Updated on 04.06.15

Rising from the Absolute Bottom

Trent Hamm

Daniel writes in:

I have been a reader of The Simple Dollar for several years. I am writing to you for the first time today because I really need your help and I do not know what to do next.

In the last eighteen months, I have lost my job and I have not been able to find another one. My girlfriend was diagnosed with leukemia when it was too late to really treat her as she had ignored the symptoms until it was too late and she died last May. We had been dating for years and were going to get married when I got my job.

I had very little money with no job and so I kept paying my debts by selling off my stuff piece by piece and canceling every bill I could. I had to let them repossess my car. But eventually I could not pay the rent.

I have been homeless for the last week and I think I am going to be that way for the near future. I have been sleeping in a park with most of my remaining belongings in a bag here. I have about $70 cash in my backpack and a savings and checking account at a bank with only a few bucks in each.

I do not know what to do next. I am hoping you can give me some kind of plan because I don’t know where to go from here.

Some more info: I do not have a drug or alcohol or smoking problem. I used to drink with friends sometimes but have not had a drink in more than a year and I have never used drugs. I have a bachelor’s degree in MIS with seven years experience in a university but I was let go during a cost-cutting period where a staff of four was cut down to one person. My parents are both dead and I have a brother but we have not spoken in years and he is not someone I would trust enough to contact right now anyway.

I don’t know what to do. I check my email and read a few websites at the library every day. I don’t know what the next step is.

I have received a few emails like Daniel’s over the years, but none as clear and articulate as the one he sent to me. This is a person who has a lot of potential, but finds themselves at the lowest rungs of society.

I do not have any personal experience with genuine homelessness. However, I do have several friends who work in charitable situations, so I asked some of them for advice and help with this situation and shared with them my outline for what Daniel should do and allowed them to edit it and add their own thoughts.

This is the gameplan I would suggest for anyone who ever finds themselves stuck at the lowest rung of the economic ladder in the United States.

Before we start, I’m assuming that the person in question has no friends or family in the area to provide short-term assistance and that travel to other areas where such help is available might not be feasible. If you have friends or family around, ask them for help before you do anything else.

Step 0: Check your pride. Now.

If you want to get back on your feet from your current situation, you have to check your pride at the door. No exceptions. You are going to need help in this process, period, and being “too proud” to ask for it or accept for it is going to do nothing more than prolong your situation.

There are a lot of people out there who are willing to help you, but you have to be willing to ask for that help and accept that help. For a proud person, that can be difficult. Deal with it.

Remember, you can repay all of the people that helped you when you were down once you are back on your feet. You can donate to charities, drop money in a church collection plate, or volunteer your time to repay those debts if you feel the need to pay it forward. In fact, I encourage you to do so, as you may be able to directly help someone who is on the path you were once on.

Step 1: Go to churches and talk to clergy.

The first thing I would do in your situation is spend a few days visiting the clergy at every church in your area. Just go to each church, request a short meeting with a pastor there, and then explain your situation in detail to those pastors and ask for their help in getting back on your feet in the short term.

Almost every pastor you come across is committed in a very deep way to helping the poor to get back on their feet. They often have a small amount of money that they’re able to give you in order to help you meet your immediate needs.

However, the real value in doing this is that they can directly point you to all kinds of resources for people in your situation in your community. They’ll know where to go to get consistent meals and food. They’ll know where to go to be able to take a shower and keep clean. They may even have knowledge of where you can find temporary housing or even low-cost longer-term housing.

More than just about anyone else in your community, pastors will listen to your story and offer you genuine tangible help.

When you’re meeting with these pastors, take notes. If you need to ask them for paper and a pen, do so, but make sure to write down every resource that they tell you.

Many communities offer organizations that are designed to help the homeless, like the Columbus Coalition for the Homeless, but others do not. Because of the variable offerings in different areas, the safe bet for everyone is to start by asking clergy members, who will know the local area well enough to be able to point you to services like these.

Step 2: Find stable access to a few key resources.

