Homelessness: Survival Strategies

Jill Leufgen & David A Snow. Homelessness Handbook. Editor: David Levinson & Marcy Ross. Berkshire Publishing, 2007.

All people must negotiate ways to satisfy basic human needs, and homeless people are no exception. However, the homeless routinely face serious challenges to survival that housed people generally do not confront or at least not with the same degree of urgency. Such challenges include securing food and shelter on a consistent basis, establishing reliable social relationships, and even finding a measure of meaning and sense of self-respect. The resources and support requisite for attending to such basic human needs are generally taken for granted by most domiciled citizens; homeless people must scramble daily to meet these needs. Doing so entails the employment of a variety of survival strategies that address material, social or relational, and psychological needs.

The survival strategies employed by the homeless vary according to such personal characteristics as age, gender, family status, ethnicity, and time spent on the street. In addition, survival routines of homeless people in any locale are embedded in specific organizational, political, and ecological contexts that encourage some strategies while simultaneously constraining the pursuit of others.

Ethnographic research has provided a window into the survival strategies of the homeless. This research is important because the illumination of the daily struggles of homeless people facilitates understanding of life on the street, which in turn can help dispel false perceptions of the homeless and suggest alternative programs for assisting different categories of homeless people based on their street experiences. These studies show us that the homeless are not merely passive actors, responding indifferently to the conditions that confront them, but are active participants in the construction of their daily lives.

Material Survival Strategies

Although most cities and communities provide some facilities and support for the homeless, particularly shelter, food, and clothing, not all homeless people utilize these support structures. Some do so on a regular basis, of course, but many use these services only intermittently, and some hardly at all. Moreover, the nonmonetary forms of support provided are seldom sufficient to sustain the homeless, even those who are regular service users. Consequently, they must turn to other venues and activities in order to enhance their prospects of material subsistence.

Table 1 displays an empirically grounded taxonomy of the different material subsistence or survival strategies the homeless engage in. The taxonomy is derived primarily from research (ethnographic and survey) conducted in various U.S. cities (Austin, Texas; Detroit, Michigan; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Tucson, Arizona), but is of broader generality. Few of the homeless engage in all of the survival strategies listed, but most engage in at least two or more of them. Because material survival for most homeless people is contingent on employing a number of these strategies, the homeless have been characterized as bricoleurs—that is, as people who opportunistically cobble together various means of subsistence in order to make ends meet.

Taxonomy of Material Survival Strategies
Source: Adapted from Snow, D. A., Anderson, L., Quist, D., & Cress, T. (1996).
1. Institutionalized assistance
Institutionalized labor (working for street agencies)
Income supplements
Public assistance
Assistance from family and friends
2. Wage labor
Regular work
Day labor
3. Shadow work
Selling or peddling (sales work)
Selling junk and personal possessions
Selling illegal goods or services
Selling drugs
Selling plasma
Soliciting public donations
Panhandling or begging
Performing in public
Scavenging for food
Scavenging for salable goods
Scavenging for money

As indicated in the above taxonomy, institutionalized assistance constitutes one possible source of income for the homeless. It can be secured through two basic means: institutional labor and income supplements. The former is work provided to homeless clients by organizations such as soup kitchens, shelters, or drug and alcohol rehabilitation facilities. The number of homeless employed in such a fashion is usually a small fraction of the population, largely because relatively few such slots exist.

Income supplements, whether received from the government or from family or friends, are a much more common form of assistance. Governmental programs include Social Security, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), unemployment compensation, and general assistance. Although the number of homeless people receiving public assistance varies from state to state, relatively few receive public assistance and even fewer count it as their primary source of income. Support from family and friends is more common, although again, few homeless people say that this is their most important source of income.

An alternative source of income comes from wage labor. Wage labor takes two forms: regular work and day labor. Regular work can be conceived of as traditional employment, with regulated rates of pay, times, and locations of work. Often this type of employment is hard for homeless people to procure because they lack a contact address or telephone number, have trouble meeting expectations of dress and appearance, lack transportation to and from work, or have scheduling conflicts with shelters or other street agencies on which they depend.

Day labor offers a more flexible, informal type of employment structure. The obstacles posed by regular work are often not at issue. In addition, day labor typically pays at the end of each day in contrast to regular work. However, whether or not day labor is available depends on one’s geographical location and prevailing economic conditions, thus making it a sporadic and often unreliable option for the homeless.

