Thursday, February 26, 2009

Camp Site Beta

When I first arrived in San Diego a month ago, I quickly scouted out a campsite near the trolley line where I could sleep undisturbed. This "Camp Site Alpha" adequately served me for six nights until the rains came and encouraged me to move on.

Camp Site Alpha was a former landfill in an industrial neighborhood in the inner San Diego suburbs. Like countless other urban sites, it was fine for a night or two but it was not sustainable for the long term. This was land owned by the county government in a relatively dense suburban area, and it was only a matter of time before someone detected my presence and complained to police.

When I rented a car for a day to get through the worst of the rain, I took the opportunity to scout for a new campsite, one I could use anytime with little fear of discovery and few worries even if it happened. While there is plenty of empty land in the remote desert where you can camp almost indefinitely, my camp site had to be accessible via cheap public transportation.

As reported earlier, I found such a site in the eastern suburban fringes about a half hour bus ride from the trolley line. In this area, modest housing developments (mostly well-kept mobile homes) were interspersed with equal areas of hilly open land. To my eye, the land appeared to be "public"—that is, federal land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

By default, you have a right to camp on public land. Essentially, you can to live there rent free for as long as you like, providing you don't cause any damage and you move at regular intervals. Local BLM districts, however, may impose restrictions on camping to meet local needs, such as closing certain sensitive or overused areas or restricting the amount of time you can stay in one place.

Having lived in Nevada for 15 years, I was familiar with the wonders of public land. In the open desert outside Las Vegas, you are permitted to camp on one place for up to 14 days, no permit required. After that, you have to move a certain distance away, then you can camp for 14 days again in the new site, and after a certain time has passed, you can return to the original site. By hop-scotching around like this, you can legally live forever on public land and never pay a cent of rent.

The only caveat, however, is that public land is typically very remote and usually doesn't give you good access to civilization. "What good is civilization?" you may ask. Spend a few weeks on a desert island, and it will quickly become obvious. While isolation is nice in small doses, at the end of the day you need the food, supplies, services and "data connections" that only civilization can provide.

The hills east of San Diego seemed like paradise for my purposes, offering all the anonymity of the desert but also easy access to a modern city. I still don't know whether this is public land or what the camping regulations are, but these technicalities are irrelevant. When I encounter what looks like public land, unmarked by any signs or fences, I assume it is the responsibility of the landowner to tell me what the rules are. For my own safety, it is my intention to camp secretly, with no indications of my presence, so no one is likely to get irritated or have a chance to tell me anything.

The first patch of land I explored by car was already occupied by homeless people. These were the smelly "homeless homeless" I have spoken of before (those who are either substance abusers or mentally ill). You know their encampments by the huge amounts of trash and "supplies" they gather around them (a phenomenon I call "packratting" that I will discuss later). It's obsessive and dysfunctional behavior that makes a vacant lot look like a trash dump, but it was a good sign to see here. I could see that a dozen homeless people were living on a 20+ acre block of land for an extended period without being disturbed. It meant that if I camped in a more remote location and kept my presence discrete, I too could camp here indefinitely. (The authorities would have to uproot the more obvious homeless before they ever bothered with me.)

I continued tracing the bus route away from the city and finally came upon Nirvana: a vast band of hilly land close to essential stores and services but with few signs of other homeless. This was a landscape of weird rock formations and large bushes with plenty of nooks and crannies to sleep in undetected. This land extended for dozens if not hundreds of acres away from the bus line, so if I wanted more isolation, I could simply hike further in.
I christened the whole area Camp Site Beta in a brief ceremony.

For policy reasons, I choose not to reveal too much about the exact location, but suffice to say there is plenty of such land on the eastern extremities of the San Diego transit system. Even if I told you the bus stop, however, it is highly unlikely you could find me; that's how complex the terrain is.

The photo at the top of this posting shows one entry point to Camp Site Beta. (There is probably enough data in this image for you to find the place, but you would have to work at it, which suits my policy.)

While exploring Camp Site Beta, I found remarkably little trash. As I hiked to the top of the hill shown in the first photo (which is a lot bigger than it looks), I saw archaeological evidence of a couple of very old homeless-homeless camps, but nothing recent. As I came down, however, I found that I was not alone. Nestled behind some tall bushes, I noticed two alpine tents...
Unlike the trash-strewn encampments of the homeless-homeless, this campsite showed signs of intelligent design! The occupants had followed the same instincts I did and had chosen a campsite that was completely invisible from any road or house. (In the photo above, the telephoto lens makes the campsite seem closer to housing than it really is.) You would have to hike up the hill like I did to see the tents. I didn't approach the campsite to introduce myself—That may come later.—but these looked like my kind of folks! They showed every sign of foresight and wisdom in their site selection; their campsite was well-kept; they looked comfortable, and they were attempting to keep a low profile.

My exploration suggested that the Camp Site Beta area was perfect for my needs in every way. There was, however, one sad thing lacking in the area. It's absence was beneficial to me but probably not a good sign for society at large: There were no kid tracks!

Once upon a time (like the pre-internet era when I grew up), local kids would have regarded a big area like this as their play zone. They would have ridden mountain bikes here and built forts, with or without Keep Out signs along the boundary or perfect weather outside. Today, kids are addicted to video games and online entertainment, and they rarely go out. As I surveyed the boundaries between this land and adjacent housing developments, there were no fences or signs but virtually no trails between one and the other. Where are all the children? It's a question I haven't fully answered.

While I had the car, I transferred my tent and sleeping bags from Camp Site Alpha to Camp Site Beta. Then I turned in the car at the airport, worked for the day at the college library and returned to Camp Site Beta after dark for my first night sleeping there. There was rain in the air, so I had to use my tent. It rained moderately all night, but I stayed dry. In the morning, I broke camp before dawn and cached all my camping equipment in a virtually undetectable spot among the rocks. (If any of it is stolen, I can quickly reconstruct it from the nearby Evil Mega Mart.)

After that, I had to leave San Diego for a while, to pursue something resembling "work". Although I spent only 8 nights in San Diego and one night at Camp Site Beta, I felt that I had proven the viability of the area. I survived some of the worst weather San Diego can dish out, so it should be easy going any other time. For its fine weather and excellent amenities, I expect to treat San Diego as my "home" whenever my travels and commitments don't take me elsewhere. It could also end up being my more permanent base when my Magic Travel Pass runs out.

At the moment, I am on sabbatical of several weeks pursuing this "work" thing. After all, I need some way to pull together the $15/day I need to function in San Diego. Of course, I prefer to "work" as little as possible, which is the chief benefit of the Free Sleeping lifestyle.

Why should you waste your days slaving for The Man when I all you really need is a safe place to sleep?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Don't You Need a Permanent Address?

A correspondent in England ("S.O.") writes:
Hey Glenn, spent ages reading your blogs and was really interested by your articles on free sleeping, it certainly seems like an interesting way to live. As you seem to be doing it successfully I just wondered about how you get around the fact that if you want to hire a car for example or have a bank account, many organizations require one to be a homeowner or have a permanent place of residence. Or is this less of a problem in the States as opposed to England?
You'd think it would be a problem, but I rarely have to give a residential address for anything. My Post Office box works for almost everything. Whenever I need a non-PO box address, I use my parents' address in Massachusetts. Unless you have burned all your bridges, there is always some a relative or friend with a residential address who will let you claim it as "home" for occasional mailing. However, the only time I have used my parents' address is for manufacturer's rebates that say "No P.O. Boxes."

When you sign up for a PO Box, you have to show identification and give a residential address, but the address can be out of state, and they certainly don't verify it.

I recall that you also have to give a local residential address when you apply for a Nevada driver's license, but there is no attempt to verify it, and there is a space on the form for an alternate address where your mail should go. (I think the state is more concerned about you living in the state and not applying for a license than not living here and applying.) I have since changed my only address to be the PO Box, and that's the one that appears on my license. (I know, I was also surprised that they accepted it!)

I successfully applied for TSA airport security clearance without a permanent residential address, just the PO Box. They wanted to know all of my prior addresses, but I didn't lie on the form in any way.

The only time I had to fudge my address is when applying for health insurance through my employer. The insurance company needed my local residential address, and since Las Vegas is where I wanted the services, it couldn't be the Massachusetts address. In this case, I simply asked a friend if I could use his address. The application form also provided a separate mailing address where I put my PO box, and my friend in fact never received any mail from the insurance company.

