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How to tell a truly homeless person from a fake

*Based on my lived experience

By Jeryn CambrahPublished 7 months ago 11 min read
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How to tell a truly homeless person from a fake
Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

Ever wondered how to tell a grifter and an actual homeless person apart?

This is another common objection people have about helping homeless people. "They're faking it, they just don't want to work, so they beg."

People say this about homeless folks they see out holding signs like "will work for food" or "lost everything, anything helps!"

First of all, I STRONGLY discourage you from making any judgments/assumptions about anybody. There are people living in mansions that are flat broke and about to lose everything. Looks can be deceiving.

Secondly, before we get into the topic of hand, I want to clarify that these are just my personal observations as a former homeless person, and the people that I've encountered. It's my lived experience. It's not a hard and fast rule book. Each person's circumstances will be different. There's no one way to be homeless.

There are a few commonalities we've noticed along the way between *actually* homeless people, and people who pretend to be homeless in order to solicit money or goods from folks:

Real homeless people will take "no" for "no"

They won't harass you for money or help. In fact, we tend to be really hesitant to ask for help. Real homeless people try not to draw very much attention to themselves. There's a defeatedness we carry, a tiredness. We aren't going to accost you. The actual homeless people I've met who will come up to you, ask for some change, and if you say no, they'll say "Okay, I understand, thank you anyway" and go on their way.

We don't tend to feel entitled to anything. In fact, most of the time we feel like a waste of space. So if someone is really hounding you for money or help, it's probably because they have the energy to do so -- i.e., not homeless.

Real homeless people aren't flamboyant

A truly homeless person is trying to keep their head down, survive, stay off the law's radar, etc. They're just trying to get by that day. They're usually going to respect your "no" and your personal space (barring some kind of mental health condition, of course). But most of us are just trying to keep it low key. You may have some exceptions, especially in cities where there are protections for homeless people or no anti-homeless ordinances.

I've literally never met a homeless person who walks around saying "I'm homeless!" Even the ones who carry around large shopping carts full of stuff tend to keep their heads down. We met a homeless girl once who was just minding her own business picking through a dumpster. Another was hiding behind a dumpster. She had to have been in her 70s or 80s. We tend to hide. We don't want to draw attention to ourselves.

Real homeless people aren't always in raggedy clothes

Just because someone has on a nice outfit doesn't mean they aren't really homeless. Don't go by clothes. Many of us have nice clothes leftover from when we had housing. When we were homeless, my momma wore designer jeans she bought when she had a nearly 6 figure income. Sometimes homeless people can get free clothing from homeless shelters or churches, local programs. If you see a homeless person in a new pair of shoes, don't assume it's because they're faking. You don't know who blessed them with those shoes.

For those of us who had income, we could strategically purchase important items like winter jackets, or a cargo holder for our car to hold our stuff. We could also purchase things like heat shields and window curtains to make the car more comfortable.

Real homeless people always have their stuff on them

Homeless people who live in their cars and homeless people who live on the streets are a little bit different. If you see someone who has an ungodly amount of stuff in their car, they may just live in it. Homeless people who don't have anywhere to live, or who squat somewhere, typically keep all their important belongings on them -- usually a backpack or a purse, sometimes even a shopping cart.

The exception to this is if they have a tent or somewhere they can squat. In that case, you usually keep your essentials on you and leave everything else back in your tent (or car).

Real homeless people aren't always dirty

Just because someone's clean, doesn't mean they aren't homeless. Cleanliness is tricky. If they're like us, they may have access to a shower every couple weeks. If you catch them on a shower day, with clean clothes on and smelling nice, you may think "they're not homeless!" But that doesn't mean they aren't.

Typically speaking, our dirtiness wasn't obvious to others (I think) until the 7-12 day mark. (It was felt by us on day 2-3, though.) Mostly for us it was greasy hair and dirty clothes (if we ran out of clean clothes to change into). We used dry shampoo and wet wipes to keep it at bay. These things aren't automatically obvious unless you've seen us multiple times or are up close to us.

Real homeless people don't always have a "look"

You can't tell if a person is homeless by their attitude. You can't go by demeanor either. There are some homeless people who are really shy and reserved. There are others, like me, who were friendly and outgoing most of the time...(I think we all do reach a certain point where we get so beaten down we draw further inward). There is a certain brokenness we carry. I can generally recognize one of my own, but it's subtle sometimes. We'll use language like "I'm just traveling" or "we're on a road trip", etc.

There was a woman we met in McDonald's that we swore was living out of her car, but she mentioned "I can't wait to be back in my own bed..." as if she were traveling. That doesn't mean she wasn't homeless. I'd often tell The Boy it was "time to go home" which generally meant "time to go back to the hotel or car." On shower days and days we had clean clothes, we were more outgoing than the days we didn't. Being unclean tends to make you really ashamed and thus your behavior is different.

I'd say that probably most of the time we were homeless, you couldn't even tell we were. It wasn't until we gave up, on the last leg of our 10.5 month stretch, that it really became visible in our demeanor and appearance. That's when we truly looked homeless, because we looked on the outside how we felt on the inside -- defeated.

