10 Critical Survival Lessons From the Homeless

The homeless people around the world may be a poor and pitiable lot, but they have a lot to teach us about survival. At first glance you might not think the people surviving in the middle of urban and suburban centers are in “real” survival situations, but you’d be wrong.

Deprived of financial resources and, ironically, surrounded by all the benefits of civilization the homeless still live and survive out of doors much of the time.

homeless person

They cannot turn on a tap that they pay for to get water. They can’t cool the house with an air conditioner or click on a furnace to stay comfortable. I don’t even get to crawl into their own bed that night, being forced to subsist on whatever they can assemble to make themselves a little nest.

While they might look, and indeed their existence may be miserable, the homeless populations of the world are forced to be resourceful if they want to survive.

Setting aside for a moment the sentimental and ethical concerns that surround this issue, today we’ll be taking a look at the real practical lessons that the homeless can teach us about survival.

Depending on No One but Their Wit and Grit

It’s no picnic being homeless. In fact it’s awfully rough. By all accounts of measurable statistics the homeless are victimized at rates disproportionate to their population.

A constant source of derision, scorn and insult they’re further the targets of thievery, assault and murder. It has long been understood It’s a label someone homeless is a shortcut to unperson them.

With much of society and passers-by disdainful of you or actively hostile and combined with the very real threats of exposure, illness and malnutrition being homeless is indeed a genuine test of your survival skills. Nothing is guaranteed for the homeless. Not shelter. Not food. Not a warm place to sleep. And not even safety.

If a homeless person lacks the skill, resourcefulness or tenacity to create or find what they need, they will continue to suffer, or suffer more than they already are.

Charity is never guaranteed. Many of them will fail in their quest to survive or give up in despair. Regrettably, thousands of homeless people die every year from exposure, preventable diseases or other maladies.

Just because they are in the middle of town or the city does not mean they’re not in a desperate survival situation.

If that does not sound like a survival situation to you, I don’t know what will. I wish you luck with your radioactive zombie ninja problem, I guess. At any rate, you would do very well to heed what wisdom the homeless can provide to you for your own survival purposes.

Ten Lessons the Homeless Can Teach Us About Survival

There are many lessons a homeless can teach us about survival, everything from actual practical skill application more esoteric things like controlling our emotions, attitude and outlook.

From my interactions, interviews and study of the homeless, their lives and struggles I’ve come up with 10 survival lessons that any prepper can use to further enhance their own readiness. Presented in no particular order below.

10. Attitude is Everything

The old saying that “attitude determines your altitude” is very applicable to survival situations. Rest assured anytime you find yourself in a life-threatening predicament you’ll already be heading for the doldrums.

Giving in to feelings of fear, panic, anxiety and other negative emotions will only hamper your efforts to survive, or even worse, see you turn towards giving up as a way out.

Scoff at that notion all you want, but there have been many a survivor found the world over in seemingly a pretty good state, with ample supplies of food, water and equipment, dead by their own hand.

They could not win the war of the mind, and in doing so lost their life. It is easy for despair to worm its way into your thoughts and once there infest them, robbing you of your impetus and will to go on.

Talking with homeless people from New England all the way down to both coasts of Florida one common theme among the seasoned wanderers seems to be an almost Zen-like acceptance of their situation.

They turned it from something emotional into something purely mechanical. They’re neither happy nor sad about it, they only focus on solving the problem at hand, whatever that might be.

It could be finding their next meal, finding a safe warm place to sleep, trying to get work, or get someplace safe.

As strange as it may sound, quite a few of them seem bizarrely calm, even serene. That mental state is likely a product of their singular focus on their practical problems and acceptance of the situation they are in, and nothing more.

If you work at it, you too can develop the sort of indomitable mental calmness. The panic and despair are always the enemies of reason and problem-solving you would be wise to rid yourselves of them before the time comes when they can destroy you.

9. Be Resourceful

However dire the straits the homeless find themselves in, they know there are always multiple ways to solve a problem. Take for instance the problem of getting food. They can Panhandle and try to make a few bucks off a kind stranger.

They might seek out institutions to try and help the homeless, be it a food kitchen, a church or some charitable initiative. If they get really desperate, they can resort to dumpster diving or stealing.

But you won’t see them doing, at least most of them, it’s just sitting there on a bench with a grumbling tummy doing nothing.

Listening to your stomach grows louder and louder what’s hunger pangs is one thing. Dealing with an emergency event is another. Something and often impacts the homeless is a turn in the weather, especially bad ones.

If they live out of doors almost as a rule and typical shelters they use for warmth and shade are ineffective against rain, what might they do to get out of a sudden thunderstorm or some torrential downpour?