Your cellphone, of course, is place-independent. Your area code is determined by the location of the office that you first walked into, but thereafter you can keep the same number for life (as long as you pay the bill).

As far as the taxman is concerned, I live in Nevada, which happens to have no state income taxes. (Nevada is still my residence more than anywhere else.)

It may be different in the U.K., but here in the states there just isn't any legal or financial need to have a permanent residential address.

Free Sleeping on Public Land

Free Sleeping usually involves an element of stealth and evasion of authority, but there are vast areas in the American West where you can legally and openly camp for free. These are public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management of the U.S. Government. On this land you have a right to camp wherever and whenever you want, without a permit, as long as there isn't a specific local regulation against it.

The most common local BLM regulation is that you can't spend more than 14 continuous days in one location. After that, you have to move a certain distance away before you can legally camp again. After a certain length of time (typically 14-76 days), you can legally return to the original campsite and camp again. Thus, by hopscotching around like this, you can live perpetually on public land without paying rent or asking anyone's permission.

How does anyone know you have spent more than 14 days in one location? They don't, unless you do something to tell them. BLM rangers, who are responsible for enforcing the 14-day rule, are usually spread thinner than soap film over a vast territory. You'll be lucky if you see one in a lifetime, let alone twice within a one-month period. Like most law enforcement, they don't usually go out looking for illegal campers. Instead, they wait for complaints to come to them. If you choose a discreet camping spot, leave no visible signs of your presence and don't give anyone any reason to complain, all this land is basically yours.

The only drawback to public land is that you usually need a vehicle to reach it, as it tends to be located away from urban areas and public transportation.

How do you identify public land? First, it is only in the Western States (as shown above). Secondly, there is a notable lack of No Trespassing signs and border-marking fences. If, for example, you are driving on a local highway in Nevada or the California desert, away from any town, and there is no fence along the road, the land is probably public. The best record of whether a certain area is public is a local land-use map, available from the BLM.

Whenever I am traveling in the West, I liberally interpret my right to camp. Once I encounter open, inhabited land that appears to be public, I simply camp there, preferably out of view of the road. I hold it the responsibility of the government or landowner to tell me I can't camp there. And if my presence is secret (primarily for safety reasons), they are never going to know I'm there, so they won't have the chance to tell me anything.

Why doesn't everyone live on public land? It's the same problem of real estate everywhere: location, location, location. Public land is fine if you want to get away from it all, but sooner or later you are going to want to interact with your fellow man (and the services he provides). If you want to do this on a regular basis without an hours-long commute, it will probably require sleeping in an urban area where public land is rare. That's when you have to get stealthy and marginally criminal of you want to sleep for free.


Links

Here are some general BLM camping regulations (in this case for the Mojave Desert near Barstow) as published on an official website:
Except for "special areas" with specific camping regulations, visitors are welcome to camp anywhere on BLM managed land.
Note that it costs $6 to camp in a campground but nothing just outside it.

And here are some exact local regulations, as published in the Federal Register. Although the exact regulations vary from place to place, the 14-day limit seems pretty universal. The only thing that varies is how far away you have to go when the 14 days are over and how long you have to wait before returning. Again, if you keep a low profile and never develop what appears to be a permanent encampment, the 14-day limit is pretty meaningless.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Native Food Sources: The Buffet

When you don't have a kitchen to cook in, you have to harvest your food from the wild. In the urban jungle, fast food is the most commonly available native foodstuff. It will keep you alive for a few days, but if you eat too much of it, your digestive system will rebel. (Believe me, it will let you know!) For free sleeping to be sustainable, you need to draw on a variety of food sources and strive for a balanced diet.

Our ancestors were omnivores, meaning they ate just about anything that came their way: meat, berries, grubs, occasionally even each other. As long as you consume a varied diet, not just from the fat and sugar groups, you'll probably be okay. Fast food is not a varied diet, but if you throw in a few vegetables, some seafood, salad and fresh fruit, you might be okay. The only trouble is, where do you get those other things?

One solution is the "buffet"—a restaurant that lets you assemble your own meal from a wide variety of options. If you have been to Las Vegas, you are familiar with the concept, since casinos use extravagant buffets to lure suckers in the door, but the concept exists everywhere in some form. From the lowly salad bar to the venerable Smorgasbord, there is bound to be something like that near where you are. If you hit the buffet a couple of times a week, deliberately grazing for the foods you are missing, you might end up with a decent diet overall.

In North America, Chinese buffets are the most common. Nearly every city, big and small, seems to have them, mostly independently run. Here you will find vegetables and a lot more, not all of it strictly Chinese. In fact, the "Chinese" food served in America seems a far cry from what is actually eaten in China, but let's not quibble. If it works, it works.

There are also several restaurant chains to look for: Hometown Buffet/Country Buffet is a good one, not Vegas quality but offering a decent range of items for under $10. Sweet Tomatoes/Souplantation offers a "salad bar" that is essentially a buffet, including fresh soups, pasta and baked goods, also for under $10. The Sizzler steakhouse chain has a salad bar that may also include hot food like chicken wings. Other steakhouse chains with a big salad/food bars are Ponderosa and Golden Corral. There are many similar non-chain buffets & salad bars locally.

Don't overlook Indian buffets. Truckstop buffets, however, are often gross! Don't go unless you can see the food first or get a recommendation from someone.

Wherever a restaurant offers a salad bar, there's really no need for an entrée, since you'll probably fill up on salad before the entrée even arrives.

Some regional options include the legendary casino buffets of Las Vegas. (I recommend The Orleans and Main Street Station for a good balance of price and quality.) Manhattan has many to-go salad bars sold by the pound. Tourist areas in the Eastern U.S. often have "Smorgasbords" (a buffet by a different name) of regional renown. Look around you; you'll see something that works.

Some buffet advice: (1) Don't buffet every day or you'll explode (or at least your waistline will). Once or twice a week is sufficient. (2) On your first pass through the buffet line, pick out the things you know you should eat, based on what's been missing from your diet. On the second pass, you can go for what you want to eat. (3) The lunch price is usually cheaper than the dinner price, even though the food is nearly the same, so go for lunch when you can. (4) Avoid breakfast buffets, as the variety isn't as good and you'll feel bloated all day. (5) Try to starve yourself before you buffet to maximize your intake. (6) Know your limits!

Most people, when faced with an all-you-can-eat buffet, will eat all they can eat, which isn't necessarily good in the long run. Remember, this is a nutritional exercise not a gastronomic one. Try to eat healthy!

We'll talk about other native food sources later.

Homeless by Choice?

I have tentatively titled this blog, "Homeless by Choice," because that seems to be the popular term for what I do. I think it refers to someone without a stable sleeping location who has some resources and is capable of obtaining a traditional residence if he chooses to. This distinguishes him from the truly "homeless homeless" who have no resources and no choice about where they live.

But the term also irritates me, because "choice" is such a tricky concept. I don't think anyone sleeping in the wild feels they have a choice about it. Although I have some money, it isn't enough to pay for rent, at least while I am doing the things I want to do. I could struggle to get a traditional "job," fighting all the other newly laid-off job seekers for the few positions available, but my prospects would be bleak, and the whole "job" thing just doesn't suit my constitution anyway. (I get a gag reflex whenever the word is mentioned, so you will kindly refrain from that language, thank you!)

When I plug all the numbers into my equations—what I want to do, what I'm capable of doing, and what the world is willing to give me—I simply "have no choice" but to sleep in the wild. Those equations could change in the future, but my own self-knowledge and worldly experience says that this is the best workable option I have right now—i.e. "no choice."

But then again, we all of have choice, as long as we decide to use it. The only thing that really distinguishes me from my visibly homeless brethren is my resolve to make the best of whatever circumstances come my way. No matter what misfortune may befall me, no matter what freedoms are taken away from me, I will look for the places where I do have freedom and use them to better myself. Every "bad" thing that happens to me I am determined to twist around into something good. In every case, I will take control, chart my own course and not be "victimized" by anything or anybody.

I have talked to quite a few of the visibly homeless and find their attitude is different: "Woe is me!" Once you get one of them relaxed and talking, he invariably has a long-winded story of misfortune that lead him here. He lost his job; there was a divorce; some thugs stole all his money. He might even admit, straight up, that he's a drunk and has no control over it because no one will help him kick the habit. If you listen only to him, it all seems perfectly rational that he has ended up in this sad position.

