American Coalition of the Homeless


We are the Homeless

By David Breedlove


There are about two million people in New York City that are homeless at any given time (the official HUD count is 75,303) living in squats, abandoned buildings, hovels, under bridges or in parks, I know, I was once one of those “East Village Others”.  There are 60,410 beds in homeless shelters in NYC according to HUD.

Shelters are a joke:

This is one example of the big-city homeless plight; multiply that by an equal number or more in Los Angeles, Denver, Houston, (which by the way are the largest growing populations of homeless in America) and you can see why homeless shelters are such a joke.

Some statistics:

I found these statistics on the internet and I don’t intend to encumber this article with a whole bunch of quotes and references, if you don’t believe it you can hunt down statistics for yourself; but HUD, the department of Housing and Urban Development recently offered to pay millions of dollars to cities across America to count the number of homeless in their cities.  The result of these (way underestimated) findings provided HUD with a reason to focus on more “permanent” housing for the homeless populations in many places, (such as cheap motels and defunct hotels) shutting down temporary shelters and church basements and putting even more people back out on the streets with no place to go except under a billion-dollar bridge or a patch of woods behind Walmart.

What would you do?

Now this might sound like a serious dilemma, but what would you rather do and where would you want to live if you were homeless?  Where would you go?  Would you prefer sleeping in a cot next to strangers, many who are sick with any and all kinds of diseases that neglected people catch and pass around or would you rather sleep out in the open air in a shelter you make yourself.  I think the answer is quite obvious.

The sweep:

Unfortunately, the bed in the shelter is legal, camping out is usually not.  You get busted, told to pack up and leave, or like the recent “homeless sweeps” in many cities all your possessions are “swept away” while you are gone…there goes your ID, your medicine, your little radio, your sleeping bag and everything you’ve got, while you are hauled off to a “facility for the homeless”.  There are laws that protect you if you are a legal resident, but these same laws go against you the moment you become homeless.

Reason to organize:

This is one of the reasons we organized the homeless of NYC back in 1967 when I found myself a homeless illegal “draft dodger” in East Village.  Of course, most of you are too young to remember the time when young men in this country were summarily rounded up (drafted) to stop bullets in southeast Asia.

Some history:

When I first started organizing the street people it was called “Diggers Underground” then later, in San Francisco for the “Summer of Love” we began calling it the “Poor People’s Coalition”, then in Eugene Oregon I got incorporated for the first time, that was 1975, incorporated as “Love Family”, but that name got trumped (no pun intended) by a group of commune dwellers in Seattle, so as to avoid confusion we just sort of merged into what we called the Yonderfamily.  About eight hundred of us back then traveled in buses and vans camping in “Peace” villages and followed the harvest doing farm labor and contract tree planting and forestry work just to enjoy the life of camping out in the woods. Now many years later and three more incorporations and name changes we are simply the American Coalition of the Homeless.

Homeless but not helpless

Give me a jungle and I am home; put me in a shelter and I am then really homeless.  One of the main reasons that I prefer the jungle to a shelter is the same reason the cops don’t like it.  It gives us a sense of community, a togetherness you can’t find in shelters, and the cops don’t like organized hippies and bums.  Also, many if not most shelters only let you come in at supper time, hear a sermon and go to bed in a barracks-like environment, men here, women over there in some other place, and kids???  Well, you won’t get them back!  In the jungle, the kids are free to play and enjoy their young lives in creek beds and woods.  The internet tells me that the largest growing number of residents in the camps and jungles are families with children.  Why?  It is easy to answer, they want to stay together and not be separated.

How about a drink?

What if you like a cold beer or a cup of wine before retiring?  No way—you can’t have any alcohol in those churchy places or even a cigarette, and you are locked in for the night after a certain hour; forget it too in any government run shelter.  What if you have lots of stuff?  The number of things you can bring with you to these places is very limited.  If you are one of those few lucky enough to land a HUD motel room you are much better off, especially if you have school-age children, but still keep your grab-bag handy because now social services will intrude into every function of your and your children’s lives.

Living in your car:

If you have a car and legal to drive consider yourself very lucky, but don’t make the mistake that many have made of seeking out a nice, quiet, shadowy place to sleep.  The cops will wake you and make you leave, or take you in if you have no insurance or any outstanding tickets or warrants.  The best place, believe it or not, is in the middle of an all-night super center parking lot and right under the bright overhead lights.  You can go in and “Shop” at any time, use the restroom, clean up, and if you are right under the light it is not glaring into your window.  Just don’t stay in the same place more than twice if you work there.


Nighttime work is another thing that few homeless people think of.  You won’t have the competition of everybody and his dog hanging a sign at every intersection.  The parking lot is an excellent place to work.  Say you need gas money or hold a sigh that says “NEED GAS, OIL…” and always underline oil, this works anywhere at night, in parking lots and rest stops on the freeway, but don’t hang in the same place too long.  After you get paid go your way.

