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All content by Kyle E. Mitchell, who is not your lawyer.

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Survive Americaprepping for the obvious

If you have time and money to spend kitting yourself out for catastrophe—nuclear war, societal collapse, meteor strike—consider prepping for the true present threat to your American way of life. Prepare to draw a short straw. Prepare to become homeless.

Lots of the goods carry over. Most of your vaguely camping-related gear will be relevant. And you can have just as much fun shopping online, and on a lot of the same websites, while the going is good. But rather than wait on Hollywood or the self-published press to turn out the next rousing story of rugged, against-all-odds perseverance, you can leave the house, pandemic permitting, have a look around. Instead of debating the what-ifs on forums, or finding YouTube oracles to guide you, you can go out and ask the pros “in the field” right now. If disaster flicks and rugged individualism are your thing, meeting homeless people can’t be that scary.

Utilities stop working or cease to exist. You’ll be generating power, stealing it, or doing without. Water will become heavy, expensive, inconvenient, and never entirely trustworthy. You’ll think an awful lot about access to, and substitutes for, toilets. You’ll learn to show fire due respect, and still get burned from time to time. You’ll discover that when you have a phone and lose it, half the people you stopped answering assume you volunteered for a magic act, disappeared, and never came back.

So will the government, since you now lack a fixed address. Unless they decide to give you one, by putting you away somewhere. Which they very well may do, since you’ll quickly find there’s a mess of laws you don’t have much choice in breaking.

Some of those, especially local regulations, will target your kind specifically. If they bend and break all dignified bounds of vernacular English to avoid sounding like they do, the truth will remain transparent to literally everyone actually involved.

Then again, you’ll likely have greater practical trouble, overall, with the mass of rules put to the books without any thought to your situation whatever. By foundational bureaucratic principle, living in a way the system can’t comprehend ranks at least a petty crime. Nobody in power likes to think about this kind of thing. No system of power likes to be reminded it hasn’t got it all figured out. Life without the rule of law can seem harsh. But it’s also one less thing to worry about, when you realize it’s not necessarily on your side.

Cruel and unusual punishment remains strictly prohibited, except, apparently, when the crime is poverty, in which case more or less the whole of the market society seems to be in on it. I’ve met more than a few folks who prefer the regulated environment of the justice system to “social” justice. “Three hots and a cot.” Housing. If custody is a hostile environment, apparently it’s comparable to certain experiences of freedom. Prepare accordingly.

But beware. Life on the lam combines with the initial shock of a precipitous fall to bulge and burst the mental gaskets of even the strong, with or without the seductive lubrication of mind-altering substances. His majesty ethanol, available at your local corner store at prices conveniently paid in quarters, beckons first and always. But the gamut runs clear through cannabis, superior in every way besides felony status, to whatever the guy on the corner got sent out to sell today. You won’t need those things to make your own head untrustworthy. But they help, in more senses than one, which is exactly the problem. People who live indoors constantly overestimate how many people who live outside have dependence problems. Likewise when it got bad for them—before or after the street.

Meanwhile, many social services, from medical help to addiction treatment to police protection to elder care, will degrade to farce, become impractical, or simply cease to exist. Some may even turn on you. Public and private charities that seemed to be “on it” for any number of pressing social needs before, when you weren’t reliant upon them, will show through as inadequate, misconceived, self-righteous, and occasionally outright shams.

A few folks and organizations, of various kinds, will help in truly meaningful ways. A few of those will manage, somehow, to be consistently kind about it, or even truly care. Their help may be enough to keep you alive, but likely not to preserve your way of life. By “way of life” I do not mean “lifestyle”. I mean something altogether more basic, which we can really only appreciate from a great distance. Usually from a long way down, looking a long way up, to where we used to be. A more primitive mode of life does not mean a more primitive mind. Many of those near the bottom know plenty well how long was their fall.

In short, having lost any number of silent, unadvertised, but widely reported lucks of the draw, few of which are truly insurable, the America you know will surround you, but you don’t live there anymore. You’ll be living in the America that is, and has been, for a very uncomfortable number of your countrymen, for as long as anyone can remember. In that harsh reality, America is not a “first world country” or a “highly advanced economy”. It merely contains those things. As on the Hollywood backlots of yore, imperial majesty, Victorian splendor, rugged frontier, urban squalor, and the surface of the moon are just around a corner. It all depends on where you point the camera.

Many of the projects of homeless survival benefit from good equipment and training. Equipment and training you might prefer to acquire now, before you get sick, injured, sued, convicted, &c., go broke, and end up on the street, in a car, or in shelters. But in the end, nothing Amazon delivers will solve your new problems, or really even meaningfully address them. Even if every one of your new issues has a mail-order solution, “homelessness” is but a byword for an enormous packet of problems, all too many and all at once, dumped on those who fall too low. To those with many problems, loss of housing bestows many more.

It’s easy enough to find some cheery, self-convinced, believable opinion on which pair of socks you’ll want when you can only have one, or which is the best portable stove. But homelessness isn’t a shopping list, a box-ticking exercise from which one graduates by collecting them all. There is really just one box: stable, modern housing. If you have stable, modern housing, almost everything is better. If you don’t, almost everything is damn hard. “Everything” is a lot. Too much to realistically value, as a gain or as a loss. Too much to realistically plan for.

Ideally, we’d spend a lot more time, money, and attention preventing these outcomes in the first place, just as we’d better spend more time, money, and attention preventing violence than buying weapons, improving our communities than equipping to “bug out” of them. How to do prevention, rather than accommodation and exacerbation, is hard to say, contentious in all particulars, and involves rather remote forms of gratification, if any at all, in the best case. Sure signs of realism, and the opposite of escapist entertainment, shopping included. But I think it’s clear that those of us who can hack the root, instead of the branches, or might, really ought to be trying to do that. Even if that means admitting we don’t know where the roots are, and laying the ax aside for a spade. Even if that means spending a bit more Internet Time on why we have tent cities nationwide.

In the meantime, there are people for whom shelter, warmth, water, and the other basics of life, and the tools to get and manage them, represent immediate needs, not security blankets. I’m as acquisitive as the next bastard, and occasionally receive packages I do not remember ordering. But I prefer to put those things relevant to hard living where they belong, which is not in my bedroom closet. I offer them to people who need them. If they decline, I ask what they do need. If they accept, I follow up later.

Listening to homeless folks, it’s clear enough what they think needs doing, but can’t do, or get started doing, on their own. Perhaps I’ll get caught unprepared when fate calls my number. Perhaps I’m burning my ships, or at least my own little dinghy, behind me. But this is, after all, America. I’d rather be crazy than scared.

Your thoughts and feedback are always welcome by e-mail.

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