For most people, the closest they’ll get to homelessness involves giving money to a raggedy person who makes eye contact with them on the street, or watching actors play homeless people in films and TV shows.
The reality of this kind of experience is far more harrowing than most want to acknowledge, and even harsher is the fact that almost anyone could find themselves in this situation if their life takes unexpected turns.
How I found myself homeless.
Nobody makes the conscious decision to be homeless, unless they’re taking part in a temporary bout of teenage rebellion that they can end at any time.
In my case, I found myself unhoused after a series of cascading misfortunes and difficulties.
Just like most other young homeless people, I left a home life that was unbearable. The possibility of living on the street was a more appealing option than continuing to live in that situation, so I packed a bag with essentials and walked away from a place that offered physical security at the cost of my health.
Although I was able to stay with people I knew now and then, most of those circumstances were short-lived. I had a place to live until my then-girlfriend and I broke up, and another temporary home until irresponsible housemates got us evicted by not paying rent.
Fortunately, I had friends who looked out for me and made sure I ate regularly, and they eventually offered me a place where I could settle.
During my time sleeping rough, I learned several important lessons about life that have served me well over the years.
15 Invaluable Lessons I Learned
1. Sincere gratitude for food and drink.
Most people have had moments in which they felt intense hunger and complained that they were “starving,” followed by a visit to the store to pick up snacks.
Real hunger and thirst cause an aching, desperate gnawing inside one’s belly and throat, but without the possibility of satiating it.
Thirst is easier to quell when you’re homeless because you can go into a public washroom and drink from a sink, but food is harder to come by. Furthermore, you may not have any choice in what you get to eat, but you’ll feel intense gratitude for that peanut butter sandwich or cup of soup offered by shelter volunteers.
Thanks to my experience, I never take any meal for granted, and I cherish every bit of food and every sip of clean, sweet water I am lucky enough to enjoy.
2. Awareness of who’s truly there for you in difficult times.
Many people may claim that they’ll “always be there for you,” but the reality is often very different from their platitudes.
It’s when things seriously go to hell that you’ll find out who’s there for you and who turns their back at the first sign of inconvenience.
One friend who says you’re welcome to crash at their place for as long as you like may kick you out when they start dating someone new, while another—who’s barely making ends meet—will give you the shirt off their own back.
When you find out who your real friends are, treasure them. Their actions have spoken far louder than their words.
3. Appreciation for bathrooms.
When you’re homeless, you truly don’t have a single place to call your own. You’re out in the open or with other people 24/7, except for a few minutes of peace when you’re in a washroom—a place where you can close a door and be by yourself for a few blissful minutes.
The combination of solitude and hot running water is a beautiful solace when you’re usually immersed in dirt and chaos.
On that note, always have a washcloth or small towel with you because you never know when it’ll come in handy.
4. The bliss of cleanliness and security.
There are few blessings greater than having clean clothes, enough food to eat, and a warm, secure place where you can get a decent sleep.
Few people can sleep properly at homeless shelters because their stuff will get stolen if they let their guard down.
Furthermore, most unhoused folks have only one real set of clothes, so they don’t get a chance to wash them thoroughly often. I never stop being grateful for clean clothes and a bed that isn’t infested with insects.
5. Being presentable can only benefit you.
Even if you don’t have a fixed place to live, there are always ways to stay clean and presentable. Places of worship often have free clothes available, and shelters offer shower and laundry facilities, as well as toothbrushes and hairbrushes even if you aren’t sleeping there.
Looking presentable can also open more doors for you. You’ll be less likely to get kicked out of libraries while looking for jobs and will have a greater chance of getting work than someone who looks like a tweaker.
Additionally, you might make connections at a cafe or pub you frequent, which could result in you finding work or shelter.
6. Good hygiene will make your life so much better.
You likely brush your teeth every morning and night without realizing how that practice does wonders for your overall well-being. You would be horrified to see how quickly health deteriorates when you don’t have consistent oral hygiene.
The same goes for foot health: when your feet are cold, wet, and blistered day in and day out, it affects your entire body, not to mention your mental stability.
7. A strong, well-nourished, capable body is an immense blessing.
We usually take our health and strength for granted, not giving day-to-day actions a second thought…until we get an illness or injury.
Few of us take the time to be thankful for our health when we’re well, but instead only hope and pray for wellness when we’re clogged with mucus or hobbled by a broken bone.
