Life on the Streets: 10 Lessons I Learned From the Homeless - ITS Tactical

Shop the ITS Store!


Life on the Streets: 10 Lessons I Learned From the Homeless

By ITS Guest Contributor


I’ve discovered that the people who happen to be homeless have some knowledge and experience that’s useful to learning to survive the “mean streets.” After many conversations with those living on the streets and quite a bit of observation time, I’ve come up with a list of lessons that are useful when evading danger and surviving in a Darwinian world. Here are 10 of my favorites.



Cities have abundant offerings if you know where to find them. There are places to get a free meal and opportunities to acquire resources for manufacturing gear and tools. Finding a soup kitchen or service that provides meals to the homeless is an educational experience. In America, anyone on the street who is asking for money for food is not necessarily in need of the money for food. “Ted,” a resident of the streets who became one resource for information, told me that there are free meals available at several private and government run soup kitchens in his area. One place in Santa Monica gives out bag lunches to anyone who comes by. Another shelter has indoor sit-down meals.

In a crunch, these can be useful for getting caloric needs met under normal conditions. If surviving on the streets, constructing a tool kit and gathering resources to make gear should be a high and ongoing priority. Being able to manufacture needed gear will require raw materials. “Dave,” another homeless mentor showed me an awesome shelter location in a field of tall grass. He had made a rocket stove out of discarded tin cans. His shelter was made from heavy waxed cardboard. He made a hammock from a piece of a tarp; it was ingenious and creative. It was very well hidden, rainproof and had a great stove and a decent bed. Alleys and dumpsters are sources for things of value to someone on the street. Most people would be surprised at how resource rich the city is for the “MacGyver-minded.”

Lock Picks


One of the most essential skills/tools for urban survival is a good lock pick set and the skills to use it. This gives you access to many places that may not otherwise be available. Students of mine once found refuge in an abandoned factory. The door was locked with a chain and padlock, which was picked and then reversed with the lock on the inside for security sake. Dumpsters in the city are often locked, making dumpster diving a challenge.

Being able to open the locks and access the contents of a dumpster is very helpful. “Ted” said he used lock picks routinely, but did not carry the picks with him because he was afraid of how that would look if he were to be stopped by police. He had them cached near his shelter, so he could used them to open a lock on a fence that allowed him access to his hidden shelter.

Police Interaction


Police spend a great deal of time dealing with homeless people who may be addicted to drugs and alcohol, or are mentally ill. Most of those interactions are not positive from the police officer’s perspective. Therefore, you can count on them eyeing anyone who does not appear to have a place to live with suspicion. Dave’s recommendation is to avoid placing yourself in a situation where interaction is possible.

Students have been rousted from sleep locations that were known to the police on more than one occasion. Not enough care was taken in hide selection. Once you are in this situation, you are at the mercy of their discretion in deciding what actions to take. Avoidance is the best policy. Not doing things that raise suspicion is the best strategy. Make a habit of mentally noting observers, cameras and good observation points without drawing attention to yourself and the movements of your head.

Food is Tricky


Any homeless person going hungry is not taking advantage of the available resources. “Michael” gave one student a tour around Santa Monica, CA. He took him past a convenience store that places food in the dumpster that’s past the freshness standards for the store, but not food that is dangerously old. Michael showed him a dumpster behind a grocery store where less-than-fresh produce was discarded. Again, not spoiled, but not up to the store standard. He also found cans of food where the “Best if used by” date had passed. None of the cans were spoiled, they just could no longer be sold.

My teenage son once said that every time you open the fridge to look for something to eat, your standards for acceptable food drops. The same thing is true with missing meals. I would caution against lowering your standards unnecessarily. Under normal circumstances in America and other developed nations, there is abundant food available without having to resort to eating scraps from the garbage can. One student, who was a vegan, ate vegan food by raiding the dumpster behind a health food store. The dumpster was locked, but he gained access and found many healthy opportunities to eat.

