HOMELESS: What We Can Learn About Survival from Life on the Streets

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by Fabian Ommar

People living in cities are used to a broad net of safety, convenience, and comfort. 60% (on average) of the world population, according to recent estimates, live in cities. More in developed/developing nations (around 80%, as in the U.S.) and less in poorer ones (30 to 40%). 

Cities provide a high level of stability and predictability. Cities also offer freedom, jobs, and a great variety of consumables, education, culture, and entertainment. This concentration of people, infrastructure, goods, services, and activities allows society’s fast advancement, the economy’s growth, and technology development.

Life within The Grid

We preppers and survivalists call this “The Grid.” It encompasses everything we see and use in civilization: plentiful, readily available food and clean water; transportation and communication; light, shelter, sanitation, climate control; law and order; hospitals, schools, stores, offices. All run by energy that seems to flow like magic.

Over the long term, comfort and convenience can be addictive and make us dependent.

We take it for granted and forget how to live without those things. We become soft, compliant, complacent, and alienated by the culture of convenience. If you’re a prepper or want to become one, you know it’s important to aim instead for awareness, resiliency, and independence.

I understand that most of us are busy trying to make ends meet. Even with everything The Grid provides, it can be a lifestyle of more struggle, insecurity, indignity, and danger. We must accept, even be grateful, that things are as they are. It’s OK to take advantage and enjoy what cities and The Grid can provide. No one should feel guilty for that. But that shouldn’t prevent us from being conscious about the fragilities of this system, either. 

Beyond local and regional threats, there is always the possibility of a global crisis.

Just look at what has happened to the economy, freedom, and much more due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Everything is deeply interconnected and interdependent. It is a fragile arrangement by nature. It’s also important to understand that humans respond to abundance and scarcity in the same ways everywhere.

There are a few reasons why economic and financial breakdowns are cyclical and recurrent throughout history. Since everything is based on the production, exchange, and consumption of goods and services, disturbances in this structure affect everything else, all the way to social order. And sure enough, geopolitical stability.

When the crisis of 2008 struck, I worried about a more severe SHTF

In many ways, and to a significant number of people everywhere, 2008 was S hitting the fan. Millions lost jobs, houses, savings. Businesses closed, banks crashed. Many ended up in the streets. 

Seeing all that (and having been knocked down myself), I had a wake-up call and decided to become more knowledgeable about the economy, the banking and production systems. I learned then the system hadn’t been fixed and could fail again. Maybe even taking down the grid, with far-reaching repercussions and possible implications for my family and me. 

It was also around that time that I took an interest in prepping and survivalism. I’ve always been into outdoor and other activities linked to those disciplines. Admittedly not in a structured or intended manner, only for sport and hobby. Since then, I’ve been working to cover as much as one reasonably can.

Being a city dweller, I figured becoming more street-smart and city-tough could be helpful.

I looked around and set out to learn how those who lived outside the grid did so. The people on the margins of society, albeit existing in the middle of it. The homeless, or those with no job, no credit score, no bank account, no place to go, no name, and no face.

The system provides them some protection and support. For the homeless, the big city can be as inhospitable, unhealthy, and dangerous as the wilderness.  Being homeless is being a survivor.

There is an explosion of homelessness in many U.S. cities and globally.

As tent cities boom and become a fixture in the landscape, homelessness takes the spotlight. The way things look, this problem is set to become worse as the economy falls apart. Even if we don’t foresee homelessness in our own future (and I hope no one does), it’s certainly in the cards for many around us due to the worsening situation.

I pray for things to improve. But realistically, fixing a crumbling economy and reinstating growth is much more challenging and takes a lot longer than destroying it. So even if the pandemic wanes and things start to improve again, homelessness will be prevalent for some time ahead. Society as a whole will have to deal with this problem in one way or another.

Daisy asked me to share my experiences being around the homeless

When Daisy heard about my book, Street Survivalism: A Practical Training Guide to Life on the Streets, she asked if I would share some of my experiences here.

I’ll start by saying right away: being in the streets is a shock.

How much depends on how accustomed one is to living in the home-office-mall-gym bubble and how distant from the streets one is. I’m not criticizing, just giving my testimony because that’s the reality, and it’s knocking on our doors.

Even those with a less protected lifestyle, the ones born and raised in rougher neighborhoods, or those used to the streets (by force of work or some other motive), entering the homeless world is still an impacting experience. 

It’s hard to fathom the level of hardship, fear, insecurity, discomfort, and indifference. You have to be out there, dealing with it all directly and frequently. I’ve been doing this in a controlled manner as training for some time now. It still worries, shocks, and saddens me.

Here’s what I learned about homelessness.

Living in the streets leads to physical, psychological, and moral degenerance.

Without the protection and conveniences afforded by a fixed roof and ideal conditions, we enter a world where very little is certain. Nutrition, hygiene, and personal safety suffer, affecting mental and emotional stability in various degrees. 

