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Still Waters

I used to run a low-barrier homeless shelter. While I’ve never been homeless, I know a great deal about what my guys did to survive. I’m not going to go over anything already listed, but here’s a couple additional things.

Concealment is key. If people see you trying to sleep in public you’re going to have trouble. Parking ramp stairwells were really popular, particularly the very bottom where you could go around behind the stairs and be well hidden in that little nook. Those who had cars would park in casino parking ramps and sleep. They were always open and never charged for parking. Also, behind shopping centers and big box stores you could find makeshift camps.

In this area these stores often butt up against large wooded areas and provide a lot of dumpsters for scavenging outdated food and other items such as cardboard, pallets, plastic sheeting, etc. The camps were known about by the guys as word passed on the street, but largely unknown to anyone else, even the employees at the store. If you’re trying to find a camp, look for garbage. Lots of empty bottles of mouthwash are a dead giveaway, as are lots of whole animal skeletons.

Always keep something between you and the ground for warmth. Just one layer of cardboard will make a big difference.

Grab every pair of socks someone offers you. They can warm your feet, your hands, put one inside another to filter water, be rolled up and stuffed in your shirt or jacket for warmth and cushion, be used to carry things, and become a makeshift weapon with a rock inside it.

Food. In the camps, the guys would take whatever had been hit by the side of the road. Deer, dog, etc. I even found a goose skeleton at one of the camps. Don’t know exactly how they got that one. One thing I noticed though is that while most of the longer term homeless guys had a knife of some kind, no one had one good enough to actually butcher an animal. That’s why when we looked for camps we looked for whole skeletons. The guys wouldn’t waste time cleaning and butchering it. They just cut the meat from the bones and cooked it, whereas animals would have ripped the bones apart.

Never enter a camp at night if you haven’t been there before and aren’t known to the residents. If you want to join a camp, go in the daylight, make a lot of noise when walking up, and bring something to share to make friends right away.

Items most wanted for trading were tobacco, soap and razors. Not just any soap, but Irish Spring soap. That stuff was like gold on the street. Pure luxury. Go figure.

Surviving the system… Well, the system is f’ed up. I’ve worked in non-profit for 15 years, in several different areas. Most areas work together with other agencies. Homeless services is the ONLY one I ever encountered in which agencies directly compete with each other instead of working together to fix the damn problem.

I can tell you that in the US, the federal government is devoting more funds to preventing homelessness than solving it. That means if you’re struggling to pay your rent and keep the lights on, you’re more likely to receive help than if you’re already homeless. Don’t wait until you’re being evicted to seek help.

Those of us who have worked in this more than 6 months can tell when your story is fake. If you give a fake story, you’ll get a half-hearted attempt at connecting you with services that really won’t do you any good anyway. When you’re honest about your situation and sincere, we’ll fight for you, even though half the time the help we’d like to give you probably isn’t available due to budget cuts and ignorant suits who’ve never been within 10 feet of a homeless person making the rules.

If you need a homeless shelter, try to find a low-barrier shelter. These are usually staffed by people who have personal experiences with homelessness, addiction, mental illness, prison, etc. Also, they’re more likely to treat you like an adult and get you meaningful help.

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