Secrets to Survival


January 19, 2016 by poverty2professional

When you lose your home, you lose a lot: privacy, security, consistency, and a sense of control over your circumstances. Accepting that there are things you absolutely cannot change – your caseworker’s nasty attitude, the person assigned to the bed next to yours – is necessary to refocusing on what you do have in your power.

But what can you control? When you don’t have the most fundamental resource (i.e. a home) and all that it provides (mental wellbeing, running water, shelter). How do you identify your other resources? How do you escape?

Sometimes, we see overcoming homelessness/poverty simplified to the formula of a little elbow grease and a can-do attitude occasionally accelerated by luck and/or being #blessed. The mythos of the American Dream – that we live in a meritocracy wherein everyone can have a middle class or even wealthy lifestyle if they only work for it – promotes the ideology that poverty happens because people don’t work hard enough. The poor deserve to be poor.

Ouch, bro.

The mythology – as we see overwhelmingly in pop culture – follows that if you’re poor but good and virtuous the whole way through, something miraculous will come your way. It’s a convenient way to dismiss the suffering of those in poverty. Essentially, it’s saying that if you’re a good person (i.e. you don’t actually “deserve” your circumstances), you won’t be broke for long.

I’ll be real. Getting out is a grind and luck is only the fallout of your strategic planning. This isn’t just elbow grease or attitude. It’s about survival mentality and knowing your resources. To combat homelessness, there’s an arsenal of “secrets to survival” to keep yourself safe and sane. Here we go:

 1. Your mind

Something that stuck with me from a book I read way back in middle school was the main character saying, “You can think your way out of anything, even pain.”

He was right. When faced with strenuous situations, our minds are the first things to bail us out – and not always in the rational, strategic way. Sometimes, when people are in a tight spot, we’ll just check out. Gone. Adios. Ain’t nobody home. If you’re familiar with Hamlet (modern-day plot summary here), the titled character can’t deal with his mom hooking up with his uncle when Hamlet’s dad’s body isn’t even cold yet. So, what’s he do? He mentally bails out of the scene. Other characters wonder if Hamlet’s gone crazy, he says he’s fine, and (plot spoiler) everyone dies in the end. Watch/read the play, you decide. Point is, you don’t always need a good set of legs to run away.

My escape route came with a library card. When I’m reading I get to be anyone, anywhere. When I write, get to build that reality and it becomes the one thing I have control over. I picked up writing with an online community. It’s how I dealt with it. My dad liked to draw. Some people listen to music, or make it, and others, tragically, fall into drug abuse and alcoholism.

There are a thousand ugly trials in homelessness, some of them can push people to the brink of psychological breakdowns. When the frustration, discouragement, and limitations become too much sometimes a getaway is necessary. The kind of getaway you provide your mind with can be the deal-breaker. Now, imagine what this is like for one third of people in homelessness who don’t have a stable mental condition. It’s a living hell.

If you’re of sound mind when you go into homelessness, do your best to keep it healthy. Stay sharp, whether it’s going to school or just doing a crossword puzzle, doing a few brain gymnastics keeps you on your toes. Recognize when you need a mental break. Read a book, listen to music, make art, take a nap, daydream – do something healthy. It’s your mind that’s going to figure yourself out of homelessness. Keeping this one piece of yourself intact is integral to surviving and escaping.


2. Your Family

For anyone who is single and homeless or an unaccompanied youth, please consider this section to be inclusive of the closest person enduring your situation with you. Having people who are close to you and going through the same thing as you are can be a refuge for empathy. This is a huge asset. Someone who understands and knows what’s going on. They can’t necessarily do anything for you, but sometimes their company is enough.

That’s empathy. A great animated video sums it up here. Empathy involves four major factors: perspective-taking, you see things from someone else’s viewpoint; staying out of judgement, because you’re just listening; recognizing emotion, knowing someone else has feelings; and communicating that you understand those feelings. Empathy is a critical emotional connection we all need. Mentally, it provides you with the relief that you are not alone.


Brene Brown on Empathy from the RSA, 2013

3. An outside advocate

By this I mean a teacher, a mentor, a friend – anyone you trust who is NOT at the shelter or immediately affiliated. This is also an important distinction from family, even those who may not be homeless either. You can have family that introduces you to an outside advocate. That’s great! But a blood relative can’t write you a letter of recommendation and they may not be aware of other resources that could help you out of homelessness.

Ideally, this outside advocate is also someone with social capital beyond yours. What’s that mean? Social capital refers to the people you know, the position you hold, and the perception society (either in your community or beyond) has of you. Everyone has social capital and, depending on where you are and your context, some can have more than others. Example: If you’re comic book geek at Comic Con, you probably have to wait two hours in line to get Stan Lee, the genius behind most of the Marvel characters, to sign your first-edition issue of Spider-Man. And that’s not counting the four hours earlier you spent camping out just to get in line.

But what if you had a friend who knew Stan Lee personally? Betcha you’d get that comic book signed a lot faster, probably skipping the line entirely. Your friend is part of your social capital, your network, your support system. Your friend helps you look beyond the two-hour line.

Returning to reality, if you’re homeless, you need to go beyond the usual people. As a youth in the K-12 system, this means someone older, smarter, wiser. Teachers and counselors can be great because they’ll be the ones to vouch for you, your character, and know where you’re coming from. The beauty of an outside advocate is that they got the panoramic scope of the forest you’re lost in. By being outside of the box from the get-go, they can tip you off to angles you haven’t even considered yet. It’s like having an extra brain in your arsenal, only this one has a bird’s eye view.


4. Reimagine Survival

This last one sort of goes back to the first, except it’s more primal than that. In the most demanding circumstances, our intellect will cave under instinct. The most basic desire is to take care of your bodily needs, which is only then followed by security, belonging, self-esteem, and a sense of purpose. In order to fulfill these biological needs, our bodies will adjust to whatever extreme conditions necessary and our mind will refocus to keep us going. Going back to point one again, this could mean “running away” or strategizing to figure out a concrete sense of survival. According to your brain, one is as good as the other. Humans are crazy adaptable. And you will adapt to survive.

The trick here is determination to survive under what conditions. People eventually will learn how to survive on the streets. You figure out how to get food, where it’s safe to crash, how to go unnoticed, you get better at taking care of yourself. But in keeping track of all the day-to-day, it’s easy to forget what the real goal is. Are you surviving just to live or are you surviving to something better? Your mind and its imagination are crucial right here. Can you imagine something above your circumstances as they are? Can you not only plan the steps to get there but also know the people you may need in your support group, the resources you’ll have to acquire, and the friendships you’ll need to sustain you? It’s more than attitude. Surviving at any costs and through any circumstances can be tricky. But I always remembered, you can think your way out of anything.

One thought on “Secrets to Survival

  1. […] week’s post focused on more social and psychological skills related to slogging out of homelessness. Here are […]


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