Lessons Learned from Writing the San Diego Homeless Survival Guide

The San Diego Homeless Survival Guide is probably the most successful website I have ever had. It actually kind of annoys me.

It was an accidental success and then it went unexpected places. Some of those unexpected places caused me to ultimately archive it.

Some of that has been explained on the site itself. But I recently got an inquiry from a homeless individual wanting to create a homeless website themselves and asking for tips.

I did reply to them via email, but I think I want to delve into the question a bit more thoroughly and post it publicly. This seems a generally useful thing to address.

I started the San Diego Homeless Survival Guide while I was actually homeless. It was started to keep track of information just for me. It was not originally intended to help other people.

Then as it got popular, I began getting concerned about having so much information online about my whereabouts and my habits while I was still homeless. I felt this was a potential safety issue for me for various reasons.

When I eventually left San Diego County and moved to Fresno while still homeless, I intentionally did not state publicly that I was going to Fresno. I don't think I stated online that I had been in Fresno until after I left California entirely and got back into housing.

Though I believe people who followed my writing closely were able to infer that I was in Fresno. If you talk about your life enough, talking about local weather, stores you shop at, etc -- all that can be googled. It's really hard to hide your location if you write a lot about your life, no matter how much you imagine you are anonymizing the information.

While homeless in Fresno, I began identifying myself online as "in California" and sometimes as "no longer in San Diego" but I intentionally did not actively advertise the move. A lot of people continued to believe I was in downtown San Diego well after I had left San Diego County entirely and my stress levels began to go down as people mistakenly assumed I was somewhere else.

While homeless, I generally did not tell people where I was camping, either online or offline. I felt this was a safety issue. I didn't want people to know where I was camped.

I especially did not want to talk online about where I was camped. I lived in fear that the police might trip across my website, see info like that and come pick me up.

Over time, I also became increasingly uncomfortable with the idea that I was being so openly homeless online. Homeless individuals generally live fairly secret lives for safety reasons.

If your website gets popular and you get mobbed by fans and you are housed, you lock your doors. If you are homeless and a crowd follows you home to your campsite, what now? This question bugged me a whole lot because of my prominence in certain online spaces.

Also, most people routinely commit petty crimes on a regular basis, such as jay walking. If you are middle class, people usually don't much care about details like that.

If you are homeless, it is often an excuse to harass you and you probably commit more petty crimes of that sort than average and people find it vastly more offensive and find you vastly more suspicious. I became increasingly uncomfortable with the idea that I might be leaving a track record of "evidence" online that would get me thrown in jail essentially for the crime of being both poor and open and honest about my situation.

The longer I wrote the San Diego Homeless Survival Guide, the more I became concerned about The Shirky Principle. I became very concerned about putting out information that was potentially going to help people stay homeless rather than help them get their lives back.

This is why this website is called Street Life Solutions and it is why this website does not list homeless services. Instead, it focuses on debunking bad information and exploring things like helping people make money online and how to solve our housing issues in the US.

The other reason this website does not list homeless services is because I became increasingly concerned about creating a website that could serve as an attractive nuisance. In other words, I didn't want to cause problems for a particular area by advertising all the free meal sites and the like in that area and potentially having homeless people from elsewhere flock to that area and overwhelm their services.

The longer I wrote the San Diego Homeless Survival Guide, the more I worried about promoting things in a way that could come back to bite me personally. If my site popularized a particular thing, did that mean I would no longer get my needs met?

When we were still homeless in the North County (the northern part of San Diego County), we began recycling. I recycled twice a day, every single day. I know for a fact that it was my recycling habit that taught both homeless and non-homeless in the area to do the same.

On the upside, multiple local malls that were dying when we showed up sprang back to life as locals had more money to spare and crime went down. On the downside, it became increasingly challenging for me to get decent sums of money via recycling because there was so much competition.

I remain something of a homeless advocate, but I increasingly focus on "market based" solutions, not homeless services or the like. If it is free, it should be free to anyone, not for homeless people per se.

I do this in part because free stuff for the homeless is often of very low quality whereas free stuff for the middle class is usually much more acceptable quality. I also do it to reduce the Shirky effect.

If you are doing things that you wouldn't do if you weren't homeless, you are probably entrenching your situation. If you are pursuing solutions that you would use even if you weren't homeless, you are potentially building a future. You are potentially solving your problems and creating a life that will work for you someday when you are back in housing.

I still leave up the San Diego Homeless Survival Guide. I still share it with people. It is still probably the most successful website I have ever had in terms of overall traffic.

But I wouldn't do another site quite like it. And I remain leery of the idea of other people doing something similar because they will run into all the same issues I was running into and they might not even realize it, so it could really come back to bite them big time or generally go more problematic places in terms of Shirky Principle, being an attractive nuisance, etc.

These days, my areas of interest are housing issues and earned income for both homeless individuals and those at risk of homelessness. In support of those interests, I do a variety of things, including running r/Gigworks and a number of half-baked little websites where I try to write about housing issues and mostly fail.

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