Hygiene is Essential


One of the things observed in interaction with homeless people is that taking care of one’s body is often a low priority. Poor hygiene leads to complications later, like fungal infections, rashes and sores. I witnessed paramedics removing the socks of a homeless man and the top layer of his skin came off both feet. Another individual told me he refuses to go to shelters for fear of acquiring a drug resistant strain of Tuberculosis. Good hygiene is critical to good health and “crotch rot” is definitely something you want to avoid in any environment.

“Bob” was on the street simply because he had lost a job, gotten evicted and had nowhere else to go. A shelter wasn’t an option because he had a dog. Bob slept on the street every night, but other than that, you wouldn’t know he was homeless. He had a part time job and that allowed him to take better care of himself. He got up, groomed himself, went to work, came back to the street, where he foraged for food and then eventually went to sleep in a very original hide location. He washed in restrooms using a washcloth to take a sponge bath. He used deodorant, brushed his teeth and generally took care of his hygiene. He washed his clothes in a sink and line dried them. It was very hard to peg him as homeless.



Finding sources for water is straightforward. Finding water that is safe to drink may be a bit harder. I watched a homeless person lower his face into a fountain on the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica and drink deeply. His system might handle that, but most of us wouldn’t fare well. Bob showed me a water faucet Sillcock Key he carried that allowed him to turn on faucets with the handles removed. This very small and inexpensive piece of gear became a part of my everyday carry.

Discarded water bottles make good canteens. After I drink a 32oz Gatorade, I save the bottle. Otherwise, I would have to sterilize any bottle I found.

Safety in Numbers


I require students of some classes to sleep in a group of three and have a watch during the night. In LA, it’s sufficiently dangerous to sleep on the street at night that many choose to wander the city at night and sleep during the day. There is a large amount of predation among the homeless population. Individuals outside the norms of society are often seen as easier targets and more isolated from assistance. We encountered a group of five guys who had formed a team. Every night, they met up and went together to an improvised shelter area. They did not keep watch, as they found it less necessary with the size of their group.

In the book Defiance, author Nachama Tec describes a Jewish refugee camp hidden in the forests of the Ukraine during WWII. To avoid being sent to German death or slave camps, three Bielsky brothers hid 1,200 Jews. They discovered in the process that their larger camp fared better than the other smaller ones, which tended to be overrun and struggled to provide necessities. The Bielsky camps benefited from economy of scale that succeeded in making survival and protection easier in their time and place. Anywhere in the world, the appearance of vulnerability invites aggression. Consider forming a small team to increase the odds of personal safety.

Cache Locations


Unless you want to be one of the homeless guys who pushes a shopping cart loaded with treasures, you’ll need to become an expert at caching your belongings. One team in a class spent the day gathering resources for their night in the city. They had cardboard, cans and food. They placed their supplies in a cache while they continued to gather. When they returned, all of their stuff, including the shopping cart was gone. They saw the cart later, with their collection, being pushed by another homeless guy. Their cache location was so obvious that every homeless person knew where to look.

“If it seems like a good cache location, someone else probably knows about it,” Ted explained. Ted showed the class members a perfect cache location, but it required them to pick a lock. He showed them several other locations, but explained that he had seen other people’s stuff in every one of them. Losing your gear because you were too lazy to secure it is a royal pain. Take the time.



One of the most important concepts is creating a secure shelter. I have seen some truly outstanding shelters. One class found a park with some great trees, lush with foliage for concealment and high branches. They made hammocks out of tarps and slung them 30 feet up in a tree. Of course, we had safety lines attached to the students so they couldn’t fall out of the trees, but these trees were a perfect clandestine location. The tarps were brown and blended in well and people infrequently look up.

One student found a great shelter on top of a utility shed next to a high rise. He was protected from view by trees and a parapet around the shed. Once in place, he was literally invisible. He had to climb a nearby tree to drop onto the rooftop, so no one else bothered him. It was the exception to the team of three rule because the location was so secure. Finding a secluded place to rest is not only essential to your security, it’s important for your health.

