Homeless Survival: A Personal Experience
These days, “survivalism” has come to mean preparing for great events like nuclear holocaust or total government collapse. But disaster may come on a much more personal level. Individuals can suffer catastrophe as surely as nations can. When they do, it can be even more distressing because individuals feel alone in their suffering. I am talking about personal financial ruin and homelessness. Thousands of people across North America, indeed the world, have already experienced it following bankruptcies and foreclosures.
Whole families have been evicted from their homes, some quite forcibly. We see dozens of tent cities appearing across America, and more people ordering storage containers to live in. What we don’t see are the “hidden homeless” – those forced to survive by couch-surfing or moving back in with family. If 47 million Americans now live below the poverty line, that means 47 million who are either homeless or in imminent danger of becoming so. And the number is still growing.
When I lost my own job a while ago, I was not overly concerned. I had enough savings to live on for over a year. Then the economy self-destructed. It became exceedingly difficult to score a job interview, let alone an actual job. As the months of unemployment dragged on, my savings dwindled until I was forced for the very first time to consider homelessness as a real possibility. What would I do if worse came to worst? How would I live? Not being a “rugged” or “street-smart” person at all, I knew from the outset that I could not follow the prevailing wisdom of living as the homeless do and trying to blend in with them. Sleeping in bus shelters, eating from dumpsters, and staying in homeless shelters was not for me. I feel that joining the homeless population, as many recommend, severely limits your options, especially if you hold out any hope of ever rejoining society.
My only survival experience comes from camping and backpacking. I’ve survived for days or weeks with just the supplies on my back. So I tried to adapt that same knowledge to an urban environment, envisioning a new kind of “home-free” lifestyle. I prefer to call it “distributed living” or being an “urban nomad” because it lets you have most of life’s necessities, just not all in one place. It’s based on the backpacking model of carrying everything you need with you and being self-sufficient. It does require some resources and preparation. A plan like this must be undertaken before you actually become homeless, when you still have some money and credit to draw on.
Fortunately, homelessness is more easily anticipated than some other disasters. You often can see it coming months in advance. But even those who do may prefer to live in denial. You may think it cannot happen to you. But it has already happened to thousands who thought it could never happen to them either. Nobody plans to end up in a homeless encampment. But lately, this is where more and more of the former middle-class are landing. Even many famous celebrities have had periods of homelessness.
If you’re one of the lucky few who have nothing to worry about financially, remember that poverty is not the only cause of homelessness. Things like chemical spills, radiation leaks, brush fires, mudslides, arson, water main breaking, and civil unrest could all force you from your home as surely as mounting debt can. Natural disasters can strike anyone at any time. Hurricane Katrina rendered an entire city’s population homeless within hours. So have tornadoes in America’s heartland and nuclear meltdown in Japan. In such situations, people with vehicles and bug out bags ready will be survivors. Everyone else will be refugees. With that in mind, the following suggestions should be helpful to many, whether facing imminent homelessness or not. They can also be used in partial disaster scenarios where much of society still functions, with only some residents being displaced.
Obviously this is the main problem faced by the homeless. Those who stay in the city are restricted by laws against putting up any kind of temporary shelter. This is why the homeless are so often seen huddling in doorways, alcoves, tunnels, etc. Many cities have outlawed sleeping outdoors, which gives police the power to harass anyone they see lying down with their eyes closed. In fact, as long as you can be seen by anyone at night, your safety is at risk.
Homeless shelters may be no better. Filled with drugs and mental illness, they can be more dangerous than the streets, and many transients know enough to avoid them. Similar problems exist in tent cities. Diseases and parasites can easily spread when many people, all with poor hygiene, live close together.
Wooded areas appear safer and can be found throughout cities in the form of ravines, forests, valleys and parks. Some homeless build shelters there using tarps, plywood, cardboard boxes, or whatever else they can find. This may work for a while. But authorities keep tabs on these encampments and sooner or later come to take them down. Also, any shelter can be a target for thieves and squatters when you’re not there. Its mere presence during the day tells everyone that homeless person is living there.
