What to Expect When You Become Homeless

A tent is set up beneath an overpass.

Nobody expects to become homeless in their lives and people always think that it could never happen to them, until one day it actually does happen.

When you find yourself homeless and living on the streets for the first time, it can be a bit of a shock at first, but you’ll gradually ease into things and adapt to your new lifestyle. As bad as it is the first few weeks, it will get easier as each day passes and as you learn how to survive while you formulate a plan to get back on your feet.

Many people who know that I was homeless have asked me questions about it and the one thing people seem to be wondering about a lot of times is what happens when you become homeless.

So here’s a few things you can expect to happen and some of the changes you’ll notice when you find yourself living on the streets for the first time.

Muscle Gains and Weight Loss
When you’re living on the streets, you’ll most likely be traveling and walking a lot more than usual like I did. Since you probably won’t have somewhere to store your most personal belongings, it’s also a safe bet that you’ll be carrying them with you everywhere in some sort of bag or backpack.

This means more exercise as you’re walking around and more weight for you to carry as well. So you can expect to see some serious muscle gains in your shoulders and legs, and particularly in your calf muscles.

After just three months of walking 2 or 3 hours a day with my backpack on, I was amazed at how big my leg muscles had become and how toned my shoulders looked.

Once I got back on my feet I continued to exercise, but my legs lost some of their muscle size anyways.

More Negative Contact with Police
When you’re on the streets, the police and others in authority may harass you simply because there’s a stereotype about not having a home and there is actually a lot of truth to that stereotype, as hard as that is for me to admit.

You stand a good chance of being watched, profiled, and then questioned by police if you’re carrying a large bag that looks like you’re living out of it or if your clothes look like you haven’t changed them in a week.

Many people who sleep on the streets do commit crimes or have active warrants for their arrests, so don’t be surprised if the police stop you and start interrogating you on a public street.

In my case, it was the local police department and specifically the officers that specialized in gang crimes. They would regularly patrol the area where I was homeless at and stopped me and others around me more than once to ask us questions about where we were going and what were doing.

But to be honest, I actually don’t regret the fact that they did as it made me feel somewhat safer in that area knowing that their presence was known.

But this is possibly a naive thought and I’ve seen more than my fair share of police in other areas or states that were crooked or overly hostile, so I do realize there’s good cops and bad cops everywhere.

Even if it may never happen to you, it’s always good to expect the unexpected and in the case of the authorities, you should expect at least one stop to occur when you otherwise might be minding your business and in some cases they may have a very valid reason for doing so.

Hostility from Other Homeless People
When you’re around other homeless people, you may run into problems with them that you normally wouldn’t encounter with other people in the general population.

When I was on the streets, I did hate having to go to shelters or other places where I’d be around homeless people, because although it rarely happened, I did have a few encounters with complete strangers who were trying to cause problems for me.

There was one incident where a man had skipped me in line at the Salvation Army and made it very obvious that he was doing so. I have a temper myself and hate bullies, and so I spoke up about it and told him that I didn’t appreciate him skipping me in line. This turned into a slight confrontation that almost became physical, but luckily it didn’t and he then got out of line and allowed me to go first.

This easily could have turned into a violent altercation, and for those who think that it only happened because I spoke up, I can easy that these situations can still happen even when you’re timid, quiet, and keep to yourself.

Another incident I had was when I was trying to find a place to sleep one night and ended up finding a homeless encampment outside a shelter. I saw many people on both sides of the road with their tents pitched and sleeping in them and it didn’t look like it was a tight-knit group.

It instead looked like anybody could sleep there, as people were spread out all over the area and there were at least 40 people there.

Regardless of how it appeared, there was one man who was territorial and when I found a spot to sleep within one of the areas that had people in it, he came over to me and asked me what I was doing there.

He started trying to intimidate me and interrogated me like as if I had committed a crime in his area. I was firm with my responses and didn’t allow him to intimidate me, but I still felt uncomfortable sleeping there that night, and this also could have turned into a very bad situation.

Many homeless people have spent time in jail or in prison, so they can often have a prison mentality and will try to intimidate you or “punk” you at first.

Others have a territorial attitude because the streets can be a rough place to sleep and survive. It can be tough to find a decent place to sleep as less spaces become available with urbanization and the building of large buildings over plots of land.

Also, the streets can be a very dangerous place to sleep and to be homeless. So some homeless people are extremely territorial in order to protect themselves or to protect the places where they live and they may view you as a threat or as an invader of their personal space.

You’ll Make Friends, But Can’t Trust Them
When you become homeless, other people on the streets will gravitate towards you and talk to you. They will normally be cautious and apprehensive at first, as you also should be, but eventually you will probably make many friends when you’re on the streets.

However, I use the term “friends” very liberally and you should never trust anybody that you’ve met on the streets, even after you’ve spent weeks or months around them and think you know their character.

I had become friendly with many people while I was homeless and regularly walked the one hour walk to the library with many of them each day and slept around them, so we all got to know each other quite well.

One of them in particular I had started to trust more and more because we often split the cost of hotel rooms every now and then when we had a bit of money to get off the streets for a night or two and he allowed me to sleep in the backseat of his car after he started trusting me as well whenever it was cold out.

We traveled to different cities in his car to see if we could find safer or better areas to be homeless that had better resources than where we were at.

He drove me to wooded areas in places like Santa Cruz and nearby areas outside San Francisco to see if I could find a safe place to pitch a tent for a while when it was warm out and when I needed to change locations.

After we both got on our feet, I even took him to Thailand with me where I had planned on moving and he stayed with me there for one month before he went back home.

