Homelessness how-to?
January 15, 2008 6:57 AM   Subscribe

How to be homeless? Yes, step one, lack a home. Then what?

I'm a young, healthy guy in my early 20s who has so far lived an uneventful, sheltered life. I'm thinking about willingly forgoing my apartment/job/life, moving to a new city, and living on the streets. (I know this profoundly unwise, that's part of the idea.)

Essentially, I want to learn how to be homeless. What are some useful strategies? Tips? Tricks? What should I "take with me" when I go? What should I look like? How can I fit in with a young homeless population (refuge in numbers)? What city should I move to? Etc.

I also seem to recall seeing on the internet at one point a .pdf guidebook about homeless living.

Unless you have a shocking statistic like, "95% of all homeless people are eaten by dung beetles," I'm not looking to be told this is a bad idea; I know the risks, and I know I'm naïve. Please don't try to persuade me not to do something -- the question is "How?" not "Should I?" So. How?

(Email: anonmefi12008@yahoo.com)
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (76 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
To a person, every homeless guy I know (and I know quite a few) avoids shelters as too dangerous and thick with thieves.

Give a read to Down and Out in Paris and London for a mid-century account of a similar experiment by Orwell.
posted by OmieWise at 7:06 AM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

A number of religious groups have run long or short term homeless retreats, where you go homeless for a while. They might have some useful information for you, on the goolge. You could try interacting with the homeless in some way (soup kitchen, outreach) and carefully ask a few questions.

Knowing you have a family, college education, majority social status, good health, no mental health issues might skew the results of your experiment.
posted by shothotbot at 7:06 AM on January 15, 2008 [6 favorites]

Are you locked in to one city? If not, consider going on a hitchhiking tour of the US. This will broaden your perspective quite a bit in terms of what life in the US is like. You'll meet all sorts of different people and you'll experience a life that is quite different from the norm.

Warmth is a factor. A southern state during this time of year is a plus.

Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book is worthless these days, sadly.
posted by waraw at 7:12 AM on January 15, 2008

You don't know the risks, and you don't know the risks because you are admittedly naive and sheltered. As a social worker who works in homeless services, I can tell you that the risks include but are not limited to your being physically and sexually assaulted on a regular and ongoing basis. This is an eventuality, not a probability. I hope you at least find your romaticized fantasy of street living to be entertaining right up until the first time you get your jaw busted over a pair of sneakers, a blanket or a handful of change. Hopefully that experience will be somehow meaningful to you, and won't discourage you on your grand journey.

Good luck.
posted by The Straightener at 7:12 AM on January 15, 2008 [58 favorites]

What the Straightener said. Having once been homeless for a (thankfully) short time, it is very, very sucky. You want tips should you decide to make this fantasy reality? Make gay friends of the opposite sex and offer to do their cooking and cleaning. Find libraries and sleep in them. Always carry ID because you will be stopped by the cops. Avoid alcohol, shelters, and getting in strangers' cars.
posted by methylsalicylate at 7:18 AM on January 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

These are facts that I would like you to consider before you do this:

From 1999 through 2006, there have been 614 acts of violence by housed people, resulting in 189 murders of homeless people and 425 victims of non-lethal violence in 200 cities from 44 states and Puerto Rico. Hate Crimes and Violence against People Experiencing Homelessness.

The 2006 United States Conference of Mayors “Hunger and Homelessness Survey” reports that approximately 26% of the homeless population is dealing with issues of substance abuse. Addiction Disorders and Homelessness.

Homelessness severely impacts health and well-being. The rates of acute health problems are extremely high among people experiencing homelessness. Health Care and Homelessness.

Studies indicate that the prevalence of HIV among homeless people is between 3%-20%, with some subgroups having much higher burdens of disease. HIV/AIDS and Homelessness.

But this is the most important thing for you to know:

An estimated 29% of requests for shelter by homeless families were denied in 2006 due to lack of resources. Domestic Violence and Homelessness.

So if you do this, if you choose to be homeless, stay away from shelters and assistance programs, because there is not enough to go around for the people who have no choice, and they don't need to be denied services because someone like you is getting help that they actually need.
posted by ND¢ at 7:25 AM on January 15, 2008 [15 favorites]

I know people who have done this. It was sort of a craze with the crusty punk types in Seattle when I lived there. While I'll respect your right to not be talked out of it, I think a lot of your choices and decisions will be determined from where you decide to do this and what your long range plan is. So, for example, being a beach bum someplace is a lot different from sleeping under a bridge in Seattle.

You will have to be concerned about

- your person, keeping it safe and clean, warm and dry
- your things, keeping them unmolested and with you at all times, securely locked up or well-hidden
- your identity, being contactable and potentially futurely employable or having an escape plan if this doesn't work out

So you don't say if you're going to be doing this with zero cash and "winging it" or if you can actually plan and prepare. You might want to actually go watch the movie Sullivan's Travels (sort of an odd precursor to Oh Brother Where Art Thou) where a rich studio guy decides to go live among the poor to learn about life. It's a little tough to watch because of its aggressive populist message and the eager naivete of the protagonist, but you might enjoy it.

So, you'll need a way to get mail and phone calls, unless you're really dropping out in which case you might want to think hard about how you'll drop back IN again if this is not for you. You'll want a public library card so you can get online at the library and have a clean bathroom to use. You'll want a locker or someplace to store or lock up your stuff. These are, of course, mostly illegal after 9/11 so you may just need to find a hiding place for your things and hope you are better at finding it than other people. You'll want to figure out where your local hygeine center is so you can take showers, or have a friend you can visit occasionally for this purpose. Again depending on where you are, many public accomodations (libraries, bus stations, etc) are okay for taking little stand up sponge baths, but in some cases you can be arrested for this. Learn where the local heath clinic is that gives out free condoms and phsych care to homeless youth. I know Seattle had one.

Being arrested is a big deal actually. You get taken away from your stuff and your people and sometimes you're charged money you don't have just to be free again. If you haven't chosen a place yet, look towards ones with lax public vagrancy laws. Of course, places with lax public vagrancy laws are also full of other people going for the same thing which makes them less desireable in other ways.

You ask how to fit in, you probably won't. Communities of homeless young people are generally built on trust and fear and they won't know you and it will be hard from the get go to earn their trust. Hanging around the local anarchist bookstore or coffee collective may be a way to actually see these people, but it's tougher to break into groups like this, and with good reason, especially if you seem to be a "subculture tourist" The people who I knew who were the most effective at living on the streets did not have a posse, they were solo (and they were also tall and big and gave off a "don't fuck with me" vibe but that's another story).

The biggest thing you will need to get used to is two things

1) you will not be safe. Many people will think you're an asshole or somehow stupid because you don't have a place to live and some people will hassle you for it. You may not get a chance to dissuade them. This is interesting, in fact, the way that not having a place to live makes you immediately scum in the eyes of so many people, but it means that you may get hassled and may get hurt. I don't know if you are male or female, but one of the tragedies of female homeless people is often becoming either incredibly solitary and defensive/paranoid, or shacking up with some guy (or girl) where he/she gets sex and she gets protection. So, you need to think with this in mind. Can you afford to have your wallet stolen with your bank card? Where do you keep your money? What about keepsakes and things you really care about? and

2) the people you will be with often include a good mix of mentally ill and substance abusing people. I know a fair chunk of homeless blogger types and they're all a little off. No big deal really, interesting people to talk to certainly, but not necessarily someone you'd always want to hang out with on a Saturday night and Sunday night and Monday night, etc. YMMV. The homeless people that I knew were crusty punks and other anarcho-types, veterans, substance abusers and a few random down and outers. It's hard to sort of shift roles day by day if you've been living on the streets, like it's tough to spend one night under a bridge and then next going to see an author reading someplace, though it can be done. If you are at all educated or net-savvy you may find that you don't find a lot of people like you. This may be exactly what you are looking for, but it's also worth planning for. Bring a good book, there is a lot of downtime in homelessness.

