Homeless Eating Advice

2012Critics enjoy suggesting that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program offer courses teaching people how to prepare healthful food from scratch, and maybe they wouldn’t buy so much junky processed stuff. Courses are available here and there, not necessarily under the auspices of SNAP. However, such courses are nothing like a comprehensive answer to junk food issues, because even if food is available, cooking can present a real challenge for people with no kitchens.

Certain things can only be done by those who are housed, however marginally. Even a family living in a single motel room is at a tremendous advantage if there is a refrigerator. Sure, a large tub of yogurt is more economical to buy, and can last all week, but there has to be somewhere to keep it. Certainly, a 10-pound bag of rice or a 50-pound sack of dried beans can save a bunch of money—but you need a cupboard to store it in, and clean water, and a range or even just a hotplate for cooking.

Say you find a sweet deal on ten pounds of chicken thighs. With kitchen appliances, you can cook the meat, separate it into units for separate meals, and refrigerate or even freeze them. Then you can use the stock to make soup. If you can’t eat all the soup, you can stick it in the refrigerator, too, and have it tomorrow. Even with only a sink, a bag of ice can preserve coolness short-term or on special occasions. Millions of Americans take for granted the simple ability to keep food on hand. They don’t know what it’s like to have to eat what is in front of you, right now, or lose it. This reminder comes from a Reddit.com respondent:

Uh, believe it or not, many low income families have no way to actually store perishable food or cook it. When I was homeless, it was boxed, jar, or canned food all of the time. I gained 50 lbs and felt like I was starving most of that time.

We found descriptions of culinary coping written by individuals, like vehicle-dweller William Bonnie of Seattle, who invested about $150 in a decent-quality camp stove and mess kit. Camp stove fuel, of course, is an ever-recurring expense. Bonnie was cautious enough to not park or sleep or start a cooking fire within the municipal borders. Of course gasoline costs money, so that meant a lot of driving back and forth to the woods—“an expensive commute every day.” Imagine having to drive to the kitchen every time you wanted to cook something. Bonnie says:

The food stamps were helpful….but severely hindered by the realities of my situation…With little exception, you can only buy stuff that needs to be prepared at home… If you’re homeless, that means it’s kind of like one of those cruelly ironic wishes granted by a genie.

In a piece called “How to be ‘Stealth’ Homeless,” Ted Heistman related the ease with which an Electronic Benefits Tranfer (EBT) card could be obtained, but that was back in 2012 and things seem to have changed since then. Of course a lot depends on the particular city where a person is experiencing homelessness, and its current political climate. At that time, Heistman wrote:

Most towns have enough free meals for a person to get fat on. If you wanted to, you could eat six times a day if you timed it right, plus load up every few days at a food bank, plus buy food with your EBT.

Jon Mixon, who works with homeless veterans, wrote for Quora about other possibilities. A street person whose relationship with authorities and institutions is problematic may not even have the borrowed address of a shelter to use when applying. On the streets, people with easily stealable EBT cards are subject to predation.

As to what can be purchased, the rules have relaxed in some cities, with some vendors. In the past, you could buy a couple of potatoes and half a pound of ground beef and figure out how to turn them into an edible meal. Now, you can buy a burger and some fries. While fast-food menus might not provide optimal nutrition, at least people can get food that is cooked and hot. For those who do have cooking facilities, a provision in the 2014 Farm Bill allocated funds so SNAP recipients who go to participating farmers’ markets can swipe their EBT cards and get tokens worth twice as much.

Always, too, a great deal depends on luck. Only the young and healthy can thrive by eating whatever comes along. Older and disabled homeless people have other things going on—like teeth that are in no shape to chew that crunchy fresh produce; or meds that need to be taken at certain times, with food; or allergies that severely limit what they may eat. It’s never as easy as it looks.


Source: “SNAP Challenge raises awareness for hunger, can you eat for $4.50 per day?,” Reddit.com, 2014
Source: “7 Things No One Tells You About Being Homeless,” Cracked.com, 11/12/13
Source: “How to be “Stealth” Homeless.” Disinfo.com, 10/25/12
Source: “Why don’t homeless people use food stamps?.” Quora.com, 04/08/13
Image by U.S. Department of Agriculture


Eating While Homeless Is Not Easy

Gwyneth Paltrow_ TIFF 2012Recently, actor Gwyneth Paltrow made news by taking part in a publicity stunt designed to raise awareness and empathy by challenging celebrities and others to live on the $29-per-week food allowance given by SNAP (aka food stamps). Her choices included one lime for every day of the week, which will surely keep scurvy at bay. Also, her menu excluded meat.

