Shelter is among the most basic needs to satisfy. For those living without an address--let alone access to the cars, computers or phone lines that most take for granted--the challenges are truly daunting. Staying off the street will require some uncommon resourcefulness in accessing social services. It should start with one not readily available in all communities: the homeless shelter.
Take Stock of Your Options
Get a telephone directory, and find what out services are available in your area. Start by looking in the Yellow Pages under such obvious key headings as "charity," "emergency shelter," "homeless shelter," or "social services."
Jot down whatever telephone numbers seem most relevant, and don't neglect addresses--whatever agencies you choose, you'll likely have to visit them personally to get their help.
If you face eviction or foreclosure, call from your own phone while it's available. Otherwise, you'll have to make do with the nearest public one. Local libraries are the next option, enabling free access to computers, Internet and phones for nothing more than a sign-up sheet.
Consider alternative housing options as a stop gap while you seek more permanent housing--a couple of weeks spent with a distant relative or close friend is worth the time off the street. Boarding houses and church groups are also good potential sources of cheap furnished rooms while you strive to get back on your feet.
Narrow Down The Choices
Keep careful tabs on personal papers, which are the coin of the realm in dealing with social service agencies. Your wallet is the best place for your Social Security card, for example, while a paper folder offers sufficient storage of former check stubs, leases and tax returns.
Consider the geographic area where your shelter is located--a mission tucked away in the decaying downtown district may be a dicier proposition than its mid-sized cousin in a rural subdivision. Think about how your choice affects other needs, such as disability, proximity to other services and access to public transit, if it's offered locally.
Enter a shelter with your eyes open. Keep close tabs on your things. With so many people living in a particular space, it's no surprise that the regimentation of such an environment sparks conflict during the best of times. Tread carefully! Failure to follow the rules may land you back on the street.
- Check with other people looking for the same services, if possible--their experiences may steer you in the right direction, or away from an agency that's overwhelmed by paperwork needs.
- Find alternatives to traditional social services agencies that may be a better fit. For example, the Streetwise agency teaches participants to sell its newspaper on corners and other public spaces. Many of these vendors have since found full-time jobs.
- Keep careful records of anything that might matter to an agency, such as income, former residences and taxes. You'll need them to show eligibility for whatever programs a caseworker deems relevant to your cause.
- Never leave personal documents or valuables unattended for any length of time--if this proves impossible at the shelter that you've chosen, store them with someone trustworthy like a friend or relative.
- No matter what happens, always keep a good head on your shoulders. Your wits will prove to be your most important asset in surviving the experience of homelessness.
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