Ascending the cold, slanted cement slab has become tiresome, but this is now home. The crawl space beneath the underpass is the best option available until you can get back on solid ground. After pushing aside the tent flap and stealing a quick glance at the dry riverbed 60 feet away, you wonder how you ended up here before crawling into your tent for the night.
It’s not difficult to imagine the challenges that would arise if you suddenly lost your home, job, car, bank accounts, and everything else you held dear. Where would you go? What would you do? You’d be on your own, and survival would be a daunting task.
With this in mind, we hit the pavement in Denver and the sprawling urban areas of greater Los Angeles to discover proactive and preventative methods for survival that could benefit those who find themselves in such dire circumstances. There are proven ways to survive within our concrete jungles.
Homelessness in the United States
Homelessness is a growing problem in the United States, with an estimated 580,466 people experiencing homelessness on any given night in 2020, according to the Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress. This includes individuals who are staying in emergency shelters, transitional housing, and unsheltered locations, such as streets and parks.
The causes of homelessness are complex and multifaceted. Economic factors, such as a lack of affordable housing, poverty, and unemployment, contribute significantly to homelessness. Additionally, mental illness, substance abuse, and family breakdowns can also lead to homelessness.
While homelessness affects people of all ages and backgrounds, certain groups are particularly vulnerable. Veterans, people with disabilities, and those who identify as LGBTQ+ are disproportionately represented in the homeless population. Homelessness also disproportionately affects Black and Indigenous people, as well as people of color.
Homelessness has significant physical, emotional, and social consequences for individuals and communities. People experiencing homelessness are at a higher risk of developing health problems, including infectious diseases, mental health disorders, and chronic conditions. Homelessness can also exacerbate existing health problems, making it more difficult for individuals to access healthcare and other necessary resources.
The economic costs of homelessness are also significant. Homelessness places a burden on emergency services, such as police, fire, and emergency medical services. It can also result in increased costs for healthcare and social services. In addition, homelessness can reduce the economic productivity of individuals and communities.
Efforts to address homelessness involve a combination of prevention, outreach, and supportive services. Prevention strategies include increasing access to affordable housing and providing financial assistance to prevent individuals and families from becoming homeless. Outreach efforts aim to connect people experiencing homelessness with necessary services, such as healthcare, mental health treatment, and job training. Supportive services, such as transitional housing and case management, aim to help individuals experiencing homelessness achieve long-term stability.
The federal government provides funding for programs aimed at addressing homelessness, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Continuum of Care program, which supports community-based efforts to prevent and end homelessness. Additionally, local and state governments, as well as non-profit organizations, play a crucial role in addressing homelessness in their communities.
Skills learned from the homeless
Undoubtedly, the most critical of your fundamental necessities will fall into this category. Regardless of the situation, a secure, dry, and warm place to rest and recover is essential.
There are three key aspects to consider when setting up a sleeping spot: protection from danger and the elements, warmth, and concealment. Depending on the circumstances, you have three options: you can sleep in a vehicle if you have one, you can seek out a homeless shelter, or you can establish your own urban campsite.
If you have access to a car or some other type of motor vehicle, it is an ideal shelter. Parking in a Walmart, 24-Hour Fitness, major hotel chain, or any other type of business parking lot that is open 24/7 is recommended if you can get to these locations. Since these businesses operate around the clock, you are less likely to be questioned or disturbed.
Your vehicle can also provide you with occasional heat if necessary, as well as power for electronic devices, such as laptops or cell phones if you have them. There are many affordable A/C adaptors within the $20 to $40 range, and it would be wise to keep one in your vehicle or bug-out bag, along with your phone charger (which you probably already have). Sunshades are also a good idea because they provide not only daytime protection but also nighttime privacy, particularly if your vehicle lacks tinted windows.
Shelters are incredibly beneficial for those living in urban areas, and the homeless community at large greatly appreciates them. However, for a newcomer seeking a bed in a city homeless shelter, staying there can be challenging due to the accompanying problems. You have to sign up early to secure a spot, and sometimes this requires you to stay in the immediate vicinity for the entire day.
The night before our visit to Denver, 523 men slept on mats or beds in a large warehouse space. “Most of these guys are on one drug or another,” says Dan, who is 50 years old. Shelters can often become a dog-eat-dog environment where what belongs to you can quickly become someone else’s property. Robert, 48, originally from Los Angeles, explains how he slept in the shelters at night. “I’d keep my legs on my suitcase and use my backpack as a pillow. Ain’t nobody going to try and take anything from me.”
