It’s expensive to be homeless

Photo credit: pixabay/reklamyAlek cc0 public domain.

In my life I’m incorporating more gratitude every morning. Especially when the world, if you’re a news junkie like me, seems to be spinning out of control, being thankful for little things in life goes a long way in maintaining perspective and mental health.

One morning in this past week, I woke up around 9 a.m. with a bit of headache. It is pouring down outside.

Sleeping in on a Saturday morning, was once a luxury for me.

In my adult life, I spent 13 of these years homeless (Sure, it was on and off, and this includes several years when I lived clandestinely in various industrial or commercial buildings, and in abandoned RVs, and at the height of the Great Recession, in back porches and sheds of foreclosed houses that I could get in without actually breaking in — but on the longest stretch I was literally outside for four years non-stop). The longevity of a campsite depended on being out of sight and out of mind. This meant, to avoid anyone’s detection, I would only go to bed after midnight and get up and get going by no later than 6:30 a.m. (5 a.m. between May and July due to early sunrises). This must happen summer or winter, and even when I was ill.

It takes a tremendous self-discipline and will-power to survive on the street. Many do not make it for a very long time. Sometimes it is below freezing at 5 a.m., and when I would wake up, my right leg might feel a bit off — pain in my knee, or leg being still “asleep” and I would have some difficulty walking. On other occasions, I might be sick with cold. I’ve written from time to time about my experiences in the urban outdoors already on this site, so I’d like to waste more words here.

In this article, however, I’d like to discuss the hidden costs of being homeless and/or poor. Some of these points will apply not only to those experiencing homelessness but also those who live in transitional housing or single-resident-occupancies (SROs).

In the morning, it has been my daily “ritual” to get some coffee. For someone who is housed and has an access to kitchen, this isn’t a big expense if they stick to the basics. Yesterday I went to Safeway and bought a 12-ounce bag of Seattle’s Best Coffee ground beans for $6.99. Often Safeway has discount promotions on its own store brand, but not this week. Since it takes a spoonful to make a cup, $6.99 would get me through at least two weeks. When I was unhoused, however, a cup of regular coffee at Starbucks would cost me $1.95 (with free refills since I have a gold Starbucks card). This would add up to $27.30 over two weeks.

Food is another big challenge. Now, I have plenty of food staples in the kitchen. Since I am a skilled bargain-hunter and make the maximum use of promotional prices and discount stores, my monthly grocery bill would be under $60 at most.

One of the problems with houselessness is one’s inability to store a large quantity or amount of food anywhere. With no refrigeration, one can only purchase anything fresh or perishable in a single-serve quantity (which tends to be very expensive in a long run). Even non-perishables would be difficult to store anywhere without being eaten up by rodents (and you do not attract rodents to anywhere near your campsite!), stolen by other homeless individuals, or being discarded by “humans.”

When I had money coming in, I would often eat at food carts or buy from delis. If I were spending the same amount every single day, that would loosely add up to $540 per month.

All too often, especially when cash was tight, this meant very limited dietary options and lack of varieties. Bagels or baguettes (about $1.50), unheated canned beans or soup straight out of can (about $1-$2.50), or even a one-pound bag of tortilla chips (about $1-$2), would be a common dinner for me. Fresh produce was always pricey especially in a smaller, ready-to-eat packaging, and I wasn’t spending $5 per meal every day on something out of the deli section. It was a treat to be able to eat at a Mexican restaurant maybe twice a month.

In many cases, filling the stomach becomes the all-consuming obsession so nutritious and balanced diet would be a secondary concern. This is why there is a pervasive obesity among the destitute in the U.S. When you are this poor, even soda loaded with sugar feels like a good source of energy. I would see lots of discarded 32-ounce paper cups from a nearby convenience store where there are lots of homeless encampments (at the time, it was $1 to fill up the paper cup with fountain soda).

Fortunately for me, I was resourceful enough to know several “free food porches” and Food Not Bombs in the city where I could get better kind of food that were discarded/donated by companies such as Whole Foods Markets, New Seasons Markets, and Trader Joe’s — as well as a number of local food manufacturers and wholesale distributors. They have literally saved my life and health for many years.

But for many others, health problems such as obesity and diabetes are rampant due to diet.

This is just the food aspect of homelessness, but you can see how expensive it can be to be poor.

In general, this country’s market operates on economic of scales. While this applies more often to businesses (for example, this is why Walmart sells a pair of jeans a lot cheaper than does an independent shop), it is also true at the retail level. The larger a package is, the less the price per ounce becomes. For the low-income people, however, they often have difficulty coming up with a large enough cash upfront to buy the larger package. A middle-class professional might drive half and hour and go to Costco and be able to get a 20-pound bag of rice and bean mix that would last perhaps a few months, but if you are trying to survive on $10 a week, you have no such luxury; you would try a dollar store in the neighborhood and see if they have a 10-ounce pack for $1.

A few years ago I met someone who appeared to be a relatively affluent middle-class professional. She owned her own house for many years, and employed hundreds of people in her own company. I was actually shocked to see her go into a supermarket and would spend over a hundred dollars (sometimes $300) each and every time. But her monthly living expenses weren’t that much higher than many working class people I knew — in fact, somewhat lower than those. Because having money meant she could purchase anything in a much larger quantity her overall expenses were low in a long run.

This is simply to demonstrate that systemic economic injustice, in many ways, puts far more pressures on those who do not have, than on those who are wealthy.