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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...)

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Comment Preferences

  •  How did you deal with a lack of an address? (7+ / 0-)
    •  Now that's a good question (7+ / 0-)

      Usually, I was in a shelter and I used the shelter as my address for job applications or on any resume I created. Back in the Nineties when I lived in S.F., I would get my paychecks at work. I can't say I ever got any mail from my work at the shelters.

      Some agencies (such as Chrysalis here in L.A., if I'm not mistaken) let you use them as a mailing address when you're filling out applications.  If I recall correctly, they will also give you a mail slot and accept mail for you there (provided it's necessities like mail from employers, social security, food stamps, doctors, etc).

      I never did it, but I also heard of people getting permission from friends or relatives to use their address to receive mail.

    •  Shelters usually allow people (6+ / 0-)

      to use their address c/o. They hand out mail once a day. At least in Portland. From i've read, it sounds like it's the same in the bay area.

      Too many in this country feel the Constitution should include the 2nd Amendment. And nothing else.

      by blueoregon on Thu Apr 25, 2013 at 04:15:27 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  As a corporate recruiter (8+ / 0-)

      I am used to getting applications from the local homeless shelter and battered women's shelter.

      The shelters offer a standard mailing address and phone number for their clients (as well as internet access for completing job applications) because those are necessary for landing a job. In some cases I have suspected, but never proven or even tried to prove, that local churches perform the same service.

      I deal with the local shelters enough to instantly recognize those contact points -- the only cumbersome part is with calling the women's shelter, because the shelter will not under any circumstances acknowledge whether a person is a client of theirs (an anti-stalking measure). So there is a ritual to leaving messages with them, but they are good to pass those along and I've made some good hires from them.

      ad astra per alia porci

      by harrije on Thu Apr 25, 2013 at 04:21:42 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I would largely agree. (12+ / 0-)

    And, I'm glad you got back on your feet. Where I would disagree is this: not all states have compassion for their homeless populations. For that matter, not all cities follow their state's examples of taking care of people. Salem was a nightmare to be homeless in, which is why i hopped on a bus for Portland when it became clear I could no longer afford the $59 for the motel 6. While I was in Salem, i was selling belongings out of my storage units every day, eating Mickey D's dollar menu. That went on for about a month. Not all cities hand out transit tickets to the indigent. We're lucky in that we live in blue states, and the job situation isn't as good here as it sounds like in California. Great diary, thanks.

    Too many in this country feel the Constitution should include the 2nd Amendment. And nothing else.

    by blueoregon on Thu Apr 25, 2013 at 04:13:11 PM PDT

    •  You're welcome and thank you. (9+ / 0-)

      Sorry to hear that. Yes, I'm well-aware how good we have it in California compared to other places. I'm not surprised about Portland as it is a big city with big city services and programs. I really know nothing about Salem.

      The 1 or 2 times I was on welfare (I usually had a fast food job or minimum wage retail), they always gave out roughly half-a-dozen bus tokens. Some you had to keep in order to make it back to your follow-up appointment, but the rest were for your employment search, doctor appts, etc.

      FYI...I also got an AIDS diagnosis in 1997. Thankfully, my health is far better now. But you become eligible for more assistance at more programs once you get such a diagnosis. Monthly bus passes are available for clients who qualify (based on income) at both AIDS Project Los Angeles and AIDS Healthcare Foundation.

  •  The most poignant thing (11+ / 0-)

    I remember from the standard briefing at the local soup kitchen (where many of my coworkers frequently volunteer):

    "We require that our clients be on good behavior, and most of the time they are -- the exception is on days when there is bad weather. They are especially sensitive to bad weather, because they live in it."

    I haven't complained about rain since my first volunteer experience.

    ad astra per alia porci

    by harrije on Thu Apr 25, 2013 at 04:15:13 PM PDT

    •  That raises another point (7+ / 0-)

      In between rushing to appointments and running around filling out job applications, shopping malls were a real haven in bad weather. It was usually easy to get a water or just a can of soda and sit somewhere and read for hours. No one bothers you as long as your hygiene is decent and you have clothing in good condition.

      It is so very important to find safe places to hang out when you have no place to call home. It allows you to feel like you are still "normal" or a regular person. You get to be around others and allow yourself a feeling of being just like everybody else that has a home.

      Newspapers, magazines, books--these have always been my best friends and stalwart companions (and still are). But they really are lifesavers when you're homeless.