But what is usually missing from his spiel is any sense of self-responsibility. It is always outside forces that made him this way, never anything he did. Even alcoholism or drug addiction is seen as an external problem, like a thunderstorm he has no control over. "I can't help it!"

Of course, with this attitude, he will never escape from his own trap. If resources ever do come under his control, he has "no choice" but to squander them.

Look at the apparently homeless gentlemen in the photo above, sleeping on the San Diego Trolley. (They remained on the trolley when it reached its terminus, so they weren't on it for transportation.) They must have had at least $5 to ride the trolley, but for a capital outlay of only $30, they could have bought a tent and sleeping bag and slept much more comfortably and securely in the suburbs. You can't claim that they have never had $30, but when they do have it, where do you think it goes? Not to capital outlays, for sure.

There are many invisible homeless facing desperate straits, but they are usually trying their best to improve themselves. The visible homeless, by and large, are not. They have already determined that life has beaten them, so there's no point in trying.

Being "homeless by choice" really comes down to the simple perception that you have a choice. If you think you have a choice, you will take advantage of your opportunities, build upon them and eventually dig yourself out of danger. If you think you have no choice, all initiative seems useless, so you don't even bother.

This becomes clear when you start suggesting solutions to the visibly homeless. Why don't you go back to your family in Iowa? Why don't you check out this job program? Why don't you move to a warmer place or a safer neighborhood? What you'll probably hear is excuse after excuse. He's tried that before, he says; it didn't work, so there's no point in trying again. He doesn't object to a donation from you, and he may complain about how the government won't help him, but he's not going to take the initiative to help himself. This is the fatal attitude that no amount of social service can repair.

This isn't a blog for him. This blog is about taking control of whatever circumstances the past has given you—using your choice! It's about designing a life that works for you, regardless of what anyone else thinks of it. If you are not homeless right now but you worry that you might be, this blog may offer some consolation. It may not be that bad!

Whatever cards life deals you, there are clever ways you can play them to your advantage, but you have to accept that you alone are responsible for everything that happens to you. There's no point in blaming society, your ex-spouse, the government, Demon Rum or anything else for your predicament. This is your ship now, and you have to take control of the rudder.


Two couples I met on the banks of the Mojave River in Victorville, California, in November 2005. I'm not sure whether to classify them as visible or invisible.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Supply Storage

Every homeless dude needs a "Supply Base". That's a place to store the stuff he isn't using right now but will need later. Now you'll probably hear me rant on this blog about all the useless Stuff that home-dwellers collect around them, simply because they have the space to do so, but I am talking now about demonstrably useful stuff (lowercase) that can save you time and money by having available.

For example, if you have only one set of clothes, you're going to run into problems when it comes to washing them. Are you going to strip naked in the Laundromat as your clothes go through the cycle? I recommend against it for numerous reasons I won't get into here. If you had a second set of clothes then you could switch into them before washing the first set, and if you had several sets, you could stretch out the periods between washes, since washing is always a time-consuming and labor intensive process. It isn't vanity that dictates the larger wardrobe but practicality.

You can't be storing supplies like clothes at your campsite and still be free to move from site to site as conditions warrant. Instead, you need a Supply Base, and the most obvious kind is a self-service storage unit.

My Supply Base is a large storage unit in Las Vegas. I could rent a new one in San Diego, but for now I'll be cycling through Las Vegas often enough that the local unit isn't necessary.

Homeless people have been known to sleep in storage units, but I recommend against it. When you rent a storage unit, you always sign a contract that specifies that you can't live in the unit, and the penalty is death. That is, if you are caught sleeping in your unit, you'll probably be evicted immediately. The only problem with that is all your stuff is going to be evicted, too, and you'll have to find a new place for it on short order.

Sleeping in a storage unit violates my prohibition against "dual use." Just like a campsite should only be used for sleeping, a storage unit should only be used for storage. If you pollute either facility with additional uses then you risk losing it for its primary purpose.

(If you want to sleep in a storage unit and feel you can get away with it, I suggest you rent a second unit at a totally different facility and use the unit only for sleeping. Then, if you are evicted, you haven't jeopardized your Supply Base.)

There is usually nothing in the contract that says you can't change clothes in the storage unit, and it doesn't usually limit the amount of time you can spend there during the day. There is no reason you can't set up a makeshift office there, although you have to be sensitive to management and how comfortable or creeped out they are about you.

When you have the choice between an exterior storage unit with doors that face outside and an interior unit (doors facing a corridor), you always want an interior unit. This gives you cover when accessing the unit in inclement weather, and it also holds down the dust and dirt that the wind blows into your unit.

Some managers have no objection to you tapping into the overhead light for power, but others do. If you can tap into power, you can surreptitiously charge your electronic devices and maybe even run a microwave or small fridge.

Having a Supply Base gives you the opportunity to preserve personal records and sentimental Stuff from previous lives that you just can't bear to part with. You can also preserve various supplies that you don't need now but might need later. For example, if you come across a cheap sleeping bag at a garage sale and you don't need it right away, you can store it at Supply Base until needed.

Homeowners also do this—saving screws, old clothes and pieces of string in the hopes that they might someday be useful, but since their space is much bigger than yours, they are more likely to get carried away. With a storage unit, you know exactly how much you are paying for the space, and this factors into your calculation of whether or not something should be saved.

You can store food at Supply Base, mainly things that are significantly cheaper when purchased in bulk. Perishables won't last forever there, but many fresh foods, like fruit, aren't as perishable as they seem. Oranges, for example, will often keep for a week or more without refrigeration.

As a work space, Supply Base isn't as comfortable as a nice cubbyhole in a college library, but you could still end up spending significant amounts of time in storage, at least managing your stuff. Again, the key thing is to not piss off management. The primary purpose of Supply Base is stable long-term storage, and nothing should be allowed to jeopardize that.

What would I do if I couldn't afford a storage unit? I would use large plastic storage tubs hidden in the wild. They are essentially weatherproof and can be purchased from the Evil Empire for about $6 each. I would half-bury one or more of them, cover the top with leaves, and no one would know they are there.

This brings up the subject of "caching," which is another way to store your stuff. Caching is leaving something in the wild where someone could theoretically find it and steal it, but they probably won't because they don't know it's there. When I leave a sleeping bag hidden in a bush, that's caching.

I would cache something when it is not terribly valuable and I can afford to lose it, or when the object to too bulky to comfortably carry around. If I hide a sleeping bag in the bushes, I am hoping it will still be there when I come back, but the one time out of 100 when it isn't, I am prepared to buy another.

I often cache things for a few hours just to avoid carrying them around. For example, when I am carrying groceries and don't have a car to put them in, I might just hide them behind a hedge for a few hours if I know I'll be coming back the same way. They could be stolen in the meantime, but probably won't be, and the risk is worth taking if it saves me a lot of effort.

Remember that in the suburban world, people rarely leave their cars, and these days children rarely even leave their video games to go out and play. Often, the only people who might stumble upon your stuff are landscapers, and they might not pass through for days.

I might also cache things I find lying around that I think might be useful in the future. For example, if I find a towel on the ground, I might roll it up and stash it behind a wall for possible use later. I'm like a little squirrel hiding nuts. Whatever I am hiding could be taken my someone, or I might forget about it altogether, but there is nothing lost in caching it.

Of course, caching can quickly get out of hand, as it does with the shopping cart homeless. They collect everything, on the very thin premise that it might someday be useful, and this Stuff goes into their nest and turns it into a giant trash heap.

This is a phenomenon I call "packratting" and it is a fascinating human trait. The homeless are not the only one who succumb to it. Suburban homeowner can also fall victim—only their trash heaps are better organized.

I'll talk more about the psychology of packratting in a future entry.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Diary, February 7: In the Lap of Luxury

The past 24 hours have brought torrential rains and flooding to the San Diego area. The whole county has been under a flash flood watch. There has even been some hail and occasional high winds. This has to be the worst possible time to be camping!

I wouldn't know, however, because I have been enjoying the spectacle from inside a dry, cozy rental car.

"But wait, Homeless Dude!" you may protest. "Isn't that cheating?"