The third category of material survival strategies is shadow work. It is compensatory, nonwage labor pursued in the shadow of more conventional work. It is not regulated or routinized like wage labor; rather, it is characterized by an innovative and opportunistic exploitation of available resources. The flexibility of shadow work makes it an attractive alternative to wage labor for the homeless. Those engaging in shadow labor develop their own personal repertoire of shadow work to supplement income from institutionalized assistance and wage or day labor. As indicated in Table 1, there are four basic types of shadow work: selling or peddling, soliciting public donations, scavenging, and theft.

Selling or peddling, which can be thought of as street sales work, consists of selling junk or personal goods, illegal goods and services, and plasma. The junk or personal goods the homeless sell consist of whatever salable objects they have purchased, received as gifts, scavenged, or stolen. Sometimes the selling of scavenged goods becomes relatively routinized, as with the Greenwich Village magazine vendors chronicled in Mitchell Duneier’s 1999 book Sidewalk. Some of the homeless do sell illegal goods (such as drugs) or services (generally prostitution). Heterosexual prostitution occurs, but homosexual prostitution may be more common because of the large percentage of homeless who are men. Cash can also be garnered by selling plasma to blood banks or plasma centers.

Soliciting public donations, primarily through panhandling or public performance, constitutes the second major category of shadow work. Panhandling is often considered the most tangible expression of homelessness in modern society because of its visibility and its direct engagement of other citizens. However, not all homeless people engage in panhandling. The researchers Barrett Lee and Chad Farrell report that panhandlers are more likely to be isolated, troubled, and disadvantaged than the homeless who do not panhandle. While there is a conception among the general public that panhandlers intimidate their marks into giving a donation, some affably perform small services, such as holding open doors to bank ATMs, in hopes of increasing the likelihood of receiving a donation. Other homeless people attempt to get donations by performing in public—for example, by singing songs to elicit tips from passersby.

Scavenging, the third type of shadow work, involves searching through discarded material for food, for usable or salable items, or for money. Many of the homeless regard scavenging, particularly the variant known on the streets as dumpster diving, as one of the baser forms of shadow work. For those who undertake it, dumpster diving is not a simple matter, as to be successful involves not only knowing when and where to look, but also what to look for in terms of edibility or salability. When an individual finds a good dumpster, he or she often revisits it. Such knowledge is also relevant to other forms of scavenging, such as searching for and collecting aluminum cans—one of the most commonly scavenged and profitable items because there is a market outlet for returned aluminum cans in most communities in which the homeless reside. When such external markets don’t exist, the homeless often sell to each other or to other pedestrians by laying their scavenged goods out on the sidewalk.

The last category of shadow work is theft and related criminal activities such as burglary or fencing stolen goods. Although this has not been a widely researched topic, one study comparing the rates of arrest of domiciled and homeless males in one city found that nearly 90 percent of the felonies for which the homeless were arrested involved theft or burglary for the purpose of theft. Given the impoverishment of the homeless and abundant opportunity for theft in most cities, with large numbers of convenience stores and gas stations in which goods can be easily stolen, it is hardly surprising that theft would be a salient form of shadow work for some of the homeless.

Social or Relational Survival Strategies

Another important category of survival strategies is the negotiation of social relationships, particularly friendships with other homeless people. Fieldwork has shown that most of the homeless do not live in social isolation, but that their street friendships are somewhat different from friendships born under other circumstances. Homeless street relationships are paradoxical in that they can serve many important functions in the lives of homeless people, yet also be sources of uncertainty.

One important function of personal relationships on the streets is that they can provide a measure of safety and security. Street ties often help individuals secure material resources, such as food or money. For example, some groups of homeless companions pool money in a “group bank” for all members to share. Companions also provide one another with entertainment in the form of joking, storytelling, or singing. A person may also get help gaining entrance to certain programs through street connections. In some group situations, such as in homeless camps, there may be a sense of community and reciprocal obligation. For example, scavenged or purchased food may be prepared and eaten together, residents may share chores, suggesting a division of labor, and sometimes members function as caretakers for sick campmates.