Make your health and physical capability a priority however and whenever you can. Eat nutrient-rich food, stay hydrated, keep up your cardio, and maintain your strength. You never know when you may need it.
8. Your real resources are anything but monetary.
When you don’t have money or possessions, you realize that your greatest resources are your skills, determination, willpower, and resilience.
These are the traits that will help you get out of the rut you’re in and will keep you going through any circumstances you may encounter as you go through life.
9. Strangers can be immensely kind or horrifically malicious.
One stranger may offer you kindness and decency that your own family members would never grant you, while another may treat you like subhuman filth.
If you find yourself in this kind of position, be wary of everything that’s offered to you because it might have been tampered with. Only take food and water from trustworthy sources, and even then, go for things that are safely sealed. You wouldn’t believe what some cruel bastards will do to hurt society’s most vulnerable.
10. A person can change quickly under sustained emotional and physical pressure.
People who have endured hardship always come out changed, and being homeless is no exception.
When you’re dealing with intense depression, hopelessness, hunger, and physical discomfort for weeks, months, or even years on end, that takes an immense toll on every aspect of your being.
Some of the stances and convictions you hold dear may crumble under all that weight, while other aspects of your being may be compressed from coal into diamonds.
11. Keeping your mind sharp and active is paramount.
Your mind can meander into terrible places when you’re destitute.
When despair hits, people often seek solace by drinking or doing drugs as a means of numbing the pain. This results in mental and emotional degradation, which will further reduce the possibility of getting out of the pit you’re currently in.
If you’re homeless and feeling despair creep in, it’s in your immediate and best interest to abstain from recreational drug use and focus entirely on things that can improve your situation.
Drinking may seem overwhelmingly attractive at this stage, but trust me: it’s the last thing you want to be doing and will make everything so much worse. If you find yourself at a loose end with no leads for work, then spending your days reading at the library is far better than wallowing at the bar or pub.
Choose a subject you want to know more about or a skill you’d like to learn, and immerse yourself in it. Keep your mind active, and if possible, try to do something productive with your hands as well. Having something to do can keep you from falling apart completely.
12. Don’t overshare, especially when inebriated.
Beware of how much personality you share with people. There will be massive pressure within you to spill details about your life story, but this can lead to worse trouble than you’re in already.
Information is power, and you never know who will take what you’ve said and use it against you. Additionally, those who haven’t experienced what you have may be unnerved by your story and end up being less inclined to help you.
13. Not knowing when suffering will end wears you down body, mind, and soul.
People who toy with homelessness rebelliously know that they could go back to safer pastures whenever they want to. When you’re truly homeless, you never know when it’s going to end.
You end up completely worn down by the never-ending process of trying to find clean food and water to keep you alive, as well as a warm, dry place to rest, and whatever you need to keep the vestiges of your sanity intact.
Your mind fixates on the holes in your life—the lack and regret—and you never know when this trial is going to be over.
People in prison have an idea of when their sentences will end. The same goes for those going through cancer treatment, or even those suffering through exhausting shifts in sweatshops.
But when there is no end date to look forward to, despair sets in quickly and soon turns into abject desolation. Your eyes hollow out, and you eventually feel like giving up because tomorrow will just bring more pain.
All of that said, there’s also a silver lining to this situation:
14. If you have enough strength and motivation, you have more freedom than most.
There’s a line in Fight Club that says “The things you own end up owning you. It’s only after you lose everything that you’re free to do anything.”
Strangely enough, when you no longer have any real possessions, nor any ties to commitments such as a job, relationship, mortgage, and so on, you are free.
It can be very scary—even terrifying—but now you have nothing preventing you from wholeheartedly pursuing what you perceive as the life you want to live.
You may need to do some odd jobs to make enough money for train or air travel, but provided you’ve taken close care of your IDs—such as your passport, birth certificate, driver’s license, and so on—there’s nothing holding you back from what could be the adventure of a lifetime.
15. This isn’t the end of the story.
When and if you find yourself in excruciating circumstances, know that this isn’t the end so much as a temporary situation. It doesn’t have to be the apex of your life unless you choose it to be.
While you may need to act as other homeless people do while you’re in their company, aim to keep your mind clear, and set goals that others may be able to help you achieve. There are always organizations that can help you, when and if you’re ready for that help, and there are still great journeys ahead of you.
Once you feel that you’ve hit rock bottom, there’s nowhere left to go but up.