As far as How Tos.

- guide to homelessness blog
- Homeless veterna's survival guide
- if you have some time before you do this I'd suggest the zine Dwelling Portably, buy as many back issues as you can
- Dumpster Diving - how to get food for free, you can also google the fregan movement
- Food Not Bombs - if there is an FNB movement where you are going, you are guaranteed at least some decent meals and meeting people who are cooking (and helping cook yourself) is one way I know of to meet edge dweller types.

As someone with wanderlust myself, I understand your impetus. I've had it myself. Since I'm female I decided that the risk of getting harassed, hassled, arrested or raped was not worth it for me personally, but it was always inteersting to hear the stories of my friends who had done it or were doing it. Best of luck.
posted by jessamyn at 7:30 AM on January 15, 2008 [67 favorites]

If I was going to be homeless I would squat. Find an abandoned industrial complex and make that your home. Another idea especially for a younger guy that doesn't fit the typically homeless profile is to make a university your home. There are a few homeless people that basically live at the nearby college. Sleep during the day in nice couches in the union or the library and live a more or less nocturnal life. They seem pretty successful and because they are benign the campus police let them be.

If you want the typical homeless experience on the streets, it will be much riskier but depends on the city. You will be rubbing elbows with the mentally ill, crack addicts, and other angry people on a regular basis. I would still find a safe place to sleep. Also remember that in downtown Chicago, for example, you will be competing for limited resources with lots of other homeless folks. That kind of competition can lead to lots of conflict, especially for an inexperienced white boy.
posted by JJ86 at 7:36 AM on January 15, 2008

If you really need to do this, I'd stick to cities where the weather is quite good all year round, say, Southern California. Dying frozen in a Boston alley doesn't sound a good idea, really. There are less painful ways to off oneself if that is the point of the experiment. Avoid places with a 5-months-long winter.
posted by matteo at 7:41 AM on January 15, 2008

OK, some people may be offended by the idea that the OP might be doing this as a lark. But maybe some genuine good could come from it. Homelessness is a very hard problem, and while a lot of people have tried to crack it from a lot of different angles (including, I'd bet, this one), maybe combination of the OP's personality, background, and this experience will give him an insight that could be helpful.

That said, shothotbot's point is crucial: part of the experience of homelessness seems to be the belief that you don't have a choice about it. This is something that's going to have a huge impact on your life, your attitude, and so much more. I can imagine OP getting up every morning while "homeless", making some kind of fantastic shelter out of cardboard or discarded plywood or whatever, and reflecting on how sure, it's a bit cold and hard, but the freedom! And he'd never realized about all the little sounds the world makes every morning! Then attacking the day with energy and creativity, because it's all so new and interesting.

But a truly homeless person wouldn't see it that way. Sure, he might notice things, but that would not be at the core of the experience for most. And I won't even try to describe it, because it's true that I can't possibly know. But I figure that depression is a big factor, and that colors and shapes everything.

Also, you can't ever really be "homeless" if you know your parents will take you in. You have that home. That's fundamental, and it's going to have a subtle but strong effect on you, as anyone who's parents have died can tell you.

Still, maybe there is something that can be learned. But to help answer the question, I think we need to know: why are you considering this experiment? What kind of thing are you hoping to learn? If you don't know, then what brought you to the point of wanting to try this? What kind of person are you?
posted by amtho at 7:45 AM on January 15, 2008 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: You cannot know what it is like to be homeless. Ever. As long as you have some form of retreat--family or friends who will take you in with open arms, a bank account with money in it, a grandma who will lend you what you need to get back on your feet, the clothes and time and ability to get a well-paying job when you feel like it--you will forever be barred from fear, pain, desperation, and the truly negative psychological effects of homelessness.

Furthermore, the fact you are planning for this turns it into a farce. The homeless don't "plan" to go homeless. They don't get a few comfortable months of stocking up on survival gear and scoping out social services and getting tips and tricks to make sure everything goes as smoothly as possible. If you really want to experience as close to the real thing as possible, don't plan. Stop reading this thread. Throw everything away tomorrow, don't tell anyone where you're going, throw away your cellphone and bar yourself from accessing a computer so you can't contact friends or family for support, move somewhere, and do it.

And don't tell anyone in your place what your real background is or that this is all an experiment. This is their fucking life, and your little game will in all likelihood be considered offensive and patronizing.
posted by Anonymous at 7:50 AM on January 15, 2008

My best advice would be to find someone that is willing to go on this journey with you...otherwise you will find yourself being a victim or finding yourself in incredibly difficult situations. Because you've lived a sheltered life, you'll have a particularly hard time developing street smarts not having grown up in this environment...don't assume you're a fast learner. (A lot of people will come off being friendly but cannot be trusted...and there are a lot of places you should avoid in order to stay unharmed)

You're not the first to want to do this though, I remember reading about a group of college kids that did a "homeless experiment" where they attempted to live under the same conditions for a week or two (they however had the luxury of returning to normal life whenever they wanted..which kinda defeated the purpose of really understanding the hardships...but even so they couldn't deal after awhile and packed up)

As far as viewpoints, there are some individuals with blogs on being homeless. There is also a few google-able survival guides.

On more of a ethical note though, keep in mind that you don't have to do this. And by doing it, if you stay at a shelter or mission, you are somewhat taking advantage of the people that are trying to help those that really need help...as well as taking up a spot where someone that someone who is truly homeless could fill. If you really want to get into the mindset of being homeless, why not volunteer for a shelter instead? Possibly help someone who is truly struggling?
posted by samsara at 7:50 AM on January 15, 2008

I want to second and emphasize a point samsara made.

If you really feel you must do this, I'd suggest that you avoid taking anyone's charity. You're doing this for fun. Anyone else who'd accept charity is doing it as a matter of survival. Taking charity that could go to someone who actually needs it just because you want a little adventure strikes me as unacceptably immoral.
posted by Ms. Saint at 7:59 AM on January 15, 2008 [7 favorites]

I strongly suggest you go ask actual homeless people this questions. Or get seven scraps of paper, put a red dot on one, throw'em all in a can and each day pull out a single scrap. When you pull out the one with a red, that means you're homeless, so throw your house key down drain and start being homeless.

Attempting to plan or get tips and tricks on how to become homeless smacks of living a sheltered life.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:00 AM on January 15, 2008

As said above, sling a backpack on your back and go hitchhiking/tramping for a few months, and put all your stuff in storage - all the adventure and colour (and possibly danger) you can stomach without the poverty tourism angle, without taking charity and support from people who need it, and without getting into a lifestyle that is very hard to come back from, if by some chance you actually did this without familial safety nets and an easy out.

