, try not to intend.

People know how to get the most from the money you give them. If you try to direct how those resources are used, it may be of little more value than an empty schoolhouse.

When we first enter homelessness, we are often reduced to asking for help from others. Whether it is asking for a space on a couch with friends or family, getting a cot in a shelter, begging for change, asking for loans, or any other desperation bid for relief, it hurts. It hurts to need. It hurts to ask. It often hurts to receive, because the gifts come with advice, with condemnation, with strings. When people give something to you, they almost always want to direct how you use that help. You're in a one down position, and paying for charity costs a lot in time and in ego. This is the reason I don't like shelters. I don't like turning to parents, siblings, grandparents, friends, ex-wives, lovers, children, or others either. I don't even like government welfare, but at least I can feel some entitlement to government relief. We all pay taxes, so it belongs to me.

The most valuable resource you have is attitude, ego, a positive spirit. With a positive, confident attitude you can get jobs, create opportunities, and think clearly about your options. Depressed and melancholy, dejected and guilt-ridden it is nearly impossible to think creatively. Accept only those gifts that come freely, and that do not undermine your spirit. Anything else, you are better off without.

If you participate in charity work, I am not saying you should stop. Instead, I hope you will read my comments and let them inform your work. Maybe it will help you to improve the service you offer. The last thing I hope to do is to discourage anyone from reaching out to help others. Mostly I am arguing to the recipient of charity, so that he can consider carefully whether he wants to stand in that soup line.

Some readers have taken offense at the stand I have taken against homeless shelters. Others have asked me about my position on panhandling, how to panhandle and whether to give to panhandlers. In light of the Thanksgiving holiday, I thought it might be appropriate to talk about charity and the exceptionally destructive role it can have in the lives of the homeless.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Happy Thanksgiving

Remember, no matter who you are, or what your circumstance, there is much to be thankful for every day of your life.

Life is what you make of it.

I am on holiday, seeing family and friends in distant lands and that's why I haven't been contributing to the blog. As I travel, I've been interviewing police on what their attitudes are toward the homeless. It is a fascinating reality that you can only ask questions about homelessness when you cannot be oppressed for being homeless. I will report a little on what I've found later.

Meanwhile, take joy and find comfort in your life. You deserve the very best. Be sure you think kindly thoughts about yourself and are generous with others. A proper attitude is the best and most productive gift you can give.

Friday, November 12, 2004


Entertainment options are wider than you might think for those living a mobile lifestyle. Television, music, movies, live entertainment, and activities are not reserved to the housing advantaged.

Movies are obvious. Go when you want to. There were times, lots of times, when I'd seen every movie playing at the movie houses in my county, and had to wait for new ones to come out. Movies get you out of the environment, out of the weather, out of your car, out of your life, and immerse you in story for 112 minutes. Movies are a great way to cool down and relax before you face the next problem solving challenge. Movies are great. Even bad movies are great.

Can't stand to miss an episode of your favorite reality tv show? You'd be surprised how quickly you get over having tv in your life, but occasionally most people get sucked in by must see tv. Don't despair. You've got more options than visiting a friend's television. Laundromats have tvs and no one cares if you change the channel. Hospital waiting rooms frequently have tvs. If anyone asks you why you are in the hospital, say you are with someone who is already being seen. Or tell the truth. You're homeless and wanted to watch tv. Hospitals are in the compassion business. You might even get one of those cruddy hospital meals out of the deal. You've just got to size up the person questioning you. Airports and bus stations have tvs often enough. Of course bars have tvs, but I suggest you buy the coca cola and leave out the rum.

If what you want is something on HBO, get a motel room. I once decided I just had to see the new George Carlin special. Thirtyfive dollars got me a nice warm room, a shower, and HBO for the night. George, sadly, wasn't in top form, but the shower and the bed were nice, and I didn't have to feel deprived.

There are battery powered camp televisions. Owning one means you have to cart it around, though.

Radio, Music, and Comedy
Comedy saves lives. A walkman and a few good comedy tapes can keep you sane. Laughter keeps you happy, keeps you healthy, and helps you forget about the cold. I like comedy.

Music is good, too. Invest in something that will play some music and some comedy for you. You will be glad you did.

I also like talk radio. Nothing will help you forget your own problems like thinking about someone else's problems. Why else do you think Jerry Springer was such a success?

