Hi there, Black Sheep Christian fans! C here, ready to share my fount of wisdom on how to stay alive when you’ve somehow alienated yourself from anyone who might once have been willing to let you crash on their couch, even when you’re a law-abiding citizen AND a known Christian. I am not a lawyer. I don’t know all the laws. None of this is legal advice, please do not sue me.
Be Smart BEFOREHAND
Homelessness doesn’t happen suddenly, for the most part. Unless you’re living in a Charles Dickens novel, you don’t LITERALLY get your consumption-riddled ass thrown into the gutter by your evil landlord with no warning. You know it’s coming, sometimes weeks or months in advance. When you first lose your job, when your savings dip below the danger zone, when your “friends” start distancing themselves from you and not texting you back, you should know you’re heading towards hard times and take some steps to prepare.
First, get a small PO Box and forward your mail to it. You can keep using your soon-to-be-former physical address for a while, and the USPS will route your mail for free. Sign up online for Informed Delivery, also free, so you can get alerts with scanned images of mail that’s on its way to you. The Postal Service will rent you a box for six months or a year at a time. It’s worth it.
Second, make sure you have a working car. I don’t even know what to say to someone who’s facing homelessness without a car. And I didn’t even drive for most of my life: I grew up and lived in big cities until I was thirtyish and either took public transit or relied on other people to give me rides. Now in my mid-forties, I’m here to tell you, if you’re losing your home and don’t have a car, get one. Buy a clunker on Craigslist or some other for-sale-by-owner spot. Ideally, make sure it has a big trunk and the front seat reclines, because that’s where you’ll be sleeping at night. More on this later.
Third, research all the small gyms in your area and get a membership at the very cheapest one. Don’t forget to check Groupon and other coupon sites, but chances are if you’re in an urban or even suburban area, you can get something for as little as ten bucks a month. This is a valuable investment, and you should be willing to sacrifice whatever little perk you might’ve previously spent that ten bucks on, whether it’s a couple packs of cigarettes or a few trips to Starbucks. This is where you will shower while you’re looking for a job.
Line Up Your Meals
Fourth, suck it up and apply for food stamps. It was extraordinarily hard for me to do this my first time around. But, as I was reminded by all the well-meaning people who refused to provide material assistance themselves, the SNAP program is designed for situations like this. You’re trying to find work and can’t make ends meet? The EBT card will make sure you can at least feed yourself. Remember that you can’t use it to buy hot food, because homeless people don’t deserve things like fresh pizza or Publix chicken straight from the rotisserie; you don’t want to embarrass yourself at the checkout by trying to sneak out with something warm and tasty. (More on this in a future post.) Also, if your benefits come with a requirement like “apply for X jobs each month and submit proof,” you need to stay on top of that.
Fifth, after you’re approved for the food assistance, get thee an Obamaphone. We really shouldn’t call it that, because the Lifeline program has been around since the 1980s, but calling it a Reaganphone doesn’t have the same punch, somehow. In any event, if you’re on food stamps, you’ll be eligible for a free REALLY CRAPPY smartphone with X number of free minutes and X amount of free cellular data each month. Everyone needs a cellphone, especially the homeless. Yes, old person clucking your tongue in disapproval, they do. It’s 2019 and the world has changed. You don’t have to like it but you do have to accept it.
Reading is FUNdamental
Sixth, if you don’t have a library card, get one. It’s free. And unlike homeless shelters (more on this later), libraries often have actual resources you can make use of, like computers. They also tend to be centralized hubs with bulletin boards and information about what’s going on in the neighborhood. If nothing else, it’s a place to hang out during the day searching for jobs.
Finally, on your pre-homelessness checklist, make sure you have a severe addiction to some sort of intoxifying substance, preferably an illegal one. If you’re a woman with no kids, get pregnant immediately. Nothing will make social service organizations and nonprofits trip over themselves to help you faster than major chemical dependence and/or babies.
Kidding. Don’t do either of those things.
I mean, I’m not kidding about the fact that junkies and baby mamas get a fair amount of resources thrown at them. When I say “resources” I’m referring to things like halfway houses, rehab programs, WIC benefits, inpatient treatment, etc. Hearts bleed everywhere for homeless children and newborn babies, and I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, and I’m not saying we shouldn’t have compassion for addicts.
It’s just, you know, some of us go our whole lives without ever getting arrested or doing crime or pushing out a papoose, and I don’t need a cookie for that or anything, but could somebody start a program for people like me, somewhere, maybe? Like, I dunno, “Spinsters in Displacement Situations” and we can call it SIDS. Or not. I’m just sayin’.