There's plenty of hard, outdoors, adventurous things you can do without deliberately dropping into faux-poverty - volunteer, go work abroad, join the Peace Corps, or just hit the road with a backpack.
posted by Happy Dave at 8:06 AM on January 15, 2008 [4 favorites]

Before you try living as a homeless, maybe you could first work or volunteer at a homeless shelter for a while? That way you could get an impression of how homeless people live, and also actually help them.

Instead of, or in addition to the homeless experience, you could try a crappy minimum wage job for a while, and try to live off only the wages from the job. Wal-Mart, perhaps? Some Wal-Mart workers are homeless.
posted by iviken at 8:09 AM on January 15, 2008 [4 favorites]

waraw's on the right track. kinda felt this way myself quite a few years ago. you can't be 'homeless' because, quite simply, you know what you need to do to straighten yourself out. so sure, you could panhandle and sleep in shelters, but it'll be bogus and rude because you don't need to be there ... you want to be there.

if that's where you really want to be, get a job there. you'll see plenty.

but if that's not what you want, then do wat waraw says. take off, bring a bit of cash, some clothes and a sleeping bag, and take off for some southern cities. hit a new town, find a cheap job and secure a place to stay, and live that for a few weeks. it's a lot better and more effective if you go to a city you haven't been to before. if you get tired of what's going on, move on.

i did both. preferred working at the shelter.

the one thing i caution against is this: when you do this, it becomes part of your life. if you do it right, it's a lot harder to come back then you think.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 8:09 AM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

I agree with Happy Dave. I am not sure which actual experience you are chasing, but if you haven't, read Krakauer's Into The Wild. Fascinating story about someone with wanderlust. Chris McCandless just sold everything he owned, gave all his money to charity, and struck out to see the country.
posted by uaudio at 8:10 AM on January 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

Since you're young, I would suggest the following accoutrements, so people believe you when you say you're homeless: A ratty dog, led with a frayed rope leash, face tattoos and outlandish piercings, a tattered leather jacket with punk slogans and buttons pinned to it, a small acoustic guitar, three chords, hand-rolled cigarettes and a bag of bird-pecked stale bagels from behind Einstein's.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 8:11 AM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Good suggestion. McCandless was an idiot, too.
posted by OmieWise at 8:12 AM on January 15, 2008 [7 favorites]

I read a book last year about two young guys who became homeless for a year because of a leading--they're Christians, and you might not find that comfortable, but the book was really fascinating for what they had to say about their experience. It's called Under the Overpass.
posted by not that girl at 8:13 AM on January 15, 2008

Get a good knife. Be prepared to use it to defend yourself.
posted by knowles at 8:13 AM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

I disagree with the people who say that "you can't know what it's like to be truly homeless because you'll always have somewhere to go to (family, friends, etc.)." There are plenty of homeless people who could live with a relative or friend but their mental illness and/or drug use prevents them from doing so, through the boundaries set by either of the two parties. If anything, your experiment will expose you to 1) the elements, and 2) the physical dangers of irrational people trying to co-exist with you. Please note that I am not suggesting that all homeless people are like this; it is just something serious that you are likely to come across in your journey. IMO, this aspect of homlessness is often overlooked or ignored by the media, and, therefore, by those who read said media. In the olden days (not necessarily better), the mentally ill were kept in institutions. Now, they're on the streets. It's a serious problem, and good for you for wanting to understand it.
posted by Melismata at 8:19 AM on January 15, 2008

Get your story straight...just in case this isn't obvious, do not tell anyone that you're doing this as an experiment. Word travels.
posted by desuetude at 8:25 AM on January 15, 2008

Yes, definitely read "Into the Wild."
posted by cass at 8:26 AM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Melismata, that's our point--they can't live with a relative or friend due to mental illness or drug abuse. Whatever the reason for not living with family or friends, they are still not able to live with family or friends. Makes no difference.

This kid, however, is creating a situation where he will have recourse, and the whole tragedy of homelessness is that there is no recourse. The only way he can truly experience homelessness is by somehow setting up a situation where he doesn't have an easy out. And that would require abandoning all familial relationships, finances, and all his job skills and knowledge, or alternatively developing a serious drug habit or mental illness that makes hiring him or rescuing him unappealing to the outside world.

From the homeless people I've talked to, the physical dangers and trials of homelessness are the smallest part of the experience. It is overwhelmingly the psychological impact of it, the knowledge that you are naught but detritus in our society, an untouchable, and you have no escape, that's the worst part. And this poster will very likely ever be able to experience this very, very, very crucial aspect of homelessness.
posted by Anonymous at 8:27 AM on January 15, 2008

Response by poster: That should be "never able to experience", not "ever."
posted by Anonymous at 8:28 AM on January 15, 2008

Question: do you mean homeless as in on the streets (like everyone else is picturing), or do you mean homeless as in perpetual nomad without a fixed address? The latter may be a LOT easier for you - just crash your friend's houses, live in hotels/hostels/etc, camp. I know people who had to perpetually crash on their friends' couches because they couldn't afford rent and school at the same time. Still hard, but a lot more feasible.
posted by divabat at 8:31 AM on January 15, 2008

Sort of along the same lines, check out Rolling Nowhere by Ted Conover...
posted by starman at 8:31 AM on January 15, 2008

Here are two alternatives I'd consider if I were setting out on this project:

1. Adopt the lifestyle of hobos. Although security has been upped at railyards, and it's no longer easy to catch a freight train, the hobo lifestyle lives on. The internets are crammed with blogs and information and glossaries of how to adapt to the life, fit into hobo communities, and find interesting places to visit. Also, I'd expect that the number of participants who've chosen this lifestyle voluntarily is higher than other forms of homelessness, so it might be more suitable to your experiment.

2. Earn a few dollars, stuff your bank account, then depart for a country with an inexpensive standard of living -- such as Bolivia, Thailand, India . . . The list goes on.

In this scenario, living on the streets, as a westerner, would invite unwanted attention from the police, so you'd live in cheap hostels, boarding houses, and fleabag hotels. But you'd have the opportunity to travel at your leisure, and would be able to save money by sleeping on trains (in a form of mobile homelessness). Worth considering if you have wanderlust in addition to homelessness-lust.
posted by Gordion Knott at 8:36 AM on January 15, 2008

I did this and for the same idiotic reasons. here's how I made it work:

have a base of operations. I had a patron who'd let me use her restaurant's basement as an occasional crash pad in exchange for custom design.

avoid hanging out with only other homeless folks. you need a variety of viewpoints to avoid getting sucked into the lawlessness of the streets. once you start losing touch with socialized people you're fucked.

avoid drugs.

avoid prostitution.

find ways to stay clean and healthy. this is the game i liked best; its a real challenge.

hone your skills of character judgement.

be very aware of your morality and how it intersects with others.
posted by patricking at 8:36 AM on January 15, 2008 [3 favorites]

How to be homeless:

1. Get in a bad accident, which results in astronomical medical costs that bankrupt you.


2. Develop an unsustainable addiction to alcohol or drugs, and/or develop a personality disorder that alienates your friends and family so much that they kick you out of their lives.

In other words, burn your safety net.

There's a homeless guy who lives in my neighborhood. He's got a sister in the neighborhood as well, and I know that she lets him bathe and do laundry at her place, and sometimes stay there, but mostly he sleeps rough. He's a nice guy. An addict. He likes to read. CalTrans takes his stuff (and the stuff of other homeless people) when they find their encampments - I don't know how many times over the last few years he's lost a tent, sleeping bag, his ID, his glasses. He had a dog that got put down when he got thrown in jail; he had another dog that got stolen. He's got almost no teeth, and he's often hungry. I'd guess that he's in his 40s, but he could be younger.

