This is an update of a post I did back in 2010 which is probably one of the most viewed posts on this blog. I figured it’s about time to update this resource list and add newer information and additional resources that could be helpful to those in need.
First, however, a couple of clarifications based on comments on the previous post. For starters, I have never been homeless by circumstance. I’ve been homeless by choice for about a year and a half and, while I always had a safety net (namely money, some sort of income, and lot of family and friends to fall back on if needed) I am well aware that there is a huge difference between choosing to be homeless (and traveling in our case) and being destitute and homeless and having no resources at all.
Second, this is meant to be a list of helpful information, not a cure-all for homelessness. I’ve worked with the homeless through a non-profit I founded some years ago as well as in conjunction with well-established non-profit agencies--and some really amazing individuals who have dedicated themselves to helping the homeless—and I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no "cure" for homelessness. Help can be provided and resources given but the overall causes of homelessness—mental illness, substance abuse, fleeing from abuse, job loss, literally having no one to depend on for help, having been in prison or on a sex offender list, bad luck, economic downsizing, PTSD, etc—are too vast and varied to “fix”.
So here is my small effort to provide some hopefully helpful information for those in need...
So here is my small effort to provide some hopefully helpful information for those in need...
- Basics. Have identification if possible. It is hard to function in today’s society without some sort of identification. A driver’s license, state ID card, or passport are considered definitive sources of ID. Having your birth certificate and social security card are also important. Homeless advocates can often help with procuring these documents if needed.
- Basics. It isn’t so unusual to see homeless people with cell phones these days. It is a great way to keep in touch with people, can allow you to receive calls about jobs, and can be used to call 911 in an emergency (note that even an old cell phone that doesn’t have a calling plan can often be used to call 911 in an emergency so if you have nothing else this may be something to consider). Cheap cell phone plans can be found at Ting, Republic Wireless, etc. Also, low income folks can qualify for a free government-sponsored cell phone plan (info here).
- Basics. It is difficult to do anything without an address (like apply for benefits or a job) so if possible, try to get an address where you can receive mail (a friend or family member’s house even if you aren’t officially living there for example). Sometimes homeless service centers will allow people to use their address to receive mail. PO boxes and private mail boxes are also an option but these have a monthly or yearly fee and you will still need to provide proof of a physical address in order to apply for them.
- Basics. At the first sign that you will be losing your home/income, go to your local welfare office and sign up for whatever you qualify for. This may include food stamps, unemployment, subsidized housing, Medicare, cash assistance, etc. Often times it takes a while for these benefits to get started and, unfortunately, the waiting list for subsidized housing can be years long, but it is important to get any aid you can, as soon as you can get it.
- Basics. When you find yourself in a difficult position, another great resource is to call 211. This is a nation-wide number like 911 which connects you to social service help in your community. They can tell you where local shelters and food banks are and provide other useful information as well (you can find 211 here online).
- Basics. Storage is often an issue for the homeless. Carrying your stuff, especially important documents or anything else of value, is often difficult and/or dangerous when you are living on the streets. Some homeless shelters or service centers can provide lockers for storage. Another idea is to rent a locker at a bowling alley (usually less than $50 per year) to store important items; lockers may also be available at bus and train stations. Renting a storage unit is another option but generally the cost can be quite high.
- Basics. If you have/can get a free checking/savings account at a local bank or credit union, do so. It is super helpful to have a way to cash checks and receive money (ie: via PayPal, etc) in a way that won't cost you anything. Of course you can do these things at Walmart or check cashing places but there is usually a fee associated with each transaction.
- Basics. If you are homeless you need gear. Even something as basic as a backpack to carry a couple of changes of clothes around with you is something. Expanding your gear to include a tent, sleeping bag, and cooking items is even better. Check out 'shopping' below for ideas on acquiring this gear.
- Basics. When you are camping in a squat and wondering where your next meal is coming from, your last concern may be getting an education but this isn't something to discount. With an education (even just getting a GED, or spending your library time learning things online) you can greatly improve your chances of getting out of the mess you are currently in. For more information on getting a GED contact your local community college or literacy organization.
- Basics. This can be one of the more difficult things to acquire for those in need but the more friends, family, and positive connections you have in the community, the better off you will be. Personal connections with people who can help you out of a hard spot, provide job leads, even take in your mail or let you store stuff at their place is very valuable. Note these need to be positive people, not losers who will drag you down with them.
