I'm an avid backpacker and have been drawing a lot of parallels between lightweight hiking and homelessness. It occurred to me that I must carry everything I need into the woods with me. Because I have to CARRY it, there is a natural tendency to reduce what I need to the barest essentials. This approach applies to homelessness as well. So I decided to make a list for Urban Backpacking (aka, homelessness). Note that this is a "three season" list. A cold winter would require the addition of gloves, a warm hat, a scarf, a sweater or two, and a warm coat (none cotton)... and probably a good sleeping bag (expensive and bulky). Here's my list:
1 bookbag(A normal bookbag won't draw any sort of attention, as a bigger pack might)
1 pair mid/heavy weight hermal underwear (NOT cotton, preferably thermax or something similiar)
2 shirts (NOT cotton, preferably nylon or another quick-dry fabric)
2 convertible pants(NOT cotton, again nylon or something similiar is best. Convertible pants have a zipper on the leg and can be converted between shorts and pants)
3-4 sox(NOT cotton. Wool/synthetic blends are good, as are hiking or running sox)
6 ziploc freezer bags(To store clothes and things and to keep them dry)
Multi-purpose soap(Such as liquid Dr Bronner's... can be used as body soap, shampoo, even laundry. Must be in a sealable container).
Toothbrush(and floss if you are good! Dr. Bronner's can be diluted and used as toothpaste too!)
2 quick dry towels(for sponge baths, one to scrup with, one to dry with)
Deoderant "stone"(available at health food shops, one stone will last a whole year!)
8x8ft plastic sheeting (2-4mil)(This is the clear kind, used as drop cloth by painters.... we use it to make a tarp).
7x3ft plastic sheeting(As above, used as a ground cloth to sleep on)
20ft rope(Used for the ridgeline and four corners of the tarp. Sticks can be used for stakes and trees/limbs can be used as support poles
3ft "Z rest"(Used to sleep on- provides insulation and padding between the hips and shoulders. Leaves, clothes, bookbag, cardboard, etc... can be used under the legs and head. "Z rests" are very compact and thus ideal, though any sort of closed cell foam would do)
Soda can alcohol stove(Super small and compact and cheap. See here,Pepsi Can Stove, for how to make a stove. )
Denatured alcohol(available at hardware stores, this is the fuel for the can stove. Store in a sealable, completely air-tight container).
To keep things compact, all clothes should be rolled up tight prior to packing. By using a small bookbag, you remain stealthy. It's easy to take it into a bathroom (that can be locked); then quickly take a sponge bath with the soap and quick dry towels. When finished, wring out the towels and put them into a ziploc and then back in the bookbag. Put on clean clothes, clean up the bathroom with paper towels, and then exit. No one will notice. I've done this many times and it works great. Dry your towels at a different location.
The above method is great for laundry too. Nylon and other quick dry clothes are easy to sink wash. Plug the sink with a paper towel, quickly wash your clothes, rinse them, and then wring them out thoroughly. Put everything back in the bookbag and be sure to clean up after yourself. Dry the clothes out at a separate location.
One last note, I recommend doing only one of the above things at a time. If you spend too much time in any one bathroom, you will draw attention. So bathe and do laundry on different days, and at different locations. Of course, in the summer a river or creek is also an option. One of my greatest joys last summer was bathing in the river. Truly a wonderful experience!
Finally, a note to volunteers, advocates, and the like. Any of the items on the above list would make great gifts for homeless folks. Often people get caught up in the trappings of middle-class ideals, and don't realize how such simple things could help. In fact, the above items could be assembled, stuffed in a bookbag, and given as a care package. Please note-- never give cotton clothes to a homeless person, cotton holds moisture and sucks away warmth. The backpackers adage is "cotton kills" as many people have died of hypothermia as a result of wearing cotton in cold and wet conditions.