Issue #5, 8/19/2006
Practical Tips from a Homeless Dude
Family Court Philosopher
Following up on my essay on Homelessness, here are some practical tips for comfortable homeless living...
SleepingSafe and comfortable sleep requires only a few simple elements:
If you sleep in the remote desert, as I do, it is easy. Rain, insects, fresh air and urination are rarely an issue. Predators, even human ones, are non-existent. To my knowledge, I have never been abducted by aliens, and although I stare up at the stars every night, I have never seen a UFO. Interruptions are rare, and I am probably more likely to get a full night's sleep than you are.
Warmth and padding require some forethought and a trip to Wal-Mart. I sleep on an air mattress, inflated with an electric pump. I buy cheap sleeping bags, use them for a couple of months, then throw them out. In the summer, I use them like blankets, one below me and one on top of me. (You need them even in the summer, because the desert isn't hot at night.) Except in the winter, I sleep in the open and rarely use a tent.
In the winter, I pay attention to the weather forecast and the expected lows. I use multiple sleeping bags and sometimes multiple layers of clothing. I can go down to 0°F using these passive methods alone. (However, the temperature rarely goes much below freezing in the Mojave Desert.) I may pitch a tent, but in the coldest season I sleep in the back seat of the car.
Winter can be hard, due to the cold, the frequent wind and the long nights. I go to sleep in darkness and wake up in darkness. In January, I wouldn't mind being adopted by a family with a warm home. More realistically, I am drawn to the coast in California, where at least the temperatures are mild.
I prefer to sleep in the open or in a tent, because it lets me stretch out, but the advantage of sleeping in the back sear of a car is that I can do it almost anywhere, no commute required. Whenever I am tired, I just pull over and go to sleep. Sleeping in a space a foot shorter than you are takes a few nights to get used to, but it is passable after that.
I feel comfortable sleeping anywhere where I would safely leave a car overnight. Sleeping in a car isn't illegal in most places, but property owners may object if they knew, and obviously I don't want to be detected to preserve my security. I have slept in casino parking garages, with security frequently passing, and no one has noticed me. (If they did, they would have asked me to leave.) I have been woken twice by potential car thieves, but only because I choose a location in the city that was too isolated, so my car became an obvious target.
On the rare occasions when I have been awoken by police or security guards, the encounter has been generally courteous. It is usually the result of my poor choice of parking place, which drew attention to my presence. Security guards will ask me to leave, but the police usually won't.
When sleeping in the car, at least one window needs to be open for breathing, but it only has to be open a crackabout an inch. (A car with a sunroof is even more discreet.) In mosquito country, I drape a sheet of mosquito netting or any thin cloth over the door to keep out the bugs.
When I find myself in a rental car in a cold climate with insufficient bedding to sleep, I point the car into the wind, crack the windows and leave the engine and heater running all night. Modern cars are well sealed, and I have no fear of carbon monoxide. The gas cost is minimal compare to the cost (and inconvenience) of a motel. There may be some wear and tear on the engine, but it's not my car.
I don't have much experience in the rain, but it can present a problem. You need to have a window open to breathe, which also lets the rain in. I sometimes solve this with a trash bag or other sheet of plastic draped over the partly open window.
In cold climates, snow falling overnight generally isn't a problem. It adds a layer of insulation to the car and may actually warm things up a bit. The biggest annoyance in sleeping in the cold is frost forming on the INSIDE of the windows. It can also be difficult getting out of bed in the morning. Sometimes I reach over and start the car and let the heater run for a while before getting up.
HygieneWater isn't necessary to brush your teeth. Your mouth produces enough of it. Water is useful only to rinse your brush.
24 Hour Fitness is the best health club in Las Vegas (for the homeless), with 14 locations around the city and many in California. On very cold mornings, I sometimes go there upon waking to thaw out in the jacuzzi. Homelessness is rough!
I have a functional wardrobe that I keep in two large laundry bags in my trunk: one for clean clothes and the other for dirty clothes. Clothes are washed at a public facility called a "Laundromat."
Common public restrooms can be rank. Casino restrooms are usually beautiful, however. The restrooms in universities and public buildings also tend to be nice. If I don't have a reason to be in town, I am usually out in the desert, where nature provides the rest room.
I cut my own hair. (Can you tell?) I do it with a $8 electric hair clipper purchased at Wal-Mart. The length of my hair is dictated by the available attachments on the clipper. I do it at the health club, where they have a staff to clean up all the little hairs I leave behind.