- Food. Find out where hot meals are served in your community for the homeless. These spots often change daily and can range from breakfast and lunch at the Salvation Army to dinners cooked and served at churches or homeless service centers once a week.
- Food. Visit a community food pantry. These places help those in need by providing free food and occasionally other items (pet food, diapers, baby formula, etc).
- Food. Stop by churches in your community and see what sort of food programs they have available for those in need. Some provide hot meals, some provide gift certificates for local grocery stores, and others provide canned and non-perishable bags of food to those in need.
- Food. Fast food places shouldn't be discounted. Although you wouldn't want to eat there every day, the $1 menu can provide a quick, relatively hot meal for a buck or so.
- Food. Dollar Stores and 99 cent stores have sprung up all over and most offer a food (dry/refrigerated/frozen) section. For a few dollars you can create a complete, relatively healthy meal.
- Food. Free community events and community meetings often provide snacks of some sort--everything from small appetizers to more elaborate food creations.
- Food. Dumpster diving is a tried and true way to procure food--generally food that is still in great condition but may be expired or left over. Local divers will be able to point you to the stores with the best (cleanest, safest, etc) dumpsters to dive in.
- Food. Forging for wild edibles or gleaning a farmer's field is another way to procure free food. Of course it depends on your skills and knowledge and having a bit of experience but everything from finding wild mushrooms and berries to fishing or asking to glean a field after harvest can provide some free food for you.
- Food. Another source of free food is free samples. With an old Costco card or a free tour through a food factory among other things (special events at the mall, etc) you can often cobble together enough food to make up a complete free meal.
- Food. Occasionally you may be able to barter with a restaurant for a free meal. By offering to trade a window-washing or parking lot sweeping job for a meal you will at least be able to score a meal and possibly a source of free future meals.
- Shelter. Find out where the local homeless shelters
are. Some people rely on these places,
others wouldn't touch these places with a ten foot pole but at least knowing
where they are is useful, especially during times of particularly bad weather.
- Shelter. Squats--official or, most often unofficial--or places where the homeless camp out together can be found in both rural and urban areas. Finding these places is usually done via word of mouth but there can be dangers associated with these places. Use them accordingly.
- Shelter. Many homeless, especially in suburban and rural areas, set up their own camps either with or without other people. With some camping gear this is often a cheap option for shelter.
- Shelter. Couchsurfing is another option for those without shelter, either unofficially--crashing on a friend's or relative's couch until you wear out your welcome--or officially via websites made specifically (usually for travelers) for providing a free couch for a night or two (ie: couchsurfing or warmshowers).
- Shelter. It may be possible to trade some of your time or skills for a free place to sleep. Everything from offering to work for a farmer for space to sleep in a barn to trading live-in jobs skills (elder sitting, babysitting, housesitting, etc) for free room and board is possible.
- Shelter. If you are homeless but have a car, your car will be your most likely place to shelter for free. Some communities have car parks for the homeless that offer a bit of security. In other cases you will need to use your knowledge and judgement to find safe places to park where you won't be hassled by the police or those who wish to do you harm. Note that many Walmarts are fine with people parking overnight in their parking lots.
- Shelter. Ask for shelter. Occasionally you may find a church that will let you sleep in their basement or a farmer who will let you camp in their field just for the asking.
- Shelter. Find out if there are shelter options for those in need in your community. These can range from transitional housing programs to "half-way houses" to other community-funded shelter programs.
- Shelter. See if your local church or homeless service center offers free nights at local motels. Sometimes these organizations can provide vouchers for a free night or two to get people off the streets at least for a little while.
- Shelter. Abandoned buildings, warehouses, I've even heard of people crashing in some out-of-the-way janitor's closet at a business in order to seek shelter. These options provide more shelter than being outside and exposed to the elements but they can also lead to trespassing charges and legal entanglements so use these options with caution.
- Special situation. If you or your spouse has ever served in the armed forces, for any amount of time, be sure to check with the Veteran's Administration to see what free benefits you are entitled to. Info here and here. Note that in addition to the VA, many communities have a range of vet service centers (DAV, VFW halls, county vet service centers, etc).
- Special situation. If you are fleeing from an abusive situation, you may be able to find shelter and other resources at your local abused woman's shelter (Google abuse shelter and your city to find the names of local shelters). Also more info here.
- Special situation. If you are a member of a registered tribe, check with your tribal service center to see what services/benefits you qualify for.