How so? I'm not trying to go "back to nature" or prove I can live like a homeless person. I am a homeless person. My only goal here is to survive using the limited resources at my disposal, which won't pay for rent especially in an expensive place like San Diego. I can occasionally afford a rental car, however, especially on weekends when the rates are ridiculously low.

The total cost of today's rental: $25.37 plus gas for a compact car. (That's a luxury car by European standards.) Given that the car provides my lodging in the rain, a drying facility for my sleeping bags, a workspace, power for my electronic devices and an exploration vehicle, I'd say that's pretty fair dinkum.

To rent a car, you usually need a credit card, preferably a "Platinum" card or equivalent that covers the collision damage waiver. I happen to have one (albeit with a very low limit). You might protest that not all homeless people have credit cards, but I'm not trying to represent all homeless people. I'm just trying to solve my own problems. On one of the worst weather days of the year, I happened to have a Get Out Of Jail Free card, so I used it.

Last night as I was preparing for the rain [see previous entry], it was not my intention to rent a car, but then sometime after midnight I was deluged by liquid condensate, and my tiny tent (and my clever "maxi-pad") were overwhelmed. I got four solid hours of sleep, but by about 2:30 AM, I was surrounded by the Great Lakes: Lake Michigan at my feet, Lake Superior near my head and Lake Huron over there somewhere. I was still on a dry island in the middle of the tent, but it was getting smaller and smaller, and my sleeping bags were getting more and more soaked.

I dozed for another hour but kept being hit by drops from the ceiling, so at around 3:30 AM I called it quits. I abandoned the tent where it stood, and walked a mile to my 24-hour health club. (I had a dollar-store umbrella, which was sufficient, and I carried my precious electronic equipment on my back.)

I soaked in the Jacuzzi. The homeless life is tough!

I did some calculations and realized that this was Saturday, and rental cars are usually cheap if you keep them over a Saturday night. When I reached WiFi a couple of hours later, I went to the website of the only rental car company I use. (I won't identify the company, but it's named after a fort in Texas that we shouldn't forget.) Sure enough, I could get a cheap car right away at the airport.

A rental car is the Ritz-Carlton of homeless lodging! It takes a few nights to get used to, but I always get a good night's sleep in the back seat of any car. (There's a whole epistemology of sleeping in cars that I'll get into later.) Just as valuable, however, the car gave me an opportunity to explore my surroundings much more efficiently than I ever could on foot.

Once I picked up the car, I first headed to Camp Site Alpha, broke down the tent and loaded all my wet stuff into the car. This was about 10 AM, and everything in the camp was just as I left it at 3:30 AM. The tent was technically visible from the road 100 yard away—a security breach I wouldn't normally tolerate—but being the weekend, there was little activity in this industrial neighborhood and no one to notice me.

I will probably never be back to Camp Site Alpha again, so I can tell you a little more about it now. It is a rehabilitated county landfill about a ten-minute walk from the Gillespie Field trolley station near El Cajon. I don't really recommend the site to the homeless public, because it is across the street from a county maintenance depot where police cars and county service vehicles fuel up. There were a lot of official eyes looking in my direction as they pulled out of the depot, but apart from this morning, there was never anything for them to see.

I used the site successfully for six nights because I keep a very low profile, coming and going only under cover of night and staying only long enough to sleep. Indeed, there are countless hidden-in-plain-sight locations in any city where you can sleep safely and anonymously, as long as you do it only in darkness. However, the rain exposed the basic vulnerability and non-sustainability of the site. While I can sleep just about anywhere for a single night, the more nights you spend in one place, the more risks you accumulate. Eventually, someone was going to patrol the property or see me from the road, and that would eventually lead to a police referral and a poor night's sleep because of it.

I needed a new site that was less vulnerable, one that I knew I could always go to and that offered many potential backup plans in case of rain or other usual events. I needed a Camp Site Beta, and the car gave me a chance to scout for one.

I started by following the bus routes radiating out from the transit centers along the trolley route. Every day I will be buying a $5 transit pass, which is good for both the trolley and bus, so the only issue with the bus is the extra commute time. Ideally, I don't want it to take more than an hour to get from the college library to my campsite.

I hit paydirt on the suburban fringes where there are huge swathes of what looks like public land between the housing developments. The first place I stopped was a big parcels of wild land of several dozens of acres immediately adjacent to a bus stop. The land was hilly and overgrown by big bushes and a few trees. Attesting to its suitability as camping site were several "visible" homeless people already living there. (It's easy to spot them, as they build "nests" and surround themselves with piles of trash. We'll talk more about that later.)

I had no desire to sleep anywhere near anyone else, but the fact that these homeless dudes had obviously been camping there a long time was very encouraging. It meant that if I was camping in my usual low-profile, high-security way, I could stay here virtually indefinitely.

It was significant that there were no "No Trespassing" signs anywhere along the edge of this land, which would be unusual if it were private or local government land. This could conceivably be public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management of the Federal Government, where traditionally you have a right to camp unless told otherwise. When I settle on a particular parcel, I could conduct some research on it to find out.

The first block of land lead me to several others along the same bus route, one of which I will select tomorrow morning as my Camp Site Beta. I will use the car to transport my camping equipment there, then drop off the car at the airport.

I'm excited! This area holds the promise of giving me a stable, safe, sustainable sleeping place that I can always go to. There's even an outpost of the Evil Mega-Mart nearby, so if I happen to arrive with nothing (or my stuff is stolen), I can buy a cheap sleeping bag ($9) and a tarp ($5) and be back in business in no time.

First Law Enforcement Encounter

BTW: I got nabbed by the cops today! I took a nap in the back of the rental car in a place I knew was vulnerable—the student parking garage of the state college where my library is. The garage is marked "Permit Required at All Times," but it was raining hard, and I wanted to be able to crack the car window so I could breathe. I figured that this being Saturday, the chance of anyone checking permits was low.

I got caught because I slept longer than I expected (due to my four hours of sleep the night before). All the cars parked around me went away, and my car stood out as unusual when a county police cruiser drove by. The police officer checked the car and found me inside. He asked for my ID and asked me some questions, but let me go.

The significant thing is, I didn't get cited for anything. I was parking without a proper permit and sleeping in a car, both of which are illegal, but I just got shooed away. The officer told me that "sleeping or residing in a vehicle within the city of San Diego" was illegal. I'll have to look the ordinance up, but it doesn't surprise me. There are all sorts of these laws on the books to prevent blatant abuses, but they are mainly used for "shoo away" purposes and rarely result in legal action.

Nonetheless, I now have a contact record with the San Diego County Sheriff and this might increase my chances of getting a citation at a later date. I am not particularly worried. What are the police going to do, cite every sleeping homeless person they come across? It's completely ineffective, since you can't "cite" someone into having a home.

Wherever my Camp Site Beta ends up being, I'm sure there are some sort of restrictions against camping there. However, unless the authorities are prepared to haul away all those homeless people on that first block of land, the regulations are unenforceable. As long as I am invisible and my environmental impact is trivial, it all comes down to a cost-benefit analysis: The costs of breaking the law are very low, while the benefits of doing so are very high.

I got no real problem with being a criminal in that regard.

Diary Update: 10:00 PM

[Update to previous entry: Lessons of the Rain.]

It's 10pm, and I've settled into my tent. I got to Camp Site Alpha about a half hour ago, and everything was just as I had left it. No sign of human intrusion, just snails slithering all over. It wasn't raining, but more rain is expected later in the night.

After a day of intermittent rain, there had been some minor water seepage into the sides of the tent, but the sleeping bags, piled on a high point, had actually dried out a little. My greatest concern was that the sleeping bags not get soaked in tonight's rain, so I consulted with the snails and we put together some technological innovations.

First, I moved the tent to flatter ground a dozen feet away. This put it within line of sight of the road, but since it was night and the road was far away, it didn't matter. In the morning, I will simply move the tent back into its protective hole (as shown in previous entry). The flatter ground kept the sides of the tent more straight, so there was less chance of pockets forming in the canvas and the water leaking into the tent.

Secondly, I put some rocks inside the tent, pushing against the walls, again to make the walls more taught and straight. (I didn't do anything about the seams pointing upward. We'll see in the morning if that makes a difference.)

