Having read jpmassar's diary today (a link will be included below the orange squiggle), I started to reminisce on the many months I was homeless several years ago. What it was like for me, how I survived it and my experiences & secrets of living without a home of my own I share below...
First off, let me give a nod to jpmassar's excellent diary about legislation regarding the homeless currently being considered here in California with a link below:
jp provides language from that bill that is worth reading. As someone who has been homeless multiple times over the years, though, some parts of it I did not entirely agree with. And it got me thinking about the times I used to be homeless. No one would know it to look at me now. I'm pretty well-dressed, I have an iPhone, I carry a bank card, I've got a good job at a big company and am quite particular about my grooming. But I was often homeless for months at a time years ago (sometimes when I had a job, too). Yet even when I was homeless, I made a huge effort every single day to keep up my hygiene and stay dressed in decent-looking clothes.
True story: I was in S.F. one morning after the shelter I was in required all of us to be up and out by 7AM. I had 4 or 5 hours to kill in Haight-Asbury before going to work at a bakery. A guy there once hit me up for change and I replied, "Hey, I'm homeless, too." To which he snidely answered, "Yeah, you look homeless!" And I whispered to myself, "That's the idea!"
Allow me to elaborate...
1) There is NO time to sit on the sidewalk. EVER.
When you are homeless, life is a constant scramble--to find shelter, to get food, to land a job. You're running from agency to agency constantly trying to catch a bus to your next appointment. My point? There is NO time to sit on the street or walk around hitting people up for change or food. You are far too busy trying to get to the shelter, be at your food stamp appointment, apply for jobs, get food and look for housing.
Screw begging for quarters. You have to be at the public clinic by 8AM and get a TB test or they won't accept your application for temporary housing. Or you have to get to the soup kitchen by noon or you'll be starving all day as you look for a job. Or you have to be in line by 5PM in order to make sure you have a bed for the night by the time the shelter opens @ 6 or 7.
People who have time to sit on the street all day long aren't doing anything but avoiding their obligations to themselves and their well-being (unless they're severely mentally ill or addicted to a substance--I'll get to that later).
2) You can never afford to look homeless.
Forget about wearing tattered clothes, shoes with holes in the soles, not shaving, not combing your hair, etc. Either when you're filling out job applications or are lucky enough to land a job interview, you have to wash up and put on something halfway decent.
Public restrooms are a godsend. If you can't find a shelter (though you absolutely should), find a restroom where you lock the door and wash up. At minimum, you must get toothpaste and a toothbrush (those can be found cheaply or free from local mission and shelters). Find some decent clothes at a thrift store or get some from kind souls @ a 12 step mtg. You need to look like an employable person and not someone who wanders around in public places because you don't have an apartment to go home and relax in. In this case, it is very important to stay "in the closet" about your homelessness so people won't refuse to consider you for employment.
3) Barring losing your sanity or sobriety? NEVER panhandle. Period.
I live in Los Angeles and see lots of people everyday begging for spare change or asking for food. When I was homeless years ago? That was never an option. It was totally out of the question.
Mostly because I simply couldn't afford the luxury (yes, the luxury!) of walking around asking over & over & over dozens or hundreds of times for money from people. I needed to eat and that meant applying for food stamps and/or being at the shelter or temporary housing when meals were provided. I had to be somewhere doing something. Being homeless meant taking care of short term needs immediately A.S.A.P. and then rushing around everyday to work on solving my long-term problems.
4) When you have time to rest, you do NOT rest on the sidewalk.
No one wants to be hassled by the police or harassed by those who are looking for their kicks picking on those less fortunate. Seeking housing or employment aside, the other reason to keep up minimal grooming and seek out decent clothes is to blend in and not appear to be one of society's most vulnerable. Libraries were indispensable. Starbucks were valuable, too, because with decent clothes & good grooming I could either just get an ice water or scrape together a couple bucks for tea or coffee. Then I'd sit and read. Walks on the beach, people-watching in malls, anyplace where there were books or TV--I learned to be resourceful.
I suppose that was the biggest trick or skill I mastered while being homeless: I became resourceful in so very many ways. I found ways to live that didn't leave me feeling like a total outcast or beyond redemption. I strove to always try and find a way to live as normally as possible.
As someone who had to run that insane gauntlet for years I know the reality of being homeless. There are those whose mental illness or drug addiction is completely out of control. In those cases, it's your call if you really do want to give them money. Certainly, feel free to give those people food because they will most definitely need it.
But most of those you see on the street asking for money and claiming homelessness are most likely scamming you. Being homeless is a full-time job with mandatory overtime. You don't have a second to waste pleading with strangers for change (except on very, very rare occasions like getting on a bus and you're short the fare). Even in the case of bus fare, I have never known any agency (welfare office, homeless shelter, rehab, medical clinics, you name it) who didn't offer at the very least bus tokens or occasionally free bus passes.
My point is, it is very easy to see people on the street and feel sympathy or pity or even empathy for them. In all honesty, I rarely do. That is not said to be judgmental or cruel. The ones who are homeless and truly in need (excluding those whose mental illness or substance abuse is totally out of control) you will rarely see except in glimpses now and then.
Those who most need help are almost always too busy looking for it and accessing programs & services (or at a job) to stand on street corners, sleep on park benches or panhandle in public. Again, I know some here will think I am being unfair or hardhearted; nothing could be further from the truth. In my 20s and 30s, I made incredibly stupid and very bad decisions that led to me losing both jobs and apartments multiple times over the years. But as soon as that happened, my survival skills and my resourcefulness kicked into overdrive and I learned exactly what "Decision Fatigue" really means. Because I lived it.
It is all well and good to have compassion for those less fortunate than you. My advice, however, is if you want to understand and help those truly in need is this: go to shelters, churches, any nonprofit that works with the homeless and indigent.
That's where you'll find homeless people who really are working their asses off trying to better life for themselves and their families. And eventually, you may come to see and notice those of us who become extremely skillful about being in the closet about our homelessness.
We aren't all weaving around the street in tattered rags or passed out on benches or in gutters.
Homeless people often learn how to deliberately make themselves invisible. And sadly, those of us who learn how to be invisible are often the last ones people think of to seek out and try to help.
(Pardon my rambling... I'm just thinking out loud... and thanks for your gracious indulgence if you have read this far...)