Kitty Card Denied
By the way, just being female by itself doesn’t confer any particular perks when seeking social services. No, incels, it really doesn’t. The media would have you believe that there are all sorts of options and resources out there for women who find themselves in trouble, but pretty much all of them require you to be disadvantaged in very specific, documented ways, such as:
- Being in a police-logged physically abusive living situation
- Having or soon-to-be-having kids
- Being disabled in a way that is acknowledged by the government, meaning you’ve applied for disability and actually gotten approved
- Veteran status
- Belonging to a historically oppressed demographic (again, just being female isn’t enough)
Any of those checkboxes MIGHT get you into, for example, a special shelter for domestic violence victims, vets, moms, or some fine-grained program designed specifically for ladies of a certain color or visible disability. Then again, since money’s tight and most people don’t want the homeless to have more than day-old bread and lukewarm tap water, they might not. (Again, more on that in a future post).
So Now You’re Out There
If it’s your first time being homeless, you might be contacting the shelters in your region, all rosy-cheeked innocence. Homeless shelters are there to help people; surely they have all sorts of programs to help you get back on your feet, right? BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA. I’m sorry, that was rude. It’s just…No, they really don’t. Unless you’re ticking one of those boxes mentioned above, and even if you are, most homeless shelters in my experience are nothing more than a mat to stretch out on at night, with a roof over your head, and at least one free meal.
As for “programs” and “resources,” BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA, oh man, I’m so sorry. This is serious. If you’re staying in a homeless shelter, you’ll likely be assigned a case worker. More often than not, it’s a volunteer position, staffed by people with no actual social work training or any qualifications other than being a warm body who agreed to show up. Even if you’ve snagged a bed in a place with actual paid employees, your case worker isn’t going to actually help you in any tangible way. Their primary role is to grill you every week about what jobs you’ve applied for, so you can prove you’re really trying. Once in a while they’ll surprise you with a drug test, but they will never, ever, ever surprise you with “Guess what! I made some calls and got you a job interview at AwesomeCorp!”
This Ain’t the Hilton
Also, make no mistake, homeless shelters are uncomfortable. This is by design. They don’t want you getting comfy. They want you out there pounding the pavement and getting a job so you can leave. Sleeping accommodations in these facilities can vary from a plastic mattress on the floor to a plastic mattress on a cot to a plastic mattress on a bunk bed with no ladder. That’s with the GOOD shelters, the ones with a real 501(c)3 next to their name. There are other, less-reputable places where the digs are more makeshift: curbside trash-picked mattresses with a non-zero chance of having bedbugs, mold, and so forth. Also the extension cords daisy-chained across the building, leaking roof, roaches, and other assorted funtimes.
You’ll be awakened by staff every morning WELL before daylight, generally at around Oh-God-Thirty. They’ll assign you a daily cleaning chore (and if you don’t do it, you’ll be kicked out). Then you’ll be shuffled off the property no later than 8:00 AM or so. Weekends they may or may not let you sleep in and hang around, but during the week you’re not permitted to remain on the grounds, inside the nice climate-controlled building. You’re supposed to be out there job-hunting, all day every day, period. Bad weather? Tough. You can’t come back until evening, when they generally serve a questionable (but hot!) free meal.
So yeah, if that’s your idea of a good way to live while you’re trying to get your life together, you do you, but I’ve learned my lesson.
Car Life 4 Lyfe
If you’ve got a perfectly good automobile to live out of, I definitely recommend it over shelter stays. Think about it: I have (relative) privacy, not sharing a dorm with a dozen other sick, snoring, troubled people who talk to their dissociative identities all night. I have (relative) safety since the doors, you know, lock. Wakeup time is whenever I want, bearing in mind that I’m in Florida where the summers are long and less than kind, and temps can get very unforgiving very fast when the sun comes up. I don’t have to clean or scrub anything. There’s no fending off the amorous advances of the resident methheads. No groveling to a case manager who’ll threaten me with eviction if I don’t fill out that Dunkin Donuts application.
I’ve found it’s best to try and park my car behind or next to a big box store at night. In addition to safety (their lots tend to be well-lit), there’s also a comfort consideration: If I can get close enough to hijack the WiFi, I’ll use my phone to listen to things that help me sleep without burning cellular data. Whether you can get away with this really depends on the local police. In some places, the homeless are looked upon like sparrows during China’s Great Leap Forward, and the cops and populace get their kicks by shooing you away from every possible resting place until you drop dead from exhaustion. I’ve known quite a few car-campers who’ve gotten trespass warnings for trying to park in the wrong spots overnight. So be aware of your surroundings and the tone of your neighborhood. And if there are signs that explicitly say “no overnight parking,” don’t chance it.
A Typical Day
As a vehicle-dweller, I’d wake up on any given day when the sun forces me to. There’d be a quick trip to the gym, during which I’d spend at least some time on a treadmill before showering and making myself presentable. Contrary to what you might think, when I’m homeless, I don’t actually want people to be aware of it. I don’t use it as a sympathy card when applying for jobs, because who actually wants to hire a transient?
