Wednesday, June 24, 2009

So - You're About to Become Homeless

This is an old article I wrote for Real Change in the 90s. It's now very much out of date. I'm putting it here for the record.

So - You're About to Become Homeless....
or How to Hit the Street Feet-First Not Face-First.

Sometimes homelessness happens suddenly. Lightning strikes your house, it burns down, you weren't insured for lightning strikes, SURPRISE!

But usually there are Warning Signs. Say it's May 15, you have $200 to your name, you're an unemployed laborer, you just sprained your ankle dancing, the June rent is $400, and your friends are as broke as you are. You are quite likely to be homeless in four to six weeks, depending on how good your landlord's lawyer is.

If you've been homeless before, you should know it's time to get it together, and know how. This article is meant for all you first-timers who don't have a clue.

To become homeless gracefully you need to convert your assets to resources accessible from your new "residence" - losing as little as possible - and learn to take advantage of opportunities for the poor and homeless that may be new to you.

Let's begin with what you already have.


The houseless and apartmentless don't have to be stuffless. You need stuff to maintain your sense of identity, to have things to sell later, to prove who you are and what you are entitled to, to maintain yourself daily, etc. You need to put it somewhere.

For the non-day-to-day stuff a good solution is the commercial storage space. Monthly rents are affordable even for the very poor, provided you shop around a little. Usually, the harder the place is to get to, the lower the rent. So don't plan to be visiting your stuff on a regular basis. You can try to wrangle storage space from people you know, but *if you don't pay them, expect an interpersonal cost.* As you will see, this last comment in asterisks has wider applications to your new life- style.

Items that should go into storage are everything that fits that you don't need daily (see below) PLUS copies of ALL legal, financial, and medical records and any other documents you can't bear to lose. Sell the big items that don't fit. Be especially sure to store copies of your ID, social security card, and birth certificate. Loss of ID on the streets is frequent and without backup can be disastrous.

Don't max out your checking account thinking that no one will take a check from a homeless person. Of course they will. Pay your storage fees promptly by mail, with checks or money orders. Checks are cheaper.

Next we come to the day-to-day stuff. There are places in this city where you can find lockers, even some free ones. Unfortunately, I am not allowed to tell you about them, because they aren't intended for you. Exception: there are some inexpensive lockers provided by SHARE located at the Josephinum, 1902 2nd Ave., 2nd floor. For the others keep your eyes open, and try to think, where would lockers be?

This brings us to the debate over the relative merits of backpacks, bags, carts, etc. This is a matter of personal preference and physical ability. Carts and large backpacks mark you, but do what you want or must. My preference was a small backpack for small items and a large but lightly packed bag for clothes and bedding - this gave me a little flexibility if I scored a place to stash the bag. Cheap collapsible carts are available which, being collapsible, are also easy to stash.

What should you carry with you? It depends on who you are. Here's a list of suggestions some of which won't apply to you:

Toothbrush, toothpaste, first-aid kit including scissors and tweezers, penknife, spoon, fork, bowl, can-opener, razors, feminine hygiene products, needed over the counter meds - e.g. antihistamines, ear plugs, plenty of socks, spare underwear, a miniature bottle of shampoo, mace and a whistle, spare shoes, soap and deodorant, a hand mirror, matches, sleeping bag, a warm blanket, spare set of clothes, warm overcoat, hooded parka, work boots, light-weight rain gear, pen and paper, a towel.

For urban street life you shouldn't need a tent or camp stove. Even if you don't get in a shelter, there is plenty of cover from wind and rain in the city. And there are lots of ways to get hot food without having to cook it yourself, or pay for it. You won't starve. Don't haul too many books. Use the libraries instead. Another class of items to carry are what I call sanity-savers. A Walkman and a handful of cool tapes would fall into this category. Without it you are at the mercy of Muzak. One guy I know got himself a pocket shortwave radio. He preferred talk to music. Another one had a Game-Boy. If you like chess, pack a chess set. Very popular: a blank book.