You said I know the risks, and I know I'm naïve. I think these two things are not compatible.
posted by rtha at 8:36 AM on January 15, 2008

oh, and the most important thing: hide your shit!
posted by patricking at 8:41 AM on January 15, 2008

Agreed with schroedinger re: the offensiveness of this. It reminds me of high schoolers who have a sleepover field trip on the street and bring hot cocoa with them, all in the name of raising awareness about the plight of the homeless. They are mentally stable, typically not addicted to drugs, and have a support system to whom can go home any time they want, and so could you. This is not homelessness you're idealizing; it's vagrancy. Big difference.
posted by sian at 8:42 AM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


Do what my homeless ex boyfriend did - date a generous, patient, naive woman.
posted by suki at 8:44 AM on January 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

To add to jessamyn's comment above, the link to the dumpster diving forum looks well and truly swamped with porno spam.

This site has some interesting information about the fregan movement, about which I was completely ignorant until this morning.
posted by jquinby at 8:47 AM on January 15, 2008

Doctors can treat diseases--without ever having had those diseases. They can understand their patients and feel empathy. I think that even without the totalising prerequisite so many here are talking about--the op can gain insight and learn something possibly useful.

My advice would be to try living in your car for a start. You might consider it an entry-level position.
posted by subatomiczoo at 8:52 AM on January 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

If it helps, I work at a student newspaper in Philadelphia and one of our editors went homeless over Spring Break.
posted by Blandanomics at 9:15 AM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you want to know what homelessness is work at the soup kitchens, find an outreach program and talk to the people you meet. Work at a needle exchange, find a mobile medical unit in your area and volunteer your time. Talk to everyone you meet.
posted by iamabot at 9:31 AM on January 15, 2008

A few links on activism in Austin, including Food Not Bombs. If you plan to do this, I would set an amount of time (6 weeks? 3 months?). Pick out a friendly city, such as Austin, where people are young, open-minded, and the weather is on your side. Let someone know when you should be checking back in, if this is temporary; I have a gut feeling you are planning on turning your experiences into a book, memoir, film script or some other academic turn later in life.

Let a trusted friend or relative know where you are going and when you will check back in; leave money in a bank account and copies of your ID, passport, bank cards, etc. with that friend or in a safety deposit box.

If friend/relative doesn't hear from you by the designated date, have them report you missing. If you really value your life, you won't want to do this long-term... it will be a short-term, one-off experience.

Try hitchhiking to your destination city with the bare minimum of equipment; a weather-proof backpack, water-proof matches, bed roll, switchblade, some cash, your ID and the ability to do some kind of trade for food and shelter (do you paint? cook? willing to dig trenches? whatever your skill set may be). A small flashlight might also be helpful but don't count on keeping it, or anything, for that matter.

Familiarize yourself with your destination city's free clinics and state hospital, if there are any. You never know when you may wake up with a knife in your side or have to fend off attackers.

If you are good-looking and not physically able to defend yourself against an attack, you should probably rethink this; if you are serious, you might take some time before you begin to learn basic hand-to-hand combat and self-defense skills at a local gym or women's self-defense class.

I'm sure none of us have to tell you that you have a 100 percent chance of being confronted, arrested (if you're not careful!), going hungry, getting sick or hurt, and probably worse.

Give yourself an emergency escape route if things become dire. Arrange to check in with your trusted friend or relative once a week, perhaps, to let someone know you are okay; if you are assaulted and become a John or Jane Doe in a hospital somewhere, it may be critical that someone knows to look for you within X time period so your chances of surviving a sexual or physical attack will be increased.

Bear in mind, some of us on the board have actually been homeless and do not recommend being homeless for any amount of time. 15 percent of the mentally ill are homeless at any given time, according to this recent study. Most of them are not the benign friendly kooky kind, either.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 9:36 AM on January 15, 2008

If you're trying to "grow some hair on your chest", so to speak, start from scratch. Don't make the goal to be homeless (that's insulting to people who truly are), instead make your goal to start out with nothing and see what you can make of yourself without Daddy's help. Buy a buss pass to a random city you want to visit. Give up your job/car/apartment/cellphone/credit cards/etc/everything you own. Get on the bus, arrive at this new city, and fend for yourself. This may start out by being homeless and hungry, but use your smarts and build yourself up from scratch. Work on getting a menial, crappy job (no fair using your paid-for education to get something better paying), and live on the streets until you can afford a dumpy apartment with 12 other people. Work your way up, including all the setbacks you'll face.
posted by cgg at 9:39 AM on January 15, 2008 [6 favorites]

I agree with schroedinger - you wouldn't know what it is like to be homeless until you have no choice but to live on the streets.

We have a number of homeless people here in our city, while there are quite a few who are addicts or are just temporarily homeless, most of them are so old that they can't ever get out because of their age and physical health.

So until you're so old and weak that you can't even raise your head due to the lack of nutrients (I have never seen her face despite the fact that I've seen her every day while going to college), until you're so used to the harsh reality of life that you don't even bother walking 5 feet to get under shelter during our worst rain episode in two years, until you're so old and jaded that twenty dollars will cause you to have a near breakdown because it is so much, until you look as sweet and as old as my great-grandma that even a business person running to go home on Christmas Eve would stop to chat with you because she is scared that your body is as thin as a skeleton...

Until then, you're just going to be like the other segment of 'homeless' people I see here: the group of young kids who spend their days chilling on the streets for fun, willing to bum anything off of people to feel homeless, loitering in front of stores while talking to each other about the "harsh" reality of life to feed each others' egos like they're doing something with their life. Then at the end of the day, week, or month, they return to their old lives, thinking that they experienced something profound, when in reality, they just came home from a vacation on the streets.

You want to be homeless? Then why prepare? Go out and live on the streets with what you have on your person right now, it's not like a homeless person can pick and choose what to bring with them from their apartment when they start their journey of being homeless.

However, please don't seek charities, shelters, or ask for money (or anything else) from people on the streets. I am more hesitation to give money to homeless people now, in part because of people who use it for drugs and in a large part, because I see young, able people like you and me choosing to accept hand-outs instead of working to better themselves. Perhaps you do not belong in the latter group because you do want to better yourself but you will certainly not help the perceptions of homeless people by begging for money while you are still young and able.
posted by vocpanda at 9:47 AM on January 15, 2008 [6 favorites]

Get thrown out of home, lose your job, get thrown out of your house, get ill, get a mental illness, be an ex-soldier (bonus points for PTSD), be a schizophrenic, become an alcoholic, come from an abusive violent family, become a chronic drug user, be a battered woman, become an addict, become an alcoholic, schizophrenic, drug addict, with a violent past and a violent partner.....

There is a shocking statistic I once heard, though I can't source it, and it goes something like this: once a person ends up on the streets they have something like four days to get off before it becomes a condition that will last for months and years not days. They don't prepare for it.

But this isn't you. Homelessness is not a choice, it's having no choice. It's not having the means to engage in society as ordinary folks do. And having a roof over your head is the least of it. Its the powerlessness that really screws you, and the effects of that don't stop when you have a roof over your head. Even now, nearly 20 years later it comes back to kick my ass sometimes -- when I don't have, and can't get the paper trail, have these unexplained holes in the time line.