Your next step is to act upon the advice of these pastors in order to ensure that your basic needs are clearly met in a stable way.

In the modern world, I’d look at five things as being the core of one’s basic needs: food (and water), clothing, shelter, sanitation, and health care. Step through each of these to make sure that you have access to them.

Food: Identify soup kitchens, food pantries, and free community dinners in your area. If you’re talking to pastors, they’ll likely help you identify both the community resources like soup kitchens and food pantries, as well as things they may be offering from their own church, like community dinners. In my area, almost every church has a free dinner one night a week for anyone who wants to come and eat, for example.

I would also start carrying a water bottle (you can use an ordinary plastic bottle) with you and identify public places where you can easily fill it. Most communities offer water fountains in the parks, for starters. Keep it filled and it will take care of your hydration needs.

Clothing: Unless you live in a community that provides access to free clothes laundering services, you’re probably going to be using a laundromat. Do so. Keep your clothes clean because you’ll need them clean to be presentable for interviews or other opportunities.

Eventually, you’ll need to replace clothes. Look for any clothing pantries in your area to refresh your wardrobe. Often, these are available in conjunction with food pantries. Generally, clothing pantries allow people to select a few items of free clothing that have been donated there, providing you with a source for free clothes.

Shelter: Different communities have very different policies and offerings with regard to shelter, particularly during nighttime hours. Some cities have homeless shelters that will give you a bed to sleep in at night, while others do not. Some cities allow people to sleep in places like park shelters, while others do not. These are pieces of information that a pastor can share with you or that you can find out from a public service.

The clergy that you visit may have some ideas for temporary housing, so don’t be afraid to ask. Again, some towns and cities have temporary housing opportunities for homeless people, while others do not. Some larger churches sometimes even have a room for the homeless for a short period while they get their life in order.

Another issue is mail. Often, during the hunt for employment, employers will want an address to contact you or even a phone number. One option is to pay for a post office box, which is yet another expense, but it will provide you with a mailing address. Another option is to ask at the local human resources office, as some of them will give you a mailing address until you get back on your feet.

Sanitation: Learn where the public restrooms are in your town and use them – that’s obvious. Use the food pantries in your area to keep up with basic toiletries and make sure to brush your teeth daily at the very least.

Beyond that, however, you should ask the clergy as well as any other public servants you interact with during the early stages of your turnaround if there are public showers anywhere in the community. I know that there are public showers available even in my small town for people who wish to use them, so they’re not particularly rare.

Commit to taking a shower very regularly if possible – ideally, on a daily basis. Again, this is part of remaining presentable for any job opportunities that come up.

Health care: Many communities offer free health clinics on a regular basis that can help people diagnose common ailments. One good approach to start with is to search the HRSA database for free health clinics near you.

Step 3: Sign up for public services.

There are a number of public services available that can provide you with some level of income while you get your feet back under you. The first step you need to take in signing up for these programs is to find your local Human Services Department, which is something that you can easily find online or that most of the pastors you meet with can direct you towards.

Two things are important to note here. First, these programs are intended as a temporary boost to get you back on the right track. They are not permanent programs and most of them will run out. Second, you should not use personal pride as a reason to not sign up for these programs. They are designed for this exact purpose – to help people stuck in a bad situation to improve that situation.

Welfare: The type of welfare available to individuals varies greatly from state to state. To find out what’s available in your state, stop by your local Human Services Department, as mentioned above. There, you’ll be assigned a case worker who will help you sign up for these programs.

This should be your first step, as the case worker here will help you not only sign up for local welfare programs, but also determine eligibility for the other programs mentioned here.

SNAP: SNAP refers to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which usually takes the form of a debit card that you can use to buy basic food items, such as fruits and vegetables. It’s an effective way to keep your belly full.

You can sign up for SNAP online. SNAP programs vary a little from state to state, but most of the time, people in the situation described above – freshly homeless after the end of unemployment following a job loss – will be quickly accepted. This is a valuable source of food for you.

Medicaid: Medicaid is a form of health insurance for low income people, a status for which you certainly qualify. This will help you in situations where you have medical problems that are beyond what free health clinics can handle.