Of course if you have wheels hang on to them as long as possible. There's your storage (or most of it), your shelter, and your locker all in one portable unit. Don't forget to park on alternate sides of the street in residential areas where posted etc. Be discrete - passers-by may report you as a dead body in a car - bringing the police and hassles. As with lockers I can't tell you the best places to park, you'll have to use your imagination. Take extra care not to get towed.

Have children? Don't forget to bring them along. We don't need to inspire a "Home Alone III".


Your most important of these are friends and family, if any. Start now kissing up to them. You may land couch- or floor-space. Even if only temporary, this can buy time to improve your situation. I once even PAID an ex-girlfriend $160 for 6 weeks of couch-space. By the end of that time another friend agreed to let me take over his room without having to pay him his deposit. As a result, in nearly two months of being technically homeless, I only spent three days with no place to crash. These things only happen to people who HAVE friends.

Also important are your ties to the rest of the community and the world. Right now you may be so embarrassed by your poverty that you wish you could drop off the planet and never be seen or heard from again. RESIST SUCH THOUGHTS WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH AND WILL! Isolation is your worst enemy.

You will need ways to get mail and phone messages. Regarding mail I recommend a commercial mailbox service. Find one in the area you expect to be hanging, rent a box now, and have the Post Office start forwarding your mail there immediately. Send Change of Address Notices to everyone you know including your bank, your lawyer (if you have one), and even to people you aren't particularly fond of, e.g. ex-spouses or adult children you've disowned. My own worse bout of homelessness ended after I inherited $2,000. The check came to my ex-wife who might have torn it up, except that the divorce settlement entitled her to half. So she was motivated to get it to me. I only got my half, but half was all I needed. If I had not let her know how to reach me, I might still be on the streets today, more than ten years later.

PO boxes are much cheaper than commercial mailboxes but can't be used as legal addresses for some purposes. Cheapest still (free) is to tell everyone on your mailing list to write to you General Delivery at your local Post Office. You'll get your mail but no credit for having an address at all. You won't be able to get Food Stamps, register to vote, get GAU or social security benefits, new ID when old expires, or even a library card.

There are a variety of phone message options. You can subscribe to message services providing voice-mail that cost about what your basic home service has been costing you. Or you can rent a pager. When considering a pager, add in the cost of replying to frivolous calls from pay phones. The pager will be more expensive but worth it if it can snag income. Weigh the chances.

The latest rage in homeless empowerment is the e-mail account. The Seattle Community Network, 365-4528, offers free accounts. Additional services come with a low-cost Speakeasy account (see their ad, page ). You can access these at the Speakeasy or with your library card at a public library. By the way, you don't need an account to just access the internet. Consult your librarian.

You should at all costs maintain all your current ties to humanity. If you are in therapy, group therapy, in an AA group, or any other support group, stay there if you can. Continue attending church if you do, clubs, and political groups. Don't think that you have nothing to contribute just because you are now homeless. You will not be an outcast unless you make yourself one.

Speaking of nonmaterial resources: if you like sex I advise you to get laid as often as possible between now and your eviction, even if your partner is going to be homeless with you. You may only have the memories for awhile.

NEW (?) OPPORTUNITIES, an introduction.


I've met millionaires at soup kitchens. They don't do an income check at the door. Therefore it would be presumptive of me to assume that you have never been to one. But if you haven't, now is the perfect time to check them out. BEFORE you lose your home. The money you save now on food will help you pay the expenses of storage and mail and phone services described above, thereby stretching your limited reserves, and you will lose your fear of starvation, relieving you of a mountain of anxiety.

Remember what I said? *If you don't pay them, expect an interpersonal cost*. You have also heard it put this way: "There's no such thing as a free lunch." True but some are more free than others. So - you have to wait in line. So - you have to listen to the sermon. So - figure you're getting paid a lunch in return for an hour's work, consisting of waiting and listening. And you don't even have to listen if, like me, you bring ear plugs. So - quit bitching and enjoy the relatively free food. And be proud, telling yourself, "I've earned this!"

And where are these soup kitchens ("community meals" to the people who run them)? See the White Page's table of contents. Look up Community Service Numbers. My copy says go to pages 2 and 3. Look there for the heading "Food". Call the numbers you see and tell whoever answers where you are. If you are in Seattle and don't have a phone book handy try 723-0647. This gets you the Church Council of Greater Seattle's Emergency Feeding Program. They can help you get food for specific dietary needs, as well as refer you to hot meals.

