Living Homeless in California: On the Street, There’s More to Eating Than Food

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Homeless photo
Photo: Ed Yourdon

By Judith Lewis Mernit

If you’ve ever lived on the street or in your car, or have suffered any other kind of itinerant existence, you will know there’s more to feeding yourself than not starving. There is, for instance, the question of whether the food you manage to scare up is fresh, clean and, in some cases, sufficiently cooked to not infect you with any number of foodborne illnesses, from salmonella to hepatitis A. Then you have to worry about whether, even if the food is safe, your hands are not. Hand-washing has been found to reduce gastrointestinal illness by as much as 31 percent.

Complicating matters even more, you might have a diet-related illness: type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure or the inability to digest certain foods. You might have lost many of your teeth — people who live on the street have scant access to dental care — which rules out that fresh, crunchy carrot. And you might have to limit your food choices to what’s on the shelves in a convenience store. When you’re carting everything you own with you everywhere you go, a trip inside a grocery store means finding a place to stash your gear and pray that no one swipes it.

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