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What to Buy If You Are 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.

Learn what to put into a backpack to make it into a homelessness survival kit for yourself or others using this list as a guide.

Learn what to put into a backpack to make it into a homelessness survival kit for yourself or others using this list as a guide.

A Spending Plan for Homeless People, and Suggestions for Those Who Would Help

I wrote this page initially to help people without hope make a plan to spend any money they get to better their situations. This list of items and suggestions comes from my own experience and these items are some of the things I bought with an unexpected windfall when I was homeless.

Now mostly I maintain this list to encourage people to buy these sorts of items to give to homeless people they know. It's all about helping people make a plan, spreading awareness, and giving people something concrete and empowering to do about homelessness. I think it would be of great benefit to everyone if we citizens could take it upon ourselves to help end this problem, starting with the people we see every day.

The Washington couple who started the $20 backpack homeless care kit charity movement (see the end of this article) claim this article inspired the direction they took in helping those in need while sticking to a tight budget.

Small Items That Build a Ramp Out of Homelessness

When I was homeless about 25 years ago, I came across 100 dollars in a cigarette pack. Someone's carelessness with his or her money saved my life. I think without it my life would have been very different, and may well have ended well before now.

The reason that relatively small amount of money made a life-changing difference is that I'd carefully worked out how to spend it long before that windfall came my way. I was tempted to spend it in other ways, like buying a couple nights in a motel room with a bed, a bathroom, and (best of all) a locking door, or seeing a doctor. But these temporary luxuries would not have helped me in my plan.

Others might face different temptations, but if carefully spent, even smaller amounts of money can be used to build a ramp up out of the pit of homelessness.

Goals, Tasks, and Items for Escaping Homelessness

If you are homeless, a survival kit can help you accomplish your goals:

  • Getting a regular job.
  • Keeping a regular job.
  • Conserving enough money to get an apartment or rent a room.

To accomplish your goals you must be:

  • Clean
  • Well-groomed
  • Rested
  • Fed

To accomplish your goals you must have:

  • An address
  • A phone number
  • An alarm clock or watch
  • A place to bathe
  • A clean place to sleep, or a way to stay clean when you sleep
  • Clean clothes
  • Food

Below is my list of items you can get or buy to accomplish your goals.

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1. A Backpack

You need a place for all your important possessions. A backpack is probably the single most important item you can buy for your homeless survival kit.

A backpack allows you to carry all your belongings with you at all times. Unattended items will usually get stolen or vandalized, so everything you absolutely need must come with you wherever you go.

Sleep with your backpack on. I used to reverse mine when I went to sleep, and wear it on my front where I could curl around it while sleeping on my side. If you can, tie the backpack shut at night, with a piece of wire or string through its closures, so thieves have to struggle to open it and wake you. It's very easy to do with backpacks that have a two-tab zipper arrangement on their closures; you can take your wire or string and tie it through both zipper tab holes.

You can buy a backpack at a thrift store like Goodwill or Salvation Army for about $5. Don't worry about how it looks, if it has cartoon characters on it or whatever, only concern yourself with whether or not it is tough and will hold up with lots of use. Before buying, be sure it closes completely and that the zippers are sturdy and not broken.

Don't buy anything too fancy or it might get stolen and maybe even get you hurt in the process. Keep this in mind if you are buying a backpack for someone else, too.

2. Mylar Emergency Blanket

A Mylar emergency blanket can keep you cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. Face the shiny side in to stay warm. Face the shiny side out to stay cool.

Emergency preparedness kits have become popular, and they usually include a Mylar blanket. You can usually find a kit containing a Mylar blanket and other useful items, or a Mylar blanket by itself, at stores like Target, Walmart, and K-Mart. I've also seen the blankets sold by themselves in drugstores like Walgreens, Rite-Aid, and CVS as well as in some dollar stores.

You can usually buy a Mylar emergency blanket for under $3.

3. Pads, Tampons, Feminine Wipes, Hand Sanitizer, and Dignity

If making up knapsack packs for others who are women, please include pads, tampons, hand sanitizer, and flushable moist wipes. These items can be assembled in plastic zipper bags ahead of time to add to kits as they are given out.

4. Bar Soap and Antiperspirant

It's hard to stay clean and smelling fresh without them.

You can use bar soap to get yourself and even your clothes clean in a pinch. Combine it with a washcloth and a resealable plastic bag and it'll be a lot easier to wash up.

Bar soap usually costs less than $2 and washcloths can often be found in dollar stores.

