The Homeless Experiment



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The Homeless Experiment

by: Neville Medhora

Originally Published on NevBlog.com

The Time: May 2009

The Place: Austin, TX.
On Thursday June 4th of 2009 I left the comforts of my home in Austin, TX. with no food, no money and no place to stay for 5 days and 4 nights. I did this voluntarily as a small experiment to see what it was like to live on the streets of Austin, TX.
I always wondered what would happen if someone around my age (26 at the time) with a weak support network in their city were to simply lose their income and subsequently their dwelling. Where would they go? What would happen? Would it be easy to get food? How could they make money? Where does one sleep in the city?
I wanted to answer those questions and just in general find out more about the life of a person on the street. I also wanted to document it in real time on the web.
Thus I began The Homeless Experiment.


QUICK FOREWORD:

I would like to clearly state that I could never truly experience the worst homelessness has to offer in 5 days. Not only did I have the advantage of a privileged and great upbringing, but also the advantage of performing this experiment in Austin, TX. which is notoriously homeless-friendly. This experiment was done to catch at least a glimpse of the homeless world in my area.


HOW TO READ THIS:
This story is meant to be followed as if you were a reader of my blog www.NevBlog.com starting in May 2009. At this time I was planning on doing this experiment, and you will read my preparation, follow me through the days leading up to the experiment, the uncertain start where I walk out of my home, the final comeback and the things I learned.

Starting….NOW:



THE HOMELESS EXPERIMENT / EXPERIENCE:

MAY 28th, 2009
Experiment:
Leave my house in Austin, TX. and live on the streets for 5 days and 4 nights.

Purpose of Experiment:
There's simply not one solid reason for performing this experiment, but several:


  1. To learn what it's like at the bottom rung of the socio economic system.

  2. I've studied how many successful people get successful...it would be interesting to see how some people have "failed." Getting to live directly with these people would be a great way to learn.

  3. I've always considered myself pretty spoiled. Not in the spoiled brat kind of way, but in the fact that I've never once in my life really have been worried where my next meal was going to come from or where I was going to lay my head down at night. It seems important that every once in a while I give myself a good whack over the head to realize just how good I've got it, and that all those opportunities I have should be utilized to their full potential.

  4. Ostracism. I'm Indian, but have never experienced any real discrimination that I know of. If I walk into a fine hotel to use the bathroom, I'm always allowed based on my overall appearance. However what if I was disheveled, carrying bags, looked like I was dirty and smelled? It might be a different story. I personally discriminate against these kinds of people who come up to me on the street. It'd be interesting to see what it's like on the other side.
  5. I've always wondered: If someone got kicked out of their apartment, had no money and no friends/family to stay with...what would they do?


So on Thursday, June 4th, 2009 I will officially begin my Homeless Experiment and start living on the streets for 5 days and 4 nights.


MINI HOMELESS EXPERIMENTS:

May 29th, 2009


During the upcoming Homeless Experiment there's a couple of things I want to try out. Now since I don't have a defined plan of how I'm going to acquire food, shelter, water and other basic necessities of life...there will obviously be a massive amount of variables in how much free time I get to do some of these mini-experiences.

Here are some things I'd like to try:

  • How much money can I make in an hour holding a sign asking for money?

  • How much money can I make holding a FUNNY sign?

  • How much money can I make holding a SERIOUS sign?

  • How easy is it to get food on the street corner by asking for it? Perhaps holding a sign that says"Don't want money, food would be great." I personally think this would work pretty well as a way of procuring food or leftovers. Since I'm walking out of my house with no food or money, this will probably be one of the FIRST things I need to do.

  • Where exactly will I sleep? Parks, benches, under bridges, homeless shelters, under a tree, in the woods?

  • What if it rains?

  • Access to restrooms. I can always pee in the bushes, but what about going #2?
  • Can I just show up at a homeless shelter and get a place to sleep? I already partially know the answer to this: At most homeless shelters you have to "reserve" a bed, but they'll often let you sleep inside on the ground if it's not too crowded.


  • Can I take a shower somewhere and get a clean change of clothes?

  • Get drunk one day.

  • Where can I get a decent meal? I'm purposely not researching where the soup kitchens are located in order to make this experience more authentic. I might actually have to go without food for a few days if things don’t go so well.

  • What are most homeless people like? I kind of know the answer....most homeless people are just like you and I. The VAST majority of homeless people are not the crazy looking bums on the side of the road. I've had some experience talking to a wide variety of homeless people, but not AS a homeless person. I'm wondering if their perception or attitudes towards me will change much.

