I'm no stranger to homelessness. Sadly, so many people are too familiar with it these days. Battered women, families who've lost their income, men who've lost their jobs of 25 years and have searched until their unemployment has run out to no avail. The economy and the social situation in this country seem tailor made to result in homelessness.
In my case, it's merely red tape. I've been out of work as a result of chronic illness (Lupus) for years, and rely on my social security and housing grants to make ends meet, but this month I was faced with a clash between the apartment complex and the Housing Authority that threatened to leave me without shelter. As I went about making arrangements to be homeless, I realized that there were a number of things that could be done to minimize the impact of homelessness and make it more likely to be a temporary rather than chronic situation. For some, homelessness becomes a trap. I wasn't about to let it become a trap for me and my family.
How to Prepare for Homelessness
1. Sort through all your papers. Know what's really important: ID, legal records, school records, social security and insurance information top the list. There are also some publication-ready critiques I have taken out of my file cabinet (which is now empty) and into a small carry-file.
2. Sort through any possessions that have sentimental value. This one is harder for me. The last time I was without shelter, I at least had my car. Last time I was without shelter was when the girls and I moved from Buffalo to Florida in '03. Our car broke down a few weeks before the move, and we had to sort everything into three suitcases. I'm afraid we could be there again.
3. Figure out how much you can reasonably carry. There's a reason you see so many homeless with shopping carts. When I had a van, I was able to keep things like the TV, dishes, and small appliances. If I'm out on New Years Day, I won't have room for any of those things.
4. Which brings me to the next must: Maximize your carrying space. Rolling suitcases, small shopping/laundry carts and the like increase what you can save. It also makes it more tiring to carry and drag around.
5. Know where the motels, shelters, soup kitchens and food pantries are, and what you need to have/ do to get in. If you're looking for a shelter, call in advance to find out when they start to line up and if you need some sort of referral to get in. Also make sure that you know what ages and genders they take. Some places only take families, some only children, some only men, and so on. Try to plan around breaking up families... that part might be hard.
6. Have transportation. Get a monthly bus pass. Some agencies will provide them for the homeless. Sometimes, however, any money you get should go toward transportation. Having mobility means having choices.
7. Don't LOOK homeless. Looking homeless is looking vulnerable. If you look like you're shopping (or on vacation) by staying clean and fairly well dressed, you're less likely to be harassed or robbed, and it'll be easier to impress prospective landlords.
8. Put your money in a roof. Most landlords want to see you pay no more than 1/3 of your income in rent. Let's face it: Hotels cost a lot more than that, and so do most apartment homes in decent neighborhoods... at least if you're on Social Security. That doesn't mean YOU have to agree to that. I've paid 1/2 of my monthly income in rent before, and more than that on a few occasions. The thing is, if a landlord lets you in with that little income, he's more likely to be a slum lord type. If you're well-dressed and well-spoken, however, you can sometimes convince some of the nicer places to allow you to rent despite the risk.
9. Prepare to be homeless longer than you think. Stupid people think that being homeless means you live cheaper. Unfortunately that's not true. Hotels on cold nights when you can't get a place, or buying a tent or the like: those get expensive. Only people who have no income will lie under a bridge in below freezing weather. The rest of us spend most of our income keeping our kids warm and bathed. A sleazy hotel with the basics costs about $200- $250/week, almost twice the rent for a studio here. Saving money when you're homeless is a lot tougher than most people think.
10. Join a gym. OK, this sounds counter-intuitive. Some gyms have free short term memberships. Some insurance has free memberships included. Being a gym member means free hot showers and bathrooms.
11. Find a home for your animals. Pets don't do well on the road, although most homeless I know take better care of their dogs than they do themselves. Cats, birds, and other pets don't do as well on the streets as dogs might, and shelters don't take animals. Long term stay hotels may or may not take pets. Best to look forward if you're at risk for homelessness and find a good place for your pet in advance.
12. Find something to do besides sit on the street corner with a sign. (That will just get you arrested anyway). Volunteer. After all, you've got no where else to go, and doing something good for others will keep your mind off your own plight. It's also important to keep relationships with individuals. Humans are social animals, and being homeless can be isolating.
13. Pack mostly what you need NOW. That means you don't need to be using up valuable space in your cart or suitcase for that cute little swimsuit if it's January. You can worry about finding another cute little swimsuit in summer.
14. Keep your cell phone on. Communication is almost as important as shelter. You're going to find home searches a lot easier with a working phone. If you're looking for work, having a phone is vital. Go to a cheaper plan, or go to one of those local carriers if you have to, but keep the lines of communication open.
15. Remember to pack your self esteem. Being homeless can happen to anyone, especially in this economy. And yes, it's going to be crushing and painful and stressful and ugly. But if you go into it feeling defeated than you're beaten, and it'll be harder to get back up. Remember, you do NOT deserve this, and you're worth better. Keeping that in mind will help you get through this, and will be invaluable when it comes to negotiating homeless services or acquiring a new home.
More from living