Homelessness does not remove you from pop culture. You choose what entertainment you like, and go get it. It's available everywhere. Don't forget museums, amusement parks, concerts, and community theater for a change of pace, either. It can even be fun to go down to the courthouse and watch a trial. People say some stupid stuff in traffic court. That's always good for a laugh.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Finding a Parking Place

Choosing the right parking place is an essential survival skill. Choosing the wrong one will draw the attention of residents, business owners, and police, and you will be moved on early. There is enough work involved in setting up for the night that moving on costs you at least an hour, and it is an unpleasant hour, one in which you have to listen to a self righteous jerk with a badge and a stick tell you how you ought to be living.

Don't get me wrong. I like police when they're chasing criminals. Somehow, though, they become something different when they are preventing me from attending to my most basic biological needs. Somehow, when they are standing between me and sleep they seem less than heroic.

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.

Residential Areas
A residential area is never ideal, but it is the most reliable supplier of an acceptable spot. The advantage, your car never looks out of place. If police cruise by they won't be wondering what a car is doing parked there. The disadvantage, lots of eyes. You want to park so that you are not in front of anyone's front door. Along a fenceline is good, particularly a tall fenceline. That shelters you from view on one side. Best is a place just on the cusp between a residential and a commercial zone. You want to be removed from the houses, so the residents don't notice or care about you, but you want the car to look natural in the place you've parked.

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. It may allow you to get into the car unobserved more easily, but this is really trading a full nighttime of increased danger for a few seconds of lower exposure. You can find the right moment to enter the car in the bright light.

Business Areas and Parking Lots

First let's clear one thing up, paying for parking is unnecessary and wasteful, so if you are thinking of one of those pay to park parking structures, think some more. Pay parking lots are regularly patrolled by three kinds of people you'd like to avoid, cops, security guards, and thieves. It is way too high profile, and frequently they are locked overnight. You don't ever want to be locked in anywhere. The overriding quality you are looking for in a parking place is flexibility on entrance and exit.

Don't park where traffic will prevent you from getting into or out of your car safely. Don't park on busy streets. On those few occasions when I did park on a busy street I couldn't shake the fear that someone might sideswipe my parked car. It happens. You don't want it to happen while you are in the vehicle.

Don't park where people will be arriving in large numbers at certain times of day or night because it will make it harder for you to get out unobserved.

Never park near a grade school or a high school. People take child safety very seriously, and rightly or wrongly the homeless are going to be perceived as a threat.

Most of the time supermarket or department store parking lots are no good. Your vehicle sticks out in an empty lot. Walmart, though, allows RV's to park overnight in their lots. I'm told that some Walmarts even have utility hookups for the RV's. I have never tried this, because I was unaware of the Walmart policy, but where RV's go will probably be safe for you in a car. I would park near any RV's that were there ahead of me, and I wouldn't concern myself with hiding my car living ways from their owners. This is one of those exceptional situations where you can relax a little.

Hotel and motel parking lots will do in a pinch. This is a good choice if for some reason you've lost your car cover. The cops won't bother you and a lot of hotels and motels will tolerate you. When approached by hotel staff, just tell them you are only looking for a place to sleep that night. Most of the time they will look the other way.

Service stations are pretty good for a one night stint also, especially those that think of themselves as a freeway rest stop. You can generally sleep till morning without anyone disturbing you.

Gathering Places
RV's and campers and truckers tend to find lonely stretches of road and congregate. These can often be found near beaches, near lakes, just off the highway, and in other more or less remote places. Where you find such a congregation, you can park with safety. Watch the crowd. It knows more than individuals do. The favorite in a horse race wins about 33% of the time, but the very best handicappers in the world pick the winner 17% of the time. Crowds know. These are places that are ignored by law enforcement, yet offer no particular temptations to criminals.

Yeah, campgrounds work, I suppose. Lots of people use them. Personally I hate camping. It's cold. In a car, you are well above the ground. In a tent you are on the ground, and even with a pad it's a powerful heat sink. In a car, the wind can't touch you. The wind will take your tent and put it in the next county. Your car is impervious to the rain. Your tent keeps some of the rain out, I guess, unless, of course, you pitched it in a dry creek bed. Yeah. You want to camp? Camp. It isn't for me.

Many campgrounds even require that you pay for all this luxury.

Campgrounds are also separated from all the places you do business, usually by quite a distance. Cold, uncomfortable, often at a cost of money, and in an inconvenient location, well, they must have something to recommend them, but I am having trouble thinking what it is. You are still exposed, even moreso really. Now instead of just thieves and cops you've got paranoid marijuana growers, bears, mountain lions, and the occasional (though admittedly very rare) serial killer to worry about. On the plus side, you can have a fire, but you will probably have to have brought some wood. In my experience, wood that will burn easily is rare at a campground.