But this isn't you. It isn't what you are talking about. If you want to have an adventure do it. Grab a sleeping bag, a tarp maybe, and walk out the door with the money you have in your pocket. Pick a destination. When the money runs out carry on. Nothing teaches like experience. I did this plenty when I was homeless, sometimes even when I wasn't. It was fun. I'm still here to type this.

I don't have any bragging rights. I had it easy, if if I didn't have the choice. I was bright and articulate. I knew how to squat and always had friends to provide a couch for the night if things got really rough. And there are plenty of life style squatters if you fancy it. Just don't be an asshole. Don't be the person who smashes a window or shits in the middle of living room (really it happened) because "it's a squat, man, we can do what we like" then leaves while those people awho don't have the choice are left to shiver in the cold, or clean up the mess.

And don't left privilege stop you, I've watched plenty of people fall past me on the way down.
posted by tallus at 9:47 AM on January 15, 2008 [3 favorites]

Having done the homeless thing myself (thankfully for a short time), I'd also advise against it. It's not romantic like in the movies. The first week of sleeping is especially horrid - you never feel safe, even if you've found a decent location. To make yourself feel at least somewhat safe, I'd advise to hit the outskirts rather than densly populated area. As a new homeless, with no friends, and possibly an air of "tourist college student pretending to be homeless" you'll make a good target. Maybe I only advise that because I made no friends.

I found densly overgrown highway overpasses to work nicely for myself. You sleep on a hill, and it's noisy so it's a bad location and thus less likely to have company. But then it's noisy, and you're sleeping on a hill. Even if you go to sleep when the sun goes down, and you will wake up when the sun comes up, you'll always be tired and worn down - even if you're still taking vitamins. Well, perhaps calorie intake for myself might have contributed; in about 2 months I lost 55 lbs - if I didn't suspect that about 15-20 of that was muscle, I'd go so far as to say it was one good thing at the time.

Make sure that you have bottles with you for drinking water. Be *very* careful to not lie down in poison ivy - which means that you need to choose your sleeping location while it's still light out. If you're homeless long enough, poison ivy might not be the worst health issue to worry about. Blankets for when it's cold are good, and an extra change of clothes or two are great, so you can actually wash them.

If you hitch hike, a lot of potential rides will only take you someplace if you'll give them oral sex (older man generally just ask to look at you). Some will feel cornered (you could out them) if you refuse and will get mad. Realize that at this point you might be in a moving car, or outside of a car (I.E. potential weapon) with no one around. I was lucky enough to not be injured. I do consider myself lucky, rather than view getting injured as unlucky.
posted by nobeagle at 10:09 AM on January 15, 2008 [3 favorites]

I spent two weeks "homeless" once, and it sucked. I put homeless in quotes because really I had layers of safety nets (such as, my uncle would certainly have sent money for a bus ticket and let me stay in his house, and I had friends whose couches I'm sure I could have stayed on at least for a few days each) and I had found a place to stay that was a lot less scary that sleeping rough in a city park. And I had a job where I could shower each morning at work. And it still really sucked. But I'd also be lying if I said I didn't get anything out of it -- there were fun parts, and I have some good stories, and afterwards I felt a lot more self-reliant than I had before. But it still really sucked -- it was uncomfortable, scary at times, and really, really stressful.

Don't listen to anyone telling you to stay home and not to go have an adventure. But think carefully about what the point is of what you are doing, and what really makes sense for you to do. I really, really liked cgg's suggestion of starting from scratch in a new city. I never thought of doing that, but I did spend lots of time traveling, which I highly recommend.

People in this thread are conflating "hard core mentally ill drug-addicted scary" homelessness with the by choice gutter punk/rainbow family travel-around-like-a-modern-hobo sort of homelessness, and those are two very different things. Forced homelessness, where you are pushed out of society's safety nets because of poverty, bad luck, addiction, etc, is degrading and dangerous, and represents a moral blight that collectively we allow it to happen. Dropping out, traveling around, staying in squats, reenacting hippy rituals of communal living and modern nomadism is not degrading, and will certainly open your eyes to different experiences. Similarly, backpacking around Central America or Southeast Asia can be a foundational experience in a person's life, letting them change in ways that they may not have been able to do if they stayed at home, in their usual routines and enmeshed in the routine structures of their life.

So yes, seek out new experiences, take some risks, but do so with open eyes and with respect for the people with whom you will be interacting. Don't take limited resources that legitimately needy people rely on. Don't abuse anyone's trust. Don't be an asshole. But also don't be afraid to try something, to do something out of the ordinary, to do the kinds of things that give you some perspective on the world.
posted by Forktine at 10:18 AM on January 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

1. maybe you should try going camping on your own for a while first.
2. volunteer at a homeless shelter for a year. you'll learn a lot.
3. alternatively, if you are bored and want to shake things up, go be homeless in europe. that way you can call it "backpacking."
posted by thinkingwoman at 10:19 AM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Another vote for what schroedinger said...

It reminds me of when I read Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, which I'm sure many people here are familiar with. While the idea sounds good in concept... the devil is in the details.

My biggest qualm with her experiment is that she knew that once she had had enough... she could go back to her REAL life. She could go back to her apartment, and her family, and her secure and rewarding job. Basically, she had hope... And I kept thinking about all the problems that stem from hopelessness and despair in the group of people she was trying to "mimic". Depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, child abuse... And then the long term affects of those problems, and the cycle that those problems follow. It just seemed like her experiment lacked realism.

Please don't think I'm trying to deter you, because it obviously doesn't matter to ME what you do with your life... But I also agree with everyone saying that you should not accept resources offered to people who are not VOLUNTEERING to be homeless. It would just be wrong.
posted by Mookbear at 10:21 AM on January 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

Get your name and Social Security number tattooed on you. Then the cops will be able to ID the body, and you won't end up "missing" and in an unmarked grave.
posted by Marky at 10:22 AM on January 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

If you hitch hike, a lot of potential rides will only take you someplace if you'll give them oral sex

I used to hitchhike all the time, and never had this happen, happily. I did have way too many ultra-sketchy rides, though, where the driver was sniffing coke while drinking cheap liquor and talking about the voices in his head while driving 95 miles an hour with no headlights. "Normal" people don't pick up hitchhikers much any more, so the rides you get are guaranteed to be scary in a way that didn't use to be the case.
posted by Forktine at 10:23 AM on January 15, 2008

I pick up hitchhikers all the time, sober and lucid, with no expectation of or desire for any kind of sex. I stop because I used to hitchhike quite a bit, and that's how it goes.
posted by Roach at 10:33 AM on January 15, 2008

You're wrong about step #1. It should read:

1. Have no money

The rest will follow. You're just a tourist unless this precondition is met.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 10:47 AM on January 15, 2008

Essentially, I want to learn how to be homeless. What are some useful strategies?

Youre not "really" homeless if you can just take a shower, walk into your bank, and take money from your savings.

Why not really experience it by flying to a country where you dont speak the language, burn your password, ID, and money, and really go for broke.

Or perhaps youre better off with a tangible realistic goal than the "homeless fantasy" you describe here. Try to get from one coast to another with 50 dollars in your pocket. Leave all your ID at home. When asked never give your real name. Perhaps begin by being addicted to meth for the full experience.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:47 AM on January 15, 2008

I pick up hitchhikers all the time, sober and lucid, with no expectation of or desire for any kind of sex. I stop because I used to hitchhike quite a bit, and that's how it goes.