I get around these problems by using a relatively inexpensive “pop-up “camouflage dome tent found online. A pop-up tent can be set up and taken down extremely fast, with very little effort. The idea is to find a secluded area in the woods or a local park, put up the tent at sunset, and then take it down again at or before sunrise the next morning. There is no campsite for anyone to find because it does not exist during the day. This is also known as stealth camping and many long-distance cyclists use it to avoid staying in motels. They camp on public or private land and take off before anyone knows they were there.
Your safety will come from being totally hidden. For anyone to see you sleeping at night, they would have to enter the forest after dark, leave the path at the right spot, and see through your camouflage. Even in broad daylight, a camo tent amid foliage is hard to spot. I have spent several nights in city parks using this method and haven’t yet been detected. A tent is one of the best possible temporary shelters you can use and gives a sense of security, even if it is mostly psychological. It does need a relatively flat, clear area of ground to be set up, so scout locations before you need them and clear them of debris before nightfall.
An even smaller shelter that fits practically anywhere is the bivy sack– essentially a zippered bag just large enough for your body, made of waterproof, breathable material. Some fold down to the size of a water bottle. A bivy will keep you dry and sheltered but won’t have room for anything else, like changing clothes. Some come with a framework that holds the fabric away from your face for some breathing room.
Satellite images on Google Maps are great for finding dense woods in your area. You want areas that are more “wild” and overgrown, not those which are obviously mowed and well maintained by the parks department(though if you are very diligent about always taking your tent down at sunrise, you should have no problems either way). Find spots which are totally hidden from both the trail and the street. At the same time, they should not be too far from places you want to go during the day. Eventually you will have memorized a few ideal spots around the city and can rotate between them so that you never camp in the same place too long. I use a heavy camouflage tarp as a groundsheet, protecting the tent floor from sharp debris. This can double as a cover for your gear, keeping it dry and hidden in the forest while you go about your daily business.
Do not try to weather a serious storm in a tent. At such times, train stations, bus stations and airports are better choices. They are open24 hours a day and are designed for people to wait in, with ample seating, bathrooms, snack bars, and sometimes wi-fi. In bad weather, some people will be sleeping in their seats or on the floor due to transit delays, and you can blend in with them. Keep a travel book from the library across your chest or some old boarding passes sticking out of your pocket. If you are in an airport with multiple terminals, change terminals every so often. Lingering in one place too long may attract the attention of security(though I have heard of one woman living for months at the airport before anyone caught on). Hospital waiting rooms may be almost as good.
As an urban nomad, pick your outfit very carefully. It must not only protect you from the elements and carry what you need it to carry but also fit into an urban setting without looking odd. In my opinion, black should be the color of all your items, including bags. Black looks right at home in the city, can go longer between washings without looking dirty, makes your bags and pockets look smaller despite being packed with stuff, and will render you practically invisible at night. My all-black outfit consists of:
waterproof hiking shoes
paratrooper or cargo pants (lots of pockets)
alternate pair of waterproof pants
expedition vest filled with pockets
waterproof coat with hood
baseball cap with built-in LEDs (like the Panther Vision power cap, for hands-free lighting at night)
Add to this a week’s worth of clean socks and underwear, as well as duplicate pants and hoodie so you’ll still have something to wear when doing laundry. In cold weather, I add wool socks, thermal insoles, wool turtleneck, wool long underwear, waterproof mitts, and a balaclava.
Huge packs made for backpacking may look odd in the city. I use a large size army surplus ALICE pack to carry bulky items such as sleeping bag and sleeping pad, with tent strapped to the outside. Choose a backpack that places the weight on your hips, not your shoulders, as the ALICE does. Urban commuter bags and messenger bags also work well for the city. You should be able to carry everything yourself when you need to. At other times, leave some of it stored or hidden and carry only what you need for that day. As backpackers know, the level of fitness required to carry everything you need on your back is not inconsiderable. So get in shape.
A compression sack may help fit everything in. Used by the army, this is a sack meant to be carried inside your pack. Fill it with compressible items (usually sleeping bag and clothes), then squeeze everything down, usually by sitting on it. At the same time, tighten all the straps around the sack. It will retain its smaller size until opened again.