- Special situation. If you are a senior citizen (and the age for this varies from 50+ to 62+ to 65+ depending on the service/agency) check out your local senior service center to see what senior resources are available in the community (this can be everything from housing to meal programs to medical care to transportation, etc).
- Special situation. If you are a minority, check and see if there are any resources in your community that can help you (this can range from minority employment programs to minority student programs, etc).
- Special situation. If you are an immigrant check and see if your city has specific programs to help you find resources (this can be as generic as an immigrant assistance center to as specific as a Chinese cultural association that provides translators and assistance signing up for government programs).
- Special situation. If you are a teenager, Google "teen homeless" and your location for assistance. There are a number of organizations--both national and local--that provide homeless services specifically for teenagers which range from meals to teen shelters to job programs, etc.
- Special situation. If you have a disability, go to your local Social Security office and sign up for disability payments/services (note this can be a long and frustrating process but there may be services in the community to help you with the applications). Being disabled may also put you higher on the list for subsidized housing and other disabled services (transportation, medical care, etc).
- Special situation. If you are a college student, check and see if your college has special services for homeless students. This is a bigger problem than most people realize so many colleges and universities have begun to offer a range of programs and services to help out their students in need.
- Special situation. If you are homeless with children, see if your community offers programs which can help both you and them. These can range from free daycare for homeless children to feeding programs, even during the summer when school is out.
- Medical. Check to see if your community has a free or sliding scale clinic if you are in need of medical care. This can greatly reduce the cost of medical care and can take care of medical situations before they turn into emergencies.
- Medical. Keep your eyes and ear open for notices of health fairs in your community. These may be offered annually and provide free medical and dental services and even necessary vaccines to those in need.
- Medical. Know that if if you have an emergency medical issue you can go to the ER of your local hospital and they must treat/stabilize you even if you can’t pay (you will get bills after the fact, however. Ask the hospital billing department about their charity care services when you receive the bills).
- Medical. See what free and cheap services your local health department/health district office provides. This can range from free vaccines to free family planning resources.
- Medical. If you have a chronic medical problem that you need medicine for, check out this website and/or check with the maker of the drugs you need and find out if they have a free or reduced cost prescription program. Also, if you do see a medical doctor for your issue you can ask them for free samples of the prescription you need. Note also that Walmart and Costco (even if you are not a member) provide a number of inexpensive generic prescription drugs.
- Medical. If you qualify, sign up for Medicaid/Medicare which will cover a great deal of your medical costs.
- Medical. Consider medical and dental schools for free or reduced cost care. This is particularly common at dental schools where supervised students "practice" on you. You get free or greatly reduced-price care while they get experience and training (their instructors, of course, will be watching everything they do).
- Medical. Not always a viable option, but getting into drug and other trials for whatever ails you could net you the care you need as well as payment for your time and services. Info here and here.
- Medical. Visit your local Planned Parenthood or sexual health center and find out about getting free or reduced-cost birth control (when you are in the midst of crisis, the last thing you need is a baby!).
- Medical. Preventative health care is your best defense against becoming ill and needing expensive medical care. Keeping your feet clean and blister free is one example.
- Transportation. Walking is often the transportation of choice for those in need as it is a free way to get from place to place. Good sturdy shoes will greatly improve your ability to walk long distances.
- Transportation. Next up the scale of inexpensive transportation is having a bicycle. Bikes may need a bit of knowledge to keep in good repair but they are basically free modes of transportation.
- Transportation. Check and see if your city offers free or reduced cost bus passes for those in need. Often you can get a month's worth of motorized transport for free or very cheap.
- Transportation. If you need to travel further from home, consider taking one of the cheap buses that have recently popped up. These include Megabus, Bolt Bus, and GoTo Bus among others.
- Transportation. Check out your local CraigsList for ride share opportunities which may net you a free ride for the cost of doing the driving.
- Transportation. Hitchhiking and train hopping are as old as cars and trains. These can provide free transportation but at your peril (both legal and physical...use at your own risk).
- Transportation. Cars can often be both transportation and shelter for the homeless be beware that all legal requirements must be followed lest you end up with more problems and legal fees than you can handle (this means having current registration and insurance, taking care of any tickets, etc).
- Transportation. Not that many people in need are likely to hop a plane but if you need to go a great distance at a low cost, be sure to check out the low cost airlines that fly in your area (such as Spirit, Allegiant, JetBlue, etc).