Rest Stops
Freeway rest stops are good, but they are crowded, the restrooms are unsanitary, and they have posted rules about how long you can be there. In California the rule is usually six hours, because some bureaucrat thought it would be funny to make sure no one got a full night's sleep. Irony creeps in everywhere, even at rest stops.

The good news is no one has ever enforced the time limit on me. I haven't used them a lot, but when I have, I've usually been there eight or ten hours without a problem.

Rotate Your Sites
It is a good idea to have three to ten good parking places scouted out, and rotate from one to the next. It is a bad idea to park in the same place three nights in a row. You should scatter your sites through several neighboring cities if you are in a big county like Los Angeles, so that you don't get too well known to one police department. Speaking of that, county land is often less patrolled or controlled than city land is. If you know of a group of streets that have no city claims to them, check those out for good places to park.

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.

If you are homeless long enough, you will break most of these rules from time to time. That's fine. Sometimes there will be some advantage, some exception to the rule. Sometimes you will just be too tired or too lazy to do things right. Sometimes you will pay a price for that, but that is part of this. Some things you just have to learn the hard way.

Be alert. Choose parking carefully. Stay safe.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Who Asked You to End Homelessness?

So many people want to end homelessness. Here is just a short list of people and agencies desperately trying to put an end to homelessness in our towns and cities.

The Alliance to End Homelessness (Ottawa, Canada)
Arizona Coalition to End Homelessness
CT Coalition to End Homelessness
Denver Commission to End Homelessness
End Homelessness Now
Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger & Homelessness
New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness
The National Alliance to End Homelessness
New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness
People To End Homelessness
The Philadelphia Committee to End Homelessness

The National Coalition for the Homeless says "Our mission is to end homelessness."

The Urban Institute asks "What will it take to end homelessness?"

In June of 2004 the mayor of Washington, DC, announced a plan to end homelessness in the city within ten years.

Philip Magano, White House homelessness czar, says, "We can no longer tolerate the homelessness of so many of our neighbors. Our commitment is to fulfill the promise of a home for every American... That effort will begin with an initiative directed to remedy homelessness for those who are disabled living on the streets and in encampments across our country. We cannot acknowledge their plight, and then do nothing to remedy their situation."

Who do these people think they are? How arrogant is it to look at someone, judge his life against your own, and find his deficient? I never met a homeless person who said, I want you to end my homelessness. I met homeless people who asked for spare change, for food, for employment, for drug treatment, for medical help, for shelter for a night, for a ride to the next town, and for someone to talk to. All that yes, and I have always asked for respect and dignity. No one wants to give up the right to direct his own life.

Why do people think they know best how others should live, without ever asking those they say they want to help? It is because when people talk about a homelessness problem, they are talking about the problem that the rich have passing the poor every day. When Paul Magano says we can't tolerate homelessness, he means he can't tolerate the homeless.

Be certain when you offer to help, that you are offering to help someone other than yourself. To do that, the first thing you need to do is listen.

People will tell you if they want help, and what help they want. Don't impose your life on others. You'll only harm them. When people say they are going to end homelessness, I receive that as a threat.

The more we can kill this year, the less will have to be killed the next war, for the more I see of these Indians the more convinced I am that they all have to be killed or be maintained as a species of paupers. Their attempts at civilization are simply ridiculous.
General Sherman, 1868

Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are. History would forget these latter despicable beings, and speak, in later ages of the glory of these grand Kings of forest and plain…
L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz, advocating genocide, 1890

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Letter to Cool Publisher

To: [Cool Book Publishing Firm]

Dear [Cool Book Editor],

I am in the midst of writing a book which teaches how to live well while homeless. A review of your online catalogue reveals several similar books, including ['Nuther Homelessness Book], which gives information on being homeless in a traditional way, the life, to use a crude term, of a bum. My book will offer readers an alternative to this stereotypical lifestyle, and will make a nice companion to that work in the catalogue or on the shelf. I propose a lifestyle which has all the advantages and freedoms that attend a rent free life, without the social stigma. My guide will teach methods of being homeless undetectably, invisibly. A person living as I recommend will be welcome in restaurants, malls, schools and at social events. When he walks onto a car dealership, a salesman will try to sell him a car. He will be employable. He will have options to change or maintain his lifestyle.