As do I. As do all the people who've ever picked me up. I've only ever had one scary ride out of the thousands of rides I thumbed between 1990 and 2003, the last time I thumbed. I had one guy ask to touch my wang, and a forceful "no" worked fine at dissuading him.
posted by waraw at 10:53 AM on January 15, 2008

Yeah I think your real problem here is calling this "homeless" which, as Forktine says can mean different things to different people with a lot of very heavily loaded connotations. So, I guess the first thing I'd say to you about this plan you have is making a crystal clear distinction about what your plan is. If you want to to the hippie walk the earth thing (where you have a safety net, possibly money in the bank, a decent education and just a wandering heart) that is one set of choices and plans. If you want to do the "hey I'm like a homeless person, I don't have a place to live" I think that's where you're going to get a lot pf pushback from because, as people are saying here, most people don't become homeless on purpose and acting like you can just pick up the good parts of that "lifestyle" is extremely offensive from a class an dprivilege standpoint.

Put another way, my Mom likes to call one of her friends "homeless" which really disturbed me in that "oh my gosh shouldn't we go help her??" way until I realized that what my mom meant by homeless was that she was renting a place month-to-month and had a lot of her stuff in storage, that she was unrooted. That's a class distinction right there. To my Mom that's a pretty unstable lifestyle, btu I'm sure her friend is living more stable-ly than a lot of MeFites much less the majority of the world's population.

So the last thing I would tell you to do on this thing you're planning would be to open your heart and mind to your real and actual place in the world. It's okay for you to want to see what the world is like without the usual trappings of class and privilege, but one of the things about class and privilege is that you benefit from them even if you deny them. The fact that you had decent nutrition and medical/dental care and education growing up and the fact that you know about about computers and other people to ask this quesion here indicates that you are already going to be highly statused (as an American which I assume you are, this seems like an odd American dream) relative to many of the people you will be interacting with and it's going to be very important that you be mindful of that and, in short, use those powers in at least neutral ways, of not for good. I hope this is a learning and growing experience for you.
posted by jessamyn at 10:58 AM on January 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

posted by orange swan at 11:16 AM on January 15, 2008

Mod note: a few more comments removed - this is now in metatalk, comments not answering the question need to go there.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 11:23 AM on January 15, 2008

roach: In an attempt to repay my karma, I've pledged to pickup hitch hikers whenever I see them if any other car occupant doesn't disagree. I've tried twice, once I wasn't going to a satisfactory destination, and the second time was an interesting immigrant from (the exact country escapes my mind, but it was from Europe and not Switzerland, because he'd worked there, but wasn't from there). It was in 2000 that I was doing the hitch hiking, but I will note that I was only propositioned in Washington state. All rides in Oregon and California were obligation free, so maybe it was a combination of bad luck/location.

But on thinking of this, I've seen 6 live hitchhikers in my lifetime; 2 were when I was a kid in a parent's car, 1 was when I was in highschool, and had a car full of friends so it wasn't an option, and another was while I was hitch hiking. I passed him in a car thrice in two days, so he was getting rides too. The other two I've mentioned. That's not really a lot of hitch hikers; maybe it's gone out of style?

I don't suppose there was a hitch hiking mefi on the west coast south of San Francisco who passed a long-haired, bleached blonde, grey sweatshirted hitchhiker with a black duffle bag a few times in late March or early April of 2000?
posted by nobeagle at 11:57 AM on January 15, 2008

Not to join in the pile-on, but what you're talking about isn't really homelessness, it's slumming or bumming about. Which is fine, really. I've been homeless and I've slummed it. Slumming is fun because at any time you can stop. Being homeless sucks because you have no idea when or if it will end; you have very little control of anything in your life, even if you've managed to avoid the classic pitfalls like addiction and mental illness. I was "working homeless" for six months, and it's not something I'll be forgetting any time soon.

That said, if you decide to bum around the country or even just a particular city, the advice at Survival Guide to Homelessness (mentioned by jessamyn above) is really good. I wish I'd had access to it when I was down-and-out.
posted by lekvar at 12:16 PM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

I have nothing to add on the don't pursue "homelessness" front, that's been said more than well enough.

If you do decide to take it on the hoof or go vagabonding or whatever, find some travelers/crusties/hobos in your area and ask their advice. I, personally, advise you not to carry a switchblade, which was mentioned upthread, they're illegal almost everywhere in the US and will get you hassled and possibly arrested when/if you get searched, which is much more likely than not when you are on the street looking poor. In fact, any knife larger than a pocket knife is probably a bad idea, once again ask someone who has actually been on the road, if they tell you to get a machete, then there you go, that's what it's like. Take care of your feet, trim your toenails, have foot powder and dry socks if you can.
posted by Divine_Wino at 12:30 PM on January 15, 2008

What's with all of the people saying that he shouldn't tell anyone he's doing it on a lark? Everyone who isn't completely stupid will know. The intentionally homeless kids look and act completely different from the real homeless people. Reading Evasion leaves a permanent mark.

It probably goes without saying, but I also find the intentionally homeless kids--the "gutterpunks," as people sometimes call them--to be some of the most annoying, insipid people I've ever met. Hanging out with them for a year won't teach you anything and will quite likely make you dumber.

If you really want to learn about the homeless experience, spend a year or two in a volunteering program.
posted by roll truck roll at 12:33 PM on January 15, 2008

Sorry. No way to change where you come from.

I felt the same when I was between 19 and 23. Being sheltered and naive, I felt useless and worthless in the real world. You read and hear all this stories about men who own nothing and live free. No attachments. No matter what life throws at them, they always come on top. Pioneers, warriors, poets. And you are sure that any of it happened to you as you are now, you would cower in a corner and cry. So you go out to live that life, to find yourself, get rid of your baggage, prove something, or just have some fun.

I tried many versions of your experiment. Hitchhiking across Mexico with no money, ID or bank accounts, sleeping in bus stations, high up on trees, park benches and caves in the hills. Traveling on trains for a week to see peyote first hand. Living in a cold basement in Portland, scavenging food from dumpsters and bathing in back yard hot tubs at midnight. The best one was when I was 5,000 miles from everything I knew, with no return ticket, enough money for 2 cups of coffee, and no place to sleep that night.

Then I realized that most homeless people spend the greatest part of the day using their skills and contacts to try to score a meal, a safe place to sleep, drugs, sex, company and anything to ease the aches. I did the same, I wanted to be just like them, right?

The difference is that my skills and contacts scored me nicer places to stay (sharing a 2 bedroom with seven other guys is many orders of magnitude better than shelters and park benches), better food, better drugs (drinking champagne from the bottle in Hyde Park is one of my best memories) and better friends. I ended up tending bars, working in kitchens, doing design, farming, fixing computers and trading art for room and board. I met lots of great people, mostly non conformist, a few really crazy. I went to places I did not know existed.

There were a lot of harsh lessons, mostly along the lines of "The one with the experience kept the money, and the one with the money kept the experience".

I learned a few things: I can go to any place where I speak the language, and starting from zero, I can make a nice living. I don't really need all the junk and comfort I am used to. And as Jessamyn said, you benefit from class and privilege even if you deny them, and you would be stupid not to.

