Hard Lessons: Urban Survival

You want to talk about what it's like living in the urban landscape in a collapse? Here's some real talk: it's right here, in front of our faces.

April 5, 2020


Let's talk about "Urban Survival".

People ask about it, they make videos about it, and they post on internet forums about it.

Listen to one of the many experts discuss what it's like to live in these conditions, and they'll show you videos of them walking around in a hoody with a backpack, facing down armed robbers or the like.

Be wary when people who've never missed a meal in their lives start telling you how to survive.

You want to talk about what it's like living in the urban landscape in a collapse? Here's some real talk: it's right here, in front of our faces.

The ghetto, the barrio, the slums, the projects... they are collapsed societies. We say that an emergency happens when access to critical resources is compromised. It's easy to forget that in our home country, there are places where a meal isn't a three-times-a-day thing, and the biggest trouble isn't trying to figuring out what sounds good.

Where education means a teacher quelling fights long enough to give homework she knows no one will do while being called all sorts of heinous names.

This is a tough topic to get rolling because it hits some personal nerves... Personal enough that it's difficult fitting all my thoughts into a series of articles meant to be read. So if we accept that an emergency is a state of resource access being restricted, meaning you can't just get things the way you normally do, we can frame the magnitude of what 'urban survival' means using an analogy:

If I asked how to go become a Hunter-Gatherer, how would you respond? Even if you were one long ago, it would be difficult. We're talking about nothing short of an utter redefinition of how you live, your identity and role in society, and entrance into a new culture. How does one "prepare" for that?

Preparation is a niche industry and as such, tends to peddle low quality stuff for high dollar prices to people who are looking to buy their way to a solution.

This won't be a "shopping list", it'll be some hard lessons learned from personal experience. It's going to be gritty, sickening, and challenging to accept. At times you might even feel a pang of respect for people who you would shoot without hesitation, and who would likewise victimize you. Such is the way of reality.

These are old lessons from lives that seem long gone, but we'll tell them anyway.

Having some non perishables is like our sustainment bag: It's there to see us through that gap that occurs when circumstance forces us into new circumstances.

This subject is somewhat near to my heart. As a young person, my family fractured and found its way into some pretty deep poverty.

It's difficult for me to remember things like living in a vehicle, having honk codes for the bridges family members living under, or staying in a rotted-out trailer with mice tugging at your hair and rotten floor boards, much less think of them as urban survival or budget preparedness. It was austere, it was gritty, it was poverty, and it wasn't all that different than what we think of as an emergency.... something like being a refugee, having no set place or continuity.

In those situations, the day to day challenges won't be your chance to make a name for yourself by being a superhero. More likely than not, you'll find yourself dealing with stuff like someone with you overdosing, or accidentally stabbing you with a dirty needle while you're trying to calm them down and convince them that police helicopters aren't looking for them. You'll deal with people wanting to jump you for invading their turf, or because some distant relative of yours pissed them off.

You might think this is far fetched, but put yourself out of your job with no where to go during a protracted catastrophe like an economic collapse; who are your kids running with? How about extended family who know you've got your stuff together? The harder times get, the greater the desire for release, and there are always people willing to show them the way. At it's most basic, drugs and gangs represent the Id of mankind; the desire for power and pleasure.

When society is stripped of it's rewards for following the rules, morality is often the first casualty.

Because of this, we think this is an essential topic to discuss a few things:

  • Making some preparations doesn't have to be expensive, but it does have to be realistic. Short of having money, you're not going to be able to fully beat collapse at it's own game.
  • You can get by with way less than you think if you build some skill and resourcefulness.
  • Urban resource acquisition is something that almost no one talks about, because almost no one knows anything about it.
  • You'll need to be able to manage your circumstances to a degree that allows you to improve your position.
  • Urban survival is, above all other things, about people. Managing them, interacting with them, avoiding them, and being useful to the right ones.

So, let's dig in on this and talk about resourcefulness, budget, and dealing with surviving in the concrete jungle.


"Let's take a journey to the other side. Where many people learn to live with their handicaps while the others die. Where motherfuckers have no money spots, and if they did then they ass went insane when all the money stops. I'm from the ghetto so I'm used to that. Look on your motherfuckin' map find Texas and see where Houston at. It's on the borderline of hard times
and it's seldom that you hear niggas breakin' and given' God time."

-Geto Boys "The World is a Geto'

The attending problems that come with this lifestyle were never far from my mind, so as we look at this topic, it will be with an empathetic view you might not be used to among 'boot strap' conservatives and libertarians... a group to which I belong... Though this might be hard to swallow, let me say a quick word on it:

You're probably not as far from homelessness as you think.

