Surviving Homelessness in Los Angeles

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I have never been homeless. However, for a few years, I followed a group of homeless people around, listened to their stories, tried to help them, and became involved in their lives. The best way to survive homelessness is to avoid it. Not everyone has that luxury.

If you are an alcoholic or drug addicted, get on the waiting list for any rehab program you can. Very little help is available, and you could be waiting for years. Don’t share needles; avoid drinking from bottles, cans or glasses other people have used.

Even basic medical care is very difficult to get. I knew a man with a broken knee who had to wait more than two years to get surgery for it. He just kept wrapping it with ace bandages until he could get help. By that time, atrophy had occurred, and the damage was worse. Another man was so malnourished that by the time he got the hernia surgery he needed, his overworked body simply gave up and he died on the operating table.

Learn which public bathrooms you can use. Many merchants don’t allow homeless people to use their restrooms. Some only allow short visits, not enough to clean up. It’s extremely difficult to stay clean when you are living on the street. I’ve found that OUT OF ORDER signs are often bogus, put there to avoid use by homeless folks. If you are in need of a restroom, experiment with this concept. It is illegal to relieve oneself outdoors, so a public restroom is a necessity.

Save napkins from fast food places. They make reasonable toilet paper or paper towels for overnight emergencies.
If you are in an unfamiliar part of town, the Salvation Army may help you locate a room and social services, and will help you find a relative. They know where the food banks are. Often, they can give vouchers for warm clothing or other necessities. They also have a free rehabilitation program.

Hide as well as you can, when you need to sleep outside. It’s very unsafe. Most homeless people will help each other, but there are others who are predatory. Also, there are people with homes who prey on homeless folks, particularly homeless women. If you are awake, you have a chance of avoiding these pitfalls, but  asleep, you are a sitting duck. If you have a partner, take turns watching out for trouble.When possible, stay awake at night and sleep in a park during the day.

If you can’t crash on a friend or relative’s couch, get a motel voucher or stay in a shelter, try to find a few large cardboard boxes. Flattened, they make concrete much more comfortable to sleep on. Keep your blankets dry and hidden, or with you, during the day. Settle in your spot after dark, and leave before dawn to avoid being seen.

If you have more than you need, sharing with another homeless person lightens your burden and could make a huge difference in the other person’s life. It is no guarantee that the person with whom you share will befriend you, but what goes around comes around. If you have more food than you can eat, it’s better to use it while it’s still fresh. Sometimes supermarkets will discard day-old baked goods, typically, early in the morning, and some don’t mind if you take what you can use. Keep a cooler full of ice in the summer if you can. It could keep you from getting sick.

Always keep a plastic bag handy for recyclables. Cans are better than bottles as they can be crushed and you’re unlikely to hurt yourself with them. Bottles are heavy and can be dangerous, but if that’s all you can find, they are better than nothing. Try to keep them unbroken. Find the best recycling deals within walking distance. They don’t let you carry huge bags of recyclables on the bus.

If you can get and keep a bicycle, it can be an enormous help. Tether it to your wrist when you sleep so you wake up if somebody messes with it. Most of the places you will need to go for food, General Relief, health care, will be distant from each other, and you may not have bus fare. Even if you do ride the bus, the nearest stop may still be a very long walk, and most buses have a bike rack on them.

Any money you get from General Relief won’t be enough to live on. You may have to borrow from friends or find other ways to live. Some homeless people use their GR money to maintain a storage space for belongings they can’t carry with them and a post office box. Having a p.o. box is better than having no address, and since most homeless folks don’t have relatives or friends who will save mail for them, it’s often the only way to stay connected to the rest of the world. If you are applying for jobs, then an address is a necessity. Sometimes potential employers will accept a post office box.

If you find a shelter with room for you, guard your belongings carefully; sleep with your head on your shoes and small valuables. Shower as often as they let you. There are not enough shelter spaces for the number of homeless people, and they are sometimes not your best choice. If you are part of a couple or family, you may be separated, as shelters tend to segregate by gender. There are shelters which are a scam: if they require you to  panhandle outside a store, or insist that you bring money or gifts before you are allowed to stay the night, it is not a real shelter and you should beware.

Often the food given to homeless people needs cooking, and homeless people have noplace to cook. Sometimes a group of people will get a few bricks and an old refrigerator rack and some charcoal to grill chicken, but they have to post someone as a look out, because it is illegal.

Noodles prepackaged in a cup are not healthy food, but most homeless people live on them from time to time, because some gas stations/mini marts have microwaves and will let you use them to cook your noodles. They are invariably the cheapest hot food you can get, and sometimes you really need something hot when you’ve been cold and damp for days. They can be “cooked” using hot water from a restroom tap, but they aren’t as hot or as well-done that way.

Wear layers. Especially in the spring and fall, the weather can vary from ferociously hot to uncomfortably cold in a matter of hours.

Pray. God has not forgotten you, though most churches will not let you in. There are a few that will give you food or let you attend services, so it doesn’t hurt to inquire, unless they call the police when you show up.

Unless you want to spend the night in jail, try to avoid the police. Jail is shelter, but the food is inadequate, and it is extremely unsafe.

Avoid being judgemental about other people’s problems; sometimes drug or alcohol problems developed after the person became homeless–despair is a powerful demotivator. Many people living from paycheck to paycheck now may be homeless later, and there are few safety nets in the world today. So be kind to each other. Try to see the good in people, however miserable their circumstances may have become.

Finally, a few quick tips and some links:

  • Check dumpsters for salvageable articles. You’d be surprised what people throw away!

  • If you need help, ask. It won’t always be forthcoming, but if you don’t ask, nobody will know.

  • Get on waiting lists for Section 8 housing or any other kind of shelter.

  • Get General Relief and food stamps.

  • Do everything you can to avoid depression. Depression kills!

  • Don’t eat anything you suspect may no longer be good. Better safe than sorry!

  • Try to find a group of people to stay with; it’s not a guarantee of safety, but it’s better than being alone.

  • Avoid drinking, drugs, smoking, etc. They will complicate your life enormously.

  • Don’t expect sympathy. People are so afraid of homelessness that they can’t see your humanity through their fear.

Health and Human Services in Los Angeles

The Salvation Army


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