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. My techniques could be adapted to anyone's tastes and talents, and to the resources available anywhere.

I have enclosed a topic outline of the proposed book, several sample sections, and a self addressed stamped envelope for your convenience. There is no need to return any of the submitted materials. Thank you for considering my Survival Guide to Homelessness.


Mobile Homemaker

Sent: 5 November 2004
Names omitted to protect the guilty.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004


Smoking, alcohol, prescription drugs, marijuana, and other illicit drugs are sometimes thought of simply as vices, and vices are no one's business but your own. I want to argue that they are more than that to you. I want to suggest that this period of homelessness puts you in a position where you need to be the very best you can be as much of the time as possible. Addictions send us down a bleak road.

Leaving aside the legitimate and important concerns about health, tobacco addiction costs you money, lately as much as some illegal drug habits might cost. In some states a pack of cigarettes costs ten dollars. Most smokers smoke a pack a day. That is as much as $300 per month. That cost is the same as all your other expenses combined except food and gasoline. That is cell phone, gym membership, storage, mailbox, car insurance, and entertainment. You can have all that or cigarettes, or you can work twice as hard to support both.

There's another problem with smoking. You have to do it twenty times a day. It distracts you from other tasks. All other activities get structured around it. That's unacceptable. You simply have too much to do to assure that you are comfortable to have any habits that interfere with your goals. You must resent losses of time. Ferret them out and ban them from your life.

Once you are under your cover for the night, getting out to smoke makes you vulnerable to being observed, and lighting up in the car will make the vehicle glow like a lantern. Airflow in the car is almost nonexistent while it is covered, even if you roll the windows down, so you will soon find yourself choking on your own secondhand smoke.

Cigarettes will make you a social pariah these days. One of the primary goals I've been encouraging you to pursue is a level of invisibility. You don't want negative attention for a habit. It gets people looking at you. It is a reason to deny you employment or deny you services.

Cigarette smoking is painful. It is painful every time it has been too long since your last cigarette. It is painful during cold season when you pick up any virus that is going around, and keep the illnesses long after a nonsmoker would have recovered. Believe me, there are enough sources of pain, with trying to keep warm, stay cool, avoid fights, and get enough money for food. This is a stark lifestyle. Small things can really make a difference in how happy you are. Cigarettes are not a small discomfort. They are a major discomfort.

You really should consider not drinking at all. There are few drugs that impair you the way alcohol does. Inhibitions are suspended. Judgment and motor skills are impaired. Aggressive tendencies are enhanced to violence. Depression can be caused or deepened by drinking. This is not a drug to play with while homeless. This is a drug that promises misery. If you really want to drink, drink moderately. Don't get drunk.

Prescription sedatives, narcotics, and tranquilizers
My main objections to the use of these drugs, even if obtained legally, are the risk of addiction and the dulling of responses. You may need all of your faculties at any moment in this lifestyle. If you've popped 10mg of valium, how capable are you of assessing the tactical needs of the moment? How easily can you put those tactics into practice? Use prescriptions for medical reasons only.

Much safer than alcohol, marijuana still has its share of significant problems. On the positive side, stoners don't go looking for a fight. On the negative side, you are likely to have more contacts with police than the average citizen because of your homelessness. If you have pot, you have more to fear from the cops. An irritating rousting can become a significant legal problem.

Marijuana costs a lot of money, and you have to deal with criminals to get it. Pot dealers are often armed, and often deal other drugs as well, so while stoners may be non-violent you may be coming into contact with methamphetamine users. Meth users are frequently irrational, enter rages unpredictably, and can easily become violent. The potential for problems, violence or arrest, involved in scoring make marijuana use an unacceptable risk.

And there is always the lantern factor as you light up at nighttime in your covered car. Once stoned your ability to deal with cops and thieves is impaired. You wake up less easily, and react more slowly. Marijuana takes away your edge in a conflict.

Other drugs
Violence, dull senses, impaired judgment, risk of arrest, loss of time and energy, monetary expense, if this list of disadvantages does not persuade you that staying clean is necessary for success in homelessness, then I don't know what will.