SpaceI keep several storage units in Las Vegas, which are my only tie to a specific location. I store everything there that I don't need right away. I prefer interior storage units, to keep out the dust. These are air-conditioned units, but not heated. One of my units doubles as an office. With the tacit approval of management, I run a power cord from the overhead light fixture and use it to run my computer and charge my portable appliances.
I keep in my car everything I need to live for the next two weeks (except food). When I travel, I am "already packed." I could take off right now for a road trip and have everything I need.
When my last car blew up, I made a philosophical decision not to buy another one. Instead, I rent a car for two weeks at a time from A---- Rent-a-Car. At least in Las Vegas, A---- has the best deal going: low rates, new cars, no geographical travel restrictions, and you get to pick you own car from the lot. (My current choice is a Chevy Impala.) My credit card provides a free collision damage waiver for rentals up to 15 days, hence the 2-week cycle. I usually rent a full-size car, which is only slightly more expensive than a compact, gets almost the same gas mileage, is more spacious and handles dirt roads better. The rental, including all taxes and fees, costs an average of $175 a week. This compares favorably with the payments on a new car, given that I pay NO maintenance costs, NO insurance, and I ALWAYS have a new, clean, fully working car. It is a justifiable luxury, I feel, given what I am saving on rent.
The car itself provides an important workspace. As long as the weather isn't too hot or too cold, I can work on my laptop there.
Public and university libraries also provide a convenient free workspace, heated and air conditioned. It is rare that a college or university library will require ID to enter, and they tend to have long hours when school is in session.
There is nothing to prevent me from going into a fast food restaurant, buying one or two things, then staying for two hours to work on my computer. Sometimes, I can even find power outlets.
The main problem with working in the open desert is not so much the heat but too much light, which can wash out my computer screen when working in the car. Shade is as hard to find in the desert as water. I know the places along I-15 where free shade can be found (highway underpasses, etc.) and I often work there. When the weather is cool, I can create shade in my car by draping a tarp over it.
NutritionThe only drink you really need is water. Soft drinks are superfluous, and I try to abstain from them (with some occasional backsliding).
I always travel with at least two gallons of water, for drinking and emergencies. This doesn't have to be bottled water. Soft drink bottles filled with tap water will do.
Perishable food will keep for a lot longer than you think without refrigeration. Milk, for example, will keep for about a day in the summer, but for several days in the winter. How do you know when food has gone bad? Taste it! That's exactly why we evolved a sense of taste! If it taste's okay, then eat it.
Almost everything I buy, I eat. If I buy a sandwich and don't eat it all right away, I will finish it later in the day.
Anything that you would eat hot can also be eaten cold. If the food looks unappealing when coldcovered on gobs of congealed fat, for examplethen you probably shouldn't be eating it hot either. Unless the food is raw, like meat, heating of it is strictly for personal taste and is not for nutrition.
I tried to travel with a camp stove for a while. I figured I could use it to boil water and heat soup, but I never used it, so now I leave it in storage. Likewise, I am not impressed by those 12 volt plug-in coolers. The cooling is trivial, and when you are parked, the cooler shuts off after a couple of hours. I had one but gave it away.
The primary aim of eating is for nutrition not taste. I won't eat something if it is unappealing to me, but my choices are primarily guided by what I think is balanced and will do something for me. This is important when you are living in a landscape of fast food.
Since I have become homeless, I have lost almost all attraction for things that are sweet and superfluous. Chocolate and ice cream no longer interest me. It is very strange.
I used to do a lot of buffets, a logical nutrition source in Las Vegas. However, I discontinued this practice when I saw (at the health club) that my weight was creeping upward in spite of my exercise. Seeing the modest food portions that the French eat also changed me. I now eat only when I am physically hungryi.e. when I feel a hole in my stomachand then I make a conscious choice about what I eat: What is this food going to do for me? As soon as my hunger is satiated, I stop eating and put the food away for later.
Canned goods provide an unexpected source of good nutrition, and my investment in a can opener was a wise one. There is an amazing array of foods that are available in cans or jars.
I don't keep much food in the car, but I always keep something bland and non-perishable for use as emergency rations. This is something that I would not normally eat, so it is not at risk of spontaneous consumption, but if I am hungry, it will get me by for a few hours. Currently this food is a box of Spoon-Size Shredded Wheat. If I am off in the desert and get hungry, this is what I will eat, thus avoiding an unnecessary trip to civilization.
Every morning when I wake up, I have a bowl of cereal—the Shredded Wheat. I use canned evaporated milk, reconstituted with one part water. I have come to like this better than milk straight from the cow.