Panhandling Sucks


One of the hardest things most homeless people report to us is the difficulty and futility of panhandling. It’s the only means of support for many of them, so they do it, but they don’t like it. To complete the experience and overcome a wide range of challenges and inhibitions, advanced class students are required to ask for money. One student described how this brought about a fundamental paradigm shift for him. Up until then, all of the activities in class seemed more or less just practical exercises.

However, getting to the point where he had to ask others for money was transformational for him. He learned empathy and understanding of the level of humiliation required to stand like a homeless person and ask strangers for money. That, he said, made everything very real. He struggled with the exercise, but he understood why it was important. It helps students appreciate that taking action and building survival skills is better than panhandling. The bottom line is, if you’re at the point where you have to panhandle, you’ve failed as a survivalist. You should be able to make it without money or do something in exchange for money (i.e. work.) Panhandling and being dependent on the charity of others is its own stressor.

The homeless who live on the street are survivors. They have acquired skills and strategies to stay alive in hostile environments. They can be a very valuable resource and we can learn from their successes and their failures. You’ll probably learn that you do not want to put yourself in a position to have to beg. Keep the initiative. Keep moving.

Editor-in-Chief’s Note: Kevin Reeve is the founder of onPoint Tactical, training professionals and select civilians in urban escape & evasion, urban survival, wilderness survival, tracking and scout skills. I’ve personally taken onPoint Tactical’s Urban Escape & Evasion class and highly recommend it as a resource!

Are you getting more than 14¢ of value per day from ITS?

Thanks to the generosity of our supporting members, we’ve eliminated annoying ads and obtrusive content. We want your experience here at ITS to be beneficial and enjoyable.

At ITS, our goal is to provide different methods, ideas and knowledge that could one day save your life. If you’re interested in supporting our mission and joining our growing community of supporters, click below to learn more.


  • 40kerry

    ITStactical wow that’s deep, never thought about that

  • Cynthia Tassell

    Learned a lot, thanks.

  • Matt Verellen

    I spent a large portion of 2015 in this position. At one point while working a 9-5 without even a vehicle for shelter. Was thinking about writing an article on lessons learned, because there way too many to just keep to myself. And I considered it a long term bugout exercise. I definitely learned larger picture/life lessons, not just about gear, procedures, etc. Coming out of it now not only stronger and more experienced, but better. Things like I can never again give a rat’s ass about materialism or impressing people. Really all that matters is your loved ones, time spent and that they can count on you to provide and protect and teach just generally be who they deserve

    • Yes it gives an incredible confidence that you carry the rest of your life. Knowing that you can survive in urban environments.

  • Jeff House

    onPoint Tactical is on my short list!

  • 6point8_SPC

    ITStactical Interesting perspective. Very informative.

  • Kristoffer Taruc Sarreal

    Refreshing to read this perspective.

  • Phillip Rusty Boisselle

    you can lean new survival skills from the strangest places that you may never think of.

  • Theodore Sebastian

    Almost a decade on the street in Baltimore Philadelphia Atlantic City and New York. Were things in the US to go SHTF I am confident of my ability to survive.

  • Awesome, urban survival can be allot of fun to master. Ive done this myself also a few times when traveling. I like to travel very implusive which results sometimes in arriving a destination a little later then planned. Or arriving at a hostel to find out that its fully booked already. For me its all part of the adventure. Its a very intense way of experiencing a city from a urban survival perspective.
    One advice for when you are finding yourself in the middle of the night in a strange city.. You can survive without sleep for a night. If you are scared and alone, you dont have to try to find a place to sleep. Just stay awake till it gets light. Even though sleep is very important to stay alert. If you dont have the experience and dont feel safe just know that it is a option.
    Another advice is that there are allot of materials to be found on the street that you can use for survival. Cardboard is a very good insulator and can even be used to build a shelter. Once I arrived in a city late and the hotels were all fully booked. Lucky me it was like recycle garbage day. There were big bags full of plastic bags and cardboar lying everywhere. I took 2 big platsic bags full of plastic, I tossed them in the bushes in a local park and used them as a matress and used the card board as a blanket and roof. Even though it was almost freezing outside I slept comfortably outside for like 6 hours. Early in the morning I put everything back where I found it and continued my travels. I recommend sleeping in hotel the next night if possible, just to charge up fully again..
    Kind greetings from The Netherlands,
    Tim de Vries,

  • LothropLothrop

    This is an excellent article. Thank you.