Get some good, scented antiperspirant. Be sure it says it's antiperspirant and not just deodorant. Antiperspirant contains deodorant but it also reduces the amount you sweat. Deodorant usually just covers up odors with a scent or perhaps neutralizes them. But deodorant still allows you to sweat and the sweat that wicks into your clothes will soon start to stink.

You can get a stick of antiperspirant for around $2.

A sturdy little hairbrush

A sturdy little hairbrush

5. Brushes for Teeth and Hair

Homeless does not have to equal unkempt.

Well-brushed hair can pass for clean longer than un-brushed hair. A comb will work too, and it is smaller to carry. You can buy travel-sized brushes for a dollar or less in many stores and combs run even less.

You can't keep your teeth clean and your breath fresh without using a toothbrush, so invest in a toothbrush and some toothpaste. Toothbrushes and toothpaste can usually be found for $2 or less.

Clean laundry in a basket

Clean laundry in a basket

6. Pants and Shirts

Certain fabrics withstand the rigors of homelessness better than others.

To buy any clothes you don't get free from a charity, go to a thrift store. If you can't find everything you need at a single one, go to others. If you can't find a particular item, wait a few days, they might get it in.

Buy polyester or other thin, synthetic-fiber shirts and pants; they might not look as nice, but they shed dirt and wrinkles much more easily than natural fibers. Also they can be rolled or folded up very small to pack away in a small bag, and they dry more quickly when washed.

Also, buy some cotton t-shirts of the sort that can be worn without a shirt over them. You can wear these on days you don't have a job interview or work to go to.

Try to get at least three shirts, three pairs of pants, and three t-shirts.

If you stick to the suggested fabrics, your entire wardrobe will fit in a single washer and dryer load so you may be able to cheaply wash your clothes at a Laundromat if your funds allow.

7. Underclothes That Dry Quickly

For women, the socks to get are called trouser socks. For men they are called dress socks. You can usually get these for about a dollar a pair in dollar stores or big box stores. If you can't wear synthetic material socks, buy the kind you can wear. If synthetics don't work for you, cotton socks usually work for anyone.

Try to have at least three pairs of socks. Some charities hand out socks. It's better to have more than three pairs because a sock change in the middle of the day can greatly increase foot comfort.

The best underpants you can get for men are actually those silky bikini-style briefs. The best underwear and bras for women also follow this trend: thin, synthetic fabrics which can be hand washed and which dry quickly. Synthetics don't take as long to dry as cotton, but their most important advantage is they are more resistant to mold and mildew.

Try to have at least three sets of underwear.

These are not the undergarments homed people tend to desire, but their ease of care and ability to dry quickly allows you to have clean underclothes which feels a lot better than the alternative. Their resistance to mold and mildew helps prevent them from stinking up your pack when you have to store them damp inside it. It also helps you avoid stinking and having to wear moldy underwear.

Washing clean, shedding dirt easily, and resisting mildew as well as drying very quickly are what make me consider these types of underclothing to be good choices.

8. A Plastic Drop Cloth or Tarp

A plastic drop cloth of the kind people use to protect floors and furniture when they paint will provide you with a clean surface to sleep on and can shelter you from the rain in a pinch. You can fold it up small to carry with you.

You can buy a plastic drop cloth for under $3 at most hardware or home improvement stores or in stores like Walmart, Target, or Sears.

9. Pepper Spray

I was reluctant to put this on the list because I've been strongly criticized for doing so, but the fact remains that homeless people are frequently assaulted or raped. It's not pretty, but it's true. Many predators prey on the poor. So pepper spray is a good thing to have on hand for protection.

However, if you are making up packs to give to other people, you can leave this item out if you are concerned it could be used to do harm.

10. A Phone Number

Cell phones can provide stable phone numbers.

If you can't convince someone to let you use their phone number as a message phone, you may need to get a cell phone.

Pay-as-you-go cell phones are getting cheaper these days. You can buy a cell phone for as little as $20 and you can get enough minutes for three months' use for about $35. This will give you a functional phone number to put on job applications.

Additionally, many cell phones have an alarm clock function which will help you keep appointments and get to interviews on time. If your cell phone has a clock and alarm function, you won't need to also buy a watch or alarm clock.

It can be tricky to keep your cell phone charged. If possible, try to pick up a solar cell phone charger. If you have a job, plug your phone in at work. If not, perhaps a friend or acquaintance who has a home could be convinced to let you charge it at their home.


11. A Swiss Army Knife or Other Pocket-Sized Multi-Tool

A good, sturdy Swiss Army knife or multi-tool can be a life-saver. I used mine to open bottles and cans, to pull out slivers, to cut food packages open, to cut loose threads off my clothes, and just so many other things I couldn't list them all here without it getting ridiculous.

