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Surviving Poverty Part 2: Staying Warm on the Streets

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  • Surviving Poverty Part 2: Staying Warm on the Streets

    Surviving Poverty Part 2: Staying Warm on the Streets
    Joshua Krause

    The homeless have to deal with a host dangers on a regular basis, though itís difficult to say which is the most treacherous. Obviously food is a real concern. Thereís also a higher risk of becoming sick or injured, and without money, a lower chance of those issues being treated effectively. And who could forget the possibility of being harmed by other people?

    However, the most dangerous aspect of living without a house may be dealing with exposure. With wet and windy weather, hypothermia can easily kick in for people who are poorly sheltered and clothed, even at around 50-60 degrees. And according to some estimates, as many as 700 homeless people die from hypothermia in America on a yearly basis. This is a very real danger in most of the United States, so if being homeless is something youíre worried about, learning to deal with this risk should be at the top of your list.

    And donít just assume that youíll be able to go to a homeless shelter on really cold nights. Thereís a reason why hundreds of thousands of people are sleeping on the streets every day, and itís not just because the shelters are often overcrowded. Itís also because many of these shelters are notorious for being unsanitary and dangerous. Though that isnít always the case, you have to accept the fact that sometimes a shelter simply isnít an option, and you should be preparing for that eventuality.

    In the first part of this series, I explained that if you think homelessness is a real possibility in your future, itís not a good idea to wait until the last-minute to prepare for it. Get the gear you need now before your rent/mortgage eats up all of your savings. You really donít want to step out of your house with nothing to your name.

    With that in mind, Iím going to explain what you need to survive the cold, including what kind of gear you should have if you can afford it, and what you should do if you have absolutely no money. Letís take a look:

    Sleeping Gear

    The most important thing youíll need is something to sleep on. All the gear in the world will be useless if your body is making contact with the ground. Whether itís dirt or concrete, it will absorb every bit of heat in your body. Foam sleeping pads can be had for pretty cheap, though something that is self-inflating, waterproof, and abrasion resistant would be better. If space is a concern, consider getting something that you have to inflate with your lungs. Those sleeping pads are the most compact, and the air is an excellent insulator.

    A standard sleeping bag is also a must. When combined with a sleeping pad, you can probably survive any temperature that doesnít dip below freezing. It can also be used in lieu of a sleeping pad, though it is a poor substitute. Space is also an issue here. However, the more compact your sleeping bag is the less effective it will be. At one end of the spectrum are really thin and cheap bags that are good for cool summer nights and not much else. At the other end, youíll find really expensive bags that are bulky, water-resistant, and can withstand sub-zero temperatures.

    If you canít afford anything, there are two materials that are your best friend: paper and plastic. It makes sense that the homeless frequently use those materials to survive the elements. Theyíre cheap, abundant, easy to manipulate, and theyíre great insulators that work well together for a variety of situations. Stuff like cardboard and newspaper not only insulate, but they breathe as well. And when it rains, utilize shopping and garbage bags to keep yourself dry.

    Another really cheap material is aluminum foil, which doesnít really insulate but will do a great job of reflecting ambient heat. If you want something a little more durable though, consider the mylar space blankets, which are also made of aluminum and plastic and are very cheap. Just remember that when youíre dealing with plastic and aluminum, donít wrap anything too tightly. Since they donít breath they could cause you to sweat, which is the last thing you need in cold weather.


    The most important article of clothing is the one that touches your skin. Youíre really only as warm as your base layer, especially if you get wet for any reason. You can wear all the layers you want, but if youíre wearing a soaked cotton t-shirt under it all, you could die when the temperature drops. Wool, Gore-TEX, and polyprolyene are all good choices for your base layer. And make sure you take care of your legs and feet too. Long Johns and wool socks can make a huge difference. And while weíre on the subject of feet, you should really ditch the sneakers and look for boots that will at least protect your ankles from the cold.

    Now if you donít have any of that stuff, paper and plastic are going to come in handy again. Itís not uncommon for the homeless to stuff waded-up paper between their layers, and use black garbage bags as disposable raincoats. If your shoes arenít water-resistant, itís a good idea to wrap your feet in shopping bags to keep them dry. Of course, the plastic doesnít breathe so if you do this for too long your feet will be very sweaty and cold when it comes time to take them off. Donít do this unless you have a fresh pair of dry socks.

    And regardless of what you have at your disposal, you need to stack on as many layers as you can without overheating. When you see a homeless person in the winter, youíre probably seeing someone who is wearing their entire wardrobe. They may have (relatively speaking) a lot of clothes that were donated to them, but they can stay warm by putting them all together, even if by themselves theyíre not designed for cold weather. Keep this in mind when you find clothes or have them donated to you. Just because it doesnít fit, doesnít mean itís useless. Everything thatís slightly too big for you could be the extra layer that saves your life.


    A tent is an obvious solution for dealing with the weather, and every homeless person should have something to put over their heads, however it wonít work in all situations. You canít just set up a tent in the middle of the sidewalk during business hours, and not expect local shops to call the cops. There are certain areas in some cities like abandoned lots and near railroad tracks where you can set up a tent, but at the same time it will make your presence very obvious. And much like sleeping bags, there is a balancing act between cost, weight, size, and effectiveness that you have to consider. At the very least, you should have one of those cheap plastic tarps. They make a great windbreak, and can protect your body and your belongings from the rain.

    If for whatever reason you donít have any form of cover, and you canít make it to a homeless shelter, youíll have to find an alternative with public access. Look for bridges and freeway overpasses, or alleyways that can block the wind. In cities where homelessness is common (and thus, itís less likely for the police to crack down), many of these people will set up camp in front of businesses that have an overhang as part of the architecture, and then skedaddle in the morning before the business opens. Even finding a tree to sleep under is better than nothing.

    However, you have to be careful in these areas, because there will likely be other people like you who are looking for shelter. However, some of them will not be like you, in that they may be dangerous. Some of these areas will be very secluded and poorly lit, so you have to stay on guard.

    As a last resort, you might just have to change your sleep schedule. Thereís a reason why the homeless are often seen sleeping all day, and itís not necessarily due to boredom. Oftentimes they choose to stay up all night and walk around to stay warm, and do their sleeping during the day.

    Joshua Krause was born and raised in the Bay Area. He is a writer and researcher focused on principles of self-sufficiency and liberty at Ready Nutrition. You can follow Joshuaís work at our Facebook page or on his personal Twitter.

    Joshuaís website is Strange Danger
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