What Can the Homeless Teach Us About Emergency Preparedness??

Today, I will be addressing emergency preparedness in the context of a sensitive topic.

Specifically, I will be looking to the lives of the homeless and examining the creative solutions they have devised for a life on the streets…because if you think about it…

In the wake of a major disaster, a lot of people will find themselves HOMELESS!

During my travels these past few months to places like Washington, DC, Austin, TX, and Mexico City, Mexico, I have witnessed huge numbers of displaced individuals living along these cities’ sidewalks. My heart goes out to them—although several blogs I’ve read authored by people living on the streets indicate that a percentage of these folks have deliberately chosen this nomadic, untethered existence.

Even for those who choose homelessness, however, there’s no romanticizing it:

Homelessness is HARD.

Living without benefit of permanent shelter, hygiene facilities, or physical security, and with constant exposure to the elements takes a hearty and adaptable soul.

While researching this blog, I learned that—at least in the United States—obtaining food and water are not usually the largest challenges faced by the homeless. Rather, it’s the relentless sleep deprivation (either because it’s not safe at night, or because of being forever roused and told to move along) and the incredible challenge of reengaging with society once one has been living on its fringes.

However, from an emergency preparedness standpoint, I will be focusing on the Pyramid of Preparedness.

Let’s examine how the homeless deal with the challenges one would be likely to face in the wake of a major disaster that displaces a large percentage of the populace.


For the purposes of this blog, we’ll assume that the social services typically available to the homeless are not an option (e.g., FEMA has not yet been able to arrive at the site of our hypothetical disaster), and we’ll also assume that our suddenly-displaced populace is essentially without pre-existing supplies (i.e., they do not have an emergency preparedness kit upon which they can rely).

With those caveats aside, let’s get to it!


What the homeless do:
Overwhelmingly, homeless people recommend living in a car. It doesn’t even have to run; it just has to be push-able.

Cars have the advantage of being much more durable when it comes to the elements. They’re water-tight. They’re hail-proof. They have cushioned seats that provide insulation against the cold ground at night.

Cars are also a helluva lot more secure at night. You can lock the doors against predators. You can keep your stuff in the trunk to prevent theft.

Additionally, it’s much easier to hide in a car. If you put your car in a parking lot amid a ton of other cars, it’s very difficult for a predator to single out YOUR car as being the one with a potential victim.

Barring automotive options, other recommendations include tents (might be hard to obtain post-disaster), storage sheds, stairwells of buildings, and freeway underpasses (they are excellent for retaining heat overnight).

Leveraging this knowledge for disasters:
If you find yourself suddenly without a house—and there are no shelter facilities, family, or friends you can rely upon—find yourself a vehicle asap! Ideally, it’ll be your own car (because then you’ll have the keys), but really, any hard-sided vehicle will do.


What the homeless do:
Layers, layers, layers! Wear all of your layers at night, and peel them off as needed during the day.

Cold is the biggest problem, even in the summer, as staying warm overnight is critical. Warm beanies, gloves, and thick socks are like gold.

For extra insulation, you can stuff crumpled up newspapers inside your clothing layers. The paper airspaces trap heat. This is also why a lot of homeless people spread out newspapers on park benches before taking a nap.

Plastic garbage bags are waterproof, so these can be used as rain gear from your head all the way down to your shoes.

Of course summer sun is also an issue. A hat with a brim—or fashioning a sun cover out of cardboard or even a garbage sack—is key. Sunscreen was also cited on various message boards I read as being a vital item.

Leveraging this knowledge for disasters:
Exposure kills, so as soon as possible after a disaster, get your hands on extra clothing. This could be stuff you grab as you run out of a building after a massive earthquake. Or maybe you’ll find it in a dumpster behind a sporting goods store. That’s also a good place to look for cardboard.

Plastic garbage bags should be pretty easy to find. Look for them in the bottom of garbage cans, underneath the bag currently in use, as janitors often stash extra bags there to save time.


What the homeless do:
As I mentioned earlier, in normal times, potable water is readily available in this country. But since that water is only at certain locations, most homeless people keep a water bottle or thermos on their person. That way, whenever they find hydration, they can top up their supply.