Circumstances beyond your control could instantly turn you into a felon and that stigma could ruin your life.

Put yourself in the following position for a couple minutes:

Imagine you're driving From Philadelphia to New Hampshire, both states that permit concealed carry. To get there, you've got to pass through New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, all of which prohibit concealed carry. Let's say you're stopped for improper lane change or something while in New Jersey and the officers finds out you've got a pistol in the vehicle concealed (even though under the firearm owners protection act you should be protected) and you're charged with a 2nd degree felony. You're taken to jail and arraigned.

Let's say you're convicted, lose your job, and now wear the brand of felon... you can no longer vote, and many professions are now closed to you.

Most of our readers can understand this analogy. Through no fault of your own, due to laws that are unarguably unconstitutional, you can be reduced to second class citizenship.

For many people, this plays out on a much smaller scale... petty moving violations, court dates, failure-to-appears, and poor education and employment opportunities make this a common problem, and make the legal system a revolving door. It's easy to say "you should have just fixed your car and paid your insurance", but how would you respond if someone said "well you shouldn't have been carrying your gun"?

If you've never had to choose between electricity, food, and insurance, it's easier said than done. Cold and hungry are just words if you're warm and full. Further, legislative whim could make you a 'bad guy' tomorrow, and the rank and file of humanity wouldn't know you from a garden variety thug if they saw you on the nightly news.

Finally, let's not forget the Great Depression, and the age of the Hobo. All economic systems ultimately sputter and stop. Think: will your profession still be in demand if we were reduced to a Great Depression type of existence? If so, how would people pay you?

Shakedown time. You better pass the 'sniff test' or find a new place to be.

Briefly on this: where as cops are a source of assistance and security for the middle and upper classes, on the bottom, they're like bees... always looking to sting you for getting too close to the honey. Again, we aren't against the officer, but be wary that the people in this demographic have probably had nothing but bad experiences with police. While a traffic stop is a minor headache for you, for them it could mean scrambling to find a relative to take your kids while you're sent to jail for a couple days and your car is impounded.

Going back to our story, if you're wearing that felon brand, every traffic stop is going to look a little different from then on.

Every day is 'TEOTWAWKI' for the poor in cities all around this country.

It's not uncommon for police who suspect a homeless person (or a known local in a poor area) to give a 'shakedown'. This generally means the person is stopped and questioned to put some heat on them. Sometimes it's to get them to move on, a subtle way of saying "we're onto you", and sometimes because they anticipate a bust. Either way, as a homeless person, your interactions with the police will be very different.

While you'll lack some agency that the upper classes have (let's face it: you're not going to show up and testify in court, and what's your mailing address again?), they will often be respectful to you and can be a source of information. It comes at a cost though, especially if you're male: talking to cops is often a major taboo.

The Cultures of Poverty
Two homeless men fight on public transportation. Image credit to Anthony Easton

It's important to say that poverty is less of a racial matter than it is a cultural one.

These ethnic subcultures differ: they have their own codes, languages, and social norms. You won't be able to navigate them by mimicry, but categorically, they recognize real. They'll know intuitively if you're 10-ply or are vetted in violence. They know if you're being respectful or not... and you see this among warriors as well.

What that means is they know if you're bullshitting faster than you do. Lying is lack of confidence, which is weakness. Weakness will get you killed.

If you're trying to project an image, they'll crack you like a nut, which in that environment could mean you get an educational beatdown or killed. Consider that in your day to day actions now. Do you try and come across as a hard case? If so, have you ever really been punched by an adult who wants to hurt you? As my grandfather used to say:

"It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog"

As a regular, middle class citizen, the monkey dance might work... but in the urban slums, it's not a game.

As you probably know, we hate the expression "in da streetz", because it's generally used by guys who might as well be saying "on Mars" for their lack of firsthand perspective. Let me tell you a story about this:

There was a martial artist who was something close to famous for getting drunk and starting fights at a bar in Mississippi. He had a thing he'd do for the pageantry of it all; he'd tear his shirt off before throwing down. Here's a guy who's technically proficient, aggressive, and fit... our archetype fight winner. One night, he started getting himself worked up over some bikers who'd come to his bar, and he got territorial. It's been a while, and I can't remember which MC (motorcycle club) it was, but it wasn't one known for screwing around. Before long, this martial artist stepped out side, yelling and cussing and generally getting himself worked into a lather about it. Then that moment came; he strode forward, tore his shirt off, and before he got it over his head, one of the bikers had pulled a filleting knife, slashed him across the belly and spilled his intestines.