  • John David Handley

    Matt Verellen and Mark Furman if you all ever write books on your experiences I’ll buy them.

  • David Urbat

    Urban survival Niko Lay

  • LynnSadler

    These comments on the homeless is quite appropriate.  HOWEVER, I would like to throw a couple things about the homeless to the public.

    I worked for the Salvation Army in Little Rock, AR for 5 years as the accountant for the Little Rock branch that also housed the mens shelter.  .

    There are several problems with the homeless situation.

    1.   There are the unfortunates that have lost their jobs, homes, families for one reason or another.  These people are like virgins.  They don’t know how to “play” the game and tremendous damage is done to them.  They don’t understand that there are unwritten rules you have to play by to receive assistance.

    We had applicants try to apply for Christmas in the middle of July in their Cadillacs and Lincolns.  When Christmas rolled around, if their children didn’t receive what they WANTED, there was hell to pay.  This was Angel Tree in which a donor would pick a card stating if the child was a boy or firl and how old they were.  It was up to the donor to figure out the appropriate present(s).  The Army would TRY to supplement the present(s) if it was skimpy.  Some were very thankful but others felt like they were OWED.

    2.  The homeless men from three strata.
        A.  Men that had lost jobs, homes and family.  They were just trying to get by.  We employed a few in our shelter for the kitchen and shelter maintenance  They were paid wages and housed with rooms of their own and three meals a day.
         B.  Men that chose to be homeless.  They were the ones that were alcoholics or druggies.  We had a rule if they high, they couldn’t sleep in the shelter for that night.  In the winter some would choose to use cardboard across the street to sleep instead of being sober.  They were alway accepted for meals if they sociable.  We had one that actually had several rental properties.  he would spend all his money the first two weeks on wine, women and song.  The last two weeks he would be at our shelter.  There were quite a few veterans with VA benefits in the same boat.  Also, all the men, other than the workers, had to leave the shelter after breakfast, supposedly to work or look for a job.  Then around late afternoon they could could line up for the evening meal and bed.  The ones that didn’t work there were given bunk bed location and toiletries for a shower.  All the men could receive their mail at that location.

    When you work at a place like that, you generally get a hardness of the heart until you run into someone that breaks your heart and you want to help.  Sometimes you can help and other times it is impossible.

    No matter what, it was really eye opening……….

    • LynnSadler

      I meant to put in a third for the homeless men.  It is:

      C.  Men that were just passing thru.  These were the men that knew how to receive assistance at the Salvation Army.  Possibly going to relatives in another city or state.  Or traveling thru looking for work in other places.  They were the ones you really wanted to help.  They were still determined to be productive members of our society.

  • RedSR

    Good read.  This blog is superb as well:

  • ATXguest

    A related read.

  • DaveRay

    Very informative article, thank you. I am an old man (66) in a VA blue color power wheelchair, how can I be a “grayman” in a wheelchair. I would like to hear some thoughts. If you have never spent time on wheels your opinion may be completely disregarded unless you have spent considerable time observing those on wheels. Nevertheless I will consider what you say. Thank you.

    • Mark E

      What an excellent queston! The author,however did state it was difficult to accomplish with something that draws attention such as a wheel chair. That must be very frustrating , you have my empathy. However, I apparently, have been the grey man all my life. Probably more like a chamealeon, in the sense that sometimes a dramatic change a the right moment allows missdirection. But that sounds a bit difficult in a wheel chair as well. Might I suggest that you look at all other forms of mobility that you are physically capable of I.E walker , crutches , bicycle , motorized scooter etc . But if you are able to drive, it seems like a vehicle that blends in would work the best. Just a thaught.

Do you have what you need to prevail?

Shop the ITS Store for exclusive merchandise, equipment and hard to find tactical gear.

Do you have what you need to prevail? Tap the button below to see what you’re missing.