Although shelters can offer assistance programs, substance abuse counseling, and a range of placement programs for long-term homeless people seeking to regain stability, these programs should not be overlooked if applicable to your situation.
Many of the people we interviewed believed that being on their own in the street was psychologically better because they did not want to become dependent on the shelter or its “regulars” for the community. It is widely agreed that shelter accommodations are best if limited to occasional use for one or two days per week, centered around meal giveaways and personal needs, such as showering and seeking alternate clothing.
The urban campsite is a highly versatile option for shelter, albeit a challenging one, as it offers a more nomadic sense of refuge. However, moisture, cold and hot weather and environmental predators are your greatest foes, in that order. While outdoor sleeping in most cities is not illegal, it is often frowned upon between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m., and you may still face harassment or be asked to move during the day. Getting adequate rest at night will be your biggest challenge.
To ensure a safe and sustainable camp, it is important to divide it into three sections: sleeping, eating, and bodily functions. This helps prevent scavengers and insects, especially with regard to leftover food. Napkins from restaurants can serve as toilet paper in the absence of other options.
Finding higher ground is key to safety, as it protects from inclement weather and provides concealment. Rooftops and hillsides with plenty of plant cover are ideal options. Tarps and heavy-duty garbage bags can be converted into shelters and insulation, respectively. Sleeping directly on the ground should be avoided.
Andrea, a 43-year-old Los Angeles resident, shared the common belief that it is best to find higher ground when possible. She listed several places that provide good shelter for sleeping, including flat areas under overpasses and loading platforms, as well as hillsides with trees or bushes. However, she warned about the potential danger of sleeping near parks at night, where the police might come. The “higher ground” principle also applies to rooftops, although abandoned buildings and legal problems should be considered before choosing this option.
For protection from the weather and to remain hidden, campers often use tarps or heavy-duty garbage bags, which can also double as insulation or storage. Building a bed to avoid sleeping directly on the ground is important to prevent hypothermia and maintain warmth. A sleeping bag and warm clothing, including wool blankets, old curtains, and tablecloths, are essential items that need to be carried at all times.
A man in Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park had been sleeping on top of a mid-city building for a few months—thanks to an accessible fire escape. Rooftops can also lead to abandoned buildings, and these come with legal and dangerous problems of their own, which should be thought through before being considered. Hillsides with plenty of plant cover are ideal for protection from inclement weather, as well as concealment. Being elevated also decreases your chances of sleeping in puddles or accumulating rainwater runoff.
To provide cover, a section of tarp was utilized at various locations and can be easily dismantled, folded, and carried. Jose, aged 52, advises camping where one feels safest and suggests using brown or green tarps during summer to avoid being detected. Dollar stores, automotive shops, and garden centers are the likely places to find tarps. Depending on the environment, tarps can be used as tents or lean-tos. In colder weather, they can provide insulation by wrapping around sleeping bags or clothing. Heavy-duty garbage bags can also be used as ponchos or storage containers.
Moisture poses a significant threat to warmth and hygiene. Hypothermia can occur even in warm weather, and sleeping directly on the ground should be avoided as it quickly causes cold to permeate the body. To create a bed, old couch cushions, tree branches, boxes, and polystyrene foam nuggets are commonly used materials.
Sleeping bags, wool blankets, old curtains, tablecloths, and extra clothing are valuable items for warmth and should be kept with you at all times. Remaining unseen is critical, and portable campsite essentials are necessary in case of a police or homeless person disturbance. A clean, inconspicuous camp is less likely to be disturbed.
If you find a suitable location, it is best to stay concealed to avoid moving daily. However, during catastrophic events or martial law, rules are disregarded. Urban camping laws vary from city to city, but cover can draw negative attention from law enforcement and others.
Fire and heat
Depending on your situation or environment, there are several ways to create a heat source. Cans, especially coffee or similarly sized ones, are valuable for warmth or cooking because of their concealability.
Martin, aged 30, swears by them and suggests purchasing petroleum jelly and a lighter from a 99-cent store. By poking holes in the can and placing nails through them, you can wipe petroleum on paper or cloth and set it where the nails meet to make it burn for a while. Kindling materials such as wood, newspaper, cloth, and cotton balls can be used.
Matches can often be found for free at bars or hotels if you don’t have a lighter. You can cook food on top of an old cheese grater or a small soup or tuna can, which can be used as a candle using similar kindling methods. Flint-and-steel methods can also be used to start fires for those with access and know-how.
