How to live on the street and cope with being homeless in America

How to Live on the Street

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What most people spend on living arrangements, whether “permanent” ones such as houses or apartments, or hotels when traveling, can enable a frugal nomad to enjoy the same bars and restaurants as those who turn up their noses at him when they see him in a sleeping bag in the entryway of a closed shop downtown. While not all areas are good prospects for this manner of living, wherever you see a substantial homeless population you can be fairly sure of being able to live nomadically.

Steps

  1. Carry both a sleeping bag and sleeping pad suitable to the climate of the area in which you are living. A combination sil poncho/tarp/bivy sack also comes in handy in rainy weather.
  2. Sleep in a park during the day whenever possible; there is less chance of police harassment and mugging, it is generally warmer, and the grass makes a natural cushion. Large parks, such as the Boston Common and San Diego’s Balboa Park, make it easy to find a place to lay out your tarp and sleep for a few hours. Beaches are also excellent places to sleep during the day, but keep above the high-tide line, unless you want to awake to the chill of an ocean wave, and wear sunscreen or keep your body covered.
  3. If you must sleep on the street at night, find an area where the homeless are already doing the same. You will be less conspicuous, and the police probably leave them alone in that area. Be wary that the other homeless people may try to intimidate you or even rob you.
  4. If you can’t find a spot where the homeless are sleeping, choose a place that’s fairly well lit yet out of the pedestrian walkway. It’s better to have the cops roust you than get mugged in a dark alley.
  5. Another place to sleep relatively safely at night are rooftops of public buildings. People do not naturally look up, and chances are you won’t get found. This may be classed as trespassing and illegal, however. But it is safer than sleeping on the streets themselves. Preferable rooftops are flat with alcoves or obstacles so you cannot roll off of the rooftop.
  6. Look for free samples in grocery stores. It’s an easy way to find food, and you are more likely to find special offers and cheap food. If you are in Florida, many Publix supermarkets give slightly more than most samples in their “Apron” stands. Even walking in opens lines of communication for food later on.

Tips

  • Travel lightly. You can stuff a down sleeping bag to a very small size, ditto for a poncho/tarp and an ultralight inflatable pad. A backpack can make you look more like a European tourist, but it might make you less welcome in American shops, bars and restaurants. Shoulder bags don’t hold as much but look more mainstream, resulting in less glares.
  • A wide-brimmed hat keeps the sun’s rays off your face, preventing sunburn and reducing the risk of skin cancer. You can also use it to cover your face when trying to nap during the day; it keeps the sunlight out and the flies and mosquitoes off too!
  • Always make sure you look and smell good, especially if you enjoy the bar and restaurant scene. This can be difficult, but often just disappearing into a locking restroom (certain major coffee chains and most gas stations have them) for a couple of minutes and taking a sponge bath can work wonders. Baking soda is cheap and makes an excellent 24-hour deodorant and teeth cleaner. Another option for cleaning is premoistened baby wipes.
  • If you have a little more disposable income, you might want to consider buying membership in a nationwide gym. This gives you access to showers everywhere you go, and a locker where you might be able to temporarily store your gear.
  • Synthetic warm-up suits pack very small and can be worn while you launder your other clothes. Change in one of the aforementioned restrooms.
  • Sleep with your bags strapped to you, day or night. This makes it difficult for someone to walk off with them, since they would have to risk waking you and possibly have a fight on their hands. Unless you’re in an area where the wolves are really hungry, and you’ll probably feel the vibes when you enter such an area, this shouldn’t happen.
  • It’s nice to have a home base where you can relax after traveling, and sleep 12 to 24 hours straight if you had rainy or otherwise unsuitable weather during your nomadic excursion. Apartments on the New Mexico border in Palomas (Chihuahua, Mexico), for example, can be had for about US$40 per month, and farther south probably even cheaper.

Warnings

  • Living like this can make you a target for the middle-class and rich, who are likely to complain to the police about you wherever you go. You can also expect to be jeered at by younger people.
  • This will probably not be feasible in the Pacific Northwest, or other areas with lots of cold, rainy weather. Camping there would most likely require a tent and would limit your mobility.
  • Watch out for dogs and other stray animals. They may be just as needy as you are and can become very aggressive. Obtain a heavy stick, a piece of iron pipe, or a few rocks (only if you can throw reasonably accurately!) and keep them by you when you sleep, so that you can fight animals off with them as needed.

Things You’ll Need

  • Sleeping bag, or blankets
  • Poncho and/or Tarpaulin
  • Weapon for self defense
  • Money (optional)
  • First aid kit
  • Water bottle
  • Backpack
  • sun screen

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Sources and Citations

  • This research was made possible, in part, by a land grant from the City of the Sun though the specifics of the research were not coordinated nor endorsed by COSF.

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