Pepper, who lives on the concrete banks of the Los Angeles river.
In my experience, homeless people can be divided into two categories: visible and invisible.
The visible ones are those you see on city streets, pushing shopping carts and muttering to themselves. They are usually unkempt and often smell bad. They can often been seen in places where commuters normally pass, begging for change. Sometimes they hold up handmade signs to advertise their plight.
You are probably not familiar with the invisible homeless because they are, well, invisible. Many of them live in their cars or vans, parked in inconspicuous places, and you would never know they were there unless you investigated carefully. Others spend the night discreetly camped in places you would never think to look, and still others are bouncing between the homes of friends and acquaintances.
The invisible homeless could include illegal immigrants trying to find a better life, as well as people who perpetually travel, like long-term backpackers or RV dwellers. It could even include well-heeled wanderers who move from one luxury hotel suite to another. It all depends on how you define "homeless."
The invisible homeless are usually self-sufficient, or at least aspire to be, and they aren't usually asking for handouts. Many of them have jobs and simply can't afford housing, or perhaps they choose to use their money for other things. Many are facing hard times and have little or no money, but that doesn't make them smell, mutter to themselves.
Overwhelmingly, the visible homeless are either mentally ill or substance abusers. You know this, in part, because they are visible. By showing yourself to be homeless, you are making yourself vulnerable to both criminals and law enforcement, not to mention ridicule, so only someone mentally incapacitated would do so. It isn't just lack of money that makes someone "look" like a homeless person, but a fundamental inability to care for themselves or connect with the social world around them.
The visible homeless are usually the only ones who are counted in homeless surveys. The invisible ones are rarely counted because they are intelligently avoiding detection and they look just like the people conducting the surveys! Therefore, no one really knows how many invisible homeless are out there.
I contend, from my experience, that the invisible homeless far outnumber the visible ones. Since I have done it myself, I know some of the telltale signs to look for: a van parked overnight in a supermarket parking lot, some tracks in the dirt leading to a sleeping bag hidden in a bush. There are many other invisibles, however, who even I can't see. They have a roof over their head tonight, but it isn't a stable one and it could be a different roof tomorrow.
From my experiences with juvenile court (in a previous life), I estimate that for every obviously homeless adult you see on the street, there are two currently homeless teenagers who you don't see. These are kids who have a legal home, but it's a dysfunctional one, and for one reason or another—whether run away or kicked out—they feel they can't go there. "Couch surfing," or staying temporarily with friends or near strangers, is their most common housing method, and unless they are caught committing a crime or are reported missing by their families, there is no government entity that knows about it.
When the politicians and newspapers refer to the "plight of the homeless," they are usually talking about the visible homeless and more specifically about untreated mental illness and substance abuse. It is hard to get the public worked up about the invisible homeless, because they rarely intrude into anyone's consciousness.
And maybe it's not something you need to get worked up over (except, perhaps, in the case of homeless teens). The lack of a fixed residence is not in itself a bad thing. We will see here that it can sometimes be quite comfortable. People who are heavily invested in their own homes can't imagine how anyone could possibly survive without one, but if you analyze the daily stresses of a person's life, they are not really related to where they are sleeping at night. Many a homeowner is burdened and stressed beyond belief, while some of the technically homeless may lead lives that are relatively posh and worry-free.
So if someone acknowledges that they are homeless or sleeping in their car, that doesn't mean you should feel ashamed for them or rush around to find them a place to stay. They could actually be the lucky ones! They could look at you and call you the "home-burdened". They might say, "What are we going to do about all those poor souls trapped in their homes who are so weighed down by their obligations and their accumulated Stuff that they can't move?" Which group really deserves our sympathy? It's all matter of perspective.
The visible homeless give the invisibles a bad name. They are an eyesore and draw down local property values. They rarely venture very far from one area, which is one reason they are so obvious. They build "nests" lined with trash and create messes wherever they go. Most aren't willfully destructive like graffiti artists, but no one really wants them in their community.
The visible homeless aren't living on the streets just because they are poor or have had bad breaks in life. Well, they probably have had bad breaks, but at this point that's not the issue. Now, it's more a problem of entrenched brain patterns that can't be fixed merely by making them unhomeless. You can give a visibly homeless person food, a place to live and a job, and invariably he is going to screw it up. You would have a lot better luck with the invisible homeless—if you could find them.
With the current downturn in the economy, homelessness is bound to increase, but it's the invisible numbers that are going to grow, not so much the visible ones. If an investment banker loses his job, his house and all his money, he's not necessarily going to be pushing a shopping cart. He's clever enough that will find some other way to survive, and he's got enough dignity that he's never going to look homeless no matter how far he falls.
If forced to, you'll find there's a lot you can do with no money. Operation of the brain requires almost no money, just a little glucose. Human relations in their simplest form require almost no money. Transportation is nearly free as long as you use your own feet to do it and costs only a modest amount if you use public transportation.
No matter how bad things may get, there is always some freedom you can find in it. There is always some hidden advantage and some way you can improve yourself through the experience. There is never any reason to surrender and claim you have no choice.
That's one skill you and I have that most of the visible homeless don't.