Reference: 2014 Utah Report on Homelessness

I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen a lot more homeless people out there than I did 10 or 15 years ago. Mostly men, but some couples and a handful of women with children. From what I’ve read, the reason the homeless we see on the streets are mostly men is that some of the other options exclude men.  Many of the shelters out there are for women only. I think part of the reason, too, is that women feel much less safe being homeless on the streets, so they opt for other options – options that are perhaps not better, but safer. I don’t know, ‘cuz I haven’t talked to many homeless women. I’ve talked to a number of homeless men and I’d encourage you to engage a few in conversations that are deeper than the usual “How’s your day going?”. I think I can confidently say that the vast majority of the homeless you meet have an interesting story to tell.

Have you ever asked yourself, “What would have to happen to get me to the point of holding a cardboard sign outside the Wal-Mart?”

One guy in particular I was able to pump for information on the mechanics of homelessness for close to three hours (I know what all of you are thinking right now – “Lucky!”). I’d just started on a drive from Pocatello to Boise and saw him up ahead with his thumb out. Despite it being winter and a cold blustery day besides, he looked plenty warm. Insulated coveralls, gloves, heavy boots and even heavier beard. But the pit bull dog he had on a string wasn’t wearing anything so I stopped and offered him a ride. The guy just assumed that he was included in the invitation so he got in, too. I’d’a driven the dog to Boise for free but I figured the guy owed me conversation. Most people can keep you entertained if you can get them talking about what they know, and while probing this guy to determine his area of expertise (condensed matter physics? no. xerophilic landscaping? no. air quality regulation? no. living on the fringe of society? Check!) I found out he’d been homeless for 15 years. On and off. Mostly on. (The dog had been homeless for 2 years. In dog years that’s forever, especially this dog’s years, which were all of them). Fifteen years made the guy a bit of an anomaly since a recent study outa’ Salt Lake City found that only 14% of the homeless are classified as ‘chronically homeless’. 86% stay homeless for less than 6 weeks, with most of those clocking in around 2 weeks. Think lost job, missed rent, or broke up and the other person got custody of the substandard housing. 86% – Keep that in mind ‘cuz that’s gonna’ come up later.

But this guy had little to say about acute short term homelessness, which was good for me because I imagine hearing about such troubles is just depressing and uninteresting.  It’s hard to get good at anything in just a few weeks and it’s hard to be interesting about a subject if you aren’t good at it. So remember this:  86% of the homeless you talk to about homelessness won’t know much about it except how to do it poorly and how much it sucks.

But this guy was good at homelessness. He’d had a rough home life in Alaska and left when he was 14, lived on the streets for a while, got regular work a few times (Once with an uncle for half a year and a few other times amounting to a year or two total) but decided that homelessness was better. It makes me wonder if maybe the reason the 86% want to limit their homelessness to 2-6 weeks is because they don’t know any better.

Anyway, he was homeless by choice. He was heading back to Seattle where someone who was a girlfriend in all but name and deed could be counted on to provide a couch while he worked whatever odd jobs presented themselves. That was the plan, but I gathered that it was of little real importance to him if the plan worked out as planned or not. He’d made the trip to Salt Lake City to attend a friend’s wedding. The wedding was a month ago and he’d started the trek to SLC 3 months before that. I guess that’s a thing with the homeless – avoid air travel. And get started early if you have a deadline.

Here’s what I learned from him, as a FAQ:

Me: How’s your day goin’?
He: OK. Thanks for the ride. I spent the night in Pocatello, and the previous night in Lava Hot Springs. I walked for 10 hours out of Lava before I got a ride, practically all the way to Poky.

Me: I notice you’re not fat like most Americans. In fact, you look in pretty good shape.
He: I walked 10 hours yesterday.

Me: Are you hungry?
He: No. Getting calories is not a problem. There’s lots and lots of food available, all over. If I want a meal all I have to do is to ask someone to buy me food. On average I have to ask maybe two people. If I want money I have to ask a hundred. Also, any fast food dumpster has lots and lots of food in it. You would be amazed. They are usually in some kind of enclosure. These are good places to sleep. The concrete block holds the heat if they’re exposed to the sun during the day. There’s privacy and some degree of shelter from the weather.

Me: And breakfast in bed the next morning.
He: Right.