Maintaining personal hygiene is an effective way to avoid unwanted attention from potential threats, including thieves, harassers, and law enforcement. It is essential to blend in with the surroundings. The men we interviewed often use city shelters that provide hot showers, but there are other alternatives to consider.
If you are close to a beach or pool, using the showers, there can be an option. Also, hotel restrooms are suitable if you can appear presentable or sneak in unnoticed. They provide soap and hand dryers that can help you clean up. Additionally, the moist towelettes that accompany hot wings are useful for wiping down your face, armpits, and private areas. They are abundant, as most people discard them after use.
Baking soda is an effective substitute for both toothpaste and deodorant. You can also use rubbing alcohol, which is available in a spray bottle from a dollar store, as a quick shower alternative, coupled with an old or worn shirt. It is also advisable to invest in cheap personal hygiene items such as hand sanitizers, toothbrushes, and razors, which can be found at these stores. Good dental hygiene is vital as teeth decay quickly when you are homeless.
Maintaining personal hygiene also affects your ability to seek resources during business hours. If you look presentable, you can walk around malls and department stores without drawing attention to yourself. It is crucial to keep yourself clean when seeking food sources as well.
Clothing and bags
Ensuring that your feet stay dry is a crucial aspect of surviving while homeless. Whenever possible, take off your shoes and socks and keep an extra pair of socks with you. It’s important to have multiple items of clothing so that you can change when one gets dirty and layer for warmth during winter.
However, Doug has a different approach. He carries a backpack containing only essential items like a razor and a toothbrush, with one set of clothes. He advises against carrying too much as it attracts unwanted attention. If possible, find a shelter with storage facilities or keep your belongings concealed at your campsite. Always keep your backpack close as it contains your world. Losing it can result in losing your medications, birth certificate, and Social Security card, which can be sold for money. So, it’s essential to keep them safe and secure.
Food and Water
Maintaining good hygiene is crucial to finding food successfully. Hotels often offer free continental breakfast, where you can stock up on dry cereal, peanut butter, granola bars, bread, and bananas. To increase your chances of being served, make sure to look clean. Fast food restaurants, pizza shops, and bagel stores frequently throw away leftover food at the end of business hours. Eric has developed a good relationship with one pizza place, which sets the food outside for him before it goes into the dumpster at a specific time.
If you are willing to dive into dumpsters, your success will depend on knowing the best times and places to do it and the level of competition nearby. Supermarkets may also offer cheaper food sources from day-old racks that need to be consumed quickly. Fast food restaurants provide condiments in packets. Soup kitchens, churches, missions, and shelters also offer food, but it’s important to know their hours of operation.
Jose suggests keeping canned food to avoid attracting animals, but sometimes sleeping with rats is unavoidable. If you cannot keep a concealed camp, carry food that is lightweight, portable, and non-perishable. Choose food that is easy to cook and won’t spoil quickly.
Access to water is relatively easy in the city. Carry at least one water bottle and fill it up whenever you come across a fountain. If you can afford it, iodine tablets can be found at Army/Navy surplus stores. It’s also a good idea to have a Lifestraw or similar product in your bug-out bag to ensure safe consumption of water. Some homeless people in Denver head to the foothills during the summer months and drink from streams, but it’s essential to use basic camping skills and boil the water.
Once you have established a camp, secured water, clothing, and food, the reality of your homeless situation may set in quickly. The mental fatigue and depression that follow can lead to substance abuse and apathy.
Doug advises to brace for rejection because it’s inevitable, but it’s vital to focus on the positive and not the negative.
Martin emphasizes that the key is to focus on day-to-day survival. Jose believes that expecting the worst helps him to stay balanced and advises to maintain a social circle to get through each day with the help of others. Homeless people often form tight-knit communities, but keeping a small group and learning to trust is important. You must constantly adapt and be aware of your surroundings at night, as there is safety in numbers, but keep a close eye out.
Eric advocates going it alone, as he finds it challenging to trust other homeless individuals due to their negativity and drug abuse. He finds comfort in reading books to distract himself from his situation, and suggests looking for free books in bookstores and discarded magazines in buses, train stations, and hotels.
Regardless of the reason why you end up homeless, the situation doesn’t have to be as bleak as many people perceive it. It won’t be easy, but as Doug suggests, “If you use your common sense and take it day by day, things will improve.” It’s crucial not to dwell on the negative.
By learning basic survival skills and keeping your mental state in check, you can make it through days, weeks, or even months on the streets until you get back on your feet. Refusing to acknowledge the possibility of homelessness and failing to plan will only make the reality of living on the streets more challenging.
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