I know how hard it is to beat an addiction. Quitting smoking was the hardest thing I've ever done. This lifestyle is an opportunity for you, though. Homelessness demands careful self-examination, intense self-knowledge, because it is through that knowledge that you will win in conflicts, and keep yourself happy and healthy. This same self-knowledge is the key to defeating addiction.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

A Word About Violence & Revenge

There may be times when you are stolen from. You may be attacked or threatened. It may happen at the worst possible moment, when you really needed comfort, money, and kindness. You may be told to move on by police, get yelled at by a business or property owner, or be denied service. You might get a parking ticket, or have your vehicle towed. You might get cut off, pushed out of line, or otherwise mistreated. A security guard or bicycle cop may compensate for his bruised ego by being a total tyrant toward you. If you are a normal human being, with a normal level of natural steroids, you may feel just that spark of aggression.

You might be tempted to stand up for yourself.

May I suggest an alternative? Don't.

Oh, I know, it's hard, but walk away. Get out of the fight. Give the mugger your wallet. Go to a different business if they don't want your money at this one. Thank police for the ticket. Be submissive toward police, and even toward security guards and bike cops. Especially toward security guards and bike cops, because they have something to prove about how tough they are. Insecurities make people all the more dangerous.

Take the path of least violence, always. Never fight when you can run. If you see someone who has wronged you in the past, do not plot revenge. Your goal in survival is to get the things done that assist you, and avoid things that damage you. Karma is real, but it is instant. Those who fight get hurt. If you fight when you don't have to, you are a fool. If you are violent, harm will come to you.

I don't mean not to defend yourself, and your rights. I always inform police that I will not waive my fourth amendment right against unwarranted search, or my fifth amendment right not to incriminate myself, or my sixth amendment rights to know the charges against me and to have counsel to assist me in my defense. If someone is attacking me, I fight until I can flee. If someone else is being victimized, I will assist him to the best of my ability, but I do mean that you should take the path of least violence. You should understand what winning is in a conflict, and stop fighting when you win.

Let me give you an example of a successful bloodless conflict. I was packing up a storage unit one day, and I had only that day to finish. In the same facility a man was screaming at his soon-to-be-ex-wife on a cell phone, and creating an atmosphere that I found intolerable. I decided to stop this guy from yelling. I yelled at him forcefully, Hey! Shut the hell up!

Well, predictably this brought the man's wrath toward me. He started yelling at me and making aggressive gestures, and at that moment I did something he could not have expected. I submitted. I wimped out. I apologized and said I should mind my own business. I backed down.

Now, the soon-to-be-ex-wife was no longer on the phone, so he couldn't yell at her. He had no way to yell at me, or continue to bring a fight to me, because I had backed down. He grumbled and muttered and hurled a few insults at me, but he stopped yelling and I got back to work in blissful quiet. Understanding the nature of winning, the precise goals I was trying to achieve, allowed me to give my opponent the illusion that he won while I got everything I wanted.

And no one got hurt. Always seek the scenario in which no one gets hurt.

Keeping Cool

If, as I suggest, you are sleeping in a car with a car cover, your problems don't end with staying warm at night. On most days the sun will enforce a wake up time. Cars heat up. On sunny days in California, sleeping past 10:00am will make you sympathize with baked potatoes, so get up before you get cooked. Also try to park under shade trees or next to a building that will cast a morning shadow on you.

During really hot times of the year, under blistering sun, even getting out of the car and finding shade may not be enough. At those times, exploit the commercial sector. Malls are a great place to hang out. Loitering is not prohibited in malls, so long as you don't look like a stereotypical homeless person. Go in dressed well. Bring your hygiene supplies and get cleaned up in one of the mall bathrooms. You may as well solve two problems at once. Spend the day window shopping and eating samples at the food court. On a hot day, when you are feeling idle, you could do worse.

Go to a movie matinee. It's the cheapest time to see a movie, and it is in the hottest time of the day, between noon and 4:00pm. Movie theaters are air conditioned, restful environments and if you aren't interested in the movie, no one will notice you snoozing unless you snore. Even then, many matinees run without an audience. You may have the entire theater to yourself.

McDonald's, Jack in the Box, Carl's Jr., Burger King, Wendy's, KFC, Church's, Taco Bell, these places have two things in common, bad food and air conditioning. Buy a soda and you can sit and nurse it for several hours. Often the refills are free as long as you are in the dining room. This will keep you out of the sun in the afternoon.

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. During the summer, wear sunscreen or keep out of the sun.

If it is really hot, dress appropriately. Don't try to carry everything you own. The car is a great storage bay. Dress lightly, but bring a windbreaker. When you go into the movie theater, restaurant, or mall it may be too cold for comfort. People overcompensate.