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Urban Nomads: Homeless Street Culture

Updated: Aug 29


“Locus of control” is a belief system that influences how successfully one navigates life’s events. It refers to the degree of control people feel they have over their lives. Personal efficacy indicates a strong internal locus of control. However, for many of the 200,000+ homeless individuals in the United States who are “sleeping rough,” no such internal locus of control exists. They slumber outside, perhaps on a pallet of newspapers and tarp, and live in a constant state of hypervigilance. Homeless individuals devoid of an internal locus of control subsequently experience frustration and angst because obtaining basic needs is seemingly out of their reach.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines homelessness as “someone who lacks a fixed, adequate nighttime residence; someone who is at imminent risk of homelessness; unaccompanied youth under age 25 or families with children who haven't had permanent housing over the past 60 days or who have moved at least twice during that period and are expected to continue this pattern due to special needs or barriers; or, an individual or family that is fleeing domestic violence and has no other residence.” Of the 567,715 homeless people in the U.S., 396,045 are individuals, 171,670 are families, 37,085 are veterans, and 35,038 are unaccompanied children. Sixty percent of homeless individuals are male. Tragically, there is a severe bed shortage in shelters in this country and as a result, 200,000+ people go unsheltered on any given day. (State of Homelessness: 2020 Edition, National Alliance to End Homelessness)

Shelters frequented by aggressive and combative individuals or infested with bed bugs are avoided by many people struggling with homelessness. They may prefer to reside in homemade cardboard box structures, under bridges, or in tents. Tents are available for less than $30 and can be set up or broken down in about 10 minutes. Some are small enough to fit in a backpack and offer protection from the sun, wind, and rain. In severe weather, some homeless people choose to take refuge in train stations, airports, or hospital emergency rooms. Additionally, companionless individuals experiencing homelessness may opt to sleep during the day and watch their possessions throughout night.

Clothing must be practical for protection from the elements. Hats are useful in hot weather, and ponchos or large trash bags are good for staying dry in the rain. During the colder months, layering is key. If nothing else is available, newspaper can be used for layering. Goodwill or the Salvation Army may provide coats, beanies, and socks for little or no cost. And, black is often the color of choice due to the fact that it does not easily show dirt and allows one to avoid attracting attention. Thankfully, many shelters and non-profits offer laundry services. Otherwise, homeless individuals turn to public bathroom sinks to wash their clothes or, if they have the means (some homeless people have jobs), at a laundromat.

COVID-19 makes it harder for people without housing to stay clean. Before the virus, some individuals experiencing homelessness were able to purchase a gym membership at the YMCA, for example, and shower there. Now, many gyms are closed and unhoused people generally have three options -- showering at a shelter or non-profit; filling up a collapsible bucket and washing up in the stall of a public bathroom; or, utilizing antibacterial wipes.

Getting enough to eat can also be challenging for people experiencing homelessness and COVID-19 has made it doubly hard. Soup kitchens, food banks, and social service agencies are all struggling to stay stocked. Many restaurants that gave food to impoverished people have closed. And, food and monetary donations formerly obtained on the street have dwindled as well.

It is hard to stay safe from this virus. Unfortunately, a pervasive sense of lack is the reality of the day for homeless people. They experience a lack of masks, resources, and medical testing. Unsheltered individuals are unable to self-quarantine or practice social distancing. Stay-at-home orders are impossible when one does not have a home. And, COVID-19 is yet another reason to avoid shelters, where quarters are close, and outbreaks of the virus are common.

Still, there are organizations powering through. Non-profits such as House of Ruth and New Endeavors by Women, both located in Washington, D.C., continue to provide services and supplies even though funding is limited. Through goal setting, mentoring, and perseverance, they help homeless people defeat passivism and build self-esteem. By doing so, individuals experiencing homelessness are prompted to realize that they are in control of their destiny and not the converse.


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