Also ask for the address and hours of a food bank in your zipcode. Register with them now while you still have a home. Bring ID and proof of residence. They may ask if you have cooking facilities. If you wait to register when you are homeless saying yes with a straight face may be hard.

You may already know where to apply for Food Stamps. If not, go to the "Community Service Office" for your zipcode. It's one of my pet peeves that it's found that way in the Blue Pages of the White Pages, in the Washington State listings. YOU call it the Welfare Office, I call it the Welfare Office, THEY call it the CSO and expect us to know that, even if we've never been there before. Plan to spend an afternoon applying. Bring documentation: Who are you? How much do you earn? What is your ADDRESS? What do you pay in rent and utilities?

At the CSO you can also apply for GAU (General Assistance for the Unemployable). You may be eligible without knowing it, so I'd apply unless I was employed full-time. While there ask about DVR (the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation) if you are interested in getting help overcoming whatever unemployability you might have.

Much of the information here is readily available on the internet. If you have access to the internet, say if you have a library card, try this: First get to Telnet. Then at the prompt enter: o Follow instructions to login, and wade through SCN's flood of welcoming information. Then at the main menu enter: go crisis. Choose "Food and Housing Services" from the menu. See what you get.


In King County call 461-3200. Elsewhere see the Community Service Numbers again, under Emergency Shelters.

One problem here: for now there is no such thing as a shelter that offers beds for night-workers during the day. So if you have a night job consider putting in for the day-shift.

MORE STUFF: clothing, etc.

Look up "Thrift Stores" in the Yellow Pages.

Baby supplies, clothing, and toys are available at low prices at the Josephinum 1902 2nd Ave., 2nd floor.

The Millionair's Club Thrift Store Annex at 2137 2nd Avenue has free racks of clothes ("some limitations may apply"). You may want to stop first at 2515 Western, their main office, MWF 7am-8:30am or 2:45pm-3:15pm for vouchers to obtain certain items not on the free racks, like underwear and socks. Warning: The Thrift Store closes mid-afternoon.


Go back to the Community Service Numbers. This time look up Health Care Resources, respectively Child Care Resources. Call ahead to determine eligibility, costs if any, drop-in periods.


You can join homeless advocacy groups like SHARE, WHEEL (for women), the Seattle Displacement Coalition, etc. for company and a sense of purpose.

Here is a short list of places in Seattle to be during the day:

Public Libraries.
Angeline's YWCA (for women), 2025 3RD Ave.
First Avenue Service Center NOT on First but Third: 2015 3rd Ave.
Pike Market Senior Center, 1931 1st Ave.
Various parks in good weather.
The Seattle Center.
The University of Washington (but don't try to sleep there).
The StreetLife Gallery, 2301 2nd Ave., 328-5637. (You'll be expected to actually work on art and help with cleaning).
YMCA, YWCA - to exercise, swim, at low cost, 382-5010, 461-4868, resp.
Community Psychiatric Clinic has places to hang-out if you have a mental disability, as well as counseling services and meals. 461-3614.

Hanging-out in Downtown Seattle has the advantage that it is in the Free Ride Zone - free bus transportation within during the day.

This has only been an introduction to the sorts of opportunities available to the poor and/or homeless. Every service that you take advantage of will be able to tell you about ten more, so carry pad and pen with you. You will find out about low-income housing. You will learn what "Section 8" means. You will meet other people in similar situations who will be able to give you more information. Like maybe where those free lockers are, or how to dumpster-dive and why, or what corners are best to sell the Real Change, or where to land odd-jobs.

The streets are full of sad, lonely, embittered people. Most were not like that before they got there. They got that way because they didn't know all the ways that they could preserve their property, health, security and sanity. If you do, it won't happen to you.

To conclude on a lighter note, I'd like to borrow some excellent and pertinent words of wisdom from Douglas Adam's "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" (which, by the by, sells rather better than the "Encyclopedia Galactica"):


And: Be hoopy, be a frood - always know where your towel is.