Thirdly, I created a "maxi-pad" inside the tent. I know some water is going to leak into the tent tonight, so I laid down an absorbent layer of blankets on the floor. (You remember, they were the blankets I bought at the Salvation Army my first night here.) On top of the blankets I laid my small tarp, and on top of the tarp go my sleeping bags. Voila! A maxi-pad! If any water leaks in the sides tonight, it should be soaked up by the blankets (which are wet anyway) and hopefully my sleeping bags will be spared. The maxi-pad also provides me with an adequate mattress.

In the desert, the rain usually makes the night time temperatures more mild, so I might not need both sleeping bags. I've gotten inside the one that is less damp, and the other will go on top of me. I've feeling relatively cozy, and I think I'm ready for the rains.

A few minutes ago a band of coyotes passed about 50 feet from me, perhaps looking for residential cats to snatch. I didn't see them, but I sure heard them, howling to their neighbors on the next hill.

I have nothing to fear from coyotes. Even as a pack, they wouldn't mess with something as large as me. However, there is a risk they could come into my camp and steal stuff, which isn't a problem when everything is inside the tent with me. (Once, when I was sleeping in the desert without a tent, some desert foxes stole my shoes. You don't know how weird it is to wake up in a remote location, knowing no human life is anywhere near, to find your shoes missing! Fortunately, I found them scattered a few yards away.)

All seems well. I am saved by the fact the San Diego is basically a dry place, even when it rains. When the rains pass, Everything should dry out quickly.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Diary, February 6: Lessons of the Rain

As mentioned in the previous post, I have many years of experience camping in the desert but relatively little camping in the rain. I grew up in New England, where rain was part of the camping experience (and one of the reasons I hated it at the time), but my adulthood affinity for the Southwest has kept the rain at bay since then. Now I'm facing at least three days of steady rain in my first real test of the free livin' life in San Diego.

Last night was my 5th at Camp Site Alpha in San Diego, but my first in the rain, and it went well. Of course, I couldn't sleep in the open air as I normally do, so I used a generic dome tent purchased for $20 from one of the chain sporting goods stores. The tent did its job, and I got a good night's sleep in spite of the light-to-moderate rain all night, but there was some leakage and a few warning signs. The real problem isn't getting through one night, but enduring night after night of rain where more wet accumulates in the bedding each night.

A sleeping bag works to keep you warm only when it is dry. When it is wet, all insulation value is lost and huddling in your sleeping bag is little better than sleeping without any. I sleep with one sleeping bag inside another, and last night the foot of both bags became soaked. This wasn't a problem last night, but if more water soaks the bags tonight I could be in "hot water," in the cold sense.

The seepage problem arises from the fact that the tent is pitched on uneven ground . (See photo.) The sides of the tent were a little wrinkled near the base, forming pockets where the water could pool on the outside of the fabric. Wherever water pools on the outside, it is going to drip inside, so puddles began to form on the floor of the tent. Fortunately, there was high and low ground within the tent, so I didn't have to sleep in the puddles, but my feet were in one, so that's what got soaked.

The seams at the bottom of the tent are also problematic. Wherever the seams turn upward just a little, a micro-pool is going to form, so again the water is going to drip inside the tent instead of flowing outside. (The seams and their design are probably the main difference between a cheap tent like mine and a more expensive one.)

I have various workarounds for the pooling problem. Before I left this morning, I lined the inside edges of the tent with rocks, trying to push the walls out so the water would flow down cleanly. I also tries to turn down the seams by holding them down with sticks (like is visible at the bottom of the tent in the photo). I bought some binder clips today at the dollar store, and I hope to use them to make sure the seams are bent downward.

I left the tent up this morning, instead of hiding everything in the bushes like I usually do, and my sleeping bags and other camping supplies are stacked on a high point inside. Leaving the tent in place is a calculated gamble. It increases the risk of discovery, but the tent can't be seen from the road, and I am betting that the rain will make it less likely that anyone will wander through the wet grass and brush close enough to notice it. The worse that can happen is that someone steals the tent and everything in it (a $65 loss) or authorities find it and leave me some kind of notice of trespass. (I don't really expect anyone to stake out my tent and try to nab me in the act of sleeping there, as this would be a huge waste of municipal resources.)

As mentioned before, this is a large hilly vacant lot next to a light industrial area in a relatively wealthy San Diego suburb. (I can't say more without revealing my position.) I feel completely safe here, as there are no human trails in the grass and no reason for any criminal element to pass through. The land has an owner, San Diego County, but no effort has been put into fencing or marking it. On a walk of the perimeter, I did find one lonely "No Trespassing" sign, but none on my usual direction of approach. (From a legal standpoint, this allows me to claim ignorance, since to prove trespass you have to show proper warning.)

There are expensive houses on the hills on the other side of the lot, but there is no evidence of the most likely intruder in a place like this: local kids. (What kind of kids are these? They must all be inside playing video games!) Although I feel safe and comfortable here, no campsite should be used for too long, and I'll may be looking for a backup site when the rain clears. Ideally, I'd like to diversity over several campsites.

Right now, I am just trying to get through the rain. I left the tent at dawn, and it has been raining off and on all day, so I'm just hoping that there has been no further water incursion. If my sleeping bags become further soaked tonight, I may be forced to take drastic measures, like hauling them to the Laundromat to run them through the dryer. It would be an awkward and time-consuming operation.

I know that everything will dry out in the end, because the air remains dry here whenever the rain stops. However, I am beginning to appreciate how difficult it could be to camp in a place that never dries out, like England (Old or New). If your sleeping bag gets wet there, it might stay wet forever. In that case, I might have to make siting decision based on how close I can camp to a Laundromat!

In all, I don't like this "rain" business very much. It just gums up the works. On the other hand, rain makes the grass grow and gives me some foliage to hide under, so I guess it has to happen. I am sure glad, though, that I can dry myself out in the library for most of the day. It never rains in here!

Oh, here is some wildlife I ran into this morning, encroaching on my space...
This snail is a little bigger than a quarter, and there were several climbing the tent at the time. When I first surveyed this site, I noticed snail shells everywhere—on the ground, in the trees. I thought they were all dead, but the rain revived many of them. Now they're sliming up my tent!

Shoo, snails, shoo!

[Continued in Diary Update: 10:00 PM.]

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Diary, February 5: San Diego, California

Last night was my 4th night sleeping "in the wild" in San Diego. (I left for one night to attend to some business in another city.) It's getting easier all the time!

I am writing now from the library of a local state college, which is open to the public, has long hours,and offers free WiFi. I have a cubicle desk to work on, power for my electronic devices, good lighting and a comfortable ambient environment. Restrooms are around the corner, and fast food is only a short walk across campus. What more could a cyber based life form ask for?

Honestly, this library is really my home in San Diego! If I had a traditional house, I'd still be spending the vast majority of my time doing exactly the same thing: confined to a 3- by 6-foot space staring at a computer screen. but look at all the advantages I have here: zero cost, zero maintenance, zero anybody telling me what to do. I've got to behave myself, in that I can't walk around in my underwear or whistle to myself as I might do if the space were totally mine, but this is a small price to pay for the free work area.

Of course, I'm a bit of a freeloader here. Somebody paid for the building (primarily the taxpayers of California back when the state was solvent), while I'm not paying a cent. I don't feel bad about it, though. They choose to let the public in, and I could be seen as supporting the goals of a university, the pursuit and distribution of knowledge.

In fact, apart from a few Ivy League and inner-city colleges, most college and university libraries everywhere are open to the public. They are usually much more comfortable to work in than public libraries. However, unrestricted WiFi is somewhat unusual. More common, at least for big universities, is that you need to be a student or faculty member to log on.

If I didn't have easily available WiFi, I might be forced to get an internet card for my laptop, which costs about $60 a month for service. I have had this previously, but I am resisting it now for both financial and philosophical reasons. If I have internet access all the time, I am tempted to use it all the time, and I often get sucked into unproductive diversions. When I have WiFi for only part of the day, if forces me to actually "think," sans internet, for a portion of the day and plan what I am going to do before I do it. I think I actually get less useful work done when I have full-time internet access than I do when I have to hunt for free Wifi.

Tonight, here in beautiful San Diego, I am facing a new challenge: rain. It is supposed to come down steadily for the next three days. I could use my Magic Pass to flee the storm, but that would be cheating. I'm going to accept the challenge and ride it out. At least I know that, this being San Diego, there will be blue skies on the other side.

