Offgrid Survival Off the Grid Everyday: Survival Lessons Learned from the Homeless
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This article originally appeared in Issue 6 of our magazine.
One doesn’t have to go very far to find out how it would look to live off the utility grid. While most of the country is more or less stable (at the time of this writing), there are hundreds of thousands of people living nomadically in every city in the United States without the privileges of electricity and running water — let alone PlayStations and smartphones. They are our society’s homeless, and they live off the grid despite living among us.
We have seen time and again throughout history all sorts of events that thrust people, once living comfortably, out of their homes and onto the streets. We’re only one natural or manmade disaster away from ending up like the more than 600,000 people estimated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to be living on the streets. So, in an effort to glean survival lessons from some of the most resilient people living without basic needs, OFFGRID headed into the heart of Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s vagrant community.
This author packed up his notebook, a wad of $5 bills, and his concealed carry pistol and headed to skid row to conduct what would be some of the most, uh, “interesting” interviews of his career. The areas of town where the homeless congregate are already stripped of resources, far from any Barnes & Noble or gated community. Many of these displaced folks were here because of drug addiction, while others turned to drugs only after reaching what is, in essence, the end of the line. Regardless, finding a coherent participant wasn’t always easy nor was our cause aided by the drug dealers, who made it clear that we were not welcome. Undeterred, we eventually found people of all ages who were lucid and sober enough to be interviewed. Though they didn’t have many possessions, they did have a wealth of knowledge that could absolutely be applied to a survival situation after a disaster.
As the sad cliché goes, homeless people are hidden in plain sight. As a society, we tend to turn a blind eye when we see drifters begging for money or living under a bridge. Yet they continue to survive off the utility grid despite living among us on the grid. Here’s a brief look at who they are, based on January 2013 statistics from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
There’s a lot of community support for the homeless. Most of their basic needs are met by local churches or shelters. But as you’ll read later, these handouts may not always be an option. Though every interviewee survived differently, there were definitely some common themes.
Most everyone had a water container that they would refill by using hose bibs attached to businesses closed for the day. The types of food that they carried were nonperishable and prepackaged, and therefore didn’t need to be refrigerated or cooked. When asked if they would steal food if the community could not provide it, the answer was a unanimous yes.
Thoughts on the subject of shelter varied greatly depending upon the situation and the individual’s temperament. Some street people find clean beds at community shelters, but there’s always more demand than supply. Also people entering a shelter (or a FEMA camp) will be subject to a search, so those not wanting to give up firearms, other weapons, and possibly medication will have to seek shelter elsewhere. Many of the homeless interviewed disliked the shelters because of the overcrowding and thievery — undoubtedly two problems that would be compounded in a disaster situation.
A partially disabled 63-year-old man we interviewed constructed a small encampment hidden deep in a wooded region, located far away from the densely populated homeless district. He chose this type of area to stay away from others competing for resources. But he also chose to set up his camp near train tracks because snakes, common to the area, dislike the strong vibrations created by passing railway cars. Being so far from resources required him to own and maintain a bicycle for transportation.
Meanwhile, a man in his early 20s used a drastically different approach: He solely occupied abandoned structures, constantly changed his routes, and only moved under cover of darkness to avoid detection. However, his austere nomadic existence limited his possessions to what he carried in his backpack and on his person.
A middle-aged man occupied a tent within walking distance of community resources, but remained on the outskirts of the densely populated area. One side of his “territory” was covered by a fence, while the others had a clear view of anyone approaching. In the colder months, he would move his encampment into the shelter of a nearby abandoned building. This man didn’t try to hide his location, but kept his presence known, unlike his weapon, which was a rather sizable and rusty cane knife he kept hidden. He man admitted to being a multiple felon, was an imposing figure, and had narcotics in plain view. People like this are already out surviving on the streets, so should you find yourself among them, we suggest being hyper aware of your surroundings and distributing your trust sparingly.
Above: Personal security is a constant concern for those living on the streets. This former gardening implement is now a self-defense tool.