  • Can I get a temporary job at one of the day labor camps in downtown? How much money can I make like this?

There are a lot of experiments I want to try, but time is a factor. I still think doing THIS would work well:



HOMELESS ALIAS

May 30th, 2009

For the upcoming Homeless Experiment I can't go living on the streets and telling everyone I meet, "I'm not actually homeless, I'm just trying it out."

That makes me a bit of a target and probably won't inspire trust. It might also piss a few people off.

So I've made up a story for myself. It will be easier to stick "closer" to the truth since it's much harder to lie. I'll be using places where I actually grew up instead of other places in the off chance someone may know the area.

So if I somehow get involved in a long conversation about this, here are the story details I will give:

My name is Nev. (I'll go by my full name if asked, but "Nev" seems nice, short and easy to pronounce).

I grew up in Houston but in recent years my family moved to upstate New York...I might also say they're divorced just for added drama (but they're not in real life). I moved to Austin recently and was working at Radio Shack selling phones. I recently lost my job and couldn't pay rent for the last few months so I was evicted from my apartment.

I don't have many friends here, and the only ones I know are in school, but they're gone for the summer. I have a friend who I'm going to live with, but he moves into his new apartment in about two weeks, so for now I am living on the streets till he gets back into town and gets his apartment. From there I will stay with him and find another job.

I went to HCC (Houston Community College) for a few semesters but didn't go all the way through.

I had a car in Austin, but I got in a wreck a few months ago and it was totaled. I didn't have insurance and can't afford a new one. I've been walking and taking the bus everywhere for a while now.

SO that's what I'll be telling people if they ask. I made up this story because it's how I believe MOST people end up homeless….through a simple sequence of unfortunate events. For the most part homeless people are NOT the dilapidated looking bums you see on the side of the road holding signs. Those people are in the minority, however they are the most visible, which is why people think all homeless people are like that (I learned this pretty clearly when I would do work for homeless shelters). Even most homeless people don't like THOSE homeless people!

Most of this story relates to some experience I've had or someone I know. For example I had a temporary roommate who worked at Radio Shack selling phones, so if someone proceeds on that line of questioning I can deliver believable answers.


This will also be the pretense for the whole Homeless Experiment: That I'm just a 20-something guy down on his luck for a little while and has no place to go for a few weeks. I feel this story will allow me to freely ask questions about homeless life, instead of telling people I've been homeless a long time and asking dumb questions about it. It won't sound congruent if I told that story.

I'll probably also try to "dumb down" my speech a bit just for effect depending on the person or situation I am speaking with. I'll play it by ear as I know for a fact not all homeless people are dumb bums like some may think.

So there ya go: I will be Nev the Bum.


AN UNITENDED CONSEQUENCE:

June 01, 2009

There has been one unforeseen element to this Homeless Experiment that has me wanting to get it done soon as possible:

I find myself "thinking like I'm homeless" all the time! Every time I drive by an area of Austin where I may find myself this upcoming Thursday-Monday I have thoughts such as:


  • "Hmmm...I could probably sleep behind that store and no one would know."

  • "If I REALLY need to take a dump I can go in that patch of woods on 9th St."

  • "I could totally sleep under those bleachers at the baseball park behind ACC."

  • "The South West corner of this intersection gets traffic that comes out of the Burger King parking lot, I bet I can score some food on that corner."

There is a constant stream of these types of thoughts, and it's MAKING ME ACTUALLY FEEL HOMELESS! In a way this is good, because my experiment is based on my alias who gets evicted from his apartment with no money and no place to go.

A person in that situation probably sees living on the street as a viable option a few days before he actually becomes homeless...so in a way these thoughts are making this experiment more realistic.

So now every time I go Downtown to a coffee shop, bar, the library etc. I look at things in a more survivalist way.


It's weird.

For this reason I'm sticking to my June 4th starting date. That's actually a horrible weekend to pursue this experiment because there's a lot of fun events I'll be missing, however this thought process has to stop soon. I'd rather forgo some fun for being able to think normally again.

Since I've also stopped all facial grooming these last few weeks, my hair is quite a mess and I have to wear hats all the time (Haven't had a hair cut in roughly 2-something months). I can still put gel in it, but it's so long I have to slick it back like an Italian goodfella. When it's not done, the homeless look really starts to show:

The beard came in REALLY quick. I stopped shaving May 15th, now 17 days later on June 1st this is how it looks:



I'm also starting to grow a uni-brow, plus my eyebrows are getting kind of bushy:



....I mean, they're not on the Ramit Sethi level yet, but they're catching up everyday:



So not only am I starting to "think homeless" but I'm also slowly beginning to look the part. When you think like that all the time, then are re-affirmed by scruffy looking face in the mirror, it's an odd feeling.