If I am working on a writing project, I usually have a enough basic supplies with me that I can stay for a couple of days in the desert without having to return to civilization.
Modern ConveniencesAll of my electronic devices (computer, cell phone, camera, toothbrush, electric razor) are charged in my car via a power inverter plugged into the cigarette lighter and then into an AC power strip. None of these devices use much power, and I find that I can charge all of them all night from the car battery and still start the car in the morning. To be safe, I keep a battery booster in the trunk, in case I run the car battery down while parked.
I get unlimited internet access via Cingular for $55/month. This operates through a card inserted in my laptop and works anywhere that I can use my cell phone. This gives me relatively slow "dialup" speed, which is usually adequate for my purposes.
Given my nationwide Cingular connection, most WiFi services are useless to me. I use WiFi only overseas or in places in the U.S. where it is offered for free (like the Clark County libraries or the Las Vegas airport).
I have a basic high-deductible health insurance plan through Blue Cross (anthem.com). I rarely get sick, but when I do I am tempted to check into a motel to recuperate (but I never have). In Las Vegas, I tell myself that I can check into a motel whenever the conditions get uncomfortable, but I have never done it.
The only modern information source that I am lacking is television. This is a loss I don't regret. I also don't listen to news on the radio and rarely peruse it on the net (apart from local news relevant to Family Court). I am forced to watch TV in the health club and other places, so if the world were ending I would probably know about it, but the rest of the day-to-day happenings of the world no longer interest me. Like my taste for chocolate, my news addiction evaporated when I became homeless.
It is a blissful, wonderful state!
The DesertThe desert is known for its heat, but this is really only an issue in the summer months: June, July and August. In the dry heat of the open desert, even 115° is bearable as long as you have water and shade. In the Mojave, I know several shaded spots along I-15 where I can comfortably work all day (with internet access), even in the peak of summer. I actually prefer to be here rather than in an air conditioned library because I have more privacy.
Summer heat is oppressive only in the city, where buildings and parking lots absorb heat and radiate it back.
Polarized sunglasses are a requirement in the desert at any time of year. Mine are $6 fishing sunglasses from you-know-where.
The desert has its poisonous creatures, but they tend to stay clear of humans, and I have rarely encountered them. Small rodents will eat any food I have lying around. Coyotes can make a lot of noise with their howling, but they don't come to camp. Kit foxeslooking like small grey dogs with big earsmay come to my camp and steal things, especially my shoes. For this reason, I often hide my shoes under the air mattress.
The desert has "weather" and one has to be sensitive to it. The main form of bad weather is windstorms, which happen far more often than rain. When rain comes, it is usually in the form of thunderstorms, which can dump a lot of water on a limited area while leaving neighboring areas dry. Windstorms and rain usually force me to sleep in the car.
BLM regulations in Southern Nevada say that I can camp for up to 14 days in one location on public land, without permit or permission. After that, I am supposed to move a certain distance away (I think 20 miles) for a certain length of time (I think 45 days). However, because I am discreet and seeing a BLM ranger is a once-in-a-lifetime event, there is nobody to count how many days I spend in one location. If I had to adhere to the letter of the law, I would move between 3 or 4 campsites in Nevada and California. In other words, one can live legally and indefinitely on public land without paying a cent in rent as long as you don't set down roots.
A surprising number of dirt roads can be handled by a full-size sedan, as long as you know how to drive. In case of breakdowns, you never want to drive into someplace that you aren't prepared to walk out of. I always keep at least two gallons of water in the car, and I am aware of my escape plan whenever I drive a dirt road.
TravelAnywhere but the desert, sleeping out in the open (without a tent) is uncomfortable. Why? The issue isn't necessarily mosquitos or rain but DEW. This is a layer of moisture that forms over everything at night in humid climates. Dew is the equivalent of a light rainshower every night. The wetness starts in the evening and lasts all night. It may seem romantic to sleep on a blanket on the beach, but if you do you'll soon be soaked. You'll need a tent.
Truck stops often have showers for sale, but the price tends to be high for non-truckers: $10 or more. When one has been on the road for a while and really stinks, this may be an excuse to spend a night at Motel 6.
In rural areas of the U.S., Motel 6 is usually the best motel option. The rate is posted on their sign, and you always know what you're going to get. Independent motels can offer similar or better rates, but you take your chances. I have had so many bad experiences at independent motels that I head for Motel 6 every time.