Don't try and put on a show, just be real... If you're really an asshole, don't be surprised if all the shotokan's horses and all the shotokan's men can't put your intestines inside you again.

Those bikers packed up and rode off. They know how to shut up when the police interrogate them, because they live that life. If you don't, it's naïve to think you can beat them at their own game.

Lesson Number 1: Be Real.


First things first, we need to address the Rule of 3's. Just like primitive survival, we need oxygenated blood, shelter, water, and food. In the urban environment, we need to know where to get those things. But there's something else first:

We need a code of ethics that emphasizes humility, courtesy, and honesty. Whoever you are today, whatever position of the socio-economic chain, it will improve both your life and the lives of others to embrace those values. While we advocate stocism and stoic readings, simply having some code of ethics will make a major difference in how you're perceived socially. Make up your mind that there's a right way to treat people, and live by it.

That doesn't mean you cave or be nice to everyone. It might mean breaking someone's jaw. Our first necessity is our reputation for being real. You need to be someone who's known to be chill, who doesn't start shit, but who doesn't take it, either. If someone else starts it, you're going to get hurt either way so you better damn-well fight. In this environment, no waif with ironic glasses and an overpriced coffee is going to chide them about toxic masculinity if they decide to stomp your head into the ground. That's (ironically) an expression of privilege that people just don't have on the bottom.

Acquiring things in the urban environment can be anything between sifting through dumpsters for leftover food to performing on the boardwalk for enough change to eat. Having a water bottle goes a long way in a non-disaster environment. Most restaurants will allow a person to take water for free. If things do collapse, you're going to need to understand drinking water in emergencies, and regardless what they say, lifestraw type filters won't work (unless the objective is 'get dysentery'). Filter, treat, boil, drink.

In cities, many downtown areas won't let you use the bathroom unless you buy something, but on the outskirts those standards relax a little. You might be able to use restaurants or truck stops to clean up, which will go a long way towards presenting yourself like you're not planning on staying on the bottom. Keep in mind that this will cost you with other street people.

You know what a clean-cut person on the street looks like?

A Narc.

We're going to look at some of the necessities, but we'll return to discuss how to build a Sustainment Bag... if you're not familiar with the concept, give it a look. What we want is a low profile bag that we can use to acquire whatever we may need, and that can keep us from freezing, drying out and dying, or withering away from lack of calories.

A homeless dude sleeping. Boots and pack right by his bed. Girls clothes in the corner with an empty pizza box. Hammer just outside on a ledge.

The first thing we need to consider is what's going to happen when the sun goes down... especially if you're in a cold climate. Just like rural survival and shelter building, we're looking to create dead air space, maintain heat, and minimize exposure to moisture and wind.

This can take a few forms: from abandon buildings to the tunnels on park play areas, we have to be open-minded when it comes to where we hole up. What areas reduce wind and grant insulation?

Well, the part of the bridge called the beam seat is often concrete and up out of the wind. Often times sheds or outbuildings that are unoccupied serve as temporary shelter, which can again put you in trouble with the law for trespass or vagrancy. Cemeteries and parks often have trees and greenspaces that can be decent places for makeshift camps outside the eye of the decent folk and off the path of the other urban homeless who tend to clog the interchanges.

Living in a Vehicle

If you're lucky enough to have a car, there are some options and complications. Living and sleeping in a car means that you're going to be restricted mainly to roads or trails, many of which have laws governing them and people who are either nosy, looking to steal something, or are suspicious.

WalMart parking lots are a haven for not only the mobile homeless, but those affected by wanderlust who drift through towns and live and sleep in their vehicles.

Church parking lots are often well lit and undisturbed, as are highway rest stops.

Avoid things like gas stations (stop and rob, especially), residential neighborhoods and condos, and malls, all of which tend to have one extreme or the other; criminals or officers. Parks often have 'daylight hours' rules, or times at which they close to the public, and they're frequented by juveniles looking for a quiet place to burn or chill, and thus, police.

Staying warm in a vehicle can be tough, as well. Having a dedicated sleeping platform restricts your space unless you're able to build or fashion some sort of organization, and things you don't often think about in a home (laundry, trash, food, etc) start to become a major issue when combined to a 20 square foot home. Finding ways of organizing so that you don't have to have dirty clothes and garbage riding shotgun comes in handy.