- Transportation. Mopeds and motorcycles can be lower cost options than driving a car. Gas costs are lower, insurance costs are lower, and maintenance is lower as well. Be sure to wear a helmet when you ride and, as with cars, keep your specialized license (if needed), insurance, and registration up to date.
- Transportation. Car-pooling, ride shares, and other car-sharing programs are popular in some areas and can provide lower cost transportation than having your own car.
- Income. If you qualify, consider JobCorps, a government program which provides young people housing, job skills, a paycheck, and other benefits.
- Income. In years past, those in need often joined the military which provided them housing, job skills, meals, medical care, and a paycheck. It is much more difficult to join these days but still an option for those who qualify.
- Income. Panhandling is, unfortunately, a fairly lucrative proposition for those in need. Although it may be illegal in some areas, many have turned to panhandling as an alternative to day labor for some quick money.
- Income. Another method for trading what you have (skills, material goods, etc) for what you need is bartering. With practice, you can make some good trades that will, at least, provide for some necessities, and at most, could turn into a full-time career.
- Income. Earning an online income these days is not so out of the realm of possibility for those in need. With a free blogging platform (Blogger, for example), a free AdSense account, and a free PayPal account, you can be on your way to earning money online (not to mention selling on eBay or CraigsList, etc). Example here.
- Income. If you have worked at all during the past year, don’t leave your tax refund behind. Many communities offer free assistance with filling out and filing your tax return which can mean extra money for you.
- Income. Day labor is a popular way to make some quick cash with very little red tape. There are official day labor spots (show up each morning at the office and see what jobs are available) and unofficial day labor gigs (note the many many people hanging around farms/Home Depot/etc waiting to see if a random person will give them a job for some quick cash).
- Income. Simply Googling for ways to make quick cash can bring you lots of interesting info--everything from selling your blood to selling hand crafts on etsy (more info here).
- Income. Use your trash picking and dumpster diving skills to find items that you can resell. This is a popular way for people to make a bit of money and the selling part can be done anywhere--from a local street corner to online via CraigsList.
- Income. A word of warning, when you are down and out some "too good to be true" job offers may appeal to you. Don't fall for jobs that are illegal and/or immoral (selling drugs, prostitution, burglary, etc). These are a one-way path to nowhere (and jail and death, etc).
- Housekeeping. Use your local library for all of the free resources it provides. Check out free movies and books, utilize their free wi-fi and computers, hang out on particularly cold days to keep warm, attend free events (sometimes these include free food), and take free classes (everything from knitting to computer skills classes).
- Housekeeping. Shop thrift stores.
You can find basically everything you need—from clothes to couches to
food and hygiene items—at many thrift stores.
Check to see what days they offer additional discounts (senior ½ off
day, blue ticket half off day, etc) and be sure to get there early for the best
- Housekeeping. Speaking of thrift stores, the Goodwill store in your community may offer additional services—everything from English classes to job training courses to actual jobs for those in need.
- Housekeeping. Staying clean is another big concern when you are
homeless. Some homeless service centers
offer free showers, paid showers can be had at truck stops and
county/state/federal parks, and a day/month pass to the local swimming pool or
YWCA/YMCA will also get you access to a shower.
The old way of washing up—with a bucket of water or in a
lake/stream/river will also do the trick but not nearly as warmly.
- Housekeeping. Keeping your clothes clean—as anyone who is homeless or has been on the trail for a long time can tell you—is difficult. The laundromat is one option, washing clothes by hand and hanging them to dry is another (time consuming) option, and some churches and homeless service centers/shelters offer the free use of laundry facilities for those in need.
- Housekeeping. Just because you are homeless or broke, doesn't mean you should never do anything for fun. Check local sources (online newspaper, local news magazines, etc) and see what sorts of free entertainment are available in your area (community fairs, concerts in the park, etc).
- Housekeeping. Keeping your stuff in good repair is a cheaper option than replacing items that have been broken or damaged. Keep a small sewing kit and some duct tape on hand to make quick repairs and extend the life of your gear and clothing.
- Housekeeping. When you need things--from clothing and shoes to work materials and household goods--check Freecycle and CraigsList for free and cheap items.
- Housekeeping. Many homeless centers, shelters, churches, and even homeless meal programs will provide free clothing, shoes, and hygiene items for those in need just for asking.
- Housekeeping. Remember the mantra reduce, reuse, recycle. So many people throw out things that are still usable and often in good condition. This can work to your advantage if you do all three of these things--have minimal possessions, reuse your own things and things others have tossed out and recycle items you have or find in order to provide for your basic needs.
