This is the first in what is going to be a series of lists on surviving the streets. Living on the streets is not an easy thing – it can be as arduous as a full time job. Therefore it is essential that you carry only the most important things with you. Unlike a camping trip, you have to live light. You can’t carry a backpack with all your worldly goods – it is simply not practical. So, what do you need when living on the streets?
A sleeping bag – preferably one made of down because it is lightweight and very compact. This is the most vital piece of equipment you will need. You can either stash the bag, or carry it with you. Carrying it with you makes you more mobile because you can sleep wherever you end up. If you can’t get a good quality down bag, double bagging two poor quality ones will do the job (though definitely not as well).
Matting is also needed (preferably plastic and lightweight) – you must keep your sleeping bag off the ground away from the damp. If you can’t find or buy matting, at least make sure you put your sleeping bag on cardboard – putting it directly on the concrete will result in you feeling like you are sleeping on a block of ice. The cold can cause your back muscles to freeze up and numb and the result is that when you stretch in the night you can tear them – potentially leading to months of difficulty walking (and walking is what you need to be doing every day).
A backpack – consider keeping a smaller backpack for use during the day and a larger one that you can stash. You should keep in mind that some states in the US have “camping bans” which make it illegal to walk around the city with a large camping backpack. One homeless man was even refused service at Denny’s because they “do not serve people with backpacks” – clearly discrimination against the homeless – but you need to be aware of this. A small day backpack will spare you all of these problems.
You will need: soap, a toothbrush, razors, at the very least. These you should keep with you in your day backpack. It is also worth trying to score a mirror of some kind; just because you are living on the street doesn’t mean you can’t take care of your appearance – you will certainly find life easier when dealing with non-homeless people.
6. Useful Items
Some extra small items are very handy to have when you live on the street. For example, you will want a needle and thread to fix minor tears and loose buttons – this can save you a lot of trouble trying to find new clothes – especially in winter. You will also probably want a couple of pens or pencils (you never know when you might need these). It goes without saying that an essential item is a can opener – without one of these you limiting the types of food you can buy (and canned goods are often the cheapest). You will also want a pair of scissors which you can use for trimming your own hair, cutting your nails, and for any other task that may require the use of something sharp. A bottle opener and / or a corkscrew is also useful. And finally, a box of matches or a lighter is essential.
Most homeless people prefer to layer their clothes. This means you wear all of your various layers of clothes during the night, but as the day progresses, you can remove each layer successively. This allows you to keep cool when you need, and warm if it gets too cold. A good pair of leg warmers is recommended for wearing under your pants. In addition, you will need a good scarf and a hooded sweatshirt.
In summer you will need a baseball cap to protect you from the sun – this is essential to prevent you from suffering sun stroke and even potentially getting skin cancer from overexposure. It can also help to conceal a head of hair badly in need of a cut which can be very off-putting to people you may need to deal with. In winter you will need a good warm ski knit hat. A lot of the body’s heat escapes through the head, therefore this is one of the most important things you will need in winter.
You absolutely must have a good quality pair of shoes – especially in winter. If you have a hole in your shoe and your socks get wet, you will have a miserable few days with wet feet – this can, of course, lead to health problems that you want to avoid. If you do not have quality shoes, forget buying beer – use all the money you can muster to get good shoes without holes. Make sure you wear socks – shoes rubbing on the skin can cause lesions. One homeless guy in the local soup kitchen had been wearing dress shoes that were ill fitting without socks for months – his ankles were covered in festering sores which were being scraped by the shoes every time he walked. It was too late for him to do anything about it – don’t let this happen to you!
Plastic garbage bags are essential to life on the streets. They will be raincoats in winter, and protection from the sun in summer. You can use them to protect your matting from the wet ground. A tip for getting free bags: janitors in large buildings often keep spare bags under the garbage can for easy replacement when emptying. If you make sure you take just one or two per garbage can no one will notice and you will have a constant supply on hand. You will probably also want to keep a few smaller bags on hand just in case you have a need for them.
1. Miscellaneous extras
It is very important that you travel light – you want to keep your belongings to a minimum and the items above cover virtually everything you will need. Having said that, you should consider carrying a few other smaller items that can be invaluable. For example, priority mailing envelopes (free at the post office) are great for storing things and they are durable and water proof. You may also want to keep a bottle or two to store things like coffee. Forget things like flashlights – they are heavy, the batteries run out, and they show everyone exactly where you are – and you probably want to remain fairly anonymous and blend in on the streets.
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