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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.

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

What Things Do You Think Are Strong Clues That Someone Might Be Living Without A Home?

123 on February 09, 2019:

When we thought that this guy was homeless we felt that we had to go by him some things

mary334 on April 12, 2017:

I feel very sad whenever i see homeless people

precioust33 on November 02, 2016:

Wonderful article!! Hopefully, people reading this will help more now that they have the facts. There are so many homeless people that can use our help. Great tip about the cell phones and laptops, I did not know this.

Kylyssa Shay (author) from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA on November 04, 2015:

I most sincerely hope you manage to dodge the bullet, so to speak. Things are changing for the better because people are getting fed up with the way things are, but it's too darned slow. If you do lose your home, my advice is to remember to love yourself because it's far too easy to stop. The vast majority of homeless people escape homelessness and very often do so as as tougher, wiser, more compassionate people.

closetohome on November 04, 2015:

I am getting closer every day to losing my home. I read your articles and almost came to tears. When and if I lose my home I will have comfort in knowing that others have gone before me and will also have the experience gleaned from your pages. Thank you.

Kylyssa Shay (author) from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA on August 28, 2015:

I find it's six of one and half a dozen of the other. In smaller towns it can be harder for such a person to get a job because everyone knows they are homeless. Combine that with fewer jobs and fewer services, it can make it tough to escape small town streets. The local bullies also have fewer homeless people to assault and they know them on sight. The strategy of hiding your state of homelessness to avoid violence and discrimination just doesn't work that well in small towns. I tried it out myself.

Larger cities have their own disadvantages. In my experience, police are more likely to be assailants themselves and more likely to bully, threaten, or demand sex from homeless people who are reporting crimes against them. There are also more homed thrill-seekers roaming around looking for people they can harass or harm without serious consequences.

It pretty much sucks a great deal no matter where you experience deep poverty or homelessness.

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on August 28, 2015:

Interesting topic. I find the homeless in large cities have a harder time than in smaller towns.

peachy from Home Sweet Home on July 17, 2015:

Thanks for sorting out who is the real and fake homeless people

Kylyssa Shay (author) from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA on June 23, 2015:

Thank you. If this piece helps one person to stop being worried the person they are thinking of helping isn't homeless and gets them to just help anyway, it will have served its purpose.

There's a myth in the United States that there really aren't many homeless people, just lots of people pretending to be homeless. In fact, while the US may have fewer homeless people than many other countries, we have the highest percentage for any country with such a high gross national product. The US made over 2.5 times as much as India last year with far fewer people, the US makes something on the level of ten times as much money per person if the GNP is divided by the number of people in the country, yet has one in fifty children homeless every year.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on June 23, 2015:

This is a great thought provoking hub!

I feel very sad and disturbed to see homeless people, sleeping on the streets. But as you pointed out its important to identify them. You made some valid points to tell if someone might be homeless.

Thank you for this important hub, voted up!

Kylyssa Shay (author) from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA on June 17, 2015:

Thank you for reading and commenting.


There are cliques, differences, and divides in any group of human beings. That homelessness even exists is a sad thought.


As I'm sure you've guessed, the true point of this piece is to get people thinking about what homeless people live through and to go out and do something about it. People tend to take action when they have enough information to activate their empathy. I'm trying to go through people's excuses for not helping one by one and hopefully neutralizing them.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on June 16, 2015:

Great hub Kylyssa. I have never seen this subject tackled from this point of view before. Very interesting and well done. Now I can surely tell the true homeless, from those faking it...well sometimes :) voted up.

Sally Gulbrandsen from Norfolk on June 16, 2015:


Thought provoking and interesting, especially since I was out taking photos on the streets last night and came across a group of quite obviously homeless people. It made me feel sad and I wondered about one who stood away from the group but was nevertheless still part of it.

Kylyssa Shay (author) from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA on June 16, 2015:

Thank you. So many people have said to me, "I'd help, but how can I tell if they are really homeless?" that I decided to write a piece to help them figure it out. I do, however, have a sneaking suspicion that it's just an excuse for many, so I made sure the information could be useful for people trying to hide their housing situation, too.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on June 16, 2015:

What an interesting topic for an article.....I do like creativity and this was definitely creative.

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