- Long-term fixes. If part of your situation is due to drug or alcohol addiction, consider joining a free treatment program such as AA or NA.
- Long-term fixes. If you never graduated from high school, consider getting your GED. The assistance to get a GED is often provided free of charge through community colleges, adult education programs, literacy councils, etc.
- Long-term fixes. Do not get into debt. Being in debt--whether due to huge credit card bills or the massive money suck of payday lenders--will be like a noose around your neck. If you can't afford something today, don't put yourself in the position of buying said item on credit and owing it tomorrow.
- Long-term fixes. If you have legal problems--everything from outstanding tickets to outstanding warrants--be sure to take care of them ASAP. If you can not afford to take care of these problems with money, ask about other options such as jail days instead of probation or community service as a way to pay off fines.
- Long-term fixes. If you are in a bad way but you have the ability to attend college (ie: have graduated from high school or got a GED, have good SAT scores, etc) you might consider taking out student loans and attending college to get a marketable degree. I generally don't recommend going into debt but in some cases, such as getting documented, marketable job skills, this may be a consideration.
- Long-term fixes. Apply for every job you can no matter if it is a crap job or something you have no interest in. It is easier to get another (better) job if you are currently employed. In addition, if you can find a job with any sort of extra benefits (like a free meal if you work at a restaurant or all the coffee you can drink, etc) it is all the better for you.
- Long-term fixes. Avoid the law if at all possible. This means avoiding anything that can get you in trouble with the cops or court system (drugs, SOs with legal issues, having children you can't support, etc).
- Long-term fixes. Volunteer. You might wonder why, if you are in a bad way, someone would suggest you volunteer but by volunteering you will not only get some documented job skills, but you will be helping others (it will take your mind off your own problems!), and you may even get additional benefits (like a free meal if you volunteer at a soup kitchen, etc).
- Long-term fixes. Cut out the vices. Drinking, drugs, and smoking are expensive vices with no redeeming qualities. By cutting these out of your life you will be healthier, clearer of mind, and have more money in your pocket.
- Long-term fixes. Seek assistance for problems that keep you in a downward cycle. If mental illness is an issue, seek out free or low cost mental health services in your community. If the people you hang out with are the problem, change the things you do/people you hang out with.
- Other resources. Check out your local Salvation Army. This is an excellent resource in many communities as they provide meals, food to take with you, a clothing bank, and other forms of assistance to help those in need.
- Other resources. See if there is a list or directory of homeless
resources in your community. This
document often provides lists of hot meals, places to get a free shower,
homeless shelters, etc and can be found online, at local homeless shelters,
etc. (Example here)
- Other resources. There are lots and lots of online resources for the homeless and those in need. Including this and this and this and this.
- Other resources. See if your community has a homeless service center or a community resources center. These places often encompass a number of services--everything from welfare sign ups to free counseling to job training, etc--to help those in need.
- Other resources. If you have children, be sure to sign them up for anything they qualify for due to your economic circumstances (such as the free lunch program, the school's weekend food program, free children's dental services, etc). Many schools--from pre-school to college--have homeless student programs to help those in need.
- Other resources. See what what kind of help is available through your local utility company (gas company, water company, electric company, etc). Some utility companies offer rebates for purchases, they may also offer free things such as free home weatherization programs, and some may provide assistance with paying utility bills for those in need.
- Other resources. Move. Many people don't want to leave an area they are comfortable in but if the place you are living has many negatives going for it (high unemployment rates, bad weather, too much violence, etc) consider relocating to a better area.
- Other resources. Safety is even more important if you are homeless because you don't have the option of locking a door between you and the outside world. Take additional safety precautions as you can to avoid common causes of street violence.
- Other resources. Reddit is a wonderful online community that helps people out in a myriad of ways. Everything from providing straight up assistance for those who ask to random acts of pizza to local subreddits where you can ask for specific help or assistance.
- Other resources. Know your legal rights. Being broke or homeless or jobless is already depressing enough. Make sure you don't get legally railroaded because you don't know your rights or have no legal help for a problem you are experiencing. Many communities have free legal services for those in need (examples from Seattle here, here, and here).
- Other resources. Never stop learning. These days nearly everything you need to learn can be found online and, without a doubt, knowledge and education can be your greatest resources for pulling yourself out of a bad situation. There has never been a more egalitarian time in history where resources are available to everyone if they only know where to look and how to put the knowledge they gather into use. (Example here)