Yesterday, I visited Supply Base (a storage unit in another city) and brought some camping equipment back to San Diego. Lest you think I am cheating at the game, these are things that I could have obtained locally, but I didn't want the extra expense. I brought my mummy sleeping, worth about $35, to put inside the $9 one from the Evil Mega-Mart for extra warmth. I also brought some cut-off jeans to use as a bathing suit so I can soak in the Jacuzzi in the health club on the nights when the rain is too much.

I also brought one critical thing: A $20 dome tent. It is quick to set up and, very importantly, is a drab charcoal color that won't draw attention like a brightly colored one. (Similar tents are often on sale at big sporting goods stores for $20-30. Check the Sunday newspaper circulars.) The tent is my key to survival in the rain. If it works, I'll be okay for those three 7-hour hibernation sessions until the rain stops. If it doesn't work, it could be a miserable 3 days, and worse yet, my electronic equipment might be at risk.

Whenever possible, I prefer not to use a tent. It cuts me off from my environment and actually makes me feel more vulnerable. For example, if I hear a sound, I can't look up to see what it is. In the desert, you don't usually have to worry about rain or mosquitoes, so sleeping in the open is my usual M.O. (I'd like to say that I enjoy looking up at the stars, but when you're asleep it doesn't make a wit of difference.)

Do I fear anything in the desert? No, I have been camping in the desert for many years, and I have no fear whatsoever. Rattlesnakes? Mountain lions? They are smart enough to stay away from something that is bigger than them. I've encounters tarantulas and scorpions on rare occasions, but they just want to stay away. Although the desert has a reputation as a tough place, there is remarkably little here to hurt you. Humans, of course, are a different matter: They CAN hurt you, but I think I have them pretty well figured out, too, and can avoid contact with the dangerous ones.

I admit, however, that I don't have much experience with this "rain" business. I understand it's a condensate of some sort, falling spontaneously from the sky. It affects thermal conductivity and heat retention, I understand. If it gets on your clothes or in your sleeping bad, it makes it a lot harder to stay warm. That's the theory at least. I'll have to experience rain for myself and report back to you.

Right now, all my camping supplies are at the campsite, hidden in the bushes under a tarp. There's about $65 worth of stuff there. (That is, it would cost me $65 to replace.) This is a sum I am willing to risk by leaving it there. Yes, my tent and sleeping bags could be stolen, but if they are I will simply replace them and find a new site. It's still nothing compared to a monthly rent of $1000, which is common here.

If the rain is still steady in the morning, I think I'll leave the tent up, perhaps for the whole three days. I think it will be invisible from all sides, and the rain makes it even less likely that someone will slog through the grass and brush to find it. It's a calculated risk. There may be a slightly greater chance of discovery (the cost) but also a greater benefit in coming back to a dry "home". After the rains, I'll take the tent down again.

Camp Site Alpha, as it shall be called, has served me well for the past four nights. I come in after dark and leave before dawn and have encountered no humans along the way nor any signs of human activity anywhere near the campsite. Still, when the rains end, I will want to diversity. I will be looking for a Camp Site Beta in a different location. Perhaps it will be more remote. I could try using the bus system to get as far away from built up areas as possible.

After Camp Site Beta, I might even establish a Camp Site... whatever the Greek letter is after Beta. Tango or something. (I'll have to look that up on the internet.)

Although most of my waking time is spent in the library, every day I try to explore my world a little more. Every day, I try walk away from my usual tracks and see what's around the next corner. I am assembling an inventory of the services I may need in the long run: a branch of my bank, a Laundromat, public libraries, post offices, 99 cents stores, grocery stores, etc. I'm also looking for nearby mountains I can climb so I can get a better view of my world.

It's all standard operating procedure whenever you land on a new planet.

Free Airport WiFi™

Here is my own list of airports and other public places nationally that have free WiFi&trade. These are all hot spots that I have confirmed myself. I will add to this list as new information comes to me (so you may want to bookmark this entry). At the end, I will add links to other people's lists.

Airports WITH free WiFi: SAN, LAS, PHX, CLT, PDX, MCO (Orlando), AVL (Asheville), ROC (Rochester), PHL (weekends only, via AT&T), FLL, SJC, OAJ (Jacksonville, NC), ATH (Athens, Greece).

Airports with "free" advertiser supported WiFi: DEN. (Advertising-supported WiFi is technically free but may be so infected by advertising that it may be unusable for many websites.)

Airports WITHOUT free WiFi: BOS, DCA, ORD, MSP, DEN, SFO, LAX, EYW, BHB, HNL, KOA, LIH, OGG, STT, SJU, PHL, LGA, MIA ($8), SFO ($5). (Most of these airports offer paying wifi, usually for about $8/day.)

Generally speaking, small regional airports (OAJ, AVL, ROC, etc.) are more likely to have free WiFi than the big behemoths, since they see it as a way to promote the airport to business travelers.

I have found NO free WiFi at any airport in Hawaii. The only free WiFi I have found in Europe was at the Athens airport.

Most chain motels have free WiFi for guests, and you might be able to steal some from their parking lot.

Free WiFi at Interstate Highway Rest Areas: All rest areas in Iowa, many in Texas, I-95 Welcome Center in Georgia (at FL border).

MOST public libraries have free WiFi (but a remarkable number still don't). Sometimes, no password is required, but when it is, visitors can usually get a temporary password for free or for a nominal charge. WiFi is rarely turned off when the library closes, so you can often use it in the parking lot after hours.

Most suburban residential neighborhoods are remarkably leaky for WiFi. If you drive around any neighborhood for a while, you'll eventually find an unrestricted signal, and a neighbor will kindly lend you theirs. (Of course, you want to avoid being seen doing it.) Likewise, you can also drive into many office and industrial parks and find leaky WiFi. In Europe, however, free wiFi (of any kind) is extremely rare.

Almost all colleges and universities have WiFi available on at least part of campus, but here's the rub: At bigger universities it is more likely to be password protected, while at smaller community colleges there is a better chance it will be open to all.

(I'm not going to try to keep track of local free WiFi spots, because there are too many.)

Here is someone else's National WiFi list along with their list of Airports With Free WiFi.

Here is an Airport WiFi list from Weather.com (although it isn't always clear whether the WiFi is free).

Free Sleeping and the Law

There are three main obstacles to urban camping: weather, safety and the law.

The issue with weather is adequately anticipating it and being properly equipped for it. At stake is whether or not you get a good night's sleep. Cold or wet weather probably isn't going to kill you, but it could make you miserable and keep you up all night.

Safety, however, is a much bigger concern. Here, the stakes are very high. If you don't adequately account for your own safety, you could end up being injured, losing your valuables or even losing your life.

Law is more like weather than safety. The risks are relatively low and mainly concern you not getting a good night's sleep. If you break the law by sleeping where you shouldn't, the worst that can happen under the law is to be cited or arrested, but the most likely outcome is that you will simply be woken up and told to move on.

We will discuss weather and safety later, but now let's look at the law.

Law is not something perfect and pure handed down by God. It is a flawed set of rules created by elected politicians, invariably to address the public hysteria of the moment. Law is a crude attempt to solve social problems by applying the same simple rules to everyone. Unfortunately, it is never subtle enough provide the best or most moral solution in every instance. For every problem "solved" by the law, there is almost always another one created, sometimes worse than the original.

In almost every populated area in North America, there are criminal laws against spending the night where you are not formally authorized to. You can understand why: If you build a city park, and crowds of substance abusers start sleeping there, it diminishes its function as a park. If you live in a respectable residential neighborhood, and people with nothing invested in the neighborhood start camping in a vacant lot between houses, you understandably want to evict them. If such "vagabonding" is legally allowed, then it is going to be abused. Local citizens will get angry over a few high-profile incidents, so politicians will write such laws as required to give police the tools to evict the squatters.

But merely the fact that a law exists does not mean you have to obey it. The law doesn't relieve you of your obligation to do a private analysis of the morality of your own actions. The law is not morality, only a crude caricature of morality. Some of the worst atrocities in history were committed by people "just obeying the law." That's not an excuse. You always have to think things through for yourself.

You always have a choice: obey or disobey. People don't like to think that they have this choice, because it makes life much more complicated, but they do have it, and using it is one of the greatest responsibilities of being human. Most of the time, obeying is the right thing to do, but sometimes disobeying is. The people who wrote the law never faced the exact situation you are in now, so you can't claim that the law itself is the highest authority.

