Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Some Basics If You End Up Homeless

I know a woman who will end up homeless soon. There were a number of complications and through a death, having never worked, having no savings, no life insurance, no family, and a looming foreclosure, the sheriff will be moving her out of her home soon. She is one of the people who falls through the cracks because she has no children so doesn't qualify for social welfare intervention and is not old enough to collect her husband's social security. Having never been homeless I am probably the last person who should be giving her advice, but here are some of the things that I felt were important for her to do to get her ducks in a row as soon as possible:

  • Shelter, even a temporary roof over your head, is critically important. This woman will move in with a friend temporarily but these arrangements don't often work long term so she needs to look for other options. Soon. Other immediate options for shelter that I can think of include: camping/living in your car (not optimal), house sitting (better but irregular), section 8 welfare housing (usually there is a long waiting list and unless you need shelter for your kids, I would say don't get caught in the welfare trap), homeless shelters (from what I've heard these aren't the best places and usually have a time limit but better than nothing), live-in helper (it's a room), apartment manager (it's a job and usually includes a free apartment), etc.
  • A source of income. Your first priority in a situation such as this should be securing a source of income. Fortunately we found out that this lady qualifies for a widow's pension because of her husband's military service, unfortunately it is tiny (around $600 per month). Your full time job should be finding a full time job. After you get a job, your part time job should be either getting an education to get a better job, using your time to find a better job, or starting a small business on the side. Other options for income include: welfare (again, my least favorite source of income), unemployment. social security, veteran's benefits, temp jobs, part time jobs, a paper route, etc.
  • A cell phone. Funny how this didn't used to be a necessity but these days it kind of is. When you are homeless like this women will be, you will lose your home phone so having a means of communications is pretty much necessary. My advice, check the pre-paid plans for all of the cell phone providers in your area and pick the one that best meets your needs. If you don't want to waste your minutes, let all but the most important calls go to voice mail then return calls at the end of the day (or better yet, respond with an email which will save minutes).
  • A PO box. Another thing you lose when you lose your home is your mailing address. A PO box is an excellent option, just be sure to send in a change of address before you leave your home. Choose the smallest box available to save money and check around at local post offices as rates vary from branch to branch for the very same sized box.
  • A bank account. These days, money mostly flows through banks and it's a good bet that at some time or another you will need to cash a check or put your money somewhere for safe keeping. Many banks offer free checking and/or savings accounts along with a visa/debit card that is a better option for cash strapped people that a credit card.
  • Identification. You can't get very far in our society without identification. If you have no ID you severely limit your ability to work, travel, cash a check, rent an apartment, et al. At the minimum you need one or more of the following: a state ID card, a state driver's license, a passport, a military ID card.
  • A bus pass. If you live in an area that has a bus system, purchasing a monthly bus pass will often provide one of the cheapest forms of transportation (aside from a bicycle). Many homeless people have cars which are great for shelter but bad in the amount of money it takes to keep it insured, gassed up, and repaired. Going without any of these things can cause you to receive tickets and fines if you get caught without insurance or a car in bad repair. If you do get a bus pass, see if they offer any discounts for low income, students, vets, etc.
  • A library card. Libraries are often the de facto "safety net" for the homeless. It is warm place to shelter during the day, you can enjoy free books, free music, and often free computer and internet use.
  • An emergency fund. This is something that can obviously be a boon to someone who is facing homelessness but very rarely, if people are in such dire straits, do they have this luxury. If you see homelessness coming, by all means do anything you can to get some cash into your emergency fund. I was amazed when I saw foreclosed homes on TV that were full of furniture and tons of other stuff that the families just left behind. I can't imagine why they didn't have a garage sale or Craigslist the stuff to make some extra cash before leaving.
  • A monthly pass to the Y. I understand that some homeless people will purchase a monthly pass to a local gym or Y in order to have a place to shower. Depending on the cost, this may be an excellent option.
  • An email address and internet access. Like cell phones, this didn't used to be a necessity but now it kind of is. Email addresses are free (Yahoo, GMail, Hotmail, etc) and are an excellent way to stay in communication with friends, families, and potential employers. Internet access can be found free at libraries, some coffee shops, some public places like the mall, schools, and other locations. Often you can use computers free of charge at libraries but if you have a laptop, which continue to get smaller and smaller (and cheaper and cheaper) and/or the ability to access the web from your cell phone, you may even be able to start a blog a la 'Homeless at NYU' or 'Hobo Stripper', and make some money this way.
  • Secure storage for your stuff. Obviously if you are homeless but have a car you have a (somewhat) secure place to store your stuff. You may want to consider getting a safe deposit box at a bank to store your really important papers including birth certificate, passport, Social Security card, etc. For larger items (or your gear when you are at work) you may want to find other storage options such as storage lockers at bus or train stations, or even at bowling alleys. Note that self storage units have been turned into shelter for some creative homeless people however this is not usually allowed or legal.
  • A backpack or messenger bag for your daily carry stuff. If you have storage for your bigger gear, it is best to carry only what you need for the day so that you can more easily blend in with the crowd and not stand out as a homeless person.
  • A printed list of resources. Many cities have fairly comprehensive lists of homeless resources including lists of homeless shelters, food banks, churches that serve free meals, etc. It would be a good idea to carry this list with you for reference.