In Europe, the local equivalent of Motel 6 is Formula 1, owned by the same company. Formula 1 rooms are tiny but functional, and even with the unfavorable exchange rate, they are as cheap as Motel 6. (One of the rare bargains in Europe!) In the European tradition, toilets and showers are shared. It is not as romantic as staying in a quaint local hotel, but it is cheap, easy and doesn't require any language skills. (Desk clerks usually speak English.)
In Europe, rental cars are tiny, which means I am sleeping in the fetal position in the back seat. Usually, I go for Formula 1 when available, with the car as a backup. At least this means I don't have to worry about reservations. If I were traveling with someone else, I would bring a tent for gypsy camping. Even in dense Europe, there are plenty of rural areas where you can discreetly set up a tent at night, but you need to scope out a campsite before nightfall.
SociologyApart from the visible "homeless problem" that you see on the streets of any city, there are a vast number of semi-homeless people living in their cars. You would hardly notice them unless you are looking for them, and then you'll see they are everywhere. These people aren't counted in any survey or census because they are generally invisible and aren't a problem. They often have jobs but just can't afford an apartment.
Most, but not all, are male. They typically live in ratty looking vans seen parked throughout the city. They can be intelligent and pleasant to talk to. There is often a tale of woe behind their current lifestyle, but they are not a burden to society. On the contrary, they tend to be very independent. They are living within their means, and they are not asking anything of anyone.
Would I be living this lifestyle if I was involved in a committed relationship with, say, a female. I don't know; it would depend on her. In my experience, females tend to be rather... prissy. You know, femmy. Like GIRLS! Interior decorating and the collection of shiny baubles are a major factor, and the female maintenance issues can be huge. There aren't many who you could persuade to move out of a house and into a van. There would have to be negotiations. Positions would have to be stated. Feelings would have to be elucidated. And even if you broke down and lived in a house or apartment with her, it's not like you can just get in the car whenever you feel like it and go sleep in the desert. There's now POLITICS and BUREAUCRACY to contend with. Shees!
Not that I am bitter, mind you. I know a number of respectable couples who have spent extensive periods living out of a vehicle together, sometimes months at a time, but this is usually only when they are traveling. The only ones I have met who do it full time generally live in RVs. If you find a couple living together in a car or van in a stationary location, they usually look like they have fallen on hard times.
I have never met anyone else among the semi-homeless who lives in a rental car, or who has internet access and a medical plan. The key development is cellular internet access, which started only recently. Now that the advantages of a fixed home have become marginal, I'm sure that others will see the light, and at least van and RV living will increase.
Homelessness, in relative comfort, is a small price to pay for freedom.
Further meditations on homelessness can be found in Issue #4: The Virtues of Homelessness and Issue #11: The Buffet Dilemma.
Also see my blog: Homeless by Choice
On 8/16/07, a reader wrote:
I just read a couple of articles about being homeless. I was wondering how you obtain a driver's license without a permanent residence. My friend is between places right now, and finds it is difficult to get one when they don't allow PO boxes as permanent addresses. The same with the bank -- they won't let you use PO boxes to get an account.
It is best to use the address of a local friend, but you also might get by without one.
In Las Vegas, I have a friend whose address I use, but once I have specified his residence address (say for a driver's licence) I can usually have the organization use my PO Box for actual mail. Thus, the friend whose address I use has NEVER received any mail for me.
The only things I have needed a physical address for are:
I use my out-of-state parents' address for the last four and my local friend's address for the first three. Apart from the rebates and the initial PO Box address, all of the others allow me to use the PO Box as my mailing address for regular mailings.
If I was pressed to a wall and had NO ONE locally whose address I could use, I might just pick an apartment complex and claim to live there. I would choose a specific apartment, then submit an address change with the post office for my name and that address (so if any real mail did arrive, it would eventually get to me).
For a truly permanent address, I would use the address of my parents or another non-homeless family member in another state.
On my current Nevada driver's license it shows my PO Box (even
though I they have my friend's address on file). Unfortunately, if a
cop pulled me over and asked for me for a residence address,
I wouldn't be able to remember my friend's address
(and I would be lying to the officer).
Instead, I would simply tell the cop that I am homeless.
Nothing wrong with that.