Real homeless people don't generally parade their kids around

Now, I say this very lightly, because different people may do things differently. But in my opinion, I tried to appear as normal as possible with my kid in public because the LAST thing you want as a homeless parent is for your kid to get taken away from you. I've seen some women out there begging with their children and my first thought is always that it's probably a sex trafficking situation or a grifter. I don't think many of us would want to make a spectacle of our kids like that. Your whole goal is to protect them and shield them and make life feel as normal as possible for them. We poured so much energy into making living in the car feel like just a long vacation for my son. And yes, it was grueling for all of us. But I never once used him to get attention or solicit money.

Real homeless people don't have anywhere to sleep

Seems self explanatory, right? Now, there are obviously loads of exceptions to this -- shelters, crashing on a friend's couch, etc. But homeless people, generally speaking, by definition, don't have a permanent place to sleep. They'll sleep in the open or squat. This includes living in tents, sleeping in the car, abandoned buildings, on park benches or even by the interstate. We don't have anywhere else to go, so you'll see homeless people using public spaces a lot for every day tasks, like brushing our teeth -- and yes, sleeping.

This is where it can get a little tricky. If you see a "homeless" person arriving and departing at the same time each day and if you never see them at night, they probably have shelter. This doesn't mean they aren't technically homeless -- it just means they probably have somewhere to go at night. Our area is full of actual homeless people who sleep on park benches, line up for free meals each day -- you get to know their faces. There are sometimes new ones who pop up and don't stick around -- they're generally more well-groomed, arrive and depart from the same begging spot each day (like a work schedule).

In Florida we saw many of these people -- professional beggars. They'd get dropped off and picked up by a very nice truck each day and then head back to a hotel. One man in a wheelchair was totally faking it (my mom saw him pick up his wheelchair and start walking once he got to the hotel). These situations are also worrisome because they can be sex trafficking or some kind of labor exploitation situation.

Real homeless people generally leave no trace/leave things better than we found it

I say this with caution because I have seen a ton of homeless people who are careless and messy, especially in cities that have homelessness protections on the law books. However, the MAJORITY of homeless people I've met were very conscientious about not leaving a mess and cleaning up after themselves. I knew a homeless old man who would go to McDonald's every morning and order two sausage biscuits ($2 total) and get his water jug refilled (the staff knew him and was kind to him). He'd quietly eat, use the restroom, then throw his trash away and go outside. He'd walk over to a big tree near the interstate and set up a folding chair and sit there all day long. Never left trash. Never accosted anyone. Never made a mess. In most places, my mom and I were the ones picking up trash from the parking lots or helping out staff at the places we frequented.

Real homeless people usually have a routine

Generally speaking we have patterns of behavior you can spot, if you see us enough times. Like the McDonald's man I mentioned, we have things we do frequently. For us, it was things like visiting the same playground a few days in a row, because we were sleeping at a rest area nearby at night. That was our routine -- getting breakfast, taking The Boy to play somewhere, me working off of free wifi while he slept, then getting dinner and driving to a rest area to sleep at night. (P.S., you truly never feel safe. Ever.)

We don't have anywhere to just be during the day without getting in trouble. You'll see a lot of walking (or in our case, driving). For some homeless people who have cars, they don't have the gas money to waste, so they'll park their car somewhere and just stay there. We met a few homeless people like that. They only leave when necessary, and keep a super low profile so you don't even know they're in their car.

Either way, when you don't have anywhere to go during the day, you tend to develop a pattern of observable behaviors. I'll never forget the day a Dollar Tree worker clocked us and I saw in her eyes she knew that we were homeless. It was only our first visit to that location but we never went back. She could tell by the way my mom came in, bought something and used the restroom to clean up, then I did the exact same thing. We left and went elsewhere.

Homeless people are still people

These are all the examples I can think of for now, but I think it's extremely important to wrap this up by reminding you that homeless people are still just people. We have emotions, habits, likes, dislikes, we have people or things we care about, sometimes pets or kids or jobs. I've written extensively about homelessness on my LinkedIn page and some on my blog. I started writing about our experience with homelessness because I wanted to shatter the stigma of what people think homelessness is or what it looks like. Being homeless was the hardest job I've ever had, and it's not even fully over yet. If you'd like to help our family recover from homelessness, you can donate here.

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About the Creator

Jeryn Cambrah

A neurodivergent writer, content manager, designer, author, poet, and human. Trying to make the world a little bit better -- one word at a time.

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  • Jeryn Cambrah (Author)7 months ago

    The overarching theme here, and I say this cautiously, is that homeless people don't usually ask for help. It takes a LOT of emotional wrangling to finally ask for help. We resisted it for as long as we could. And if we do ask for help, we don't want to be a bother...we try to be as little of an inconvenience as possible. Homeless people generally aren't trying to take up space. We're not trying to get attention. Many homeless people have been homeless for a long time; they're used to going it alone, or they have their routines. They usually don't have their hands out. It may take a freshly homeless person weeks or months or years to start taking advantage of services offered to them (like free showers or laundry). We hold onto our pride because it's one of the few things we have left. I'm not saying that if someone asks for help, they're automatically faking it. But I am saying that the vast majority of us are hesitant to ask for help and it takes a lot of courage for us to finally reach out.

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