Illinois blogger Rebecca Vipond Brink put together a more plausible list, with all amounts and prices noted, comprising the following items: potatoes, eggs, frozen chicken breasts, cheese, milk, apples, oatmeal, celery, peanut butter, raisins, fresh carrots, and rice. Brink points out that she did not have to attempt the challenge in a food desert:

I lived it in a suburb that was safe. I lived it with a car, even if it was a car that was on its last legs.

Let’s imagine a homeless person who follows Brink’s lead. $2 is cheap for 5 pounds of potatoes—except you have to carry them around with you. Chicken at $1 per pound is a screamin’ deal, but after eating part of it, you’re still stuck with a few pounds of meat that needs to be stored in a refrigerator. So do the eggs and cheese; and so does the milk, which may be available for $2.50 per gallon, but who carries a container of souring milk around? Unfortunately, milk in the more practical pint cartons costs more per ounce.

Unrefrigerated celery and carrots tend to go unappealingly limp rather quickly. While 4 pounds of apples may be $3, buying them individually would cost more. At $2, a 16-ounce jar of peanut butter is quite a deal—but then, like a soldier in the field, you have to hump it. Raisins are tasty and need no preparation, but they are one of the fruits most likely to retain hideous amounts of pesticides, and the organic variety costs considerably more.

More Obstacles to Eating Well

A 3-pound bag of dry oatmeal might not be too weighty a burden, but how to prepare it? With a saucepan, and clean water, and a source of heat capable of first boiling the water and then moderating to a simmer. Same goes for the rice, and the pot definitely needs a lid for the steaming process to work correctly. Neither potatoes nor eggs should be eaten raw, and cooking the chicken is another challenge.

Brink did not stock up on dried beans, one of the cheapest foods available, which are often mentioned in connection with food banks and government handouts. They really need to be soaked in water overnight before cooking, and to avoid the flatulent effects, they should be rinsed and the water replaced several times. For this fancy maneuver, a person would need to carry around a strainer or colander. And dried beans have to cook for quite some time before they soften enough to eat. Throw in some catsup pilfered from a fast food joint, and you’ve got yourself a meal. Maybe you are even lucky enough to have a little paper packet of salt, if it didn’t melt when the rain soaked through your backpack.

You’d have to carry around, at bare minimum, a bowl, a fork and/or spoon, and a cooking pot. You’d need a can opener, and luckily the GI model is tiny and lightweight. Also easy to lose, and useless to a homeless person with arthritis in her hands. To cut a melon in half, or cut a free loaf of unsliced bread, or section an apple, you’d need a nice sharp knife. Which is also, technically, a weapon—the possession of which can get a street person into a world of trouble.

SNAP Regulations

Under the rules, SNAP benefits can’t be used to buy alcohol or cigarettes, or non-food items like toilet paper, a toothbrush, or soap. Nor can they be used to buy vitamin supplements, which is puzzling. Most inexplicable of all is the prohibition against hot foods, or even cold foods, if consumable on the spot, like potato salad from the deli counter. If a food stamp recipient wants to enter a convenience store and buy an embalmed hot dog from the rolling grill, why on earth should that be forbidden? It would protect public safety more efficiently than making the customer buy cold wieners to cook over a little blaze in the park. Citizens are always upset to hear that an empty house or a sector of wooded land has burned, but it’s a miracle there are not more runaway fires. And it isn’t just the homeless, as this Reddit commentator points out:

You can have a home but not a stove or other appliances. Where do you think poor urban families are going to get logs and coal from if they can’t afford basic gas and electricity? They’re going to steal it or try to build fire with illegal/dangerous materials in an illegal/dangerous way.

The federal SNAP rules allow restaurant meals for the elderly, disabled, and homeless—but that program is implemented in only two states, and parts of three others. In addition, people themselves have built-in limitations—like an allergy to peanut butter, or one of any number of other edible substances. A person might need to carefully follow an anti-diabetes diet, or might have teeth too damaged and painful to chew with, or no teeth at all. And in many places, people experiencing homelessness have to use up a portion of their SNAP benefits just to obtain drinkable water.