MY FIRST HOMELESS INNOVATION


June 3rd, 2009
Some of the mini experiments I want to try during the Homeless Experiment involve holding up different types of signs on the side of the road, sort of like an A/B Split Test to see which is the best play for making the most food/money in an hour:


  • Funny signs

  • Serious signs

  • Asking for money

  • Asking for food

I was a little concerned about this because from what I've seen, cardboard seems to the medium most bums on the side of the road use (old boxes or real estate signs generally). This means I will have to procure a new piece of cardboard for each sign (since generally only one side is blank).

Well I inadvertently came upon a solution:
I ordered something online the other day, and the packing material was a single, long strip of brown paper just crumpled up and stuffed in the box.

Great packaging for the products, but even better sign material! If you un-crumple the paper it gives you a tall writing space of 14" and unlimited width.



So instead of having to carry around a sign I already made, I can discard and make new ones on the fly. It'll look something like this:



So in addition to the few things I'll be carrying, I'll add this small roll of paper to the list. It folds up nicely, and will provide me with about 15 - 20 signs.



HOMELESS PREPERATION

June 3rd, 2009
By tomorrow afternoon I will hit the streets of Austin, TX. pretending to be homeless. I won’t have shelter or money for 5 days and 4 nights.

If this were a properly planned out hiking or camping trip I'd have a tent, proper hiking backpack, nice sleeping bag and all sorts of comforts...but that would effectively "plan the hardship out" of this experiment. It would also make it look like I'm hitchhiking rather than homeless.



I'm trying to make this congruent as possible to my alias story. This means I would have been evicted from my apartment with no car, no friends to stay with and not many belongings worth taking.

Equipment list:

  • Backpack - Will be using the backpack I've had since middle school. It's about time I've got a new one. I will say Jansport makes a damn good and sturdy backpack. It's been around the world and on all sorts of adventures with me and is still ticking.
  • A $5.00 sleeping bag I bought at Wal-Mart. It's rated to only 45 degrees which means this is possibly the crappiest sleeping bag you can buy. However it weighs only 3 lbs. which is a plus. I somehow doubt it's very waterproof, that might be an issue. I was wondering how its possible Wal-Mart sells a $5 sleeping bag for a profit, so last night I slept in it at my house on the floor and found out: It's a big piece of crap. The zippers hardly function, and it took me 4 minutes of finagling to get it zipped up fully. I'm almost positive the next time I use it the thing won't zip at all. My alias doesn't have any money to buy a new one, so this will have to do.


  • Pocketknife.

  • My Full Wardrobe will be: 1 old jeans, 1 old shorts, 1 short sleeve shirt, 1 long sleeve shirt, 1 hoodie, extra pair of socks. Hopefully I won't run into any extreme weather.

  • Two bottles of water. These will be old Coca-Cola bottles filled with water.

  • No food. This will force me to immediately start scavenging for food somehow.

  • No money.

  • Mini Netbook - So I can document things.

  • iPhone - Will be off except twice a day to let the family know I'm OK. I’ll also turn it on to blog directly from the phone if internet is unavailable (as it certainly will be unavailable the first day or two).

  • Camera - I want to document this trip with some pictures and perhaps video.

  • Glasses and one spare pair of contacts.

  • Small amount of toilet paper. Will probably end up jacking some from the public library at some point. Possibly from the same library I donated a computer to.

  • Toothbrush/toothpaste. That's all I'm taking in the way of hygiene products. No deodorant + Texas heat + walking everywhere = Stinky Neville.

  • Emergency Info Sheet and ID card - Insurance information and directions of which hospital I should be taken to in an emergency. If someone thinks I'm homeless they will take me to a public hospital. It’s best in case of emergency that it's known I am to be taken to a private hospital for more immediate care. This is just a security precaution. I'll keep this information in all my bags and on my person. This will also contain emergency contact numbers of friends and family. Doubt this will have to be used.

I feel this list is pretty relevant to what some in the alias situation would bring.

Word on the electronics:
Yea yea yea...I know a bum or homeless person wouldn't have all the electronics (although you'd actually be surprised...)