Me: What tools do you carry?
He: I couldn’t manage without a selection of heavy markers. I’ll often carry cardboard. If I need something I make a sign. If you want results the sign needs to stand out, so I make a colored border around the letters. White stands out best. White markers are valuable to the homeless. Also, a little humor helps. The sign I have now says “Dreaming of a cheeseburger” on one side and “100% of your cash donation goes to help the homeless” on the other.

Me: Clothes?
He: Pointless to carry more than you wear. If something wears out it’s easy to get another from a friend or another homeless guy. Or Craig’s list. I usually check Craig’s list first, there’s a lot of free stuff there.

Me: Craig’s list? You mind if we circle around back to that later?
He: Fine by me. You’re the one writing the FAQ.

Me: Ya’ get much from charitable organizations?
He: Not much. Toothpaste and such.

Me: Ya’ feel bad about getting stuff from charity?
He: Nah, I do more to help the homeless than I get from charities.

Me: Ya’ got a gun, do ya’?
He: No. Not a knife, either. You definitely need to carry a weapon to defend yourself and be willing to use it, but it’s too easy to accidentally kill someone with a gun or a knife and I’d feel just awful if I killed someone.  I carry a chain with a heavy lock on it.

Me: Is there much violence?
He: Most of it is related to someone wanting what you have, but the person doing the hurting is usually just knocking you down so they can go through your pockets and see what you have, rather than knowing you have something worth taking. Since it’s opportunistic and they aren’t sure you have anything, they’ll leave you alone if you demonstrate you’ll put up a fight. Just show them your weapon. It’s just not worth it to them.

Me: Do the big cities have a network of homeless who all help each other out?
He: Not really. You can pick up good information if you keep your ears open, but a common newb mistake is to go sleep where someone has told you is a good spot. “Best spot is under the fourth street bridge. Everyone’s real friendly and there’s always extra food”. They’ll just tell them that so the group of regulars there can mob them.

Me: And take their stuff?
He: And take their stuff.

Me: Whether they have a weapon or not?
He: Newbs don’t have a weapon, or if they do they don’t know how or when to use it. The first thing they get taken away from them is their weapon. You can always tell a newb. People get taken advantage of a lot.

Me: There’s a certain amount of humor to be found in any newb.
He: Yeah, one time one of them told me he’d slept for hours in the rain, but it hadn’t rained that night. It turns out he’d kipped down on a lawn and the sprinklers had come on at 2 AM.

Me: So to get around you just hitchhike, and walk a lot if you don’t get a ride?
He: Yeah, that and there’s a lot of ride sharing you can find on Craig’s list. A lot of free stuff on Craig’s list.

Me: Looks like you want to circle back around to Craig List now.
He: Yeah.

Me: I thought I was writing this FAQ.
He: Sorry. Whatever.

Me: No, no, it’s fine. Craig’s list. I wanted to ask, how do you access it?
He: Smart phone.

Me: Smart phone? You can consistently cash flow a smart phone plan? That’s like $35 a month minimum, right?
He: No. I have the phone but don’t pay for a plan.

He: A smart phone works fine w/o a plan. You just go sit outside a Starbucks or some other place with free wifi. You can place calls with a free VOIP app. You can’t receive calls ‘cuz you don’t have a phone number, but a friend who really wants to talk to you can send a message or email asking you to call him.

Me: Your phone looks newer than mine, how long have you had it?
He: A week. I’ve owned 50 phones over the last two years. In the rich areas of cities when the latest phone comes out people just throw out their old ones. You can find them in dumpsters. No charger usually so when the battery dies I throw it away or give it to someone. You can also get chargers for free if you want to.

Me: So you’ve got better things to spend your money on than a smart phone plan. Like cigarettes and booze and heroin, right?
He: No, man, I’m clean. Eight years. Life’s a lot better now. And cigarettes are free.

Me: What up with that dog?
He: I like the dog. Also you get more help from people if you have a dog.