Finally, some advice: Please don't try to "live on the streets" 24/7. You know what sucks? Toothache and no money. Why don't you go to a new city, preferably in another country, and try to go from homeless to well fed happy weirdo in a few months?

Damn, this is long, and I am sure I will regret posting after I get some sleep. Hope it helps.
posted by Dr. Curare at 1:01 PM on January 15, 2008 [3 favorites]

People who survive being homeless are people who follow these steps:

(1) Focus on needs.

(2) Constantly seek ways to meet those needs.

(3) Invent a method of systematically meeting those needs continuously.

Think of real-world examples, and this becomes clear. The homeless person who dies is the homeless person who wanders from drunk to drunk and spends his money on a bottle or a rock. The homeless person who lives is the homeless person who spends that money where he can (McDonald's, usually) one something that's food, or on something that will (even better) have some use to him in the future. A knife, some rope, some cloth can have a real benefit when one is constructing one's life on the street. The homeless person who dies is the homeless person who sleeps where he falls. The homeless person who lives is the homeless person who finds a relatively safe and secure place (under a bridge, behind a bush, in the corner of a secluded alley) to make relatively familiar, or (since today's cities make this increasingly difficult due to law enforcement and crime) keep a small list of such places in his head so that he can rest in a good place to do so. The homeless person who dies is the one who doesn't know who to ask for money, who offends the wrong guy and gets beat up, who can't do the things he needs to do to get food or shelter when it's desperately necessary. The homeless person who lives is the one who can write a good sign and find the right place to hold it, who knows which dumpsters to hit and does so by habit, who knows where to run and hide and when.

Most of all, the important realization is this: as a homeless person, it is certainly within your power to end your life or to bring on suffering, but it is certainly not up to you whether you live or die, whether you are miserable or happy. It's just not within your power; it's within the power of a hundred other factors, and all you can do is try your best to avoid certain harm and hope that likely harm will be minimized.

The homeless person who dies is the one who forgets that, and acts as though harm to him isn't likely or problematic. The homeless person who lives is the one who remembers it at all times, watches his back and is constantly wary of the myriad dangers that the people of the world present him. Doing that every second of every day generally isn't very healthy for one's sanity, which is why most homeless people are nuts.

To succeed at being homeless is to find ways to provide for yourself consistently and finding ways to avoid the dangers. There are places where this is more possible than others. If you choose a better city to do this in, and if you manage to keep at it for a while, you'll find reliable sources of food, like dumpsters behind supermarkets; you'll find reliable sources of money, places to panhandle to maximize effect, and eventually you'll learn how to ask strangers if you can do odd jobs for them in exchange for money. If you know the right people, you might be lucky enough to hook up odd jobs like this regularly. You could then afford a very cheap apartment in certain sectors. If you can pull yourself together enough, you might even swing a gig at a fast food joint, and that kind of income is a big step upward.

In short, if you succeed at being homeless, you stop being homeless.
posted by koeselitz at 1:07 PM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've thought about this a bit more, and read more of the very insightful comments here. I agree with a few and would definitely consider the vagabond's "detachment of worldly things" route than a "try to be homeless" one. It seems that you want to do this not only for the experience, but also for some kind of enlightenment on what it means to have nothing of your own.

The difference between the two is crucial (as others have stated as well) as you don't necessarily have to live on the streets or feign a belonging to a homeless community when being a vagabond...and you can also present yourself accurately as a rootless wanderer that could afford things the basic necessities, rather than pretend to be someone who is the result of many issues, struggling to survive.

Plus, vagabond survival guides are notably easier to work out and follow....and you're sure to experience a lot that would broaden your horizons (to the point where you could no longer say you've had an uneventful and sheltered life).
posted by samsara at 1:36 PM on January 15, 2008

A few things to plan for:

1. Making sure you have health insurance the rest of your life to treat the HIV you'll get after being raped.

2. Learn to give head. Its the only way usually to get a little cash and a ride.

3. Learn the signs of hypothermia. Learn how to treat a knife wound. Learn how to treat an infection with limited access to medicine.

4. Practice a fake limp or something. A young guy doesnt get spare change if he looks able bodied.

5. Learn not to feel bad about stealing resources for real homeless people.

6. Learn what scabies is.

7. Practice putting yourself on a strict diet of less than 1,000 calories a day. Now go wander a downtown area smelling all the delicious food cooked at restaurants.

8. Practice eating spoiled food and learning to puke without getting it on your clothes.

9. Practice drinking filthy water.

10. Disregard everything youve read. If youre practicing and preparing then youre about as far from the streets as possible.
posted by damn dirty ape at 4:24 PM on January 15, 2008

If you haven't already guessed, most of us here think this is a really dumb idea. But I'm also guessing nothing anyone says here is going to matter, you'll try this anyway.

First and foremost - submit your income tax form now. You don't want to get into trouble because you forgot.

Learn first aid. Take a CPR course.
Learn wilderness survival. Or at the very least, read the Boy Scout pamplet. Practice these skills. You need to know how to make a fire.
Get old clothes and gear from goodwill or the salvation army thrift stores. Loose is ok.
To stay warm, you need to stay dry.
To stay healthy, you need to stay clean.
Avoid cotton in cold wintery areas - it absorbs moisture that then freezes.
Wear layers so you can stay comfortable.
Carry a low limit credit card - it'll help keep you from getting arrested.

Once a week, meet with a friend for lunch.

Forget pride. Pride will get you killed.
posted by Kioki-Silver at 5:27 PM on January 15, 2008

Winter nights are cold. Instead of sleeping through them, stay awake and moving. Find a warm place during the day to sleep.
posted by Kioki-Silver at 5:35 PM on January 15, 2008

Wow. I got over here as soon as I heard. This is of course an idea, to forsake all material goods and pose (albeit with great genunuity). Good or bad is sort of an arbitrary way to classify such an idea. Rather, I would like to pose a question:

Is this the best opportunity-creating motion you can imagine for yourself who you see yourself becoming?

Because if it is, then by all means follow through. But to best learn about disease in order to be the best at helping others become healthy, must one become sick or are their other options which will produce greater satisfaction and bring one closer to the goal?

The goal. The goal here seems to be to increase one's life experience. However, it will also have to do with peer relations and learning experiences. Where ever you go, there are good people, bad people, good people who do bad things, bad people who do good things, loving people, unloving people, and a whole lot of in-betweens. So seeing as that's the case — and it very much is the case — is where you want to learn this and remember learning it in the gutter? Down on your luck? Among people who are quite incapable of moving from one class/level/social circle to another? (There is a saying, once you hit bottom there's no way to go but up. It applies here.) Being able to move freely in space is a luxury. Placing one's self at the bottom curtails that movement.

It could be argued otherwise. And it has been above. But my goal in writing this is I want to offer an outlook that allows one the freedom of expression of choice but in doing so outlines options.

When I wanted to learn about schizophrenia, I spent a great deal of my academic and free time with any number of people suffering from varying degrees of schizophrenia and related mental illness. And it took me at least ten years to regain the ground I lost from the (same amount of) time invested.

This is no trifling thing we are talking about here. This is our life. Sometimes when we purposefully step into a hole to learn about a hole we discover that the hole only exists for people outside of it. For everyone who steps into, the hole ceases to exist, and with us the kind of person we were before we took that step.

Are you prepared to give up everything you know about yourself to learn that it might have been right — but became wrong because of a life decision of someone who you no longer are?