Some things I didn't mention: depending on the situation, if and what kind of weapon you carry will be a very personal decision; there are positive and negative aspects to either decision. A lot of homelessness has much to do with other variables including alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence, divorce, job loss and sometimes all of these things at once, which require treatment and other social service resources. While I never recommend going into debt, getting a student loan that covers school, room, and board may be an idea. A network of friends to help you out is a good resource however the longer you require help, the fewer, it seems, friends you will have. On a side note, many people who become homeless, especially from the upper reaches of society, often report that their supposed friends will no longer want to be associated with them once they lose everything so you may need to rebuild your entire friend network. These same preparations may be useful for victims of domestic violence. That was about all I could think of to tell her.


  1. Unless the Post Office has changed things recently, in order to get a P.O. box you need a real street address, which this woman is going to lose. So she'd better get down to the PO quick, before eviction day, and hope that afterwards they don't find out.

    Better, though, might be to get a UPS Store box. It's more expensive, but there's less hassle.

  2. I suggest temping. It's a much faster way to get a job to acquire skills, experience, and especially references; they offer free training too. There are no benefits, or they may be minimal benefits, but it's still an excellent way to get employed fast and get prepped to move up to a full time job. It's hard to get into the full time job market, esp if you haven't been working for a while. It's much easier to get into the temp market; in fact, in many places you can have a job within a week, and if you're reliable, you'll be called for jobs and you'll be working all the time -- after a while you'll have the skills and references to apply for full time jobs with benefits.

    I also suggest checking community colleges for free career training. Many offer skills development classes, advice, and networking for free. And you can use the library too.

  3. Remind her that (as odious as this is) Barak Obama has launched a MASSIVE federal hiring campaign ISO his "creating or saved" jobs program. Granted, these people will likely be providing such valuable public services as watching concrete harden and counting recycled soda cans, but 'work' is work, and federal jobs are LOADED with valuable benefits like healthcare.

    Plus, you can't get fired.


  4. I found myself homeless several years ago and these suggestions reminded me of that time. Although I didn't have a car or a bicycle I did have a full-time job. The quick answer for a roof over my head was a motel just around the corner from my job. (Wal-Mart)In order to help pay for the motel I had to take a P/T job at a fast food place up the street. Even though the motel was expensive it solved several problems. I had electricity, water, cable TV, a phone with unlimited local calls, wake up calls so I wasn't late to work, housekeeping even, but most of all privacy and security. I also didn't have to pay a large deposit or 1 month's rent up front like an apartment would require. Since I was a long term guest I was able to arrange a better rate with the owner. Most motels have a weekly rate but if you're staying longer than a week, ask about a discount. I ended up staying 9 months and paid about $500/mth for everything. Only drawback was that this motel didn't have kitchenettes so I couldn't cook but most all motels now come with microwaves. Even if they don't you can get a hotplate but be very careful and you might even have to hide it before leaving for the day. (putting it in a drawer forces you to unplug it) Mine didn't, but most motels today have a free contenental breakfast, which is one less meal to worry about. I just kept pastries and dry snacks in the room for breakfast. You could keep a cooler for some cold things if you wanted to since you have unlimited free ice. Nowdays, many motel rooms have a mini fridge. Since both my jobs were within walking distance I didn't have to have a car. The 2nd job was at night and since I was working till close it often provided a source of free food. Not all places do this but many do, since they write the food off and throw it away. One of my co-workers would usually give me a ride home since it was after midnight before we got off so walking home late wasn't usually a problem. That left lunch which again I could pack PB&J from my room or microwave cans of soup. If I wanted a hot meal, my job had a basic snack bar or I could walk to a couple of fast-food places next door.I did have a PO box withing walking distance and when they asked for a physical address I just gave them the motel's address. Laundry was the only issue and many motels today have facilities on site. In my case there was a laundrymat about 3 miles down the road so I would splurge and call a taxi to and from the laundrymat. I only did laundry once a week.$15-20 total including saop and the cab. I was able to carry everything in a big green army duffel bag and if I folded everything carefully, I could bring them back without being too wrinkled. The benefit of a motel is that they usually have an iron and ironing board. Picking the jobs you apply for in this situation is importaint. Any job is bringing in income, but the right job will make the transition from homelessness easier. In my case I already had one, but it was close to where I was staying, it had a place inside that I could get a hot meal if I needed one (with a discount) and I could buy my everyday items with a discount. When I was finally able to save up enough to move into a cheap apartment I bought a boxspring and mattress from the manager for $60 to get me started. I went on to because a store manager for the fastfood company I worked. I know this was long but I hope that someone in a similar situation or who might be,will read this and it will help them in some way. As always, the key is to never give up and to be creative!

  5. Excellent advice Anon. The best way to learn about any topic is to learn from someone who has been there/done that.