By way of a for instance they could seek shelter in a hotel lobby, duck into a gas station bathroom or time a meal at a restaurant so they can eat inside. They can even stay outdoors but out of the rain, seeking cover underneath an awning or overhang.

If they’re really caught out with no cover around, they can look for something waterproof to make a shelter with. Everything from plastic tarps to trash can liners are completely impervious to water so long as they aren’t punctured.

With a few simple items a homeless person can make a simple shelter that will keep them dry and that will go a long way to keeping them warm. In a real bind they can just wrap it around them, or make a simple poncho.

You’ll have to be equally resourceful in your own survival situation if you want to live. It is important not to give up or become discouraged just because one potential solution doesn’t work. Forget it and move on to the next one.

8. Master Shelter Fundamentals

You’ll hear a lot of enthusiastic, newer preppers prattle on and on about the importance of having water, stocking water, getting access to clean water.

While it is extremely important, you’ll be in deep trouble after just a day or two without it, a bigger potential killer in an outdoor survival situation the shelter, or the lack thereof.

Without adequate shelter, you cannot thermoregulate your body. In the worst conditions, you can die in as little as three hours from exposure. That’s far faster than a few days it will take a lack of water to catch up to you.

Being outdoor survival specialists, the homeless are particularly adept at staying warm no matter what the conditions, and no matter what they have at hand. Here is one area we can learn an awful lot from them.

Homeless know that if you have to sleep outdoors, you want to get up off the ground. Even in warmer weather the ground will suck a ton of heat out of your body. In cold, wet conditions lying on the ground can make you hypothermic in short-order.

They further know that if they have to lie on the ground, they need to put a barrier between their bodies and the ground. All it takes is a few pieces of thick, sturdy cardboard (a material found in great abundance everywhere) to drastically reduce their heat loss to the cold, cold concrete or soil.

And what about layers against their body? Chances are your average homeless person does not have access to a high-tech $500 Arc’teryx parka. Instead, they use more commonly found materials to supplement their clothing.

Dennis case, the homeless standby is newspaper, or butcher paper, wadded up and stuffed into their clothing to increase its air trapping capability. A variation on this technique how to make a hobo sleeping bag out of tape together trash can liners filled with paper, cloth and other materials.

Take a note of the principle of survival here: they’re not fussing over what they don’t have, in this case a tent or a proper sleeping bag. Instead, they’re using the survival principle of keeping warm air next to their bodies, to keep themselves warm and their core temperature high.

We should do the same: pay more attention to principals at play, and less attention to gear and brands.

7. Be Ready to Reposition at a Moment’s Notice

The homeless are rarely welcomed anywhere, and the vagaries and variables consistently present in their day-to-day existence means that they cannot but rarely stay in one place for long.

It might be police, it might be bad weather, it might be the loss of what Little Shelter they had or some other mishap but the homeless tend to stay on the move.

More accurately said, where the homeless do stop, they always remain ready to move with just a minute’s notice.

You’ve probably seen this yourself. Pulling a wagon, carrying a backpack or pushing a shopping cart you’ll rarely if ever catch a homeless person with all of their belongings spread out, or unpacked.

The reason is simple: if they need to flee persecution of any kind they need to leave immediately, not five minutes from now, not even 60 seconds from now.

The homeless have learned the important survival lesson that remaining mobile is paramount. They might need to leave quickly to avoid a problem; they also might need to leave quickly to take advantage of something that can help them, in their case a limited number of beds at a shelter, or a limited amount of food at an outreach or soup kitchen.

You’re sure to face similar challenges in your own Survival situation. It could be rising water, oncoming weather, or rampaging crowd of looters. No matter what it is, you better be able to get while the getting is good.

6. Know Your Area Inside and Out

Homeless people are a great source of intelligence for a given area, Urban or Suburban Center. The homeless want to know what parts of town are best, as far as the most charitable and the safest, and which ones are the worst, meaning the cruelest or most crime-infested.

They want to which places they can linger at without being bothered, and which places will run them off with nary a glance. Don’t know who the nice cops are and who the mean cops are. Don’t know where they can go for a handout or hand up and which places they should avoid if they don’t want to be hassled.

The homeless know that their fortunes are closely linked with the area they inhabit at any given moment. That means they’ll want to know where the hazards are and where the resources are.

They want to know when the “season” of a place is changing, in the hearts of people are growing colder or they have overstayed their welcome. Most importantly, I want to know where they can go at a moment’s notice and be safe, and alone. A place to think, a place to regroup.

You should strive to be as diligent and intricately connected with the area you have chosen to make your standing as the average homeless person. If you are Suburban dweller oh, you’ll want to know where those bad parts of town are since most dangerous people are likely to radiate out from there.