Source: “What $29 A Week For Food Looks Like For Actual Low-Income People (And Not Gwyneth Paltrow),” TheFrisky.com, 04/10/15
Source: “SNAP Challenge raises awareness for hunger, can you eat for $4.50 per day?,” Reddit.com, 2014
Image by Michael Mayer


Colorado Coalition for the Homeless in Denver

Stout Street Health CenterA recent House the Homeless post outlined the poor management of the construction of a new hospital that has brought the Veterans Administration into the news. This affects all veterans, including those experiencing homelessness, and health care is especially important to those who are at risk of becoming homeless because they are unable to work or, in many cases, adjust to society.

Today we look at another side of Denver, a more positive side, which is particularly apt because House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell recently attended a National Coalition for the Homeless conference in the city. He also took part in a gathering aimed at organizing a national movement to address the growing criminalization of the homeless through limitations on public eating, sleeping, going to the bathroom, and other basic functions.

While in Denver, Richard visited one of the many facilities that the Coalition for the Homeless has created, the beautiful Stout Street Health Center, shown above. The Center offers dental, vision, and behavioral services, along with a wide array of basic health services. Help is available to those enrolling in Medicaid. New patients are seen four mornings per week, and existing patients can get same-day appointments. It has its own pharmacy, and offers such thoughtful amenities as bicycle locks for patients don’t have their own, but need to secure their bikes while being seen. In addition,

The Coalition operates a mobile medical clinic that makes scheduled stops at homeless shelters and drop-in centers in Denver and at Colfax Avenue motels that have become a shelter of last resort for families.

Supportive Housing for the Homeless

The same capacious building contains the Renaissance Stout Street Lofts, consisting of 78 housing units, which in this location are one and two-bedroom apartments with on-site property managers and social workers. The brochure says:

The Lofts blend supportive housing units for chronically homeless individuals, families, and youth… Amenities include on-site laundry facilities, a community room with a common kitchen and outdoor courtyard, a computer room, elevator access, video surveillance systems, and secured electronic access with underground parking.

Also nearby and adjacent to the Health Center are the Renaissance Off Broadway Lofts, with 81 units varying from studio apartments to even a few 3-bedroom apartments, open since 2001 and billed as “the first newly-constructed, affordable rental lofts project in Denver’s history.” Half the units are occupied by formerly homeless tenants and the rest by people who work downtown but can’t afford the high central city rents. And of course, on-site case management and support services are available to residents who need this help.

These are only two of the many properties described in the brochure that have been built or re-purposed to house the homeless in Denver. Some of the principles behind these residences are nearness to transportation, safety, environmentally friendly features that reduce energy costs, accessibility for the disabled, and nearby employment opportunities. Thanks to these numerous and well-planned facilities, the city experiences:

…significant savings in municipal costs resulting from fewer emergency room visits, inpatient hospital stays, detox visits and days in jail…Services such as counseling, life skills training, financial literacy and employment assistance contribute to housing stability for those that once were homeless.

Behind Denver’s Success: John Parvensky

The scene in Denver is of course attributable to the hard work and dedication of hundreds of individuals who have devoted themselves over the last 30 years to helping and housing the homeless. Particularly noteworthy are the contributions of John Parvensky, who has served as President of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless since 1986 (and is President of the Board of Directors of the National Coalition for the Homeless). He supervises more than 500 employees and administers more than 40 programs that each year help around 15,000 people experiencing homelessness. We close with a few more selected excerpts from Mr. Parvensky’s extensive biographical notes:

He has also spearheaded the production of 16 distinct, integrated housing developments that combine high-quality housing for homeless individuals and families with affordable units for community residents with lower incomes, resulting in homes for 2,300 households… He earned a 2010 Housing Colorado! Eagle Award for his long-standing work to expand affordable housing in the state…Mr. Parvensky was also chosen by his peers to receive the 2010 People’s Choice Award, an honor awarded by housing professionals in the private sector, government and non-profit arenas. In April 2012, he received the 2012 Be More Award from Rocky Mountain PBS for his outstanding, innovative leadership and direction in social justice benefiting the entire community.


