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living in the hood

5 lessons from working at a homeless shelter

I once worked at a men’s homeless shelter. Here are five powerful lessons I learned from homeless people.

Ed Latimore
Ed Latimore
Writer, retired boxer, self-improvement enthusiast

For a short period of my life, I worked as a security guard at a men’s homeless shelter. I needed a job that fit my schedule and allowed me to box, and this was a job that would hire me. It was a very simple position: on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, I worked security at the homeless shelter. The job was pretty straightforward.

A social worker of sorts would process in each homeless man. My job was to inspect their bags for drugs, alcohol, or weapons. I scanned them with a metal detecting rod and made sure they weren’t high or intoxicated.

Like all “security” jobs, I wasn’t supposed to actually intervene in a physical manner if things got out of hand. I was just to call the police if things got out of hand. This was, for the most part, the easiest job I’d ever do. However, it did have it’s moments.

Notable moments from working at the homeless shelter include:

The job didn’t teach me anything new about human nature, but I did learn a few things about homeless people and myself. Prepare to have most of what you’ve been told about the homeless population to be challenged.

I’m not saying that my perspective is the most accurate, but between this job and volunteer assignments, I’ve seen how many think and behave. What I’ve found may surprise you.

Check out the rest of my articles on living in the hood

1) Time waits for no man: the truth about the homeless

There’s this prevailing myth that most homeless people are military vets or suffer from mental illness. This simply isn’t true.

I watched about 500 homeless people get processed over my six months there. I’m not sure how many had prior service with our military, but I remember only 1 who had a mental illness to the point where someone should have had someone else taking care of him.

Most of them were guys who’d done 5-10+ years in prison and their friends/family moved on. Since they’re convicted felons, the criminal justice system makes it virtually impossible for them to get work. They had simply run out of options to make money and did not have a support system.

This is a difficult situation for people to imagine who have never been incarcerated or had someone close to them do time. While there are resources in prison to better yourself, imagine how difficult it can be to do that in an environment with other criminals. Sure, there are the exceptions who make it out but for the most part, what happens is exactly what you’d expect.

If you avoid going to prison, your life is going to be mostly alright. It may not be spectacular, but you’ll always be in a position to improve. Of course, you have to consider what type of person you’re typically dealing with when you talk about people who get jail time of this nature.

[Note: If you’re looking to get into a home after doing time in prison and you’re having difficulty, this is a great resource on securing housing after incarceration.]

2) The problem with being unlikable: how do you become homeless?

Here’s a question to ponder. Imagine that you suddenly lost your place to live. What would you do? If you’re like most people, your basic plan would consist of finding a new place to live and in the meantime, staying with a friend or relative.

Well if you’re like many of the guys at the homeless shelter, you won’t be able to get a new place when they run background checks. Even if you could get a new place, it’s going to be extremely difficult to get a job to pay rent. So naturally, you’d just stay with friends or relatives until you figure it out.

Except for these guys. They can’t because their friends and relatives have deserted them. In more than a few intake interviews, I heard that friends and family deserted these guys after failed promises and multiple imprisonments.

We’d like to believe that those we care for will be there for us through thick and thin, but EVERYONE has a breaking point. Clearly, the families of these men had reached theirs and were willing to let them live on the street.

3) The difference between minimalism and poverty

I often cut up on minimalism because I believe it’s most people justifying a lack of ambition or grit.

While I’m a firm believer that everyone should be happy with what they have, “minimalists” often ​highlight​ their lack of modern convenience as a mark of superiority. Rather than just saying they don’t make enough or aren’t ambitious enough to earn more, they make their lifestyle of lack seem preferable.

This is most people. I met two different truckers who decided that it was simply more sensible to stay in homeless encampments and shelters than it was to rent an apartment. These were guys in their 50’s, never married, and didn’t have kids.

Whichever city they were in, they just found the homeless shelters and tried to get in there first for the night. Truckers make decent money. Certainly enough to not need this. It’s not the path I would take, but I get it.

To me, this was a true minimalist lifestyle and is something that has always stuck with me.

4) Most of us are one paycheck away from a disaster

I witnessed some tragic scenes at the homeless shelter. I saw more than one guy who got laid off just a few weeks earlier. He couldn’t make the rent, had no savings, and so they evicted him. Reality is both fair and cruel.

This is one of those experiences that is far better to learn vicariously. You don’t need to learn EVERYTHING the hard way. You won’t survive long enough to reap the benefits of the lessons if you do.

There are several stats about how most Americans don’t have anything saved. Some people doubt that the majority of Americans have less than $1000 saved, but I’ve seen this happen too many times to doubt it. Even if a person has $10,000 saved, how long would last in a place like San Francisco or New York?

I’m inclined to believe they’re true. If you don’t have anything saved, work on building value and income streams because being homeless is no way to live.

5) Some people wait for things to get better—others force the issue

There were two ​18-year-old kids in the homeless shelter for about 3 weeks while I was there. I got to know them and learn their story.

They weren’t thrown out of their house or anything. They were from a small town in backwoods West Virginia with zero opportunity. They decided to leave and figure out how to make it work up here in Pittsburgh (where I live, about an hour away from the two.)

In 3 weeks, they went from nothing to having jobs, being enrolled at community college, and getting an apartment.

Most people would have waited and made excuses. These two dudes took their life into their own hands and made things work for them. If they had that type of grit and courage at 18, I’m sure they’re doing alright.

The recap

So, to recap, the five lessons I learned from working with homeless people are:

  1. Time waits for no one
  2. Don’t be unlikable
  3. There’s a difference between minimalism and poverty
  4. Most of us are one paycheck away from a disaster
  5. Change your life instead of waiting for it to change

I learned from the homeless so you don’t have to. The rest is up to you.

Check out the rest of my articles on living in the hood

Ed Latimore
About the author

Ed Latimore

I’m a writer, competitive chess player, Army veteran, physicist, and former professional heavyweight boxer. My work focuses on self-development, realizing your potential, and sobriety—speaking from personal experience, having overcome both poverty and addiction.

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