As with SNAP, you can sign up for Medicaid online. While this doesn’t seem quite as important, it can make a huge difference if you wind up facing a real medical issue before you’ve recovered financially.

Other programs: There are a plethora of additional national, state, and local programs for people in need, but the big step you need to take is to contact your local Human Services Department and set up an appointment with a case worker there.

Step 4: Get employed.

Once you have the basic needs of your life covered, the next step is to move on to finding steady employment that can provide you with a first step for climbing out of your situation.

Get a stable source of employment. Your first step should be to find a steady and stable source of employment, even if it’s an entry-level position. This provides continuation for your employment record (which can be helpful for future opportunities) and provides some level of steady income.

One of my closest friends, for example, went from a job making $70,000 a year as a computer programmer to working at a Home Depot a month later. He attributed his willingness to continue to work with his later success in finding jobs in his actual field.

If you waste even a second of your time thinking that a job is “beneath” you or skipping over an employment opportunity, you’re making a giant mistake. Use the first employment opportunity that comes your way and then upgrade from there if a better opportunity comes along.

Be the best at whatever you’re doing. It’s often easy to stand out at an entry-level job by simply taking the work seriously and trying to do excellent work in whatever the task at hand is.

There are several reasons for doing this, but the biggest one is that it’s going to position you for steady employment, better hours, and promotions sooner rather than later. Many people at entry-level jobs do not give their maximum effort, so if you go in there and do your best, your boss will notice and it will have a positive impact on your pay and your opportunities.

Not only that, focusing on the task at hand is a great way to “get lost” in the work, making the hours pass quickly. I’ve found that I almost always feel more tired at the end of a day where I didn’t work hard than a day where I got into the “zone” and was very productive.

Apply, apply, apply. While you’re working at this entry-level job, apply for any and all positions in your field. Your spare time should be filled with as many job applications and interviews as possible.

Apply for anything and everything in your field. Don’t view a position as “beneath” you. Remember, a foothold in your field means steady pay and opportunities to move up from there. The bottom rung in your field is better than no rung at all.

Sign up for a temp agency. Another option, depending on your field, expertise, and goals, is to get a job with a temp agency. A temp agency will help you find short term positions in your field.

Once you have a temporary position in your field, take advantage of it. As I mentioned earlier, taking a job seriously and doing your best immediately sets you apart from the rest of the field. Temp agencies sometimes are sources for long-term and permanent employment, so doing your best will help you stand out for those kinds of positions.

Remember that it’s not going to be easy. Keep going, though. That moment of opportunity is there waiting for you – you just haven’t found it yet. Keep yourself clean and healthy. Keep working hard at an entry-level job. Focus on making the most of today rather than worrying about what tomorrow might hold.

Step 5: Re-establish yourself.

Once you have strong and at least reasonably steady employment, start re-establishing the basic elements of your earlier life. Find an apartment of your own and move there, establishing yourself with a long-term address and a place of your own.

There is a good chance that your credit is in a difficult position, so stop by a credit union and see what you can do to re-establish positive credit. This may be important even for things such as renting an apartment.

Build a cash emergency fund so that you have a buffer against this kind of situation in the future. If you have a savings account, start socking away part of your pay each and every paycheck for the unexpected.

Step 6: Give back.

When things are better, give back.

Go to each of those institutions that helped you out and help them out. If a church pastor put $20 in your hands when you really need it, drop some money in their collection plate. If a volunteer organization helped you, volunteer for them and pay it forward.

Your help will not only refill their coffers, but it’s likely that your efforts will reach out and touch someone else that needs a helping hand at a weak moment in your life. There are few things more powerful that you can do than to reach back and offer a hand to someone who is trying to climb the same mountain that you climbed.

Most important of all, share your story. Send it to the groups that helped you so they can use it for public relations. Send it to media organizations so that they can share how great these organizations and programs really are and how they can help turn lives around. It can make a huge difference to those organizations and to the people they help.

Good luck!

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