Because that's pretty much what it means when you here others say that there are no mistakes. In truth, the one way to learn this is to make them.

So life is a game. And there's real life, SecondLife, and Sims. All of them are valid, all are games, but I know which is the most fun for me.
posted by humannaire at 6:12 PM on January 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

For what it's worth, I immediately thought of the Pulp song as well. And I would read humannaire's comment rather carefully as well, if I were you. You're viewing this as slumming it, a grand adventure you will spring back from no worse for the wear (except for perhaps a metaphorical scar of the sort that chicks supposedly dig). You might want to keep in mind that quote about, "Stare into the abyss long enough, and the abyss stares back into you."
posted by availablelight at 7:37 PM on January 15, 2008

Just because he has a safety net doesn't mean he won't get something out of this experience. Firstly, I am assuming he may have to pretend to others that he has no choice but to be homeless. And once he finds himself telling this story day-in-day-out, it might start to feel somewhat real. Like playing make believe.

Couple that with the stories he will get from other homeless people and I'm fairly sure he will feel something more than mere "empathy".

It will be like reading a book on homelessness, except actually smelling and seeing and tasting it. And just like reading a book, how much he gets out of it depends on his imagination.

Also, not once did the OP mention wanting to do this to get more insight into how the homeless live. So there's no need for all the "you will never understand what it's like to be homeless" comments. He didn't actually say what the aim of the project was. You guys just all jumped to conclusions.
posted by mjao at 8:47 PM on January 15, 2008

Check out these guys:

The Hobo Soul

They moved out of their apartments and into a cheap RV, and live in it around Los Angeles. On the site they offer ways to make the lifestyle not just doable, but practically luxurious, with tips on living cheap and surviving without a home.
posted by Unsomnambulist at 12:15 AM on January 16, 2008

Being homeless isn't a vacation. It's not a fun adventure. It sucks. It sucks a lot and sometimes the only bright spots are the rare occasions that people look you in the eye. I volunteered with Food Not Bombs for over 5 years and have been doing street outreach for 6. I can't express enough how pissed I would be to find out that someone was taking advantage of the limited services and support that exist for homeless people when they aren't truly in need. Please, for the love of decency, do not advantage of that if you decide to do this.

Most of the people who came to eat FNB at needle exchange told me that it was the only time all week they ate a vegetable. So if you end up hungry, volunteer at a soup kitchen and eat the food afterwards. Work for it.

If you were an actual homeless person who needed help, you would need specific advice on the town you're in. You'd need to get to know the safe spots to camp out, and where to keep your stuff secure. The cops raid encampments and take everything (sleeping bags, backpacks, clothes, tents, etc) I know guys who literally do not have a blanket to their name because of this, so it's best to keep everything you really need with you or find a good safe spot to stash it.

Also, it's important to get to know who's trustworthy and who's not as soon as possible. Most of the hardcore homeless are older guys, often vets, a lot of them have mental disorders. Most are pretty harmless, but some aren't and it's good to know who's who. It's also important to figure out who the local cops are and to know which ones are assholes and which are kinda alright (same with business owners.)

Then there's dumpster diving: some stores lock their dumpsters, some throw great food away, and some mix the donuts with the coffee grinds. Most of the town regulars will know where and when the good spots to hit up are.

Shelters are a different story entirely, some are pretty cool, others are much, much less so. Word of mouth is basically they key for everything. And one of the most popular daytime places for homeless people is the library (I don't know if that's universal?) so that's a reliable place to see people and talk to them.

But honestly? I really, really hope you think about this more. If you're interested in gaining some life experience via traveling and the general punk/hipster train hopping thing, fine, go for it. But don't treat being homeless as cavalierly as you did in this post. Seriously, it's not a vacation and it's offensive to homeless people and service providers alike treat it like that. If you want to experience this, do some good while you're at it. Do a food not bombs tour and volunteer at a bunch of them. Or volunteer at a soup kitchen or food bank while you're at it.
posted by nerdcore at 1:29 AM on January 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

gah, have to read this in the morning.... I had a housing conflict and one morning I shaved my head and walked out the door with a backpack... almost 3 years on the streets as homeless bum... but in SoCal where it's mostly warm and the biggest threat is rain.

The main point, your friends will die. No way around it, OD or DT's... you'll get to know the local PoPo on a first name basis. You'll meet crazy 5150 people. You'll meet people who have never had a home "ever". Newspaper is F'ing warm, rain-proof poncho, beware of DPW: they'll steal your stuff in a heartbeat. You can have a nice sponge-bath in public restrooms if you have a sponge and a water bottle. Keep your distance from crack-heads and junkies and meth people... Pot is mostly harmless.

Unless you're desperate, avoid common squatting grounds. Being able to sneak off into the night and sleep peaceably beats communal squatting (unless it's cold or raining)..

Be prepared to say "Yes Sir!", "No Mam!" and respect your local PoPo, this will get you really far.

If you're a cool cat, let them inspect your bag a couple of times, then afterwards when they ask say "No." Try your best to be the 'Mostly Harmless" guy.

"Spare a little change for a lot of Beer?" works remarkably well. So does "Spare some change so she can get drunk and I can get laid?" if you have a cute girl around. Actually just the cute girl around helps a lot... "It was funny, give me money!" also works pretty well.

Homelessness is a gift economy, I sharpened knives, gave shaves, made brands, and fixed junk (yep, geek). Other people jacked food from the market, brought leftovers or had 5$ to spend on 59c hamburgers for anybody that was hungry.

good luck!
posted by zengargoyle at 3:10 AM on January 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Another book recommendation: Down to This about a Toronto writer who goes homeless for a year.

Though I agree with most people that you're never gonna find out what it's really like, one interesting thing about the author of the book is he set a time-line (ie, a year) so that, 6 months in or whatever, when he was having second thoughts, he wasn't "allowed" to end the experiment.
posted by dobbs at 5:41 PM on January 16, 2008

I was going to recommend "Down To This" but I see Dobbs beat me to it. Excellent book which I highly recommend - even if you're not planning on becoming homeless yourself.
posted by Jaybo at 10:31 PM on January 19, 2008

I asked this question a while back and I am quite glad that stuff sort of got better enough for me not to have to do it.

Don't do it.
posted by longbaugh at 8:04 AM on January 24, 2008

I lived in Austin, TX for the past 2.5 years and I would highly recommend it as the city to choose. If you have a sign and can find a free corner, you can ask for money. The cops won't bother you too much. The city is very liberal and there are plenty of bridges and nooks and crannies to sleep in. The railroad runs through it North and South if you need to get to Dallas or San Antonio. There are shelters in town as well but they fill up quickly on cold nights.

Be sure to watch your back. Don't trust anyone. Make sure you know how to protect yourself. Make sure you know how to handle people who are mentally ill. Stay out of Georgetown and Round Rock where you might get arrested. Be a loaner so you don't get stabbed or shot.

Be sure to see the Bat Bridge (I didn't, not when the bats were coming out anyway). Don't bother seeing the 360 bridge, it's just a standard bridge. If you like bars and live music you can roam 6th street. Biblos has the best Mediterranean food in town. Eat at Chuys and then complain about how lousy it is. Eat at Whataburger and tell everyone it's just like Sonic.

Good luck.
posted by deadgoon at 2:19 AM on January 29, 2008

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