A multi-tool or Swiss Army knife is clearly a tool, so it might be less likely to get police all upset than a regular pocket knife if they do a stop and frisk on you. I found that to be the case, but I was a small and very young-looking white woman so what applied to me might not apply to others. Maybe it helped that it was in my pocket with a sewing kit?

12. Tools for Sewing

You'll probably want to have a sewing kit so you can repair your clothing. It will help you keep your clothes looking presentable longer and fix functional issues like missing buttons. The sewing kit pictured below is a good example of a pocket-sized sewing kit. Choose a kit that has a sturdy case because the ones in plastic bags or flimsy cases will fall apart on you, and eventually leave you with a tangled up wad of thread with needles stuck in it.

13. An Address

Beg, borrow, or buy an address. Do your darnedest to get a friend or acquaintance to let you use their mailing address on job applications. It's the easiest option for many people. If none of your friends, family members, or acquaintances are willing to let you use their mailing address on job applications check at local churches to see if they would allow you to use their address for this purpose. I have heard that many of them will provide this service for homeless people.

Another option is to go to the Post Office and apply to get your mail by general delivery, which means you get your mail right at that specific Post Office. Unfortunately, many Post Offices don't do this anymore, but a few small town offices still do so it can't hurt to ask if you live somewhere rural.

The other alternative is to buy a Post Office box so you can have an address. The cost of this varies but you should be able to get a basic Post Office box for $50 - $85 for six months rent. Unfortunately, most PO boxes have to be paid in a lump sum and some of them require an additional deposit.

If you are unable to get a box at the Post Office due to not having an address, try the private mail service companies like Mail Boxes Etc, the UPS Store, Pak Mail, or similar stores.

Even if you can't get a friend or acquaintance to let you use their address to receive mail at or to list on applications, you may be able to get them to let you use their address to get a Post Office box or mail box at a mail store.

14. Hats and Gloves

Without a home, people need more protection from the elements.

Even if it isn't particularly cold where you live, wearing a hat and gloves at night can help keep a homeless sleeper warmer. The hat will not only keep your head warm, it will also keep you from getting stuff in your hair if you roll off your bedroll and onto the ground.

I've found some really great hats, gloves, and scarves in my local dollar stores lately, so I know these can generally be found for a dollar or so.

15. Food

It's not easy getting reliable meals on the street.

Check out the food banks and soup kitchens in your area before buying food. Also, apply for food assistance through your local human resources department. They may also be able to direct you to other helpful resources. It can be hard to take charity but this will allow you to save up for that apartment or room.

When those resources are exhausted and you must buy food, think cheap, easily prepared without a kitchen, and high in calories. This is not a nutritionally sound diet for long term use, but it will prevent outright starvation and give you enough energy to seek better. Ramen noodles are one of the best deals. They are high in calories, very light to carry around, and you can eat them dry if necessary. Bread is also light and cheap, especially if you buy day-old baked goods. Canned beans are cheap and provide protein.

Once you can swing it, buy nutritious foods including plenty of vegetables and fruits. Avoid buying meat, as it is difficult to prepare without a stove and is not a cost-effective source of protein. Avoid soda, candy, and salty snacks; they have no real nutritive value and don't provide the energy other foods do. Obviously, you should avoid foods that require preparation with a stove or oven.

If you live in a rural area, you may be able to convince farmers to either let you glean their fields (pick leftover fruit or vegetables after the harvest) or pay a small fee to pick fruit or vegetables from their fields.

This advice is not intended as a suggestion for your long-term diet. These are bare survival strategies intended to help you make it to a point when food is readily available and you have the luxury of making healthy choices rather than just staying alive.

If buying food to give to others, choose ready-to-eat non-perishables like canned foods, granola bars, and peanut butter. Some people are allergic to peanut butter, but they will usually know if they are and trade or give it to someone who can eat it. It's high in protein and doesn't spoil quickly. If you buy canned food be sure it has a pull top so it can be opened without a can opener.

If you are filling a pack for other people, keep in mind that many homeless people have trouble chewing due to poor dental health from a variety of causes. For this reason, I wouldn't pack anything hard like granola bars in a generic pack intended for random distribution.

16. A Watch or Travel Alarm

A wrist watch or travel alarm helps people get to work, interviews, and other appointments on time.

A watch is probably most practical as you can look at it at any point without pulling it out of your pack.

You can usually buy a cheap digital watch for around ten dollars. If you are lucky, you may find a functioning watch with a battery in a secondhand store for less.

