What It’s Like Living on the Street: A Day in the Life of an Unsheltered Person

IMPORTANT NOTE: This story was written by John Lingan with minor edits by Nami Matsuo.

For most of us, homelessness is unimaginable. We take for granted that we’ll be able to meet our daily needs of safety, food, shelter, and companionship without facing incredible obstacles. But every day, thousands of people awake in every region of the world and build their lives despite the challenges of living without shelter or a regular address.

There is no “average” life of a person experiencing homelessness. Life on the street is as varied and complex as life anywhere, and an individual’s experience of homelessness can be a product of their age, health, relationship and employment status, and many other factors. But below, we have pieced together many testimonials by individuals who have been or remain unsheltered in order to draw a reasonable picture of how many people experiencing homelessness survive day-to-day.

For most individuals on the street, the day begins early. Particularly in cold weather, many unsheltered people report waking early to take advantage of opportunities for warmth or hygiene before the rest of their city stirs to life. One man reports getting started “around 5.30 am so I could wait by a set of newly built public toilets near where I was sleeping.” With some help from a sympathetic janitor he got himself cleaned up in private.

Homelessness doesn’t always equal joblessness: for an estimated 25 percent of unsheltered people, the typical day includes a shift at work. Still more spend time seeking employment, either by stopping by businesses in person or by searching for opportunities online.

Anyone in the latter group — or anyone seeking a warm place to rest, read, or use the bathroom — is well-served by public libraries, which have become an essential resource in unsheltered people’s lives. Some libraries, like the main San Francisco branch, even employ social workers.

An estimated 1.3 million public school students experience homelessness and housing insecurity, so a full academic course load is a part of the unsheltered experience for many.

Unsheltered people need routine as much as anyone, so the rest of their day might follow whatever familiar patterns and survival strategies they’ve designed for themselves. When not driving for Lyft, one grandmother experiencing homelessness in Baltimore reports that she finds rest where she can: “Sleep can come on a park bench, in a hotel or in front of a 7-Eleven.”

Shelters and missions can also provide services and meals, even for people who aren’t able to spend the night due to lack of space. Sometimes these programs offer health care and dental services, which can be very difficult for unsheltered individuals to access otherwise. Other people who experience homelessness say that traveling, often by public transportation, can provide a temporary relief from the elements.

No matter how these individuals spend their day, hygiene remains a challenge. The Right To Shower is happy to work with Lava Mae, whose volunteers bring private mobile shower units to homeless people in a growing number of U.S. cities. In the first year 100% of the profits from The Right To Shower products helps fund this essential mission. Because no matter what their daily schedule, every person deserves dignity.

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Nami Matsuo

She/Her. INFJ. Japanese American Womxn. Mother. Daughter. Sister. Ally. Avid Complainer & Optimist.