As with most situations, though, there are options. It’s a significant drop in the standard of living for sure. But maintaining an adequate level of dignity and integrity is still possible. The division between staying decent, healthy, and relatively safe or sliding down into total degeneration lies in the individual capacity to stay away from drugs, alcohol, and crime. 

It’s a decision one must consciously and deliberately make and stick to every single day. I know this to be true and deem that choice essential, especially for a prepper who would want to become a survivalist if facing a similar situation.

It takes principles, mental strength, and resolution to remain clean, healthy, and sane. And a LOT of work.

And I say with absolute conviction that it’s much preferable, too. One way is hell; the other is salvation. There’s no middle ground, at least not one I could discern. I came across decent and clean homeless and miserable ones in various stages. 

Unfortunately, the latter is a lot more common. Alcohol and drugs are readily available, and crime is frequently the way to access those. Most of the time, living in the streets is so hopeless that the majority end up resorting to vices and violence at some point as desperate ways to abstract or escape this harsh reality and degrading existence (I don’t call that survival).

People turn one way or another for varying reasons. Just as for the reasons why someone becomes homeless, this is a vast and complex issue, with deep, strong personal and contextual components. There’s no point judging. Each person has a background, tolerance, and threshold. We never know for sure until tested.  

Trying to understand or discuss these things is beyond the scope of this post. I’m only laying down the facts, so you can reflect and make your own decisions. Doing so can be useful and provide a perspective on life in general.

Who you choose as company on the streets affects your ability to stay safe, clean, and sane.

Living in desperation, violence, and drugs is a sure way to attract more of the same. It also drives family, people, and support away, to further isolate oneself. It’s a path to degeneracy, lots of pain, suffering, and, more often than not, premature death.

And vice-versa: by staying away from the bad apples, many homeless remain clean, healthy, and safe. Some even improve despite living in the same environment and similar circumstances. They get a lot more help, goodwill, and better chances. Being around decent people leads to mutual support, productivity, and hope that luck may turn one day. Indeed, many succeed in leaving the streets.

Practical lessons from life on the streets

Below are the more practical aspects of life in the streets.

Safety: The streets of any big city are essentially unsafe. Of course, there are exceptions, but that’s the rule. Either way, the homeless must fend for themselves. That means avoiding (preferably) or fighting off threats. Other homeless, drug addicts, and thugs try to rob them. Dealers attempt to sell drugs to them. There are even sociopaths who attack defenseless people just for fun. Harassment and abuse by the police are routine too.

To survive the streets, one must: 

  • Recognize who to fear, who to respect, who to ignore, and who to fight (Check out this book review.)
  • Know about the areas, how things run, the rules of each place
  • Realize cities are not homogenous, and the street can be unforgiving Know mistakes come at a price or an unpleasant lesson (or worse)

Some homeless form groups for protection but mostly to consume crack and commit crimes. They can become “assets” to some drug or crime lord or gang, to whom they perform small jobs and misdemeanors as payment for drugs, protection, or other stuff. If you live in the streets, they may want you either working for them or staying out of their turf. It’s a dead-end, of course. It is better to remain distant. (See this article by Selco for related information.)

Social interaction: The homeless are either invisible (ignored completely) or unwelcome (mistreated, kept at a distance by private security, the police, or other people). As a rule, no one wants homeless, panhandlers, beggars, or any street person around. 

But how one gets treated depends in great part on where one is (territory) and one’s aspect (appearance) and behavior. People judge by what they see. It varies according to the place and people. 

Generally, if people think a person is clean, does not represent a threat, or won’t cause trouble, they may leave him/her alone (or not – things in the street are fluid). If someone looks like a drug addict or a criminal, they’ll shun, yell at, kick-off, or call the cops. Many homeless manage to be both clean and gray man (or woman), and I found that to be a good strategy.

Sanitation: Once you start living in the streets, you quickly realize how dirty and smelly it is. There’s rain, pollution, trash, dirt, all the time and everywhere. It’s impossible to keep insects and animals away. Roaches, mosquitoes, and bugs, in general, are hell (if you do any outdoor activity, you know what I mean). But the feeling of a rat walking on, or even near you, makes you tremble. 

Living in the streets doesn’t exempt us from doing our physiological necessities. Drug addicts don’t care and do it anywhere: abandoned lots and buildings, parks, under bridges, overpasses, whenever there’s a moment of privacy (or not, they often don’t care at all). Decent homeless will find access to toilets, private or public, and develop routines and techniques to deal with this in more dignified manners.

Plastic bags are a staple of the homeless. Homeless use them for everything, and yes, even to do #2. Toilet paper is a luxury, and there are lots of alternatives around, some more or less pleasant and efficient. Many collect napkins and tissues in restaurants and bars. Compressed towels and baby wipes are two preppers’ options (practical yet also luxurious).

Hygiene: It’s hard to keep hygiene on par when you have no privacy and no clean, running water and decent sanitation around. But it’s not impossible – and doing so is of utmost importance, for obvious reasons. The homeless have their techniques for this, and campers/outdoor/rural people may know a few as well. If the grid is up (not total SHTF), it is possible to find water and public restrooms in good order.

