I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Much of our affluence is built on debt, leaving vast numbers of people one or two paycheques away from insolvency and, perhaps, homelessness. Surviving on the streets requires some unique skills that are totally unfamiliar to people who have always enjoyed shelter.
The Scale of Homelessness
In the midst of the affluence of modern Western society, there are millions of homeless people. Here are a few countries with their recent homelessness figures, variously defined, expressed as a percentage of their total population:
- Australia―116,400 (0.47%)
- Canada―129,100 (0.36%)
- France―141,500 (0.21%)
- New Zealand―41,200 (0.94%)
- United Kingdom―307,000 (0.46%)
- United States―554,000 (0.17%)
Very few street people choose to be homeless. The root cause of being without a home is poverty, but there are other contributing factors, which are outlined by Raising the Roof:
- Poor physical or mental health
- Violence or abuse in the home
- Lack of employment or income
- A shortage of affordable housing.
In addition, many governments closed down mental hospitals as a cost-saving measure. Inmates were supposed to get “care in the community,” but the supports they needed were never fully put in place so many of these former patients are now street people.
A large number of the people with no fixed address never thought it would happen to them. But, it can happen to anybody: a car accident, a catastrophic illness, the onset of PTSD after witnessing something horrific, and unexpected job loss are just a few of the external events that cause people to become homeless.
Most people who suddenly become homeless are ill-prepared for the experience.
Sleeping for the Homeless
Finding a safe place to sleep is a major issue. All cities have shelters, some run with public money, others operated by charities, but many homeless people refuse to go into shelters overnight.
A homeless man, David Pirtle, told National Public Radio that “you hear a lot of terrible things about shelters, that shelters are dangerous places, that they’re full of drugs and drug dealers, that people will steal your shoes, and there’re bedbugs and body lice. And yeah, unfortunately a lot of those things are true.”
The advice is to sleep where other homeless people sleep but be very careful not to encroach on some else’s space. Go to the park or underpass of your choice during the day and chat with homeless people. Tell them your story, listen to theirs, and try to be useful to the group in whatever way you can so your acceptance into their community will be easier.
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You will need the street knowledge these people have accumulated, and being part of a group gives you better protection from violence.
Proper nourishment is hard to come by if you have no money. There are soup kitchens, and many churches offer free meals. Your homeless friends will tell you where the best free food is and on what days it is served. However, these groups lack proper funding and rely on donations of food, so they cannot plan a nutritious diet. Some days they can prepare a well-balanced meal, some days they can’t.
Hanging about behind restaurants is a strategy that some homeless people use. A few restaurants will give food away, but mostly what’s on offer is the stuff that guests didn’t finish. There’s no accommodation here for picky eaters.
Dumpster diving is not advised, as all sorts of contamination may be present; leave it for the raccoons and rats.
Many street people panhandle for their daily crust. Without cooking facilities, bought food has to be limited to sandwiches and the like. As a last resort, the homeless will steal food.
However, Stephen Gaetz (Homeless Hub, York University, Toronto) has written about research into nutrition among young street people: “It doesn’t matter if you get all of your food from charitable food programs, or if you purchase food from the proceeds of panhandling. Your food supply will be insecure, and you are equally likely to be malnourished.”
Staying Clean Without a Home
Personal hygiene is a big issue for the homeless. Simply the Basics is a non-profit that works with the homeless. It notes that “establishing proper hygiene is key to a sense of self and better health. This includes regularly brushing teeth, washing hair, washing hands, cleaning with soap, wearing deodorant, menstrual hygiene products, and clean underwear and socks.”
If you don’t have a home, keeping clean is difficult. Homeless shelters have showers, but there are not nearly enough to meet the need. Some street people take a collapsible bucket into a restaurant washroom, fill it with water, and have a sponge bath in a toilet stall.
Some homeless people buy low-cost fitness club memberships for less than $20 a month. This gives them access to showers.
In northern latitudes, the struggle to keep warm is endless. The advice is to start collecting layers of clothes during warmer weather; free clothes can usually be picked up from charities. Or, they can be found in trash cans.
When it turns cold, newspapers can be crumpled up and stuck between layers of clothing to give a good insulating layer.
Homeless people do a lot of walking to stay warm. During the day, shelters are closed unless it’s exceptionally cold. So, the homeless move from one public place to another―shopping malls, libraries, transit hubs. Often, they get moved on by security.
And, all that walking about leads to an issue almost none of us would think about―socks. Mark Horvath is with the homelessness advocacy group Invisible People. He says “ . . . new socks are gold to homeless people . . . ” Socks become dirty quickly and feet can be blistered and infected without a clean pair of socks to put on."
Being homeless is not a condition that most people choose; it is often forced on them by external events. It is an affront to the human condition. The Mother Nature Network puts it this way: “Many people experiencing homelessness say that the loss of dignity that accompanies their situation is harder to bear than the actual loss of physical things.”
- According to a University of Sheffield study in England, the average age of a chronically homeless person at death is 47; that is 30 years younger than the national average.
- Under several international covenants, including the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right to adequate shelter is guaranteed to all people.
- Suspended Coffees is a worldwide movement that encourages people to pay for a beverage they don’t consume. It springs from an Italian tradition called café sospeso that started in Naples. Suspended Coffees explains that “someone who could afford to do so would order a café sospeso, paying the price of two coffees but receiving and consuming only one. The second coffee could then be claimed by someone less fortunate.”
- “What is Homelessness?” Raising the Roof, undated.
- “Why Some Homeless Choose the Streets Over Shelters.” NPR, December 6, 2012.
- “Backgrounder: Do Homeless Youth Get Enough to Eat?” Stephen Gaetz, Homeless Hub, 2009.
- “How to Stay Warm on Cold Winter Nights if You Are Homeless.” WikiHow, March 29, 2019.
- “Homeless Die 30 Years Younger than Average.” National Health Service, December 21, 2011.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor