The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding

What’s in a homeless person’s bag?


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If you’re a lady, or you read lady magazines, you’ve undoubtedly come across the “What’s in my bag?” trope. In it, a celebrity or fashion blogger displays and discusses the contents of her purse including favorite brands of lipstick, fancy wallets and so on. I want to share something in the same vein, but with a goal that is entirely different from introducing you to a new make up company. Today I want you to understand a little bit of what it’s like to be homeless in America.

I work at one homeless shelter and volunteer at another because, among the issues that are present in cities, I believe homelessness is one of the most serious, and one that must be addressed before I feel I can start working on things like better parks or mixed use developments. Of course, many of these assets go hand in hand with ending homelessness, but right now I am focusing on the root cause. In my day to day, as much as it feels awkward and uncomfortable, I am often privy to the contents of homeless and low-income individuals’ bags. Whether they are unloading their items as they check in each night at the shelter (in which they literally have to remove everything from their purses) or just sifting through their bags to find a document that will allow them to sign up for food at the pantry downstairs, I’ve noticed a few items that show up consistently. I’m not revealing anyone’s personal information here, just hoping to give you a sense of what a homeless woman (or man) must often carry around with her every single day.

As you read over these items, consider the weight of them—literally and figuratively. What would it feel like to carry these items around with you every day? Consider also, how these items are not so different from what a wealthier woman might have in her purse, yet serve different or additional purposes.

So, what’s in her bag?

Every important document she possesses — The first thing to know is that when you’re homeless, you are constantly in need of documentation. You have to show it to the shelter where you’re hoping to get a bed. You have to show it to the cop who tells you you’ve been sitting on that park bench for too long. You have to show it when you arrive at the government office to sign up for food stamps. Not only do you need your own social security card, ID, and birth certificate, but you need the documents for all your children and any other relatives that might be with you. You carry it constantly in a folder, or sometimes in a plastic bag in case of rain. We’re not talking about making sure you have your driver’s license in your pocket. We’re talking about every important document mapping out your entire life, carried with you at all times.

Cell phone and charger — If you see a homeless person with a cell phone, you might initially think it’s a frivolous expense, but actually it’s one of the most important items to have if you’re without a permanent residence. Thankfully, most homeless individuals I have met in this country do figure out a way to afford a phone. Unfortunately, whereas homeless individuals could probably make better use of a smartphone than anyone else (being able to look up directions to a food pantry, respond to emails for job interviews, etc.) it’s rare that I come across anyone with an iphone or android in my line of work. Still, those trusty cell phones will help people through many a tough situation, and provide a way to connect to family who may be far away.

Make up — Everyone wants to look his or her best, including people who are struggling to get their basic needs met. She will undoubtedly have job interviews or meetings with social workers where she wishes to present herself in a certain light, and make up can really help with that. Access to basic hygiene is a huge issue for homeless people. Imagine not being able to feel clean each morning by taking a shower, or not being able to afford deoderant when you run out, or not having access to a bathroom when you need to change your tampon (there was recently an enlightening article about that topic in the Huffington Post). Not only are you without the safety and comfort of a permanent home, but you also lack the amenities of a permanent home. Make up is a small way to take strides in the direction of personal hygiene and dignity.  

Tissues and napkins Similarly, having tissues or napkins with you (probably grabbed from a cafeteria or soup kitchen) can be an important way to keep clean. If your days are not spent inside a home or office or school, you’re likely on the streets or moving from place to place, anywhere that will allow you to hang out. There’s only so many times you can use the bathroom at a mall or McDonald’s before someone tells you to “move along.” I wrote about the need for better public access to restrooms in this post, but until that time, tissues will likely be found in the bags of homeless people.  

Candy, condiment packets, other small food items — When you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, every little bit helps. Whether it’s a Snickers bar you bought for a dollar from a vending machine or even some condiment packets you grabbed from the checkout line at the deli, keeping forms of sustenance with you is vital. A homeless person cannot just head for her kitchen cabinet when she gets hungry for a snack. Furthermore, for homeless individuals who experience illnesses like diabetes, having food available can mean life or death.

A few cigarettes — You may be thinking, why on earth would someone who has so little money spend her precious dollars on expensive, unhealthy products like cigarettes? In fact, there are several reasons. First, if you were a smoker before you became homeless, its unlikely that in the midst of all you’re undergoing—what with trying to find housing and income and support—you’re going to decide that that’s the right time to try to quit smoking. It would likely only add to your stress. Second, when you’re undergoing the trauma of being without a home, probably juggling a few children, managing a health issue, trying to keep it all together—it’s natural to want a momentary stress reliever. These are two reasons why you might find cigarettes in a woman’s bag.