  •  I disagree about people scamming you (8+ / 0-)

    I've known plenty of homeless people who are just stuck. If you had been homeless longer and your clothes started to tatter and you lost any chance at a job then there isn't much else you can do. I was homeless briefly in the east bay and I knew plenty of homeless people who would scavenge for cans as well as hitting people up for change. People get kicked out of programs because they forgot a form, or some other triviality and then what do they have left to do for food or money? Beg.

    The other side of all of that is that if you spend any amount of time homeless you are going to end up crazy in some way or another. It's just inevitable given the near complete lack of security.

    If debt were a moral issue then, lacking morals, corporations could never be in debt.

    by AoT on Thu Apr 25, 2013 at 04:16:57 PM PDT

    •  Not exactly crazy, but at least (6+ / 0-)

      you lose a lot of trust. it's hard to be hopeful on the streets.

      Too many in this country feel the Constitution should include the 2nd Amendment. And nothing else.

      by blueoregon on Thu Apr 25, 2013 at 04:19:42 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  That should have said "Enough time" (7+ / 0-)

        Not "any amount of time."

        I was thinking about years on the street with no security. I've seen it completely destroy people. I've never seen anyone who managed to get out without going a little crazy. Although a lot of that will get better once you have a safe place to stay and regular food.

        If debt were a moral issue then, lacking morals, corporations could never be in debt.

        by AoT on Thu Apr 25, 2013 at 04:27:17 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Oh, that I get even more... (6+ / 0-)

          My family was/is riddled with alcoholism and mental illness. I had my own struggles with the scars from that which took over 30 years of therapy.

          Life is most definitely not fair. Some are more resilient than others and can survive adversity and hardship that would totally destroy other people. I know full well that part of my success in life is due not to my skill or ability alone, but also because I had just enough good luck and fortune in addition to any skills I may have possessed.

          Some of my closest friends have led lives of privilege I can only imagine and I have no doubt they don't have anywhere near the strength and resilience I was born with. And there are those living on the street right now walking through circumstances that would probably destroy me.

          I wish there were easy answer to all of these issues. I really do. But there aren't.

        •  yeah, i've seen it destroy people too. (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          FloridaSNMOM, kyril, Oh Mary Oh

          it's like watching someone die in slow motion.

          Too many in this country feel the Constitution should include the 2nd Amendment. And nothing else.

          by blueoregon on Thu Apr 25, 2013 at 05:31:26 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  Believe it or not, I do understand your point (7+ / 0-)

      Speaking from my own experience, I live in Los Angeles now and haven't been homeless since December 2005. I was in a North Hollywood shelter briefly in January 2006, but then lucked out when one of their permanent apartments opened up. I've been stable in my own place ever since now living a block off of the Sunset Strip near La Brea.

      Trivial reasons for being kicked out of programs is far more common than it should be. It's one reason I have real distaste for the Weingart on Skid Row in L.A. Their rules were so hypocritical I could spend paragraphs detailing all the contradictions and hypocrisy that abound in that place.  Just a terrible program from my own experience (though many have been helped by them and many do well there).

      The Durant branch of L.A. County's Public Library is only blocks from my home and the library staff there should get hazardous duty pay for all the transients and indigent they deal with there on a daily basis. A lot of people who are so drunk or high they haven't slept in days will find a computer terminal and crash there. I'm compassionate, but when I needed the computer after my own died and I was too poor to fix or replace it getting verbal abuse from the homeless there was galling.

      And many of the panhandlers in my own neighborhood are rude, overly aggressive and blatantly obnoxious to both me and my neighbors, plus the tourists, too.

      I am not heartless. I've been homeless many times. I was an active drug addict for over a decade. But some people use their misery and adversity as a license to treat others any way they please. Whether it's someone gainfully employed in an upper middle class job or someone living on the street, I don't think there's any excuse for treating other human beings as if they were your punching bag.

      I've been on both sides of that equation and it's something I try to avoid at all costs now. But for some, entitlement (whether rich or poor) becomes a way of life and an excuse to do anything they want to others. I just can't accept that.

      •  yes but, I've come to believe a lot of (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        FloridaSNMOM, kyril, Oh Mary Oh

        so-called "bad attitude" is actually some people's only way of protesting their situation. You have to expect dealing with life on the streets every day is going to affect how you feel about humanity in general.