Again, the decent and clean may count on the local community’s goodwill and support and people in general. I’ve met homeless who take daily showers; who manage to shave, wash their clothes, and stay sharp. As a tip, smelling good goes a long way in keeping other people happy and receptive, so many keep a perfume in the pocket.

Health: Nutrition, sanitation, and hygiene impact health. When you’re a clean homeless, a good portion of the days can be dedicated to maintaining these essential aspects. 

That and all the rest leave little time and energy (both mental and physical) to care for non-essential things. But attending to health is crucial to conserve immunity and be as healthy as possible by staying clean, rested, fed, and hydrated. 

Getting cold, wet, or hurt should be avoided. Same for rotten food and suspect water. That can be hard to achieve, but efforts must be made anyway. Maintaining basic hygiene helps a lot too. A simple and straightforward measure that makes a huge difference is caring for the teeth. It’s not something complicated or expensive, even for the homeless. A healthy mouth makes a hell of a difference when one is living in the streets.

Shelter: Unlike the wilderness, shelter is abundant in the city. That doesn’t mean it’s available. Very little in The Grid is within reach of the homeless and the poor. Thus it’s not easy to find a decent and safe place to sleep, cook a meal or even get some rest. Others will assume bad intentions 99% of the time.

But as homelessness grows, I see it becoming more common, or even tolerated, here and in the U.S. People will either move elsewhere or hunker down as authorities become more lenient and less capable of dealing with the increasing number of people in the streets. As a sign of the times, the homeless can’t even be called homeless anymore in some states.

I’ve tried many tactics as protection from the elements: camping tents (very common nowadays), cardboard for insulation (the traditional homeless way), even my hammock and tarp (prepper tip: always have a tarp with you). I’ve slept in city shelters and my car, looking to learn and improve my safety and awareness in those circumstances. It’s always good to have different options.

Food and water: If the grid is up, there are various ways to get food and decent water around the city. Most have helping organizations giving out food and donating clothes and remedies. Potable water can be found at gas stations, public and commercial buildings, and others. 

The homeless usually keep plastic bottles and gallons at hand, continually collecting water for their daily needs. Most people won’t deny water or food unless one is seen as a threat. That’s another good reason to stay clean.

Other: Scavenging is a big thing in the streets. So is bartering and even foraging (fruits and berries mostly). Of course, that’s considering the grid is up and things are relatively normal. We should assume SHTF will change these dynamics and impact the availability of every resource. 

I can get meals and other goods in exchange for minor work at various places, like restaurants and even hospitals. That proved a lot more successful than just asking for a handout. I manage to score quick gigs and jobs that way too, which shows the importance of having skills (and good communication) if you’re homeless. There’s always work and something to be done in the world, even as jobs become scarce.

As for scavenging, it’s widespread. The drug addicts and lost souls do it to get food. They drink and eat whatever is at hand (or nothing at all, if they’re looking for a fix or high on crack). The clean and straight do it to get stuff people threw away that is still useable. Or as a way of living, by collecting and selling recyclables. I scavenged to learn and become used to the smell and the trash and even evade thugs once (they assumed since I was turning bins, I had nothing of value and wasn’t worth the trouble).

Conclusion

I don’t want to make light of the life of the homeless. As I tried to show, the conditions are, for the most part, brutal and indignant. It’s a sad, unhealthy lifestyle, and no one should live like that. Unfortunately, that’s how the world is. As much as we have advanced technologically and as a civilization, that is still a reality in our society.

On a brighter note, it is possible to live decently as a homeless. And being pragmatic, if things turn rough everywhere, the homeless may be better equipped to compete and survive than the rest of the population who depend on the grid. 

With training and education, anyone can better prepare for almost anything. Those are some of the reasons I decided to start this exercise and get to know this reality. As I say, training to be homeless is training to be a survivalist

I hope this article and my observations help others in some way

Have you been homeless? Do you know someone who is currently homeless? Have you ever wondered what it would be like? Share your thoughts and questions with us in the comments below. 

About Fabian

Fabian Ommar is a 50-year-old middle-class worker living in São Paulo, Brazil. Far from being the super-tactical or highly trained military survivor type, he is the average joe who since his youth has been involved with self-reliance and outdoor activities and the practical side of balancing life between a big city and rural/wilderness settings. Since the 2008 world economic crisis, he has been training and helping others in his area to become better prepared for the “constant, slow-burning SHTF” of living in a 3rd world country.

Fabian’s ebook, Street Survivalism: A Practical Training Guide To Life In The City, is a practical training method for common city dwellers based on the lifestyle of the homeless (real-life survivors) to be more psychologically, mentally, and physically prepared to deal with the harsh reality of the streets during normal or difficult times. 

You can follow Fabian on Instagram @stoicsurvivor

HOMELESS: What We Can Learn About Survival from Life on the Streets
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