Leveraging this knowledge for disasters:
Chances are, after a disaster, public water supplies will be unavailable or contaminated…but there should be water available, even if it’s not safe to drink as-is. So as soon as possible after being displaced, find something in which you can carry water. Maybe it’s a 2L Coke bottle that you find in a recycling bin. Just make sure the bottle didn’t contain something overtly toxic before you repurpose it.

Here’s how to purify water without any fancy devices: either find a heat source and boil the water for 1 minute; or find some bleach (grocery stores, pharmacies, janitorial closets, pool supply shops, etc.) and add 8 drops to a gallon of water (let stand for 30 minutes before consuming).


What the homeless do:
For people willing to spend time at shelters or soup kitchens, food is apparently pretty readily available for the American homeless population. But in my research, I learned about a lot of drawbacks for users of these charitable systems, so many homeless folks choose to find their own sustenance.

Peanut butter is the number one choice for high quality calories. Plus, it’s easy to transport. Trail mix is also very popular. And many folks recommended taking a daily multi-vitamin.

Urban foraging is practiced by a surprisingly large percentage of the homeless. There’s the obvious dumpster-diving behind Trader Joe’s, but there’s also a fair amount of hunting/trapping (squirrels, rats), fishing (in city parks), and botanical collection (think dandelion greens and the like).

Leveraging this knowledge for disasters:
Think caloric density when it comes to acquiring food after a disaster. If you can get your hands on nuts, nut products, fats, and jerky, do so! Of course, portability of your food source is key.

And take the time now to learn about the edible plants in your area. In a sustained emergency situation, an urban population will rapidly strip-mine edible resources, but you can rely on the local landscape for at least a few days while you plan your relocation to an area not as heavily affected.


What the homeless do:
This is actually a pretty big challenge for the homeless…at least for those folks who want a modicum of privacy in which to practice their ablutions. And who also enjoy hot water. But staying clean was mentioned over and over as being KEY to staving off depression and feeling like a human being.

The number one recommendation was to get a gym membership…or at least buy a few day passes to a health club. Unlimited hot water and bath products—heaven!

Baby wipes are an easy way to freshen-up pretty much anywhere. Nothing really takes the place of a toothbrush and toothpaste. For shaving, a popular waterless solution entails the use of sex lube as a slip agent for the razor.

When nothing but a full-body washing will do and the homeless find themselves unable to afford even a day-pass to a gym, recommendations include the showers at public swimming pools, labs at university campuses, hoses at public gardens, and even pressure washers at car washes. If you live somewhere with a natural water source (lake, river), a quick swim should get you pretty clean.

Leveraging this knowledge for disasters:
Morale and cleanliness go hand in hand. Don’t go all Walking Dead Survivor after a natural disaster. Instead, make personal hygiene a non-negotiable priority.

Guys, if you can get your hands on some lube and a razor, do so. Baby wipes will likely be barterable, just like booze and cigarettes. And even the most humble bar of soap will go a long, long way toward reminding you that you are human.

* * * * *

As I said before, homelessness is hard. Really hard. But given this unfortunate situation experienced by so many, let’s at least find wisdom in their survival solutions. In their survival spirit.

Lastly, if you want to do something to help the homeless—beyond donating to shelters and the like—consider putting together hygiene packs.

Hygiene packs don’t have to be elaborate; just a razor and a packet of baby wipes, or a tube of sunscreen would be hugely appreciated by most of these folks. It’s not going to make a huge dent in the situation, but at least you’ll be making their lives a little less uncomfortable…and a little more human.

Before writing today’s blog post, I polled my newsletter readers to get a sense for whether people would be interested in this topic. An overwhelming 95{5b94df0808d5051ae4460ba229ec68b809d99f898aebd4fa5019c7ba642362c2} said, “Yes!” If you want to be part of the team that is helping steer the future direction of this blog, sign up at  http://bit.ly/readybetty . I’ll even throw in a free Emergency Guide JUST FOR THE LADIES. 


Comments 2

  1. Re: Hygiene

    Free showers are available at truck stops, for those bold enough to walk right in. Public campgrounds also usually have a shower/toilet house.

    I included wet wipes in my get-home bag because I realize that being filthy – body odor filthy – can make you depressed and sap you of the will you need to persevere. Also, too much filth will lead to an infestation of body lice.
    And speaking of body lice, an effective – but extreme – method of extermination is to simply spray the infected area with Raid. Just wash it off quickly.

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