But this is when things turned sour as he had owed me a lot of money at that point as I trusted him more and more with things and he eventually disappeared and never paid me back after all this.

So although you may make friends on the streets, you can never trust any of them. I consider myself lucky in a way that it happened to be someone who simply ripped me off.

There were other people I had trusted to a small degree who I had to sleep around, and many of these people had committed crimes and been to prison for some of the most awful crimes you can imagine. I’m lucky that none of these acquaintances tried to attack me or harm me for whatever reason while I was fast asleep.

People in Society Will Treat You Differently
You will also be treated differently by the general public when you’re homeless than you normally would be. Some people will actually be kinder towards you when they realize you’re homeless, but the majority of people may seem crueler or not as warm or as respectful towards you as they normally would be if you were not homeless.

An example of this would be some of the bus drivers I encountered when homeless. I often rode the buses and light rail train system home from work before I was homeless and sometimes I would lean my head against a window or against the chair in front of me in order to get a little rest and sleep on my way home or on my way to work. I’d often be tired because I’d wake up early for work or would work hard all day and would then have a caffeine crash from all the coffee I was drinking while on my way home.

But when I became homeless, the reactions I received from bus drivers and public transportation employees became very different.

When I was homeless in San Jose, there was one bus that was known as the bus where homeless people could sleep all night without being harassed because it run all night and barely anybody rode the bus in the early hours of the morning other than people who lived on the streets. This bus was the #22 bus which ran from San Jose to Palo Alto and vice versa. Those of us who were homeless referred to it as “Hotel 22”, because we all knew it as the place where we could get some shut eye at night after 1am when the streets would become very cold sometimes.

However, not all bus drivers on this bus were very understanding of this and I encountered one driver who made sure nobody slept and was very cruel about this and seemed to have a chip on his shoulder about people sleeping on the bus.

I encountered this same behavior from other drivers when riding other buses as well and not just on the #22 bus. On one occasion, I had my backpack in my lap and I was leaning forward in my chair with my body bent so that my head could rest on my backpack.

I wasn’t occupying more than one seat and wasn’t bothering anyone, but the driver came back and yelled at me in a rude way to wake up and then said “No sleeping on my bus. You can get off if that’s what you want to do here”. He obviously had no empathy for my situation, and just dealing with people like this when I first became homeless was one of the hardest parts about it.

You will start to feel like a second-class citizen, even when you’re doing your best and trying hard to get back on your feet.

Another scenario that can happen is regular people actually going out of their way to attack you or to cause problems for you simply because you’re homeless. While this is rare, it did happen to me a few times.

On one occasion, I was sleeping in my tent behind an abandoned building. The owners of the building had given a few of us permission to sleep back there while they were figuring out what to do with it. There was another building next to this one that was some sort of factory or manufacturing company, and the employees were often temporary employees that would work there for a few days or a week or so.

One of these employees was with some others outside on a smoke break, and they saw our tents next door. This employee began to throw pebbles at our tents in order to aggravate us and to cause problems. I crawled out of my tent and asked him to stop doing this. I then went back into my tent, and shortly after this a rock came flying through my tent and hit me in the chest. It hurt pretty bad and I was very mad at that point, so I ran out of my tent to confront him and he ran inside the building.

I then told the manager of the building what their employee did, and he identified the employee and actually fired him for that.

The employee who threw rocks is a perfect example of the types of cruel people you’ll encounter when homeless, but the manager is an example of the kinder people you’ll also come across.

Friends and Family Will Turn Their Backs On You
Friends or family that you’ve known your whole life may turn their backs on you or their lack of loyalty to you may just become more apparent and obvious when you do need their help.

When I first realized I was homeless and had nowhere to go, I contacted my friends and family. These were people that would always pick up the phone when I called, or at least called me back, and who knew I didn’t have any drug problems or any hang-ups that might have caused my homelessness.

Despite the fact that they knew it wasn’t entirely my fault, many of them still neglected to offer any help and some just outright turned their backs on me. I had one friend who I had lived with for a number of years and traveled to different states with.

We were very close, but when I became homeless he was living in another state and had recently started dating a new girl and became preoccupied with her.

When I called him and explained to him that I was on the streets in California and had nowhere to go and needed the phone number of a storage company to store my belongings there, he Googled the company’s phone # for me and that was the only help he offered to me or provided.

He never contacted me again throughout my entire 6-month ordeal to check up on me or see how things were going with me. He showed no concern whatsoever for me, and was most likely only thinking about himself and this new person he had started dating.

After I had gotten back on my feet and things soured with him and his new girlfriend, our friendship suddenly become relevant to him again and he contacted me through Facebook.

My own Aunt was another person who I felt turned her back on me. She did actually help me out when I first became homeless by allowing me to stay the night for only one night in her home. But she lived alone in a 3-bedroom house and her and I had always gotten along and she knew I was a safe person to be around and that I was dependable and had no drug addictions or anything that would jeopardize her safety.

Still, she held a grudge towards my father for many years and when I became homeless, this is when that grudge became more obvious to me.

She wouldn’t allow me to stay in her home longer than one night, despite the fact that I had a small amount of income coming in and could even have paid for a few nights.

Because she had an issue with my father one time when he had stayed with her, she wouldn’t allow me to stay with her and suggested that I should go sleep in the hospital lobby or somewhere else instead.

She said this in a friendly tone and there was no animosity between us at the time, but in the back of my mind I felt very alone and betrayed by many of the people that I would have helped if they needed somewhere to stay.

This was somebody who I would often stop by and visit on my way home from work and who I felt I was very close to.

So I wouldn’t be surprised if many people who you’ve known your whole life and see everyday suddenly become very unreliable when you actually need to rely on them.