Friendships often develop quickly, but they may be quite fleeting. These relationships serve both expressive and instrumental functions. Companions, friends, or associates function as a nonstigmatizing reference group and may provide homeless people with self-validation. However, because many homeless people cycle on and off the streets, the relationships can be unstable, and many are superficial, often imbued with a greater sense of intimacy by participants than actually exists. Gatherings of people make it easy to “buddy up” to make daily rounds or for sleep buddies. However, buddies may not even know one another’s names. Nicknames, often ones that describe personal characteristics, are commonly used in place of people’s legal names.

While a sense of intimacy may be associated with these relationships, a lack of trust in others, including close companions, is pervasive. In addition, although sharing is important in intimate relations, individuals sometimes fear their companions are exploiting them. Even though social relationships can help the homeless get by on a daily basis, group obligations can also prevent individual members from pursuing their own economic interests, to the extent that in some instances street relationships may actually impede exit from the streets.

Psychological Survival Strategies

All humans must secure some measure of existential and identity-oriented meaning in their lives, but homeless people often find this task more challenging than domiciled people do. This is not only because of the resource deficits that characterize homelessness, but also because they are objects of recurrent stigmatization and negative attention. Consequently, surviving in the streets requires various psychological adaptations as well as material and relational adaptations. These psychological adaptations are overlooked in much research on the homeless, but they clearly are fundamental to making it on the streets.

One way in which some of the homeless deal with their plight psychologically is to explain their situations in a way that preserves or secures a measure of self-respect, such as attributing their plight to bad luck. In other words, they construct causal accounts that rescue rather than further demean their sense of self. However, it is arguable that oftentimes their plight may appear so depressing that the excessive use of alcohol or drugs may come to function as the primary means of psychological escape.

A second major form of psychological adaptation involves identity work. Typically identity work entails various activities that individuals or groups engage in so as to project or maintain particular desired identities. Such activities may entail procuring or arranging physical settings or props, the arrangement of appearance through cosmetic face work, association with selected individuals or groups, and identity talk, or the verbal construction of identities. Since the homeless seldom have the financial and social resources requisite for successfully pursuing the first three identity strategies, the primary way in which they try to project and maintain a favorable personal identity is through identity talk. Additionally, identity talk is nurtured by the structure of life on the streets in the sense that “hanging out” with street peers is an important aspect of street life that provides a context for identity talk.

Three types of identity talk are common in the discourse of the homeless: distancing, embracement, and fictive storytelling. Distancing is talk that separates oneself from roles, associations, or institutions that imply an identity not consistent with one’s self-conception, as when a homeless individual asserts that “I can tell you about the homeless, but I am not one of them.” Homeless people may talk in this way so as to separate themselves from the negative social identities of their peers or associations, from the roles homeless people are perceived as playing, and from the institutions that deal with them.

Embracement, by contrast, is talk that embraces the roles, associations, or points of view or ideologies that are congruent with homelessness. Embracement allows homeless people to actively confirm the social identities associated with their specific situations, as when a homeless man claims that he is “an expert dumpster diver.” Here, unlike with distancing, one’s social identity and self-conceptions are harmonious. When this is the case, the homeless are likely to embrace ascribed roles such as bum or tramp. They may embrace identities that are positively tied to relationships or associations with others or that are congruent with adherence to a certain ideology, such as being a member of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Fictive storytelling is the third form of identity talk. It involves telling stories regarding one’s past, future plans, or accomplishments that are fictitious. Fictive storytelling sometimes takes the form of embellishing one’s past or present experiences in order to verbally present and assert a positive personal identity. Sometimes the homeless also engage in fantasizing by spinning future-oriented fabrications that positively frame the teller in situations that are removed from the teller’s past or present.

Together, these three forms of identity talk facilitate the construction and maintenance of positive personal identities, thereby helping homeless people to secure a measure of self-respect in a sea of despair.

Active Agents

This article has provided an overview of three sets of survival strategies—material, social or relational, and psychological—that homeless people variously engage in to manage life on the streets. There are other variants of these strategies that we have not discussed, such as collective engagement in social protest campaigns and individual resistance and defiance, but the strategies discussed provide a sense of the more general ways in which the homeless negotiate the world in which they find themselves. These strategic activities reveal homeless people to be more active and resourceful agents than one would assume given how they are represented in many popular portraits of them.