Besides clothing, this is the other area that gives homeless people away. Though cities are filled with public bathrooms, it is hard to find one private enough to do anything more than use the toilet and wash your hands. So I recommend carrying a collapsible pail (found at camping stores) and a magnetic mirror (from a school supply store or dollar store). Collapsible pails fold down flat to take up very little space in your pack. Fill one with warm water from the sink and bring it into one of the stalls. Set the pail atop the toilet tank or hang it from something if possible. Stick your magnetic mirror to the stall wall and use the pail as your sink. Now you can shave, brush teeth, and scrub your armpits in relative privacy.
Avoid bathrooms frequented by the homeless which tend to be the filthiest and most dangerous (eg. those in subways, public squares, certain restaurants, etc.). Clean, even elegant restrooms can be found in upscale shopping centers, colleges, theatres, airports, office buildings… places the homeless generally avoid. In hot weather, it may be possible to bathe in the same lakes and rivers where people go swimming.
When only a hot shower will do, visit a gym, YMCA, or university athletic center for the day, all of which have well appointed locker rooms. Fitness centers on college campuses may just be the cheapest, cleanest and safest, and are usually open to the public. A year’s membership will likely cost less than one month of rent, and may include perks like free wi-fi, towel service and a locker. It also provides a place to work out, rest, and socialize. Keeping suit clothes in your locker will allow you to go for job interviews. Beaches and campgrounds are other places to look for showers.
The travel section of dollar stores is a good place to pick up lightweight hygiene products like mini shampoo, mouthwash and toothpaste. Don’t forget plastic containers for your soap and toothbrush, and pill boxes to carry Aspirin, vitamins, and any medication you need. I keep all toiletries in a mesh bag which lets them air out after use. Replace your regular towel with a small, super absorbent one from a backpacking store. A battery-powered travel razor will let you shave just about anywhere, any time. Get one that runs on AA batteries as opposed to a plug-in rechargeable. Look for any way to save space, for instance using a bottle of camping soap also as dishwashing liquid and shampoo.
Facial cleansing cloths, wet naps, and hand sanitizer can keep you clean without water. If given any at a restaurant, save them until needed. Use those wet naps on your armpits and groin if necessary, where bacteria flourish. Use a high SPF sunscreen to avoid the telltale sunburn that many homeless people have. And if the look suits you, shave your head and forget about all the maintenance that comes with having hair.
Always practice good hygiene and grooming, not just for your own health but to keep blending in with civilized society. If you look and smell like a bum, you will find many doors closed to you.
The homeless survivalist does not have the option of storing food long-term or buying in bulk. You can only stockpile what you can carry – which amounts to maybe a week’s worth of sustenance at most. Peanut butter is an excellent choice, being easy to carry and eat, high in calories and protein, and needing no refrigeration. Trail mix is another. There’s a lot of energy in nuts and seeds, and most of these mixes now come in resealable bags. Think like a backpacker, keeping heavy items like canned goods to a minimum and removing any unnecessary packaging from foods to make them lighter.
Dried (dehydrated) foods are the lightest. Foods that are simple, won’t spoil quickly, and require little to no cooking are well suited for the urban nomad: think beef jerky, granola bars, raisins and other dried fruits, corn chips, banana chips, buns, bagels, raisin bread, peanuts, instant soups, etc. Again, dollar stores are good places to procure these items cheaply. Because your diet is sure to drop in quality, take a multivitamin daily as well.
Carry your food in a reusable cloth shopping bag and you will simply look as though you’ve just been grocery shopping. Also keep a length of rope in this bag for hanging it from a tree when in the forest. Never keep food in your tent or your pockets at night, especially in city parks teeming with raccoons.
You should still have some means of cooking food. Needless to say, a big open fire in the woods would give away your presence. My personal choice was a Jet boil propane stove, with an Emberlit stove as backup. The Jet boil may be the fastest, most efficient means of boiling water outside, making it good for preparing instant foods and purifying water. The Emberlit stove is a wood stove. It folds flat, taking up almost no space in a pack, and its fuel is essentially free. It lets you cook with a very small fire well suited to stealth camping.
Look into the ultra-light, compact kitchen utensils that backpackers use. Such products are designed to fit inside each other and take up minimum space. I fit my two stoves, fuel canisters, two bowls, pot, mug, cutlery, can opener, and even a Steripen water purifier into a bag less than 9” wide by 11” tall.