Source: “Stout Street Health Center Services,” ColoradoCoalition.org, undated
Source: “No Place Like home,” coloradocoalition.org, undated
Source: “John Parvensky Bio,” ColoradoCoalition.org
Image by Colorado Coalition for the Homeless


Two Exemplary Advocates for People Experiencing Homelessness

Frances Fitzpatrick

Francis “Pat” Fitzpatrick, photographed by Jenny O’Donnell

Last year, Gene Estess died at the age of 78. His story was an unusual one. After a privileged upbringing and a college education, he spent 20 years working on Wall Street. His family had everything they needed and more, but something about the lifestyle didn’t set right with him. The malaise, according to his surviving wife, stemmed from a feeling that his time and talents had not served any philosophically or morally significant purpose.

In 1984 his attention was caught by a mentally ill homeless addict who hung out with her poodle in Grand Central Terminal. Taking on the project of finding a place for her to live, he connected with the practically brand-new Jericho Project. He was invited to join the nonprofit’s board, and ended up being its director for 18 years. In addition, he was the motivating force behind the establishment of many residences. Helping formerly homeless women get their children back was a particular interest of his.

Estess Left Wall Street Behind

In the summer of 1987, the world of high finance was thriving, but Estess was done with it. He walked away, and a few months later, as if to vindicate his choice, the stock market collapsed. Shortly afterward, he took the post of director at Jericho and worked his first year for no salary.

Imagine writing a movie script about his life. The temptation would be great to invent a scene in which a ruined speculator turns up seeking shelter, and encounters the man he had mocked for abandoning the soulless financial district—who is now running the organization designed to help the homeless. Douglas Martin said in the New York Times:

Today the Jericho Project serves 1,500 adults and children, including more than 500 military veterans, with housing and services. It says it spends $12,000 a year for each adult client—less than half the cost of a cot in a New York City shelter.

Fitzpatrick’s Work in Florida

In Gainesville, Florida, Cleveland Tinker published a tribute to Frances Fitzpatrick on the occasion of his election to the Hall of Fame by Florida’s Martin Luther King Jr. Commission. Perhaps Fitzpatrick’s destiny was shaped by his undergraduate years as a history major, from which he went on to earn a degree in rehabilitation counseling. His career included time in the military, a period of living in his car and catching fish to eat, and a couple of years as a Vista volunteer helping migrant workers in what he calls the “brutal poverty” of the Everglades.

He was hired by the United Farm Workers to handle, in his words:

…slave and peonage cases where they had this curator system where the curator is hired by the grower, and he exploits the hell out of these people. There were people in slavery, and there was actually a crew that got paid only in wine.

He worked for the Florida Coalition Against Hunger, and as a drug counselor in the prison system until privatization put an end to that. Living by the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi, in the 1990s he served on the board of directors of a shelter and soup kitchen named after the saint. Unlike his fellow directors, who only showed up for meetings, Fitzpatrick stuck around to mingle with the residents.

In 2002 he was part of the group that founded the Home Van, Alachua County’s mobile soup kitchen and clothing distributor. The principled troublemaker has picketed City Hall, and been arrested for giving people food. When Gainesville passed an ordinance that put an arbitrary limit of 130 on the number of meals the soup kitchen could serve in a single day, Fitzpatrick’s spirited objections cause him to be ejected from City Commission meetings numerous times. But in the end, the restriction was repealed. A highly regarded documentary film, Civil Indigent, http://civilindigent.com/was made about that chapter of his life.

In 2013 he was interviewed for the University of Florida’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program. Among other matters, he spoke of his fondness for the Food Not Bombs organization:

They’re not only into charity but also into justice—getting rid of the reason people have to stand in soup lines… We’re really good at charity but we’ve got to get better at justice.


Source: “Gene Estess, Who Left Wall Street to Aid the Poor, Dies at 78,”
NYTimes.com, 04/19/14
Source: “A Champion for the Homeless,” Gainesville.com, 01/13/12
Source: “Civil Indigent,” civilindigent.com, undated
Source: “History and the People Who Make It: Pat Fitzpatrick,” Gainesvilleiguana.org, 03/08/13
Image by Jenny O’Donnell