Don’t want to know where potential safe havens are, places like police stations, hospitals and EMS bays. You want to know places you can potentially check in a pinch to find more food or supplies, or clean water. Warehouses, shipping hubs, even public pools are all think outside the box sources of supplies at the average person would overlook or forget to check.

You should also know absolutely every single potential way in or out of an area, by road or otherwise. If everything else fails and you have to exfiltrate from an area on foot, do you know your way out?

Do you know any hidden trails, or can you navigate by landmark? If the answer is no, you’re probably not as well connected and tuned in as you think.

5. Stay Low Profile

It is a sad State of Affairs and heart-wrenching to think about it, but the homeless are rarely welcome anywhere. Most places, most people, most times they are treated with a benign antipathy or ignored.

Much of the time they are treated with sneering contempt, or outright hostility. This is a major problem if a homeless person is in a “good place”. The best countermeasure to being run off is to remain unnoticeable, rather beneath notice, invisible.

That’s the reason so many homeless people seem to fade into the background. They don’t necessarily want to talk to anyone, they surely don’t want to track notice from any authorities or managers and I don’t want any trouble, most of the time.

That’s the lesson. A big part of avoiding trouble staying beneath trouble’s notice. This is not victim-blaming. the distinction is important: the bottom line is this there are people out in the world who want what you have, or just want to hassle you or like to have some kind of power over you.

Some people are just bullies, and in a world without rule of law that bullying will turn into tyranny. Some people just want to hurt others for sport.

As a prepper, especially one surviving an SHTF situation, you two don’t want to draw any attention to yourself. You don’t want to look cleaner, healthier, or any better off than the next poor schmuck just trying to stay alive.

You don’t want to be seen with a bunch of high-end Gucci gear, or driving around and some Mad Max looking off-road rig. You definitely don’t want to be bragging about what preps you have, you’re nice, warm, fortified compound deep in the woods or anything of that nature.

You should also take care to mind your own business, not sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong. The Lone Ranger approach is a good way to make enemies.

Also, consider how your house or shelter looks to people who don’t have one. Good on you for having that generator. But when everyone else has no power, no lights, and no heat and you do you had better believe that is going to draw the wrong kind of attention from the wrong kind of people.

The general impression you want people to take of you at the instant in a survival situation is that you are no one, and there is nothing to see here.

4. Dogs are the Original Survival Multitool

You’ll often see homeless people with dogs. Certainly they want companionship, a happy, furry friend who is completely content in their circumstances so long as their Master is by their side.

Aside from companionship, itself important in a survival scenario, dogs also fill a multitude of crucial functions for a sole survivor. On an essential level, dogs are furry and warm, with many species of dogs able to survive quite comfortably in temperatures that humans will not tolerate without shelter.

In conjunction with the shelter techniques and the section above, having a dog next to you is a fantastic way to stay warm when temperatures drop. All kinds of mammals huddle together for warmth in cold conditions and this is no different.

Dogs also fulfill security functions, able to take a hunk out of someone in the case of a larger breed, or just serving as an alarm or early warning system if they are smaller.

The dopiest, densest dog around has senses far keener than a humans and can easily detect the approach of someone trying to be sneaky, even when they are sleeping. Long generations of breeding and cohabitation with mankind makes many dogs eminently suited for this task.

While it varies greatly depending on the individual dog, certain ones do exhibit sixth sense when it comes to detecting people’s intentions. Ask any dog owner and they’ll tell you they don’t trust anyone their dog doesn’t trust.

I’m the same way. I’m not sure how and I’m not sure why, but apparently the sensitive organs of dogs can detect ill intent or malice in the hearts of another person.

Better safe than sorry: if your dog keys on someone that raises their hackles, either move on or keep your back to the wall.

Lastly, larger dogs are able to carry some cargo through use of saddlebag-like vests or pouches. No dog will ever come close to a horse, a mule, a donkey or even a llama as a pack animal but them carrying a few pounds can take a small load off. At the very least your furry canine friend can tote his own food.

3. Get a Survival Wingman

Only in America is the idea of the lone Wanderer, the isolated Frontiersman, the Superman, the one true survivor a Trope that persists. It is a romantic one, that’s for sure.

The idea that a person skilled enough, good enough, motivated enough, and just plain old tough enough can take on everything the worst elements of mankind and Mother Nature at her most violent can throw at them, chew on it, spit it out and laugh. If only that were true…

Have you ever noticed how many homeless people seem to move around in little bands, often duos, but sometimes more? The reason is so simple even children know it: there is safety in numbers! many hands make for light work, a little companionship or even just plain suffering together can make the unbearable bearable.

