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Sunday, August 22, 2010

Letter Re: Day to Day Survival--From the Perspective of a Homeless Man

It may not be TEOTWAWKI, but the end of “your world” may be closer than you think. Mine came eight years ago with the end of my wife's battle with cancer. With the down turn of the economy and a mountain of medical bills, we had already leveraged every penny that we could. We took out a second mortgage, maxed our credit cards, sold the boat, the four wheeler, and travel trailer. Since then I've sold my pickup, her car, the tools of my trade (I'd been a carpenter), and anything else that could bring in a dollar. I've been told that I could have gone through a “financial reorganization” a.k.a. bankruptcy, to save the house... but at the time, I was devastated by the loss of my wife, and nothing really mattered. She had always been the one to keep me going. Her battle cry “There's work to be done” usually meant she, or we would soon be headed to help somebody, or a cause that “won't make it without a little hand.” When my world crashed down, I lost my ambition, my faith, my hope. My depression led to heavy drinking, and that put me into a spiral, which didn't end until I hit bottom. One night I had a dream, a very realistic dream. I was standing with a group of people, in the front yard of our old house. Everyone was milling around talking in low voices... It was a Wake following a funeral. Then I saw her... she broke away from the group and rounded the corner of the house. I followed her to the back yard, as I caught up, she turned and gave me a hug. She held me at arms length, looked me up and down, and said I looked like hell. I asked if she had come to take me, if it was my time? She told me “no, not yet, I just wanted to see you”. She told me that I had to start taking care of myself... for her. “There's work to be done!” That's when I woke up, both figuratively, and literally.
Now I survive day to day, with an eye to the future.
I'm homeless... I don't steal, I don't beg, or take “hand outs”, I don't trespass onto private property.
I do my best not to look homeless. I do day labor for a temp agency, but am limited due to telephone and transportation constraints. I take occasional odd jobs on the side, but prefer small household repairs. I'm told that most local contractors won't even stop by to give estimates on these small jobs, because it's just not worth their time. I get this work by word of mouth, and have quite a few repeat customers. I have a growing list (of mostly seniors), that can't do the winter weatherizing, or spring cleanup of their homes. I don't charge an arm and a leg, and am open to bartering. I'll never get rich doing this, but I've made new friends, helped others, have been able to replace many of my old "tools of the trade", and have even bought a few “necessities” that I now see as luxuries.
A friend lets me store a few tools, and things in an old truck tool box that I have stuck under his deck. (A wooden deck that I helped build). He also lets me use his address to receive mail. This has allowed me to obtain a library card, which includes Internet access. I can only sign up to reserve an hour block of time, but if there's nobody else waiting to use it, they let people stay on indefinitely. With access to such a goldmine of reference/research material (including SurvivalBlog), the possibilities seem endless. It is also a warm place to spend a cold winter day.
Winter is, of course, the most difficult time to live outdoors. I dress in layers, and carry at least one complete change of clothes. It rains a lot here, and you will get wet. Wool makes the best insulating layer (even when wet), and “Gore-Tex” type materials are a great shell. I've gotten most of my layers cheap at local thrift stores. Shelters have come in many forms, from lean-tos, to public restrooms, or empty shipping containers. I won't stay in a “homeless shelter”, there is just too much potential trouble there. There is less chance of confrontations when I stay out of town, but there are also fewer resources, and opportunities for employment. There is one huge benefit when I do stay out of town. I'm able to cook, and heat with one of my “Penny Wood Gas” stoves, and not alarm anyone. I've made several variations of these and usually keep two or three around for different uses. Using the original size can, with fewer/smaller holes, gives a longer burn, with lower temps. Which is better for warming/drying cold hands, feet, and clothes. I always keep one loaded, ready to light, and it still weighs less than a pound.
There are wild foods to be had year round here in the Pacific Northwest. My diet is primarily vegetarian these days. Though I picked up a wrist rocket for a dollar at a garage sale, that occasionally adds protein to my meals. Cattails grow everywhere around here, and in it's many stages, is a constant source of nutrients. I highly recommend searching for a site like this one to familiarize yourself with local edibles. If/when the Golden Horde marches through this area, I expect most city dwellers to pass by these “weeds”, without giving them a second glance. Of the 55 plants on this particular page, I had previously only tried a hand full that I knew. Now there are only a few that I don't use regularly, either because they don't grow in my area of operation, they have digestive “side affects” or I prefer the flavor of others. A short note on “flavor”... While wild greens, grubs, and ground squirrels, can get you through a survival situation, they aren't always the most palatable for consuming day after day. Spice it up... a few basic spices can make the worst tasting gruel edible. I get my spices from the bulk food section of a local store. For the price of one pre-packaged little bottle of spice, I can get a variety of flavor enhancers. A few spices don't take up much space, and weigh only a few ounces. I carry a little with me, and have the rest in a few half pint jars stashed away in a secure location. The Ball company makes plastic (aka. non rusting) screw on lids. While not suitable for heat processing, they are air/water tight, and work great for storing dry goods.
In 2006 I was lucky enough to locate a south facing ledge approximately 12' x 30', which sits about 80' above a major highway, but is still 30'- 40' below the crest. I call it my “Garden Retreat”. With a sheer rock face above and below, my garden is still readily accessible by any surefooted mountain goat that knows the right route (a.k.a. me). There is a small spring not far away that gives me fresh drinking water and I can carry enough for the plants I am growing during the (very short) dry season here. Anything close to the edge that grows over waist high could be visible from below, but only if you know where to look. It has between 6” and 18' of top soil. I've been adding compostable materials and other amendments for three years now, and can easily produce 3-4 times the quantity of veggies I can eat. I use successive plantings, combined with intensive companion planting/intercropping, to get the highest yield out of the least work, and water. I go heavy on the root crops, because they keep longer, and often can be left in the ground until the rains set in. I've managed to assemble a couple of “cold frames” out of scrounged materials and old windows, to help extend my growing season. I can now have fresh lettuce in all but the coldest part of the year. Until I come up with better preservation methods, I'm using excesses as gifts, or barter.
Early this spring, I picked up (and rebuilt), an old bicycle. It has greatly increased my mobility, and extended my range. Now I'm gathering parts to build a trailer, to carry my tools.
Things have turned around for me. They may get bad again, or even worse, but I know that I will survive.
I've been sober for five years so far. I still don't know what God, or my wife have in store for me, but I will be ready. I haven't completely forgiven God yet, but it seems that he's forgiven me. I'm doing well right now, and have enough “extra” saved to purchase a prepaid cell phone. Another “luxury”, that will allow me to be more easily reachable/available for employment. If all goes well, I may spend this winter (or the next) indoors.
My advice to you?
  • Never give up.
  • No matter how bad things get... they could be worse.
  • Don't waste time pitying yourself.
  • Try to think clearly, and constructively. “There's work to be done!”
Regards, - Trashcollector
JWR Adds: Trashcollector's article was remarkable. It has earned him a special editor's prize, that will be dug up from the depths of JASBORR. His narrative reminded me of the same enterprising spirit that was shown by Sylvan Hart (a.k.a. "Buckskin Bill"), who lived a solitary life for many years in the wilds of central Idaho. I highly recommend the book Last of the Mountain Men, that documents Sylvan Hart's amazing life.