Also, consider that in a vehicle, having stuff is a liability. It's obvious to a seasoned thief when a vehicle is being lived in, and as such, if you own guns or expensive stuff, it's a *major* liability. Not only is car prowl a common occurrence, but those who are staking your rig out know you're going to need to go into that McDonalds bathroom to shave and wash your face, making security a very 'live' issue.

If you've got kids, that space will get full very quickly. Couch surfing is an option if you've got friends or family.

Finally, the basics of vehicle maintenance and driving will be more important than ever. Don't be that twit who drives around with the oil light on until your only source of transportation and shelter blows up. That'll cost you social capital, no matter your sphere.

Getting Food
Man scavenging for food in London Source: Wikipedia Commons

Survival has changed, but survivalists haven't... they're still living a John Millius, commie-killing fantasy. Forget the squirrel trapping nonsense of yesteryear if you're in a city with nowhere to go. If you're planning to grab your trusty hunting rifle and head to the woods in a large scale conflict, you'd best be careful, as this is the era of drone strikes and you'd be crazy to think that technology isn't going to advance. Further, people in the country probably resent you for imposing your ways on them through the modern american city-state.

Most urban survivalists would be better off with fishing line and a sling shot. All this said, it still pays to know how to dress out small game and fish.

So let's think in terms of scavenging. Think about places that have perishable food as well as non-perishable. Many bakeries throw their bread out as soon as it's not marketable. Picking through dumpsters for stale bread isn't appealing... but neither is a situation where you're trying to survive against the odds. While there are opportunities to kill small animals, chances are there won't be enough squirrels to go around, and next up is dogs and cats.

When thinking on this, divide it firmly between "uncontrolled circumstance" and "disaster". If you're made homeless while the world is functioning well enough, focus on getting on your feet. If it's not functioning, nothing short of having a community will help.

So when urban survival experts talk about how you can't survive in an urban area, well, they're wrong. You can. But it'll be tough as hell to grow enough food, and you'll have people everywhere trying to steal it. If you don't have some real firm footing in your community, and if they're not on the level, it'll be a disaster.

If you're on the streets in this situation, don't give up, but you're going to have to fight tooth and nail to keep from sinking. Hustle in any way you can; offer to take out the garbage for restaurants in the city.

You might be able to scavenge or collect some tip money. Think in terms of work... your labor is your ultimate form of capital.

Lesson number 2: Be respectful

Churches, Soup Kitchens, and Outreach programs

Regardless how you feel about social welfare, these things exist for people who are truly struggling. Many churches run food banks. If you're already predisposed to faith, you may know this. If you are, get involved now and do good things. Not only will you help someone, but you'll familiarize yourself with their struggles... that could come in handy some day.

If you find the local DSHS, chances are you'll qualify for food stamps or temporary assistance as well. This may wane in a collapse, but it could be the difference between offsetting $300 a month in food costs and not. Obviously, when you're living on next to nothing, $300 a month is huge. If you're frugal you can stock some away (and/or trade...).

Another thing people don't consider is schools. Elementary through high school... they all dump TONS of food at the end of the day. Often, it's cartons of milk, wrapped fruit, or other packaged stuff that you can eat without too much worry. Humbling to think about, isn't it?

Public libraries typically have internet access points that you can use to locate local resources. Don't shy away from that. They also can direct you to temporary housing, though it'll likely be austere, and first come, first served. If you're not involved with drugs, have some manners, and don't screw people over, you *will* stand out.

It can also be a decent line to the black/gray market, as you'll be around people who take the law as shades of gray.


If we're calling it like it is, theft is a huge part of the lawless world of the transient, addict, and street culture in general. Prominent marks that are easy money are work trucks with tools in them, common cars with expensive equipment (suped-up Honda Accords), and homes that are known to have drugs or expensive electronics. Thieves typically hit people who are within a degree or two of separation for a couple reasons:

  1. Often times, those people are themselves on the wrong end of the law, and;
  2. Plausible deniability. If you set up a score you can shrug and said I didn't have anything to do with it.

For 'regular' people, this isn't so much of an issue, but if you find yourself down and out, be careful who you associate with. Don't ever talk about your valuables. While there's credibility on the street for having expensive jewelry and such, our goal - should we end up there - is to get out. If you have valuables in your vehicle, they need to be double locked. Chain them down. Cover them in a way that there's nothing obviously valuable. If you've got a truck with a canopy, don't think for a second it's secure because it's locked. Those things can be picked with ease, and break even easier.

Pawn shops are a common place to fence stolen goods. They're also a good place to get stuff cheap. Typically, they are a good place to meet people who can get you stuff.