Regardless of the type of shelter used, we noticed certain themes reoccurring throughout our interviews. Every man had some way of getting his sleeping area up off of the ground — be it pallets, a mattress, or bedding material. Also, they all utilized some type of early warning system to alert them of approaching danger while they slept. Some placed broken glass or trash in the pathways of buildings. Others tied trip wires in the woods or simply blocked entrances with materials that would be noisy to move.
Those who chose to stay with other homeless people actually used some “challenge words” or code — much like the Allies did during War World II’s D-Day when troops would challenge anybody approaching with the word “flash” and shoot if the password “thunder” wasn’t given in return.
About Food: Pack nonperishable food, as conventional cooking and refrigeration will be limited or nonexistent in a SHTF scenario. Consider purchasing meals-ready-to-eat (aka MREs), learning how to prepare your own canned food, or stocking up on commercially available canned food (see our “Meat Feast” feature story elsewhere in this issue).
About Water: A container of some sort is a must for any survivalist, be it a plastic milk jug or state-of-the-art stainless steel water bottle.
About Shelter: Because the location will depend on your specific situation and where you choose to set up camp, there’s no single “best” type of shelter. But a roof over your head and a bedding area elevated off the ground is essential.
About Security: In any dire scenario, be it homelessness or after a natural disaster, overcrowding is inevitable at shelters (whether set up by the government or charitable organizations), as is property theft. So, establish either a trusted network of friends (the kind your life depends on) or an early-warning system around your shelter. Self-defense tools are a no-brainer.
Once the basic needs were covered, we delved into additional needs that are not so immediate, but still quite important.
Medical attention is usually given out at clinics and hospitals, but what if there are none available? Or, as in the case with shelters, you don’t want to be forced to give up your weapons or medication? From our observations, the alternatives aren’t so pretty. Most vagrants either self-medicated or simply suffered through their ailments. Also, living on the streets without medical support appeared to get exponentially more difficult with increasing age.
On a related note, proper hygiene could have not only prevented some of the infections and medical issues we observed, but also could have served a secondary purpose of looking more presentable. And no, we’re not talking about dressing up for job interviews. There appeared to be a fine line between looking too clean and healthy (thereby making oneself a target for the have-nots) and looking totally destitute (making one a target of those who prey upon the weak while also unapproachable to those who might be willing to offer help). Depending on the type of disaster you find yourself in, money might still be worth something. If you are displaced to an area not under distress, you may be able to work for cash, so you need to be approachable. If money is not worth anything, you can still trade your labor for things you need, which many of the homeless do. A general consensus was that begging or panhandling was not very effective, so you can’t rely on handouts.
Another survival concept consistent among the homeless was the value of having cheap transportation — namely a reliable bicycle. Those homeless who owned a bicycle had a distinct advantage over those who didn’t. Every street person we interviewed eyed our bicycle with envy, and all mentioned the importance of one. Why? Fuel may not be available, and roads are easily clogged by panicked motorists — but bicycles can go almost anywhere with nothing more than a little leg muscle. Plus, they’re easy to hide or secure and allow a person to travel great distances quickly while expending little energy. These attributes allow one to obtain resources from farther away and help you get out of harm’s way swiftly. The impoverished who owned bicycles also had a lock (preferably a U-lock), a small set of basic tools, and spare parts to keep their bikes reliable. One man suggested having a small bicycle trailer for hauling additional supplies and gear. (See OFFGRID’s Spring 2014 issue for more on bug-out bikes and their accessories.)
Learning how to adapt is also strongly suggested. For example, the older man replaced a broken pedal with one fabricated out of a wooden block. If you find yourself off-grid, improvisation will be used in every aspect of your life, not just those regarding your bicycle.
About Medical: Prepare some basic medical gear and know how to use it. Know where alternate medical facilities are (as hospitals might be overcrowded, overrun, or quarantined) and plan transportation routes to reach them. Also, if you have elderly relatives to care for, you’ll need to plan accordingly.