After getting clean, I might or might not grab something to eat with my food stamps. Without access to cooking equipment, you’re pretty much stuck with cold food, but it’s not that big a deal, really. Gas station sandwiches, Walmart salads, fresh fruit, and yes even junk food can all be legally purchased with your EBT card and you shouldn’t feel bad about it. Being homeless is demoralizing enough, and sometimes it’s okay — necessary, even — to splurge on some ice cream or a damn chocolate bar with your SNAP benefits. THIS IS COMPLETELY LEGAL. And if you’re one of the finger-waggers who think “luxury” items should be excluded from the food stamp program, take it up with your Congressman because the US Department of Agriculture is the one who makes the rules, not you. (More on this in that future post I keep mentioning.)
The Search Continues
During the day, I’d usually go to the library and utilize their computers to find and apply for jobs online. I’m not fortunate enough to have a laptop or tablet, sadly, and if I ever get my life in order again I might get one just in case of future homelessness. Currently, I’m saddled with a fairly impressive gaming PC that was custom-built and has great graphics and lots of RAM, but it’s on the bulky side. Years past, a couple of the local libraries allowed me to painfully lug my desktop computer and monitor inside so I could use my own programs and keep the library PCs free, but sadly I don’t have the physical strength for that sort of thing anymore.
In addition to lounging in the library (which also affords the opportunity to just BE QUIET, and maybe read some actual books), I used to do a certain amount of cold-canvassing for jobs in the area. Nowadays I’m not inclined to the retail side of things, but getting out and about and just seeing which businesses have help-wanted signs is always a good idea. Plus, I can use my free smartphone to determine if they have a Website and if not (or if they do but it’s crappy), pop inside and offer to make one for them at a reasonable price.
Dinner and a Movie
At the end of the day, when the library closes, you can still squeeze an hour or two of air conditioning out of some other places like the local mall or some of the larger standalone stores like Books-A-Million (the chairs are comfy), Super Walmart (some of them have indoor benches!), Target, and so forth. Whip out that EBT card for a freshly-made Publix sub and grab a little side container of macaroni salad. Make it a combo with a nice fountain drink, and have dinner under the stars on the taxpayer’s dime.
But sooner or later you’ll have to take the car to your sleeping spot. If you’re careful and unobtrusive, you’ll have a decent WiFi signal to connect to. Time to fire up YouTube for some random videos! There are also some wonderful free apps that provide white noise and other soothing sounds for helping you snooze. And I do recommend, for anyone struggling, that you take advantage of the free 30-day trial you can get from Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Prime. You have to give them a credit card number, but you can (and should) cancel before they charge you. I’ve found it very uplifting to be able to marathon my favorite TV shows when I’m living in my car. It boosts my spirits a bit.
When you’ve got your spot and hopefully a good signal for nighttime media, lock the doors and push back that seat. Depending on the weather, you might need to bundle up, or you might need to crack a window. Either way, make sure your valuables are out of sight. Keep your purse in your trunk, along with whatever else you can fit. The driver’s side back seat should be kept clear so you can recline as much as possible. Don’t let your car fill up with trash, not least because of bugs, but also because there are assholes out there who photograph “carbage” and post it online for public shaming. (People suck, film at eleven. More on this, future post, yadda yadda.)
If you are awakened by a cop, DO NOT pick a fight. What you’re doing may in fact be illegal in your jurisdiction, and you can be given a trespass warning. Be respectful, humble, and obsequious. And leave.
This is more or less the basic process that I’ve formulated over the past several years. Everybody’s situation is going to be different, obviously. Maybe you’ll be luckier than I was in finding social services that provide real assistance apart from food. But all of the above is my own lived experience with homelessness.
I’ve left a LOT of details out, but this post is already well into “interminable” territory. Still, I wanted to tack on a few more helpful hints from my personal journey in the unlikely event that anybody reading this might need them:
- Find a gas station that offers fuel discounts in exchange for rewards points. Use your EBT card to make eligible purchases in-store, and you can really save at the pump.
- Make friends with other homeless people in the area. They can tell you about the safest overnight parking spots, which places are serving free hot meals, etc.
- Some of the homeless without cars will give you cash in exchange for rides; this can be mutually beneficial as long as they don’t get you in trouble with the law. Use your judgment.
- Be wary of anyone who promises you room and board in exchange for whatever. There are people who prey upon the desperate. I came dangerously close, more than once, to falling into this trap.
- Despite my lengthy bitching elsewhere, there are some churches that occasionally offer services to the needy. Do your due diligence to find the ones near you. Many will have food. Some will have used clothing and hygiene products. Once in a great while, you’ll be blessed with a gas voucher.
- If you don’t have a PayPal account, get one. Make it a business account, if possible, and get the accompanying debit card (MasterCard).
- Earn loose change by filling out online surveys. Market research companies will pay for your opinion. The catch is that they pay literal pennies, but it can mount up if you’re diligent. Amazon Mechanical Turk is a reputable one for scrounging up gas money. Gain.gg is another site that rewards you for surveys, and you can cash out anytime you want (via PayPal). (That link, by the way, contains a referral, so I’ll earn a few coins as a bonus.)
- Pray. It’s easy to forget. Here it is at the very bottom of my post. But do pray.
I am not a lawyer, none of this is legal advice.
Please don’t sue me. You can’t get blood from a stone, after all.