What is the highest authority? It is what actually happens as a result of your actions.

Let's say I find a vacant piece of land that no one has invested anything in, and I am able to sneak in there at night, sleep for seven hours and sneak away. If I leave no trace of my visit behind, what damage have I done? To me, it's a morally neutral act: I haven't helped anyone, and I haven't hurt anyone. There may have been some minimal impact on the environment from my stay (some matted grass), but it is nothing like the impact of someone living in a big house on a hillside who drives an SUV to work every day. Have I violated the "rights" of the land owner? Maybe. But if he never knows that I have done so, the actual effects of my actions upon him are nil.

If I have a lot to gain from the action (free lodging), and I have determined within myself that the act is morally neutral, then the law itself becomes merely an obstacle, one of the factors I must consider in the cost of doing business. What are the risks of getting caught? What is the potential penalty if I am caught? These are just numbers that I plug into my internal equations when deciding whether to proceed.

If I choose my site carefully and obey my own security rules then the risks of being detected at very low. Law enforcement is generally a very passive operation. Police departments aren't actively scanning every vacant area at night looking for people sleeping there; instead, they are waiting for complaints to come in. If a complaint does arrive, then they are obligated to investigate and resolve it. My challenge, then, is to not give anyone reason to complain.

I understand the reason for the law, and I interpret it in terms of its original intent: People don't want to see homeless people in their neighborhood and don't want the damage of people living where they don't belong. I respond to the intent of the law by not being seen and causing no damage.

The penalties are also very light. Assuming that I don't sleep anywhere that is clearly marked "No Trespassing," the worst I can expect is a citation and a fine. More likely, it would just be a "You can't sleep here, move along please" verbal warning. I can handle that! The law is not going to beat the crap out of me if it stumbles upon me in the middle of the night (although "safety" might).
It has happened to me several times when sleeping in cars or RVs ("Move along, please," from a policeman or security guard) but it has happened to me only once when I was camping on the ground. I was sleeping in a tent on a perfect tropical beach on St. John in the Virgin Islands (similar to the scene above). This remote hike-in beach, which is part of a national park, was clearly posted "No camping," but since it was nighttime and I was the only one there, the risks seemed minimal. I had intended to break camp before dawn, but I overslept, and a park ranger encountered me on a morning foot patrol. She told me I couldn't camp there, wrote down my name, and let me off with a verbal warning.

In terms of the cost-to-benefit ratio, that wasn't bad at all! Keep in mind that that cheapest hotel in St. John was probably in the $200/night range. (There were also campgrounds on the island, but they were not accessible to me on foot and are usually full.) If the ranger had cited me, I probably would have had to pay a fine, but I doubt it would have been more than $200.

Would I do it again? No, I would never sleep on the beach again. It is too vulnerable and obvious. Instead, I have scouted out some campsites further inland that no ranger is likely to stumble upon.

Law-biding citizens may argue: "But what if everyone broke the law like you do? Wouldn't all social order collapse?" That's not a valid moral argument. You could also say that if everybody rode their bicycle down Main Street at exactly the same time all social order would collapse, but the fact is, it doesn't happen. I am just one person acting alone based on my unique circumstances at the time. Even the fact that I am writing about this in a public forum is unlikely to attract hordes of Free Sleepers to St. John (in part because it is usually very expensive to get there). If, by chance, hordes of vagabonds were to appear in one location, the law can handle it, because that's what the law is for: managing mass behavior.

Let me repeat that principle again: The ultimate test of morality is what actually happens (or might happen) as a result of your actions. A lawful act is not necessarily a moral one. They are two separate systems and have to be evaluated separately. Once you satisfy the moral component within yourself, then the law is something you analyze strictly for its practical impact.

In the case of Free Sleeping, the law is something you factor in just like the weather: What are the chances I will be caught in the rain, and what are the costs if I am?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Who are the Homeless?

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.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Rules of Campsite Selection

Let's start assembling some rules for this new field of Free Sleeping, starting with what we learned in the previous posting.
  1. Try to go where it is WARM and doesn't rain very often. (If you have the option to choose better weather, it makes life so much easier.)

  2. Choose a campsite close to services and transportation but away from human activity.

  3. When possible, get away from the city and go to the safe and affluent suburbs.

  4. Choose industrial neighborhoods rather than residential ones.

  5. Use your campsite ONLY for sleeping. Preferably arrive and depart under cover of darkness. Conduct your waking activities elsewhere.

  6. When you leave camp in the morning, hide your supplies and try to leave behind no obvious signs of your presence.

As mentioned before, sleeping is the key vulnerability of homelessness. If you can safely pull off those 7 hours of unconsciousness, then everything else is negotiable. The two problems of sleeping where you are not authorized to are safety and legality, and both of these demand that you not draw attention to yourself. If no one knows you are there, then no one is going to arrest you or beat the crap out of you.

If you find a good sleeping spot, you need to protect it by using it only for its intended purpose and then getting away. In future posts, we'll talk more about legalities and safety, but it should be obvious that sleeping in the open in an urban environment needs to be done covertly. Figuratively speaking, "Loose lips sink ships."

We are also going to talk about those other homeless people, the smelly ones. Those are the folks that give us Free Sleepers a bad name. The conventional homeless, pushing shopping carts and muttering to themselves, are a big problem for local authorities because they leave behind big messes wherever they go. When they make a campsite, they fill it up with junk and it becomes an eyesore and a health hazard. They also tend to sit all day at their campsite, which upsets the neighbors. No wonder there are laws against vagrancy!

I propose not being lumped with those homeless by obeying strict security procedures to avoid revealing your presence. You can't just assume that you are coming and going unnoticed, you have to know it for sure by understanding where other people go, what they see and what draws their attention. Just like a wilderness traveler, you have to "listen to the land" and understand your environment if you want to be safe.

I even look at the tracks I am making in the dirt or grass. If you walk anywhere in nature several times, a path is going to appear. Is there a visible trail to my campsite? If so, I may need to vary my route or obscure the trail. It's like tracking in reverse: You want to do everything in your power to NOT leave a trail and to hide any signs of your presence. If you do things right, then a good campsite will remain available to you for a long time.

Here's another rule of campsite selection...
  1. Vary your location by staying at, or at least preparing, multiple campsites.
Because you have no right to sleep on any urban land, there is always the possibility that you will be evicted or that the site will become uncomfortable to you for any number of reasons. You prepare for this by having multiple campsites whenever possible.

If I stay in San Diego much longer (It has been three nights now.), I am going to start scouting out alternate sites that meet my needs. Then I am going to start sleeping at some of these sites to test their viability. I may also begin to hide supplies at one or more of these sites, like tarps or sleeping bags, so if one site becomes inaccessible, I can easily move to another.

I don't want to fall into too much of a routine at any one site, because this increases the likelihood of detection. (If a neighbor sees me walking in and out of an empty lot at the same time every day, they may get suspicious.) Campsites can also wear out. For example, if I sleep for too many nights on a patch of grass, the grass is going to get matted and eventually torn up. Like sheep grazing in pastures, you want to give each pasture a rest.

Diversification is a good rule in almost any field. If I am going to be homeless at all, I might as well take full advantage of the lifestyle and be homeless in a lot of different places. I could move all around San Diego or, more likely, all around North America and Western Europe. I am limited to the south right now because of the nasty Northern Hemisphere weather, but that will all change in few months when a vast world opens up to me. Then, my primary enemy will not be the cold but the nasty mosquito.

More camping rules will be coming later as our experiment continues.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Free Sleeping in San Diego

I flew into San Diego intending to stay only for a few hours, but then it all hit me: the warmth, the sunshine, the cloudless sky. With most of the country reeling from snowstorm after snowstorm, I could live in a place like this.

So why not? I didn't have to be anywhere for a while, so why not stay and settle in?

My only problem was lack of money. As a recently laid-off airline worker, still semi-unemployed, I didn't feel comfortable spending more than $15 a day here. $15 doesn't buy you much in California—hardly even a single meal the way most people eat and certainly not any kind of commercial lodging.

I also didn't have any camping equipment with me. I had the clothes on my back, a change of socks and underwear, a small plastic tarp, two tiny airline blankets, but nothing more in the way of bedding or protection from the elements. If I failed to fly out of San Diego that evening, how was I going to survive?