So, there’s a look into the life of a homeless American. Think about the weight of it. Think also, about how it’s not so different from what a wealthier person might have in his or her purse, but everything serves a much more life-and-death purpose. You’re not carrying around lipstick so you can freshen up on the way to a date; you’re carrying around lipstick because it’s a minute way to make yourself feel presentable for a job interview that could dramatically change the course of your life. You’re not bringing along a candy bar in case you get hungry in between the gym and your dinner plans, you have that candy bar for when you can’t make it to the soup kitchen in between doctors’ appointments and food stamp sign-ups, and you’re facing a night without supper.

Homelessness directly impacted more than 600,000 Americans last year, many of them children. That’s equal to the entire population of Washington, DC. I hope this post gave you a small sense of how homelessness is both normal, and not so normal, for many Americans–women, men, white people, black people, children, seniors and more.


2 thoughts on “What’s in a homeless person’s bag?

  1. Great post. I’d like to share my personal experience with homelessness to add to the conversation.

    When I was a child my parents divorced. They were very young, neither had any money, and it was 1971 with all the cultural upheaval of the era. As it happened my mother’s sister also divorced her husband around the same time under similar circumstances. So my aunt and my mom pooled their meager resources. There was no money for an apartment (first and last month’s rent, security deposit, utility deposit…) so me and my mom, my aunt and my young cousin all lived together in my aunt’s car. It was an old second hand 1960’s Lincoln sedan. My mom would sleep across the front seat, my aunt would sleep across the back seat, and me and my cousin would curl up on the floor in the back – each on one side of the bump down the middle.

    The ladies figured out which parking spots were safe and where the police and neighbors would let us stay in peace overnight. This is harder than you think in suburbia where middle class people don’t want “undesirables” anywhere near their homes and where shopping centers and office parks are patrolled by security. If you keep moving you have a better chance of not being hassled.

    We would wash up each morning at gas station bathrooms (never the same one twice) where we would brush our teeth and get a kind of sponge bath with wash clothes and such. Sometimes we would go to a coffee shop for breakfast. sometimes we would get a loaf of Wonder Bread from the supermarket and then add jelly from packets we would quietly pocket from previous trips at the coffee shop. We washed our clothes, towels, and bedding at the coin op laundry which also functioned as a place to sit and do homework and get out of the car and keep warm in bad weather.

    My mom and aunt got jobs at the same 24 hour pancake house (I think it was a Denny’s or Sambo’s). My mom would work the early shift while my aunt looked after me and my cousin. My aunt would work the late shift so my mom could look after us. Slowly, on minimum wage and not very good tips the sisters saved for an apartment. It took a long time. Not only were their incomes very low, but the cost of living in the car was actually higher than you might expect. So many things in life are really inexpensive or even free when you already have a house, but when you’re living out of a vehicle you’re forced to pay extra for every little thing. Years later my cousin and I compared notes. “Do you remember Christmas in the car?” “Yep.” “Do you remember Easter in he car?” “Yep.” “Birthdays?” “Yep.”

    We did eventually get a really horrible cheap apartment that we all shared. We still laughingly refer to that place as Roach Haven. And over time we worked our way up to slightly better accommodations although that took years. At the time our homelessness didn’t feel like homelessness in the usual sense. We knew we weren’t drug addicts or criminals. We weren’t mentally ill. We weren’t impoverished immigrants or refugees. We thought of ourselves as middle class suburban white people who were simply… in between homes. In many respects we were fortunate that this was more or less true. But we were in fact homeless.

    Much of the trouble with not having a home was less about the material discomforts which can be actually be worked around. The bigger problem was social and emotional. You had to work endlessly to both cultivate the illusion that everything was normal while dealing with constant threats from the outside world that was keen to spit you out.

    Just something to keep in mind when you see someone on the street…


    • Johnny, thank you so much for sharing this story about your experience with homelessness. It provides an important perspective on the diversity of individuals who undergo periods of homelessness, and it helps us understand a small piece of what you went through. I especially appreciate you pointing out how expensive it is to be poor. That’s completely true, and something a lot of people don’t think about.

      I am deeply sorry that this had to be a part of your life, but I also admire the strong women who cared for you and your cousin during that time. And I admire the ways you advocate for creative, affordable ways to live via your blog and your work!


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