Cities usually have places to fish. Take advantage of this free food source by carrying a compact fishing rod. The smallest rods fold down almost to the size of a pen. For tackle, all you really need are a couple of floats, some hooks, sinkers, and a lure or two, all of which will fit in the palm of your hand. Add a package of scented Power bait, or some similar product, to always have bait on hand. Look for live bait beneath fallen and rotting logs, or use pieces of food like bread or corn.
I’ve heard you can cook and eat practically anything that walks on land or flies. But be very careful with plants and eat only those you can positively identify as safe. (The color illustrations of plants in the pocket version of The SAS Survival Guide can help with this.)
This should be the least of your worries. Drinking water is readily found throughout cities. You should carry at least one 1L water bottle andget in the habit of topping it up every time you come to a tap or drinking fountain. Once you get used to water, you need never pay money for drinks again.
In the woods, large rivers are the preferred water source and you’ll want to camp near one if possible. A fast moving stream will be cleaner than a pool of standing water. Of course any water drawn from such a source must first be purified, just like in the wilderness. That means boiled, filtered, or treated with tablets or UV light. Water purification tablets (easily found at camping stores) are the easiest way to treat water without additional apparatus. River water should never be your first choice for drinking, but is good to have nearby when you run out of water collected from the city. Remember that almost all purification methods will remove the biological pathogens but not the chemical pollutants.
If rain is forecast, leave your collapsible pail outside to collect it. This water will not have to be purified.
Internet access is essential even when homeless. It is how you will look for jobs, send resumes, learn survival tips, and keep in contact with the wider world. You may even use it to earn money directly, using something like Amazon Mechanical Turk, or to offer your goods and services on EBay or Craigslist (the “gigs” section of Craigslist contains short-term odd jobs that pay cash). Under normal circumstances, this would hardly be enough to live on. But without rent or utilities to pay, the economics of a nomadic lifestyle are somewhat different.
Fortunately there are more and more places to use the Internet for free, especially if you can provide your own laptop, iPad or netbook. Find out all the freewi-fi zones in your vicinity. There will be some in places you never knew or expected. Large district libraries and reference libraries can be ideal. There you can find computers, cubicles, outlets to plug into, and some portable chairs to sit in all day. (Note: When using public wi-fi, always use a Virtual Private Network or VPN, like the free service Hotspot Shield, when entering passwords.)
The online environment looks the same whether you are homeless or not, and so can be a source of comfort and consistency as your living conditions change. When immersed in online activities, it almost doesn’t matter where you are. Even a homeless person can spend the day playing online games, watching shows, listening to music, writing a blog, and reading the news, much like a normal person would. If you have the need and the money, consider a rugged computer like the Panasonic Toughbook. Able to withstand drops and freezing temperatures, with a waterproof keyboard that glows in the dark, this laptop line is practically built for homelessness.
You should have a radio, like any survivalist. The lightest might be something like an armband radio for joggers, with readout showing the time and an alarm. Use it to check weather reports daily, and choose your attire and shelter areas accordingly.
Cellphones make having your own phone number as an urban nomad very easy. Remember to charge it and your other wireless devices whenever you come across an available outlet.
If you need to receive mail, one choice is renting a PO Box. There are also services that can provide you with a real street address if you want people to think you have one. You will get an address like “99 Paladin Street #1” where the number actually refers to your box. This is useful when you have to give your home address to obtain services.
This is the essence of “distributed living” – your shelter in one area, your shower in another, your mailbox in yet another. All are components of your “home”, you just need to travel a bit to get to each one.
Your own two feet may serve as your primary mode of transport. For this reason, don’t skimp on your footwear and make sure it fits perfectly.
If you can still afford gas, auto repairs, parking and insurance, then by all means keep your vehicle as both transportation and shelter. If not, consider a bicycle as a substitute. Having a bike makes everything seem much closer than if you were walking, and will expand your range considerably. I already cycle everywhere and now prefer it to the often poor and overcrowded public transit system. Add a Bob Yak trailer, or almost any child bicycle trailer, and you can bring all your survival supplies with you. Some child trailers turn into strollers when detached from the bike. You can then push your belongings along the sidewalk in something a little more stylish than a shopping cart.