        Too many in this country feel the Constitution should include the 2nd Amendment. And nothing else.

        by blueoregon on Thu Apr 25, 2013 at 05:36:24 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  The other side of the coin (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Let it go...
    Where to begin...
    I live in the same neighborhood...
    Am gay...
    I checked your profile, read the 20 years...
    Let it go... You know better...
    I'm 62. HIV who knows, never been tested, was an Act Up thing, about the time you were tested there were so many false positives. Time has just gone bye. Practiced safe sex at the onset.
    Here's what I've noticed. Long term survivors and I think it's because of the meds, have become mean and that's just not who we are as gay sissies, queers, whatever call me anything, I'm proud!
    Mean, the I'm better than you, you need to stop smoking cigarettes, join the West Hollywood gym workout BORG, on & on & on. Coming from a fellow gay brother has the complete opposite effect, because you know better. It's the meds, find someone who will say "Girl are you kidding yourself?"
    My first "Guru", my beatnik way older cousin, said "Never feel guilty asking for spare change, for a quarter you may make someone whose having a bad day feel better, for a quarter." I've been homeless, who of us older gays hasn't been? There were rare times people gave me a $5.00 or $10.00 bill that so lifted my spirits, that when I pass over I will remember to still Thank them.
    Thank You California Legislature. How very cool...
    I live in the same neighborhood. I just see homeless people who are so beaten down by this "Austerity." The rags they wear are rags beyond rags. I still vibe them with all the richness they are, my fellow brothers & sisters.
    Rereading this, I think I can simplify it. You are gay HIV+, you are NOT BORG. Please wake up :)

    •  P.S. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      What we strive to do as gay spirits is shed guilt, dissolve guilt, understand who put that guilt on us to start with. You might someday, dress down, go to another city (so you wouldn't be recognized :) and panhandle your heart out, take the money, find a truly in need homeless person. You have the smarts. Lift their spirit, it will lift yours. You needn't guilt because you are stronger.

      •  continuation (0+ / 0-)

           After replying to your post, later that evening I went to the store. There was one of the most fragile amongst us standing enough of a distance off the store's entrance to not get hassled. Didn't say anything, didn't need to. I don't have much money. I handed him a dollar. He Thanked me with the gratitude in his eyes. He dribbled a little spittle. I don't know about drugs, a tiny thought crossed my mind. I don't care, I give & there's a hope in the giving that if for intoxicants, hopefully you'll get to where you've learned or experienced and will say eh "Done with this."
            I came out of the store, gave him 70 odd cents. As I was getting in my car, someone gave him a medium bag of groceries. It kind of overwhelmed him & for 15 seconds he just stood there. He was just the most normal person in the world standing outside a store holding a bag of groceries, beyond the radar of people walking by.
            I'm Thankful my spirits were lifted.

  •  When I was homeless, I was "invisible" (4+ / 0-)

    but I was young, healthy, and gifted in many ways. I could disappear in a crowd of other young people with oversized backpacks and grungy '90s clothes.

    But as for the spending all your time accessing programs, that's not universal. One has to be willing and able to deal with the programs in order for that to become an issue.

    I made the mistake of spending the night in a youth shelter once. Never again. Sleeping outside was more comfortable and safer...not that I did a whole lot of that, because I could blend in on a college campus, but I'd rather sleep outside than in a shelter.

    And obtaining food by other means was safer, more reliable, and less humiliating than trying to get help from social services.

    "Let’s just move on, treat everybody with firmness, fairness, dignity, compassion and respect. Let’s be Marines." - Sgt. Maj Michael Barrett on DADT repeal

    by kyril on Thu Apr 25, 2013 at 08:24:01 PM PDT

  •  It used to be a lot easier to live off the grid (5+ / 0-)

    Back in the sixties I spent a year bumming around the country, hitching rides, riding freights, taking day labor jobs, washing dishes, panhandling, riding subways, playing chess in coffee houses and shooting pool in bars so I could be inside most of the night when it was cold.

    When I was in the service I discovered that you could go to a military airbase, show them you had a leave or a pass and fly anywhere in the world you wanted to go. Its still possible to get invited to take a ride at civilian airports, and marinas as well.  

    I like road trips where you just go wherever you feel like and en route its always kind of fun to find some place where you can get a free meal. I used to stop in at the Ferrari dealership in Bahrain where the complimentary breakfast is a step up from hotel fare and I still keep an eye out for similar situations.

    In 93 I borrowed a company car and spent Ramadan living out of while I circumnavigated the Arabian peninsula. My experience was positive because back then people were more hospitable and less suspicious of strangers. Living without an address isn't something I'd want to do now but you don't always have a choice so you might as well make the most of it.

    Live Free or Die --- Investigate, Incarcerate

    by rktect on Thu Apr 25, 2013 at 08:29:48 PM PDT

  •  Excellent diary. (0+ / 0-)

    Shop Liberally this holiday season at Kos Katalog

    by JamieG from Md on Fri Apr 26, 2013 at 06:47:48 PM PDT

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