“It was very good and I am glad I could read it before I'm homeless” —another homeless dude 3/20/07 (rating=4)
“I love it, been there done that, and not only males do it, i'm a GIRL!” —Miz Liz 6/27/07 (rating=5)
“awsumaited” —lethal 7/1/07 (rating=5)
“nicely done. Practical hints. I can get a full bath and wash hair with 1 gal. of h2o.” —Campin' ,( homeless) for 20 years 7/25/07 (rating=3)
“Intreresting tale” —Ian Martin from New Zealand 9/22/07 (rating=4)
“between three and four id say. good info for sure.” —homeless@16 11/7/07 (rating=4)
“I have been checking into this lifestyle and find it to be very interesting. I would of course like to live in an area that has favorable weather. The freedom from regular, daily sociatal norms must be amazing though.” —Jom 12/18/07 (rating=3)
“thanks” — 1/2/08 (rating=5)
“I've been living out of my car for a month...It's not bad except for the address part. It can get a little complicated having everything go to my parents becaus we don't get along.” — 1/6/08 (rating=5)
“Enlightening, especially when the whole world is pulled from underneath you and you're only 19. Just goes to show "it could be worse"” —Andy 4/17/08 (rating=5)
“use a spray bottle filled with diluted cetaphil solution and microfiber towel for shower. you can even use in the car if you are careful” —infowars.com 6/28/08 (rating=3)
“This is a great essay, want to co-author my book on car living?” —Houseless but not homeless 7/8/08 (rating=5)
“Very useful. I'm planning to begin a fully-free semi-homeless life with a friend in Florida. Your essays are giving me wonderful ideas. Maybe I'll start a site of my own and throw in some ideas for East coast living! =)” —Floridian Freedom 8/1/08 (rating=5)
“great, look for the stealthiswiki website if you want about 500 pages on homeless living, add some of your own” —Homeless Revolutionary 8/5/08 (rating=3)
“thank you!!!!!!!!!!!” — 9/22/08 (rating=5)
“It has been quite enlightening to find there are other educated, free-spirited people who live in their cars.” —Sherry B 10/1/08 (rating=3)
“Im going to live homeless for charity for a week. I'm a school teacher” —Dee 10/20/08 (rating=5)
“My brother is homeless and I learned many tips from this. I to once lived in Las Vegas and would say that it can be done.” —Steve NJ 12/8/08 (rating=5)
“ummm...” — 1/27/09 (rating=2)
“I was looking more for tips on how to be homeless when you have no money, but this was a refreshing read. You sound more like a modern nomad.” —Panda 2/1/09 (rating=3)
“I'm planning to go homeless, thank you for some tips.” —Alex, FL Keys 4/28/09 (rating=3)
“Fantastic! I hope to go homeless soon to pay off my debts. This is very very helpful.” —Almost Homeless 6/5/09 (rating=5)
“It need to be expanded into specific ways to deal with criminals and signs and signals we homeless people use to alert others to our presence so no one is 'surprised' by walking up on us sleeping etc.” —BenOliver 6/5/09 (rating=5)
“Nice job” —Fishdontbounce 7/3/09 (rating=5)
“I would have liked more ways to survive without an income, but thankyou. I was going to buy a sailboat, now maybe I'll get a license instead” —Dawn Connelly 7/6/09 (rating=3)
“Very interesting and informative - thank you.” —Tom in VA 8/26/09 (rating=3)
“Tip I read elsewhere: Get one of those Car Tarps, and put it over your car so you can sleep without police knocking on your window in very public places. Also want to do the sail boat think ^” — 9/7/09 (rating=4)
“Fantastic to know others like myself. I even learned a few things. I manage to do it without a car and without bothering anyone or asking for anything. It's nice to be a free chick.” —phantom_lover 10/28/09 (rating=4)
“I loved the pressed to the wall option on obtaining a drivers license -truly brilliant scheme.” —photojournalist 11/24/09 (rating=4)
“Very helpful information. Ill need it soon.” — 11/30/09 (rating=5)
“Interesting and informative” —Harshglare 11/30/09 (rating=3)
“hahahahahhahahahahhahahahahahaaaaaaa :)” —homeless 6/22/10 (rating=2)
“Good Stuff.... stay cool........ pun intended.” —Zee 6/26/10 (rating=3)
“insightful alternative to traditional living” — 8/2/10 (rating=4)
“Stupid!!” — 8/17/10 (rating=0)
“USA” —nsvtkvpqteg 12/14/10 (rating=2)
“very interesting read as we are having financial difficulties and car problems, definitely a very good read. thanks for all the helpful ideas and tips, for a just in case scenario!!!!!” —brian 2/22/11 (rating=5)
“being an o.t r. driver i have encountered many of the same problems w vertually the same solutions. very well writen.stay safe!” —ken 5/27/11 (rating=4)
Visit Glenn's other websites: Glenn-Campbell.com, RoamingPhotos.com, KilroyCafe.com and GlennsDrivingService.com
Page Created: 8/19/06