About Hygiene: Not only does improper hygiene cause medical issues to flare up, it can also mark you as a target. Don’t look too clean, but don’t look completely destitute either.
About Transportation: Off the grid, bicycles are king. Without the need for fossil fuels or electricity, bikes can get you out of Dodge quickly and via many different routes.
That’s right. You read correctly — backpacks. We know how much you love them, so listen up. Topping the list of needs of the homeless is the backpack. The general consensus is that if you want to keep something, it should be kept on your person. Think vital items like your ID, cash, payment cards, and weapon(s). Depending on the situation, these items can give you access to resources, such as your bank account or government assistance should you be able to reach it. These belongings are almost impossible to replace in a disaster scenario. (Also, should there be some semblance of law and order, you’ll want your CCW permit handy if you’re carrying a weapon concealed.)
To carry all of your other needs, you should have a good quality, low-profile, medium-sized backpack. That means it should appear used and somewhat dirty. A huge pack that’s glistening new with all kinds of goodies hanging off of it will definitely make you a target. Many of the interviewees related instances in which they were robbed. Others recalled how they often sleep with an arm through one of their pack’s straps.
We asked all our interviewees, “If you could have a backpack filled with anything but cash, what items would you want in it?” Not surprisingly, the 5 C’s popped up in everyone’s answers: a container for water, a cutting implement (such as a knife), cover (e.g. a tarp, tent, or sleeping bag), cordage (to secure items and make shelter), and a form of combustion (usually a lighter, though fires were seldom used because they attract attention).
In addition to the other items previous mentioned by the interviewees, some of the vagrants expressed interest in having a flashlight, a small radio, extra warming layers, extra footwear, extra set of clothes, writing implements, baby wipes, a small stove, and cooking and eating utensils. These are typical items most survivalists would have in a 72-hour go-bag.
About Backpacks: Few things are as essential as a good backpack, because it can carry all of your other vital kit (water, food, fire-starters, etc.). Find one that’s medium-sized and low-profile to stay discreet, load it up, and keep it close to you at all times.
In addition to the critical gear already mentioned, many of the drifters we talked to suggest having things you can part with. Barter items — namely cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs (legal and illegal) — would be valuable to have in limited quantities so that you can trade with others you deem safe to negotiate with. (Obviously, the severity of the disaster and the condition of the government should be taken into consideration before obtaining anything illegal.) For example, if you’re not a smoker, trading away a pack of cigarettes for creature comforts like toilet paper would be a huge morale booster.
All of the people interviewed for this story were visibly nervous. Life on the street is quite stressful — being properly prepared can reduce that stress in times of peril. These interviews gave us a small glimpse into what a future living off of the grid would be like.
We’ve certainly taken their lessons seriously, cross referenced them against our own preparations, and have adjusted our plans for TEOTWAWKI accordingly. We suggest you do the same, because it doesn’t take much for average folks to end up on the streets — whether it’s due to a sudden psychological affliction, the economic fallout of being fired, or a natural or manmade catastrophe that wipes out your community.
Aside from getting a chance to learn how impoverished people survive on the streets, you can volunteer at a homeless shelter or a nonprofit organization for plenty of other personally rewarding reasons. Below is a brief list of agencies providing assistance and information:
This nonprofit’s founder used to be homeless and now dedicates his life to changing the way we think about people experiencing life on the streets.
National Coalition for the Homeless
A national network of activists, advocates, and professionals whose goal is to prevent and end homelessness.
Project Night Night
This charitable organization donates age-appropriate care packages to 25,000 homeless kids every year.
U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development
The online portal for the government’s housing-related resources and assistance programs.
This U.S. agency helps veterans find housing, in addition to providing healthcare, job training, and other services.
Peter Palma is a freelance writer who served overseas as an infantry machine gunner and scout sniper in the U.S. Marine Corps. After leaving the service, he competed on TV’s Top Shot during its first and fifth seasons. He currently resides in Louisiana, where he teaches basic firearms classes, is enrolled at Louisiana State University, and operates his weapons-cleaning accessory business, MS Clean.