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Surviving Poverty Part 2: Staying Warm on the Streets

street tent wikimediaThe homeless have to deal with a host dangers on a regular basis, though it’s difficult to say which is the most treacherous. Obviously food is a real concern. There’s also a higher risk of becoming sick or injured, and without money, a lower chance of those issues being treated effectively. And who could forget the possibility of being harmed by other people?

However, the most dangerous aspect of living without a house may be dealing with exposure. With wet and windy weather, hypothermia can easily kick in for people who are poorly sheltered and clothed, even at around 50-60 degrees. And according to some estimates, as many as 700 homeless people [1] die from hypothermia in America on a yearly basis. This is a very real danger in most of the United States, so if being homeless is something you’re worried about, learning to deal with this risk should be at the top of your list.

And don’t just assume that you’ll be able to go to a homeless shelter on really cold nights. There’s a reason why hundreds of thousands of people are sleeping on the streets every day, and it’s not just because the shelters are often overcrowded. It’s also because many of these shelters are notorious for being unsanitary [2] and dangerous [3]. Though that isn’t always the case, you have to accept the fact that sometimes a shelter simply isn’t an option, and you should be preparing for that eventuality.

In the first part of this series [4], I explained that if you think homelessness is a real possibility in your future, it’s not a good idea to wait until the last-minute to prepare for it. Get the gear you need now before your rent/mortgage eats up all of your savings. You really don’t want to step out of your house with nothing to your name.

With that in mind, I’m going to explain what you need to survive the cold, including what kind of gear you should have if you can afford it, and what you should do if you have absolutely no money. Let’s take a look:

Sleeping Gear

The most important thing you’ll need is something to sleep on. All the gear in the world will be useless if your body is making contact with the ground. Whether it’s dirt or concrete, it will absorb every bit of heat in your body. Foam sleeping pads can be had for pretty cheap, though something that is self-inflating, waterproof, and abrasion resistant would be better. If space is a concern, consider getting something that you have to inflate with your lungs. Those sleeping pads are the most compact, and the air is an excellent insulator.

A standard sleeping bag is also a must. When combined with a sleeping pad, you can probably survive any temperature that doesn’t dip below freezing. It can also be used in lieu of a sleeping pad, though it is a poor substitute. Space is also an issue here. However, the more compact your sleeping bag is the less effective it will be. At one end of the spectrum are really thin and cheap bags that are good for cool summer nights and not much else. At the other end, you’ll find really expensive bags that are bulky, water-resistant, and can withstand sub-zero temperatures.

If you can’t afford anything, there are two materials that are your best friend: paper and plastic. It makes sense that the homeless frequently use those materials to survive the elements. They’re cheap, abundant, easy to manipulate, and they’re great insulators that work well together for a variety of situations. Stuff like cardboard and newspaper not only insulate, but they breathe as well. And when it rains, utilize shopping and garbage bags to keep yourself dry.

Another really cheap material is aluminum foil, which doesn’t really insulate but will do a great job of reflecting ambient heat. If you want something a little more durable though, consider the mylar space blankets, which are also made of aluminum and plastic and are very cheap. Just remember that when you’re dealing with plastic and aluminum, don’t wrap anything too tightly. Since they don’t breath they could cause you to sweat, which is the last thing you need in cold weather.


The most important article of clothing is the one that touches your skin. You’re really only as warm as your base layer, especially if you get wet for any reason. You can wear all the layers you want, but if you’re wearing a soaked cotton t-shirt under it all, you could die when the temperature drops. Wool, Gore-TEX, and polyprolyene are all good choices for your base layer. And make sure you take care of your legs and feet too. Long Johns and wool socks can make a huge difference. And while we’re on the subject of feet, you should really ditch the sneakers and look for boots that will at least protect your ankles from the cold.

Now if you don’t have any of that stuff, paper and plastic are going to come in handy again. It’s not uncommon for the homeless to stuff waded-up paper between their layers, and use black garbage bags as disposable raincoats. If your shoes aren’t water-resistant, it’s a good idea to wrap your feet in shopping bags to keep them dry. Of course, the plastic doesn’t breathe so if you do this for too long your feet will be very sweaty and cold when it comes time to take them off. Don’t do this unless you have a fresh pair of dry socks.

And regardless of what you have at your disposal, you need to stack on as many layers as you can without overheating. When you see a homeless person in the winter, you’re probably seeing someone who is wearing their entire wardrobe. They may have (relatively speaking) a lot of clothes that were donated to them, but they can stay warm by putting them all together, even if by themselves they’re not designed for cold weather. Keep this in mind when you find clothes or have them donated to you. Just because it doesn’t fit, doesn’t mean it’s useless. Everything that’s slightly too big for you could be the extra layer that saves your life.


A tent is an obvious solution for dealing with the weather, and every homeless person should have something to put over their heads, however it won’t work in all situations. You can’t just set up a tent in the middle of the sidewalk during business hours, and not expect local shops to call the cops. There are certain areas in some cities like abandoned lots and near railroad tracks where you can set up a tent, but at the same time it will make your presence very obvious. And much like sleeping bags, there is a balancing act between cost, weight, size, and effectiveness that you have to consider. At the very least, you should have one of those cheap plastic tarps. They make a great windbreak, and can protect your body and your belongings from the rain.

If for whatever reason you don’t have any form of cover, and you can’t make it to a homeless shelter, you’ll have to find an alternative with public access. Look for bridges and freeway overpasses, or alleyways that can block the wind. In cities where homelessness is common (and thus, it’s less likely for the police to crack down), many of these people will set up camp in front of businesses that have an overhang as part of the architecture, and then skedaddle in the morning before the business opens. Even finding a tree to sleep under is better than nothing.

However, you have to be careful in these areas, because there will likely be other people like you who are looking for shelter. However, some of them will not be like you, in that they may be dangerous. Some of these areas will be very secluded and poorly lit, so you have to stay on guard.

As a last resort, you might just have to change your sleep schedule. There’s a reason why the homeless are often seen sleeping all day, and it’s not necessarily due to boredom. Oftentimes they choose to stay up all night and walk around to stay warm, and do their sleeping during the day.