One can keep watch while several sleep. A group of people is much harder to roll than an individual, an important consideration considering how many evil people are out here in the world.

There’s more than you think, it’s just that most of them are afraid enough of imprisonment to mind their manners, for now. When the s*** hits the fan though, the gloves will come off.

Assuming you have any choice in the matter, you should ditch the idea of surviving alone. You need a wingman at the least, and ideally a group. If you have a family they are a shoo-in for the job. If you don’t have a family, you might consider friends or neighbors as part of your survival group.

Barring that, you can look around your area and try to find a Mutual Assistance Group, or MAG, a sort of locally-based prepper collective whose remembers all pull together in times of trouble for mutual benefit in survival situations and trying times.

There’s just too much to go wrong when you’re surviving alone. You don’t have eyes in the back of your head. You’ll have no one to watch over you while you sleep no one to help you with heavy lifting or other hard work.

Humans are social, and that means we are best we’re working together. The chances of survival go down dramatically if you don’t have a wingman or a group.

2. You Cannot Neglect Hygiene

This is more a lesson of what not to do based on what the homeless are forced to endure. With all the pressing needs of survival always front and center, some things are ignored or neglected as less necessary.

For the homeless hygiene is often one of them, not just for a lack of shower or bath facilities and shampoo and soap, but because they cannot spare the money or the time to engage in proper hygiene.

If you ever been up close and talking with a homeless person, you have probably noticed that their hair and clothes are filthy, their teeth are crooked, broken and rotting and their skin is haggard and covered in scabs or rashes. Though certainly unpleasant, and God knows they are uncomfortable, hygiene is important not just for good social graces.

If you’re unable or unwilling to get clean, and that includes your mouth, you’re basically facing a ticking clock. Little problems like rashes and broken skin, or an abscessed tooth from a cavity will quickly go from unpleasant or painful to show-stopping problem.

We are talking bonafide cause of death in medieval times before hygiene and medicine made such concerns a thing of the past. What’s more, areas like your armpits and groin will be germ factories, as will any other area on your body that is dark, moist and unwashed.

When you touch those places and then touch somewhere else on your body you will transfer those germs and with them a potential infection.

Knowing all of this, you should not neglect to put hygiene supplies in your own bug-out bag. You don’t have to haul your whole bathroom along, but something as simple as some baby wipes, hand sanitizer, soap, foot powder and a toothbrush with toothpaste will go a long, long way to keeping your skin and mouth clean and healthy, and your morale high.

Don’t underestimate the mood lifting effect of getting clean!

1. Avoid Conflict

The homeless know better than most that conflict wills rarely ending anything but tragedy, and that tragedy will take the form of loss of gear, or injury that they can ill afford.

While sometimes there is no avoiding a conflict, many times more often than not fights start when ego’s clash, not because of irreconcilable differences. If someone insults you, or challenges you but it’s not otherwise forcing their will upon you, just walk away.

If you’re dealing with someone who is out of their mind in one way or another, drugs or alcohol spring to mind as do mental illnesses, your best bet is to escape if you can and avoid fighting at all costs.

Think of it: what do you have to gain from fighting? Backed into a corner is one thing, as is being threatened with death or a severe maiming (so long as the threat is plausible) but 99% of confrontations you’ll have with other humans are just monkey dancing.

Why do people do it? Who knows? But what you do know is that if they are posturing, there is a chance for you to disengage with no penalty except to your ego.

Let them think whatever they want about you. If you are especially competent you can even use that to your advantage (when strong, appear weak), but know that you can “clap back” and turn spouting off into touching off blows or even bullets.

Let’s say you do win, even if you soundly trounced someone they may nurse a grudge against you. Even in death a vendetta might persist if their survivors or mates carry on fighting in their stead.

Win, Lose or Draw you are risking serious injury and loss of property in any clash. You may turn a chance encounter into a simmering feud. There is no valor in the cold calculus of survival. The meekest of the homeless know that, and respect it. You should too.

Conclusion

Whatever your opinion of the homeless, and whatever your opinion of the homelessness problem in America if you’re honest and rational you must acknowledge that the homeless are survivors, and they’re doing it every day right under our very noses.

Pity or scorn them all you want, but respect their ingenuity, tenacity and resourcefulness in the face of a problem that most of us would find frankly overwhelming. Place aside your sentimentality and learn the lessons of survival that the homeless have to teach us.

homeless survival lessons Pinterest image

About Tom Marlowe

Tom Marlowe
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.

2 comments

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    Great article! Many of us are one or two paychecks away from being homeless and any natural or man-made emergency could thrust all of us into homelessness. Those you may look down upon today, may be your sidewalk neighbor tomorrow. Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

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