What to do when you become homeless


Many of us see the warning signs before we become homeless. Yet homelessness can happen suddenly. Rent eats up 30 to 50 percent of most people’s salary, so perhaps one month, you fall behind. Then two months go by, and you can’t seem to catch up. Most of us are only one or two paychecks away from homeless. 

A catastrophe could push us over the edge: an illness, hospitalization, government shutdowns, domestic abuse, addictions, mental health issues, divorce, incarceration. Even bad weather can put us on the streets: hurricanes, fires, floods, freezing weather, heat waves, tornadoes. Many of us could well become nomadic or homeless within the next 5-10 years because of climate change. 

But there are some strategies to deal with homelessness: 

  1. Visit the DC/OTA when you’re two months behind in rent. An elderly friend of mine who fell behind on rent payments found help with the Office of the Tenant Advocate at 2000 14th Street NW. The staff can explain your rights as a tenant, help with landlord-tenant disputes, as well as give you resources to stay in your apartment.  Johanna Shreve, chief tenant advocate of OTA, is an unsung hero; she and Attorney General Karl Racine have convinced landlords to be more responsible and have made it much easier for tenants to get security deposits back.
  2. Prepare for eviction. While you’re looking for help with back-rent, use the time to store your belongings and look for a new place to stay.  Use your people as resources. It is OK to ask for help.
  3. Breathe and drink fluids. To control the tendency to panic, breathe in slowly through your nose, hold it, and exhale slowly through your mouth. Allow yourself to relax. Do this several times when you’re feeling scared, overwhelmed or angry.  Once an hour, throughout the day, drink 8 ounces of water, juice, punch, tea or soup. The deep breathing and hydration calm your body, making it easier to think more clearly. You can stay in control.
  4. Get 7 to 9 hours of sleep. Get your own lightweight blanket or sheet.
  5. Shower at least twice a week to avoid getting lice, fleas, bedbugs or maggots.
  6. Find a way to deal with your anger.  Some people go into shock and shut down. Others become indignant and bitter, thinking “this isn’t supposed to happen to me” or “I’m not like ‘one of those’ people.” Denial makes it harder to deal with the truth: You are homeless. Talk with a professional counselor, minister or therapist about your experiences. Talk therapy helps. It is extremely important to take care of your mental health.
  7. Practice gratitude. If you don’t appreciate what you already have,  you will never be satisfied. At the end of the day, think of all the good that happened to you. Thank the Universe. Thank the Lord. Tap into the Divine light within you. Be your best.
  8. Share whatever you have. Support one another. Sharing makes life easier. It’s also Earth-friendly. When you share, there’s an abundance in the Universe that blesses everyone.
  9. Plan for what you need: water, bathroom, shower, laundromat, meals, shelter, clothing, medical care, telephone, computer, transportation, a place to hang out during the day (day program, library, etc.), a place to sit for a couple of hours, a way to get your mail or check your email, a gym, mental health therapy (for depression and trauma), an income (Street Sense vendor?), a social worker/case manager and maybe a legal aid lawyer. And think of where you will find them.
  10. Make a list of your people resources. This includes friends, family, community services and acquaintances. Will they let you stay with them two weeks or more? If so, let them know how you’re actively working to move out on your own and help with chores around the house. Create a “tribe” of friends, says Street Sense Media fundraiser Judith, to eat with and to help protect one another.  Other homeless people have a wealth of information. Introduce yourself.
  11. Figure out shelter. Will you stay in a shelter, transitional housing or halfway house, or rent your own place with a friend?
  12. Eat healthy meals and snacks like oatmeal, yogurt, fruit, vegetables, canned or fresh fish, nuts, seeds and berries. Eat at least one hot meal a day, preferably breakfast.  A tip: 7-11s have microwave ovens near the coffee stand.
  13. Carry a water bottle and refill it at meal programs, library, and government buildings.
  14. Use hotlines when you need them. Call CPEP Crisis Line at 202-673-9319. Call ACCESS Helpline at 888-7WE-HELP for therapy and case management. The D.C. Department of Human Services has an excellent resource list: dhs.dc.gov/service/resources-dhs.  Also see the Interfaith Council of Metropolitan Washington’s interactive Emergency Services Directory for meals and other services within the DMV area at ifcmw.org.  Call the mayor’s call center at 211 for information on social programs. Call the shelter hotline at 202-399-2093 or 311 when it gets too cold to stay outside.  When you find a resource, call first to confirm the hours and location.
  15. Get a case manager. They can help you find affordable housing, assist with applications and guide you through the bureaucratic process.  However, you should do the legwork if you want a  say-so in what you get. Tell them what you need. If they can’t help, ask who can. If they say “no,” call back and talk with someone else. Often “no” means maybe.  Always appeal. Never give up.
  16. Write down your goals. Vanessa Hicks-Edwards, a case manager with D.C. Office on Aging says, “The first three months are crucial. Don’t wait for someone to rescue you. Plan your days.”  This includes listing immediate and long-term goals.
  17. Make sure to keep important IDs with you.  Keep your DMV ID and social security card along with yourSmarTripcard in a holder around your neck.  Keep money, your ATM card, health insurance cards and food stamp cards in a fanny-pack.  Store all your other documents, passports, diplomas and other important papers with family or in your Case Manager’s office. 

Here are some agencies that serve meals and have case managers: 

Epiphany Church, 1317 G St, NW 

7:45 am, Sun. 

Church of the Pilgrims // 2201 P St, NW  

(left side entrance), 1-2 pm, Sun. 

Thrive DC, 1525 Newton St., NW  

8:30 am, Mon.-Fri. (women, children, men) 

3:30 pm, Sun.-Thu. (women & children only);         

Miriams Kitchen // 2401 Virginia Ave, NW 6:30-8 am and 4:45-5:45 pm, Mon.-Fri. 

Charlie’s Place, 1830 Connecticut Ave, NW 

6:30-7:30 am, Tues.-Fri. // 8 am, Sat.   

SOME (So Others Might Eat), 71 O St, NW  

7 – 8 am and 11 am – 1 pm, Mon.- Fri.   

Bethany Day Program for Women 

1333 N St, NW // 9:15 am, Mon.-Fri. 

Foundry Methodist Church, 1500 16th St, NW // 9 a.m. Fri.  

Friendship Place, 4713 Wisconsin Ave, NW 

1-3 pm, Mon., Wed., Thu.  

Downtown Day Services Center, 1313 New York Ave, NW // 10 am – 4 pm, Mon.-Fri. 

Paula Dyan experienced homelessness for seven years when she was younger. She has worked with the homeless community for the last 15. Now she is retired and continues to advocate for homeless people. 

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We believe ending homelessness begins with listening to the stories of those who have experienced it.