If you already have a cell phone or intend to get one, check to see if it has an alarm and clock function before buying a watch.

17. Transportation

I'd suggest using public transportation, purchased in multi-use cards or tickets as they are cheaper per use than individual fares. For those who are physically able, adding a decent used bicycle will add flexibility to transportation options, and many city buses have racks to hold them so you can combine them with public transportation.

18. Showers and Keeping Clean

Now here's the difficult part. It's hard to stay clean when you are sleeping outside. It's difficult to shower often enough.

Lay down your tarp and put your bedding on it before lying down.

Wear the same clothes to sleep in for several nights. For work or interviews, change into clean clothes from your backpack. Don't sleep in your day clothes; roll them up neatly and store them in your pack to avoid getting them soiled or wrinkled.

When you go into a public restroom, grab some paper towels and wet them before going into the stall. You can do a little clean up in the stall with the wet towels. It works better to have a washcloth that you can store in a Ziploc type storage bag or other waterproof container.

If you find a bathroom with a locking door like a gas station bathroom, wash right at the sink as best you can. Use lots of soap and water and use a lot of antiperspirant after you dry your underarms. Never leave a mess behind because it will encourage business owners to lock their bathroom. Also it's basic courtesy.

Wet wipes are your best friend. While the kind that come a whole bunch in a pack are cheaper, the individually wrapped ones remove any concerns about their liquid evaporating or leaking all over your stuff. The individually wrapped ones fit easily into your pocket.

To get even more out of your antiperspirant, turn your shirts inside out and rub a bunch of antiperspirant into the cloth of the shirt everywhere your underarms might touch. That way, after the antiperspirant wears off of your body there will be a little bit of a backup on your clothes. When you get laundry access, pre-treat the underarm area of shirts and dresses by putting the soap on them and rubbing it in before washing. It will help you avoid underarm stains.

If you can find a truck stop that sells showers, you have hit cleanliness gold. You can buy a shower for several dollars at many truck stops.

What to Do With the Rest of Your Money

Save it.

If possible, put it in a bank account. If that isn't possible, buy traveler's checks or money orders made out to yourself. This will prevent people from stealing your hard-earned cash.

Do not spend any money on anything at all but necessities. This means no entertainment, no alcohol, no drugs, no single nights in motel rooms.

Be strong and think about the future. Save every penny you possibly can to get an apartment or to rent a room. Keep that room with a locking door in mind as your motivation.

What These Amazing People Did With This List: A Personal Note

I found this video about a $20 homeless backpack care kit because it had gone viral on the Internet and I clicked on it. You can not possibly imagine my surprise when I was watching it, not knowing I had anything to do with it, when, there on the screen, was my article. The authors fulfilled my fondest wish, not only because they are doing what I hoped people would do with the information, but because they've successfully popularized the idea in a way I could not. Many more people will be doing this and other things to help people in need. It fills my heart with joy!

These lovely people not only put this list into use but were gracious enough to say where they got the idea. Putting love into action makes us all greater for it.

    A very useful homeless backpack charity website inspired by the couple who claim to have been inspired by this article.

How You Can Use The Information on This Page to Help Homeless People

Please, if this page is useful to your mission to help homeless people, feel free to print it out to share. If you want to use it on the web, please link to this page instead of cutting and pasting it to use. Pasting it in big pieces may get it taken down by the host website and make this resource unavailable to others who find it through existing links on charity websites. Some charities and activists have plugged fairly big direct quotes into infographics programs to make images to use on their websites. I love it when they do that! Images with my words in them will not harm this page but I ask that you allow such images to be freely shared as I do not extend copyright permission for any kind of exclusive use.

Some soup kitchens have printed out a less detailed version to hand out, making a slightly edited version of the text available for people to read. Some churches have edited the information in this lens to add to church bulletins.

If you want to take it to a more personal level you could print off this page (or the parts you'd like to) and put it and as many of the items listed as is practical into backpacks to distribute to homeless people. For the clothing, many thrift stores either have gift certificates or credit vouchers one can buy to serve in its stead.

I have been delighted and humbled by the number of people asking me how they can use this information to help others.

photo by Sanja Gjenero,

photo by Sanja Gjenero,

What Purpose Does This Page Serve?

This is not just about ending homelessness, it is about understanding our obligations to each other as human beings. I'm a humanist and to me that means that the only help and hope we have as human beings necessarily comes from each other. I also believe that helping the less fortunate members of the family of humanity helps the helpers as well. It's like being a good parent, child, or sibling; it gives a person a sense of connectedness and strength.

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.

© 2009 Kylyssa Shay

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