Into the woods:

Cops don’t like to go very far into the woods, mostly they prefer to sit in their cars so if you want to camp out, don’t do it in any place that you can drive to or be seen by a car.  Go deep into the woods, hide your camp, stay quiet and you can camp in relative comfort as long as you are undetected.  There is safety in numbers of course, but when it comes to camping, get away from the crowd and find an isolated place.  If there is a bust, you will hear the main camp get busted and have enough time to get your grab bag and ease on out the back trail.  Always know ahead of time which way to go.

Dumpster diving:

Quickly and quietly get a few things and leave.  Don’t stock up, don’t take more than you can eat right away, save some for the poor folks who arrive next. If you need more come back later.  Don’t make lots of noise, don’t make a mess; keep it clean and quick.  Don’t goof around and by all means, do not sleep in the dumpster; you might get dumped.  You might die.

Although diving is legal this is one place where the poor are discriminated against all the time.  In 1988 the supreme court declared that anything in the dumpster is the property of anyone who takes it out of the dumpster.  The reason they did this did not have anything to do with compassion for the poor, but to allow the cops to pillage through someone’s trash without a warrant.  But even though local laws to the contrary cannot be enforced they can still illegally harass you.  Store managers and cops do not know and don’t really care that dumpster diving laws are not legal and in most instances, do not exist at all; they will come up with something else, say, trespassing, or disturbing the peace or even “resisting” which is a pet euphemism for arguing with a cop.  Don’t argue, just leave.

If the dumpster has a sign it is better to obey it.  If it is locked leave it alone, you can then get charged with breaking and entering even though it is only a trash can.  If it is up close to the back door, on the back porch or platform or loading dock you might be wise to leave it alone.


If you are in a squat, abandoned building, empty house, or inside any without permission from the owner it is illegal at this time although we are working on this as a legal issue to get some leniency for some things which are now illegal.  It is called “occupancy trespassing” because whatever it is, it belongs to someone.  However, if it belongs to you then you might be safe from prosecution even though they can still kick you out.  This is the way it is done.  There are municipal laws against living in a sub-standard dwelling that is not fixed up to code even if you own it.

Sometimes it is easier than you might think to actually get permission from someone to occupy, then it is not illegal.  Make a deal with the owner or person in authority to clean it up, fix it up, or just stay there for a while.  But even if you have permission it is still much better to have a rent agreement in writing with a signature to show.  Remember that paperwork of any kind is better than say-so.  It is easy to find the registered owner of any real property; just go to the clerk at the courthouse with the address or legal description and she will be glad to help you.

Keep it small, keep it quiet:

One time in Key West I was living in a squat and quite nicely until it became overcrowded and a nuisance to the neighbors.  When I was there only with my wife we were just another couple living in a run-down apartment.  Nobody knew we were squatting, but when other people started moving in and too many people coming and going then we had to leave. On Rockland Key we found an abandoned trailer and moved in.  After a while here came the cops.  they told us to leave saying the owners did not want anyone living there so we left and found out who owned the place.  The owner said she never told the cops we couldn’t stay there.  She said she was glad to have someone look after the place and gave us a letter saying so; so we moved back in.  Soon there were more than two dozen homeless living and camping around the place and the cops came back—right after we had gone.  The moral?  Don’t draw a crowd, it will get you run off.

Homeless Shelters:

The alternatives to public homeless shelters are many and varied; there is absolutely no reason to stay in one of those places more than long enough to find where you really belong. But one of the best places to find help is in one of those places.  Remember that they do the best they can in a nearly always thankless position and many homeless shelters exist because of the benevolence of one or more who are really giving all they can to help.

People who run these shelters do so many times out of the kindness of their hearts, never making a dime for their efforts and even sometimes supporting it all themselves.  The people they serve don’t want to be there and for that reason alone will complain about the services they receive.  The services are nearly always second-rate because there is never enough to go around for anything more than the bare necessities. The people who serve the poor are risking life and health to do a job with little appreciation.  They are subject to contagious disease, head lice, hepatitis, jaundice, flu, filth and whatever insanity happens to come in; and they will even wash your dirty clothes, give you a bath and a place to sleep.

The people in the community, the property owners, business managers, and others do not like the homeless shelter either and many times will discriminate against them as much as they will discriminate against the homeless people who receive help there.

Law enforcement agencies and housing inspectors are always up their butt making what they do or not do answerable to some official somewhere, and the shelter is always subject to being shut down or fined for one neglect or another.

So next time you need a place to get warm, clean and rested just remember what they have to go through to provide the paltry services that they do give.




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