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How to Tell if Someone Might Be Homeless

Kylyssa Shay was homeless for over a year in her youth; it lead her to become a homelessness activist. She thinks, feels, and has opinions.

Can you tell if someone's homeless just by looking? Not always.

Can you tell if someone's homeless just by looking? Not always.

Knowing What Clues May Indicate Homelessness Can Be of Use to People Homed and Homeless

Homeless people are frequently victims of violence and discrimination. The single most effective method of avoiding violence and discrimination while on the street is to avoid being perceived as homeless.

Some people who wish to help through volunteer work and charity seem to be held back by a concern that the people they may choose to help are not actually experiencing homelessness, but instead are homed con artists. While it's unlikely they'll ever encounter someone feigning homelessness, a bit of information might help them relax and just get on with being kind to those in need.

Both of these groups of people could benefit from having a better idea of how to tell what details most strongly imply that a person is without a permanent residence. If you’d like to learn how to tell if someone is probably homeless, either to avoid being identified as homeless yourself or to avoid getting taken in by a con-artist feigning homelessness, I have some insights that may be helpful.

There's Absolutely No Foolproof Way to Tell if Someone Is Homeless or Not

As you may have gathered from the introduction above, many homeless people work very hard to camouflage their situation for reasons of safety and to avoid discrimination. Additionally, the things many people do just to be more comfortable and to feel happier can make their lack of an abode less obvious.

People who are trying to feign homelessness for whatever reason also will try, with varying degrees of commitment and success, to imitate the behaviors or conditions people living on the street may perform or endure involuntarily.

Both of these issues complicate the task of telling who is homeless and who is not. But if you know a few things that strongly suggest a person is homeless you can either take steps to avoid those actions and conditions if you are homeless or to make a more comfortable decision to help someone if you are not.

Wearing Layers of Clothing

Some homeless people wear multiple layers of clothing both to keep warm and to make carrying around an entire wardrobe easier. This may take the form of wearing skirts over trousers or other such slightly odd combinations. A person faking homelessness probably wouldn’t do this because it can be uncomfortable.

Wearing Free T-shirts

A lot of people wear t-shirts but many homeless people take advantage of t-shirts with logos on them that show up in clothing drives or thrift stores. If you are homeless, by all means, wear that free t-shirt but you may want to wear it as an undershirt rather than all by itself.

Add this to wearing the same clothing two or more days in a row or some other clue and it may add up to homelessness.

Jeans frayed by long-term use

Jeans frayed by long-term use

Shabby Clothing

While many homeless people do not have extremely shabby clothing quite a few do. A key thing that tends to separate the homeless from the faking is that homeless people who aren’t severely mentally ill generally take very good care of what clothing they have. Their clothing may be old and worn but it is usually relatively clean and carefully mended even if the patch or sewing isn’t very well done.

Someone faking homelessness would probably accentuate the wear and tear on their clothing and would probably have more tears rather than spots worn thin from excessive wearing.

Worn Shoes

Shoes say a lot about a person’s social status but they can be deceiving. Many homeless people spend hours and hours walking around or standing so they may put comfortable shoes in good repair at the top of their priorities to avoid potentially crippling foot injuries.

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If the person’s shoes look extremely worn, with thin soles, wear holes, rotted laces, or cracked material he or she is probably genuinely impoverished if not homeless. If the person has made some attempt to repair or conceal the damage to his or her shoes, again, that person is probably homeless. A genuinely homeless person is also apt to try things to make worn shoes more useful such as wearing plastic bags under their shoes to keep water from seeping in through holes.

Someone faking homelessness would probably scuff shoes that were otherwise fairly sound in structure. They’d be unlikely to try to camouflage the shabby state of their shoes with things like marker, unlikely to try to patch or sew up holes, and unlikely to wear bags under shoes with holes in them. Holes in their shoes would likely not be spots worn thin but holes punched or cut into shoes with a sharp object.

Worn shoes may indicate poverty or just an attachment to a comfortable pair of shoes.

Worn shoes may indicate poverty or just an attachment to a comfortable pair of shoes.


Most homeless people bend over backward to try to stay clean. How well they succeed at that depends on their mental state, their resources, and their resourcefulness. If you are homeless, smelling of body odor or being visibly dirty is a dead giveaway. People who can't help being smelly often try to camouflage their odor with things like cologne or bathroom spray. Seriously mentally ill or severely physically disabled homeless people are fairly often but certainly not always smelly and dirty. They are also among the most likely of actually homeless people to resort to panhandling because they are so out of their depth and so lacking in resources.

However, con-artists are well aware that the average American thinks all homeless people are dirty and smelly. How well they can fake homeless appearance depends on how far they are willing to go and how good they are at acting.

A dead giveaway that the dirtiness is put on like make-up is if it looks like the person has just rubbed dirt on themselves and does not smell bad. If you are catching a whiff of urine or extreme body odor and the person in question has three days' worth of crumbs in his beard your panhandler is probably living without a home. If you smell a combination of body odors and bathroom spray the person in question is very likely homeless. Most con-artists clean up at the end of the day and aren’t likely to work up the degree of funk a severely mentally ill person comes by unawares or without intending to. Nor are they likely to actually apply urine or feces to themselves or to try to hide bad smells with bathroom spray. If they are, they are probably so completely desperate and without hope that they could probably use some help anyway.

A Public Routine

If you frequently see the same person sitting in a public place, day after day and often during the evening hours, and not panhandling, that person may well be homeless. Then again, he or she may just have a weird routine or be waiting for someone else who has a weird routine. But added to other clues, it may be a tip-off that the person is homeless.

Sleeping on benches and keeping a public routine may indicate homelessness or simply a lack of good transportation options.

Sleeping on benches and keeping a public routine may indicate homelessness or simply a lack of good transportation options.

Sleeping in Public

While sleeping in public is not a dead giveaway that a person is homeless it is another one of those clues that, when added to other clues, may mean that person is homeless. Avoid sleeping in public if at all possible.

Bad Haircuts

Lots of people get bad haircuts but they are pretty common among homeless people. If they can afford a haircut, it usually won’t be a good one. It seems to me it would take a high level of commitment for a faker to spend the rest of his or her time with an awful haircut or shaggy, unkempt hair.

Owning a data phone does not rule out homelessness.

Owning a data phone does not rule out homelessness.

Some Things That Do Not Rule Out Being Homeless

Being clean

Many homeless people do a darned good job of keeping clean. It takes a lot of ingenuity and can be a lot of work but people, homeless or not, generally prefer to be clean when they can swing it.

Owning a cell phone

There are quite a few charities that provide donated cell phones to homeless people and those charities do not turn down nice cell phones. Other homeless people keep their cell phones when they become homeless to increase their chances of getting a job, to be able to get help in emergencies, and to stay in contact with family. Often, someone else is voluntarily paying the bill.

Owning a laptop or tablet pc

Many intelligent homeless people keep their laptops when they become homeless to increase their chances of finding a job, finding resources, and finding a home. Selling their old laptop will not provide equal value to having a method of applying for jobs and seeking other money-making opportunities with the device.

Wearing something nice

People donate some really nice clothes, shoes, and other apparel to thrift shops and to charities and intelligent homeless people purchase them for only a few bucks or accept them as gifts. Also, most homeless people weren’t born homeless and many of them have kept things they owned prior to falling into financial difficulties.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2015 Kylyssa Shay

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