...however I'm trying to document this trip, and I also have family/friends who are pretty concerned about this. Plus it's my mom's birthday one of the days I'll be out and I want to call her. The electronics won't be used for fun or entertainment...in fact carrying these things actually makes me a target for getting jumped and robbed, so I WILL NOT visibly use these around other homeless people for safety reasons. They also take up very valuable space in my backpack and add weight. I'd prefer not to carry any of these things, but documenting the trip as I go is important to me.

Writing about an experience in a comfortable coffee shop and writing while famished and under a bridge would probably be different things. For the times when I can't access my netbook (for safety reasons, it gets stolen or because I'm out of battery) I'll write in a small notebook then digitally transcribe later.

Even if I don't have access to the internet on my netbook (which on Riverside I most likely won't), I can always post to the blog via email through my iPhone as shown in this post.

I took my last shower yesterday morning, and will be sleeping in the Wal-Mart sleeping bag on my floor today. Tomorrow I hit the streets!

HOMELESS PLAN AND ROUTE

June 3rd, 2009

For the Homeless Experiment starting tomorrow I'll be out for 5 days and 4 nights. Thursday till Monday (June 4th till June 8th, 2009).

In this time I'll have to scrounge for food, search for places to sleep, perform the experiments I have set and document all this at the same time. I'm reluctant to set out a solid plan, but I'll make a very general (and changeable) plan.


Thursday: 
Leave the house sometime around 3pm. Walk to the nearest big intersection and hope I can somehow get food. Find somewhere on Riverside to sleep (possibly the woods or under a bridge). I won't be able to make it all the way Downtown by night time, so Riverside will be home. Not sure where. For those of you that don't know, I live in a part of Austin called Riverside. There is a newly gentrified area which I live in which is decently nice, then there’s "the other part" which is relatively ghetto. On a drive through Riverside in the day or night you'll generally see a few bums.

Friday:
Start making the trek towards the downtown area. Try to score some food around Riverside and eat in the morning. Visit the homeless shelters and see if I can get a place to sleep at night. Since this is the start of the weekend I'm not fully sure how this will work.

When I think about it, I'll probably be waking up early on Friday morning and have the whole day to spend doing......what? I really have no clue. I'll probably try to befriend and then furtively "interview" some homeless people I find interesting. I frequently see homeless people around Downtown basically just chilling...probably because they have nothing else to do. Boredom might be a major issue since I won't have much in the way as sources of entertainment.



Saturday:

Hopefully will have found a place to get a decent meal such as a soup kitchen or shelter. Try holding signs on the side of the road for a while to see how much money I can make with different signs. I'll be around Downtown so the legality of this might be an issue. May spend some time at the public library documenting. At night I will most likely avoid all the partying areas of town and the homeless shelters. Downtown gets a little crazy at night, everyone is drunk, and I feel even homeless people hanging around the shelter will be doing the same with whatever they can get their hands on. Drugs, crazy people and party-goers just doesn't sound like a combination I want to be around during such an exposed stage. I will most likely try to sleep on the outskirts of Downtown in a lower-key part of town to avoid all this.

I have a strong feeling by this time I'll be pretty fed up with pretending to being homeless.


Sunday:
I've seen Meals On Wheels trucks in several downtown locations on Sundays, so hopefully I can catch some food at those. They also have a free concert under the bridge for homeless people on Sunday's, and they generally serve some sort of meal. That should be a good place to go. It almost sounds crazy...a free concert for homeless people! Kevin was right, Austin is pretty homeless-friendly. I'll also try to get a change of clothes from somewhere if possible. Will start making the trip back to Riverside. Will most likely sleep near the lake on a bench or under the freeway overpass near the threshold of Riverside and Downtown.

Monday:
Wake up in the morning and head back home. Take shower. Shave. Take another shower. Get a haircut. Take another shower. Get back to work.

Here's a rough map of the general start path (red) and return path (green) I'll follow:


This is of course a VERY rough estimation as the nature of this experiment has a vast number of variables. This short experiment will hopefully have some sort of long term positive impact on me. I'd say the MAIN reason I'm doing this is to get out of my safe/fun/comfortable bubble of a life for a short period. I love it, but every once in a while I feel a good kick in the ass is necessary to fully appreciate what you've got.

I'd like to state that this is really in no way a philanthropic expedition to raise awareness to the plight of homeless people. It's pretty much all for selfish self-improvement reasons. If in the process someone, be it me or someone else, find some small way to improve or uplift the lives of those on the streets or any other station in life because of this experience, wonderful. I'm sure this experiment will reinforce all sorts of good wisdom principles I already know, but don't fully pay attention to all the time.



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