The above is what I gathered from this guy, and does not necessarily apply to other homeless. It certainly doesn’t much apply to the acutely homeless (the newbs), which are 86% of them (per SLC study). The acutely homeless do not want to be homeless, are bad at it, and are suffering because of it. They are working hard in whatever way they think will work to become not homeless. The other 14% is either happily homeless, like this guy, or more likely crazy, addicted, or is a serious social misfit. Or some combination. These people are also suffering from homelessness.  They are a thorny problem.  If you want to help solve the homeless problem, consider starting with the 86%. That’s a much easier problem to address. But at some point the crazy/addicted/weirdo fraction’s going to have to be addressed, too. Tricky.  But the 86% problem is NOT tricky to solve. Really. You just have to recognize that the 86% is NOT crazy/addicted (well, not any more so than many of your neighbors), does not WANT to be homeless, and IS actively seeking solutions to become not homeless.

So the guy and I didn’t actually talk about free cigarettes. I picked that up on my own by watching him. ‘mazing what you can learn by keeping your eyes open. We stopped so I could pee and gas up (This was 3 years ago, before the Tesla), and when I got out to pump Ethyl he walked over and got 1/2 a cigarette, for free:

cigarette pod 2
The tops of these things just pop off and there are literally hundreds to choose from, some of them in pretty good shape. It turns out that the wealthy in this country (The top 95% of income earners) often don’t finish the whole cigarette. The end of your break doesn’t necessarily coincide with the end of your cigarette. Those ciggy-stations are FULL of 1/2’sies. Presumably if you buy yours by the loosie you smoke the whole thing. (LINK: This is part 1 Def: Loosie is at 0:00 of Part 2
Yeah, it looks like the chronically homeless in this country are heavily into the “reduce, reuse, recycle” sharing economy. Ever think of it that way? What’s the carbon footprint of a homeless dude?

I asked the guy to show me his tats. Here’s one:
— N.B. As soon as I find that picture I’ll edit it in.  I have 30,000 pics on my laptop, all in a folder named “Sort Me”.

He says it wouldn’t really work ‘cuz you have to sign it every year.

He also showed me one on his ankle: “JENNIFER”. I asked if that was a girlfriend. He said yes, for about a year but afterward he’d added more tattoo below it. He pulled down his sock and showed me “is a bitch” below it.

Probably half of you are appalled. “A lighthearted look at homelessness, indeed! What an insensitive kcirp”. But the guy I gave a ride to wasn’t suffering from woe and want. My wife and I are homeless ourselves, after a fashion, and are not suffering. Quite the opposite, we rejoice in not having a lawn to mow. We and he chose it as a lifestyle. Admittedly we drive around in a luxury sedan, so we have a place of safety for our stuff, and our stuff consists of more than cardboard, markers, a pair of underwear suitable for wearing every day, a chain, and a free smartphone. And a dog. In fact, now that I think about it we don’t have any of those things. So as far as renunciation of material goods goes, that guy’s got us beat 6 different ways. And yeah, we buy a night at a hotel now and then, and though that’s a short term tenancy it’s a home of sorts, for a night. And the tent is a home of sorts. But the sweet spot under the bridge is a home of sorts, too. He and we and our ilk are happily homeless. So all you haters, I’m not insensitive to the rest of the 14% who are chronically homeless but don’t want to be (which would be most of them). I mean, having to suffer with mental disease or addiction in the context of a state of extreme impoverishment seems unnecessarily cruel to me. Think about it – those homeless who don’t have mental disease are probably short-term homeless and won’t be staying that way for much longer than 6 weeks (You’d have to be crazy, right?). But they all deserve our compassion, even those others who are, indeed, homeless because they are messed up. Leaving these people to suffer on their own with their diseases and impoverishment seems like the worst possible way for society to address the issue. The idealistic notion that to help these people is to encourage them is flawed, since most of them will not get better on their own simply because you choose not to help them. Similarly, consider that the 86% will only be homeless for 6 weeks or less. What can you do during that 2 to 6 week period that would help?

FYI the next post will be about the gear we travel with.

How ’bout some take-home messages?

  • most homelessness is acute. They don’t want to be that way and they will not, in fact, stay that way. They are doing the best they can.
  • If you give them 5 dollars they will not, as a result, stay homeless for longer than the typical 2-6 weeks. But it might make their lives a little easier during a troubled time.
  • homeless people are interesting.
  • homeless people have morals. They are expressed in a different context than the homed, but are otherwise little different than your own, on average.
  • homeless people are not worse than you. Depending on who you are, they might be better. They deserve your compassion.

Homelessness can be fun, sustainable, and carries a low-carbon footprint. However, it is not scalable. So I won’t mind of some of you decide the lifestyle is worth a try, but don’t you all go do it.