Fortunately, I am adept in the skills of "Free Sleeping," or the ability to sleep safely and comfortably in a variety of urban environments without paying for it. Some might call it "homelessness" but I see it being more akin to wilderness survival or mountaineering translated into an urban environment.

I don't fit the usual profile of a homeless person. I am reasonably well-kept and look like any other air traveler. I arrived in San Diego with the standard middle-class electronic gadgets: a laptop computer, a cell phone and a high-end digital camera. I didn't look like someone who was going to steal sleeping accommodations from unsuspecting landlords, but my outward appearance was only a disguise. Underneath it, I was a rebel, a revolutionary, a subversive who aimed to undermine the very fabric of our capitalist society.

I intended to stay in San Diego for free.

It wasn't part of the plan initially, but as soon as the sunshine hit me, I instantly shifted gears. I was going to explore San Diego, establish at least a temporary outpost here and stay for as long as it suited me. After less than an hour on the internet with the airport WiFi (free!), I had all the information I needed to live off the land.

San Diego had all the elements I needed to make a "home." First and foremost at the end of January was the weather, which is arguably the best in the country. It is even better, I think, than a tropical paradise like Hawaii, because there isn't rain on a daily basis. There is no smog like in Los Angeles, and the temperature doesn't get too hot or too cold.

The second advantageous element was the terrain, which is very hilly and relatively green. There is lots of unbuildable land on hillsides where one could camp discreetly. The hills aren't forested, but I saw from the plane that there was enough undergrowth to hide in. My survey from the air said that I would have no trouble finding a patch of ground where I could sleep unnoticed.

A third advantage is an excellent public transportation system. San Diego has a new, efficient, graffiti-free trolley system supplemented by buses that could potentially take me to some of the green patches I saw from the air.

At the airport, I boarded my first bus and bought a $5 transit pass that would let me ride anywhere on the bus and trolley system for the rest of the day. That left me with $10 of mad money with which to establish myself in the city.

The metropolitan San Diego area has a population of well over a million and stretches for some 30 miles from the Mexican border in the south to Escondido in the north. I had very little experience with the city, so how was I going to make sense of it all? Where should I go to feel safe and to find one of those green patches?

It turned out the choice was pretty simple. The first rule of Free Sleeping is to get out of the city and head for the cushy suburbs. In the suburbs, the grass is always greener and the homeless life is so much more sanguine. Crime is minimal, buildings are more spread out with more vegetation between, and no one is expecting a vagabond to be hiding there.

Regardless of the neighborhood, I didn't want to get anywhere near the Mexican border, because the idea of crossing paths with desperate illegal immigrants or narcotraficantes terrified me. I wanted to be nestled in the gentle womb of a suburbia, isolated from all such ugliness. Ideally, I didn't want to run into anyone at all at night, and this suggested a light industrial area on the edge of one of the wealthier suburbs.

I also wanted to be close to public transit, preferable the trolley rather than the bus. My simple plan, then, was to ride the trolley system in daylight until a found a station that looked promising.

Sure enough, I found just the right station in the suburbs near the end of the trolley system. It was an area of new-looking offices and warehouses with no nearby residences or stores. Since it was Saturday and the offices were closed, there were no humans visible at all. The area was quite sterile to look at, but that was exactly what I was looking for. I wanted a place I could comfortably become unconscious without worrying about anyone stumbling upon me.

I got off the train and followed my nose, and within twenty minutes I had found exactly the place I was looking for. It was a big block of vacant land, hilly and overgrown, between an industrial park and a high-end housing development. Someone, no doubt, owned the land, but there were no obvious "No Trespassing" signs, so I could credibly claim ignorance in the event of my discovery.

The important thing to me, however, was that there would be no discovery. I fancy myself a bit of a tracker, and I saw no evidence on the ground of humans passing through this lot. For one thing, it was lacking the most obvious sign of human passage—trash—but there were also no significant trails in the grass, which is the first thing that develops whenever you have significant foot traffic.

I walked up a hillside a hundred yards from the road and found a flat and fairly protected hollow where I could not be seen when lying down. I wasn't completely invisible during the day, as people in the nearby industrial park might see me when I was standing up or when I was walking to or from the site, but this wasn't a problem, since I intended to come and go only under cover of darkness.

So here's the first rule of sustainable urban camping: Your campsite should be used only for sleeping and only at night, when no one can see you. During the daylight hours, there should be little or no evidence that you were ever there.

It was daytime when I visited the campsite the first time, but I did not plan to be back here during the day again. If anyone happened to pass through this lot—say, kids on tour or a local resident walking their dog—it would happen only in the daylight hours, not at night given the lack of trails. Therefore, I would always arrive before nightfall and break camp before dawn.

But right now, I had no camp to break. Although the temperature was about 75 during the day, it was expected to go down to the 40s at night, and my plastic tarp and airplane blankets were not going to be adequate. There were no mosquitoes here, no threat of rain and no significant wind, so I didn't need a tent, but I did need substantial bedding of some kind—on a budget of $10 or less.

But I had plenty of time. I had arrived at the San Diego airport at about 9am, and by noon, I had already selected my camping spot. I surveyed the area around my campsite, preparing for my later nighttime return; then I went back to the trolley station.

In the afternoon, I did some local sightseeing on my transit day pass. I took the trolley down to the Mexican border, but I didn't cross it. I had been to Tijuana several times before, but the ever-growing stories of violence and the known hassles of coming back into the U.S. dissuaded me from doing it again.

I also visited the waterfront near downtown San Diego, which was a much more idyllic venue. I noted with amusement that a large number of the boats in the small-craft harbor looked like that hadn't been to sea in years, yet they seemed to be actively occupied. Are this the realm of the floating homeless?
After dark, I stopped at a Salvation Army thrift store I had previously spotted along the trolley route. This would be my source for cheap bedding. For $6, I bought two big queen-size blankets that had seen better days. It wasn't their appearance that mattered to me but their thermal value.

Heading back to camp on the trolley, I also picked up some newspapers I found discarded on the train. These would make useful ground cover.

I got back to the campsite at about 8pm and set up camp. I laid down the tarp and newspaper as ground cover. There was grass growing here, so I had a little bit of padding under me. The big blankets gave me a lot of surface area to work with, so I figured I would wrap myself up like a mummy and be warm enough. I was wearing a woolen cap, sweater, sweatshirt and long pants, so I figured all this accumulated batting would get me through the cold desert night.

Alas, the reality didn't quite match the theory. There were too many gaps in the blankets letting cold air in. I slept for about four hours then gave up. At least I got that much sleep and proved that the campsite was viable, but I needed an actual sleeping bag to sleep the whole night—something that would zip up around me.

So sometime after midnight, I decided to break camp. I rolled up my bedding, stashed it in the bushes and was satisfied that my traces were hidden. What did I do then? The trolleys were no longer running, so I couldn't go far, and it was cold outside—not below freezing, but not too far above it.

I guess I cheated. I walked about a mile to my health club (which has many 24-hour gyms in the city) and soaked in the hot tub. Or at least I would have soaked in the hot tub if I had some short pants I could use as a bathing suit. I took a long hot shower instead and imagined myself soaking in the hot tub. (I've got to work on getting a bathing suit. It is required clothing for proper homelessness.) The rest of the night, I sat on a sofa in the health club and worked on my computer (on this essay).

My camp location is advantageous in more ways than one. Although it is in an industrial area, within walking distance is a big commercial center with most of the essential services an urban survivalist needs: fast food, department stores, health club, etc. It's not like getting the shivers on Everest where you're miles from anywhere. Here, if the wilderness disagrees with you, you can always retreat to the jacuzzi.

The next night (last night), I purchased a Chinese-made sleeping bag at the Evil Mega-Mart for $9, and in combination with the blankets, my sleeping experience improved greatly. Tonight, I am going to be adding more padding underneath me for an even better night's sleep.

I have been in San Diego now for only about 58 hours, but I've already established myself and gotten into a routine. With the sleep problem pretty much nailed down, I can turn to other aspects of living "in the wild." What native food sources are available here and how do I keep them balanced? How do I find internet services and a place to work? What is going to happen if my campsite gets found out, or—Heaven forbid!—rain should fall from the sky in San Diego?

These are topics for future postings.