Not everyone will have concerns about winter, depending on where they live. For me, the problem of surviving a Canadian winter without a heated shelter must be treated with deadly seriousness. Many homeless people die on the streets of cold countries every year. Throughout Europe, we have just seen how extreme cold can strike even in unlikely places and kill hundreds without warning. Without going into all the details of winter survival, here are some tips:
You must test out your cold weather gear before trusting your life to it. For example, camp out in the backyard during a deep freeze. Winterized sleeping bags have temperature ratings but their effectiveness varies depending on the user’s own body heat, metabolism, and clothing. Sit in the park for several hours in your full winter outfit to see if it’s enough. The amount of insulation needed for sitting still in the cold is greater than what people typically wear for dashing from one heated structure to another. Dress in layers and always cover your head, even when sleeping. Wool is arguably the best material as it insulates so well, even when wet.
A sleeping pad is just as essential as a sleeping bag. This item is easy to overlook, but without it you will get cold no matter how great your sleeping bag is. The ground has a way of conducting the heat right out of a warm body. (For the same reason, never sit directly on the ground without a thermal cushion like hunters use or some such insulating barrier.) The warmest sleeping pads are also the bulkiest and cannot be carried inconspicuously. I chose to focus on the smaller self-inflating pads and get the one with the highest ‘R-value (insulation rating) I could find. Without a sleeping pad, you will have to sleep on cardboard or newspapers just like the homeless do, or use pine boughs when in the wilderness.
From what I’ve seen, gadgets like electric sleeping bags and propane space heaters are not practical or effective. And building a fire is usually out of the question. So you will be relying on your own body heat for warmth. Don’t lose it by leaving your shelter at night. If you have to relieve yourself, use a bottle instead. Study the survival tactics of winter campers and arctic explorers. Anything that does not take well to freezing – laptops, cell phones, water bottles – should share the sleeping bag with you, down near your feet. Some winter sleeping bags have extra room at the bottom for this purpose. If you fill your water bottle with hot water before retiring, it will help warm you. Use extra layers of shelter if you have them. For example, using a bivy sack inside a tent may seem redundant but it will increase your bag’s effectiveness against the cold. So will using a tent inside a larger structure.
The U.S. Army Survival Handbook adequately covers the wilderness side of homeless survival. It takes into account the soldier’s need for stealth and concealment when stuck in enemy territory. Where other survival books tell how to remain visible and attract the attention of search parties, this one shows how to conceal your presence, move stealthily over terrain, and to build fires and shelters so that they cannot be spotted by the enemy. (For our purposes, “enemy” can refer to anyone – police, park rangers, security guards, neighborhood watch, etc. – who tend to make life extra difficult for the homeless.) This no-nonsense guide also has surprising and innovative ways to treat your own injuries and illnesses in the field using common materials.
Thanks to odd jobs, credit cards and help from relatives, I remain housed for now. But the threat of homelessness still looms large. My debts are such that I do not know exactly where I will be living three months from now. But even if homelessness never strikes, I won’t regret the time and money spent preparing for it. The increased confidence and peace of mind have been worth it. I know that, whether housed or not, life will go on. Even the idea of spending winter without a permanent shelter is no longer unthinkable, and that is an amazing thing. Preparing for homelessness has incidentally prepared me for other scenarios, like the furnace breaking down or a sudden evacuation. And I can go camping or backpacking at a moment’s notice.
Homelessness has to be one of the gloomiest things to think about, let alone prepare for. But realize that not thinking or preparing will make the reality of it worse. If you do find yourself out on the street, having a plan of where to go, what to do, and what to take with you can make all the difference. If it helps, don’t think of yourself as homeless but as a nomad practicing an alternative lifestyle. Without such an attitude or plan, you will start to resemble the typical bums who wander without direction or purpose. Who have nowhere to go, nothing to do, and nothing to hope for. Homelessness does not have to look like that. Develop the skills of the urban nomad and practice distributed living. Keep your basic needs met and your mind clear, and you can always live a dignified existence whatever your situation may be.