Keep in mind this approach is problematic and is absolutely a 'gray' space that can easily turn black if you're not careful.

Bottom line, theft and fencing goods through pawn shops is a daily thing, especially in the drug communities. With the increasing tide of opioids in more affluent communities, wealthier families are finding themselves targeted by addicted family member, friends of family members, or neighbors. Humility isn't something we harp on because we're pious. Staying off the radar will always benefit you.

Lesson Number 3: Be resourceful

The Streets

I've been waiting for this photo to come in handy.
Getting Money

Hustlin' right now is easy. A panhandler today can make a livable wage by excising their pride and dignity and just holding a sign by the side of the road... but during a collapse, expect no such charity.

Things shift fast, so while playing guitar on the sidewalk might be a decent hustle for a modern vagabond, don't count on it if you find yourself in the midst of a disaster (Type II) or catastrophe (Type III).This is where skills come in handy, and this doesn't mean 'be handy with a gun', or 'have extra booze to trade'. You actually need to be able to produce something: Functioning vehicles (to include producing fuel), power production, medical skills, or similar make tough times go around. Do you really want to be known as the guy with the guns and booze if there are no laws? You'd better have some hard bark if you do.

There's a LOT of self-selection at ISG, so if you're reading this, or have spent any time at ISG, you might be surprised to learn just how incompetent the average person is. Few people even know how to dress a wound or change anything more intense than a Band-Aid... so don't be surprised if you're viewed as an "expert" from just having taken some First Aid or Biology.

In Afghanistan, I often helped local nationals in exchange for information. Daiwa tableets (medical tablets) for someone's sick kid often meant they'd both trust you more, and feel indebted. Yes, even in those cultures people have similar and basic understandings of social debt. Often times, your generosity can come back to serve you. Closer to home, immigrants from Latin America or the former Soviet Bloc often come to America to find that their 'credentials' are worth about as much as their currency.

No lie, I met a physicist who's only gainful employment came from teaching Russian Language privately.

Takeaway from this? That if you have to flee your home country, your profession isn't going to mean jack shit in the place you land. Your ability to do odd jobs and generally be useful, pick up language and culture, and not get bogged down in legal trouble will mean everything.

The Dark Reality

When it comes to this stuff, we all kinda know but don't talk about the fact that socially, you're negotiating from a position of weakness. There's a lot of predation that occurs in these environments. Favors for sex, drugs and alcohol, and other contraband add to the desperate circumstances of the homeless person. Especially for women, being alone on the streets is rough and there's a constant threat of violation, not only from other street people, but from norms who view the homeless as demi-human. A further consideration is how this can contribute to the spiral of legal problems that pushes you farther and farther from freedom.

In addition to situations like this, keep in mind that hygienic issues disproportionally affect the homeless. Even those who don't have IV drug habits tend to suffer from ulcerated feet after prolonged periods of cold while in boots, higher incidences of infections, and are at higher risk for respiratory disease. They're at heightened risk for rape, STDs, and diseases like hepatitis (C, specifically) as well.

Lastly, street level respect is very fucking different than what you know. While polite society thrives on the anonymity of their vehicles and veiled language, on the street, intentions are blatantly obvious and if you think you can be sarcastic or condescending, you're going to get your face pushed in. The people you'll deal with on a daily will have done time in prison. They'll have killed, robbed, and stolen for what passes for a living in their world: respect within their community and enough money to not die.

You're not going to be able to call for help from the cops, which is the ultimate sign of weakness. Keep in mind that smashing your head into the concrete means they spend the night in county warm and fed.

Call the cops and you're a snitch. You're going to instantly and irrevocably close doors and people won't respect or do business with you. So, 'self-reliant' as you might be, you probably don't understand what it means when you're living on bottom of society's heap.


If you find yourself down and out to the point that you're homeless, or a refugee, there's one bit of good news: There's only one direction to go. Up. Be ready to work hard, be humbled, be treated poorly, to have no protection from the authorities or representation from the justice system. You'll need all the resourcefulness you can muster, as well as interpersonal skills that get you access to resources that will still trickle in, even to very poor urban areas in a collapse.

Don't listen to those who say "urban collapse" is unsurvivable. They don't speak from experience, and you can bloom where you're planted. It'll just take work.

Obviously, in the meantime, take the necessary steps to avoid finding yourself in that situation.

Ultimately, the kinds of emergencies that people discuss are end of the world fantasies, not realistic assessments of what's likely to happen in the most common disasters. Understand Emergencies. From there, you can start stacking the deck in your favor.


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