This chapter provides tips for people who, either voluntarily or involuntarily, live at the margins of the credit and banking systems. It gives advice about finding free or cheap meals, renting an apartment with bad credit, and other practical matters. It points to ways we can live, work, and play that are based on principles of solidarity and mutual aid. The information presented here is only the tip of the iceberg—strategies for living off the financial grid could fill an entire manual of its own, and with your help, Strike Debt may produce one in the future. In the meantime, we encourage you to explore the resources listed at the end of this chapter.
Previous chapters have demonstrated how debt works as an engine of inequality and prevents us from depending on each other in healthy ways. In its current form, debt is something like a negative version of solidarity.
Unfortunately, our current economic system leaves very little space for those who don’t submit to its predatory logic. Finding ways to live outside of it is an absolute necessity for many, but doing so can also give you a glimpse of what life might be like in a world without debt. That said, have no illusions: it won’t be easy. It will require cultivating personal values and taking actions that often stand in stark contrast to the ones our consumer culture promotes so aggressively.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2010, over thirty-three million tons of food were wasted in the United States. At the same time, over seventeen million households are classified as food insecure and about fifty million individuals in our country use food stamps. The most obvious solution for acquiring food without money is a local food bank or pantry. But even these resources come with restrictions, as some sort of documentation is required to prove eligibility. It is also very unlikely that you can find a truly healthy and well-balanced meal at an emergency food pantry. These types of resources can also be hard to find in rural areas.
While supermarkets are easy to find in most areas, the affordable ones often have poor-quality produce and limited fresh food. Meanwhile, the supermarkets with good produce—piled high in attractive displays—are often expensive, and patronizing them has become a kind of status symbol (think Whole Foods Market). But what happens when these displays of perfectly symmetrical fruit become a tad discolored? What happens to the yogurt after its fateful sell-by date? It goes in the dumpster—and there is where you’re likely to find edible items that have been discarded largely for aesthetic reasons. Almost all supermarkets over-purchase—it is better to have too much of a product on hand than not enough. But once space on the shelves runs out, these products mostly move to the garbage. This is incredibly wasteful, yet there is a negative stereotype around people who take food someone else has thrown away. However, as many dumpster divers know, a supermarket dumpster can be a rich source of free, high-quality food. This doesn’t mean that all food found in a dumpster is edible. Use your best judgment about anything you find.
To offer one example, Bolthouse Farms—which makes nutritious, delicious, and expensive drinks—is distributed by a company in Brooklyn. Outside the company’s office there is a dumpster where you can find perfectly good bottles of juice. It is incredibly exciting to walk away with an armful of beverages for which everyone else pays a pretty penny. And it isn’t only food and drink. One person we spoke to once dumpstered an Aerobed from a home goods store. Dumpsters at non-food stores are usually cleaner and less surveilled. While diving itself is not illegal, dumpsters are often on private property, so trespassing can earn you a felony. Trespassing laws when it comes to dumpster diving are not always strictly enforced, but it’s best not to take unnecessary risks. You should never risk taking anything from a dumpster marked medical or hazardous waste.
Recovering wasted food works best when it is undertaken as a group activity. Across the country, community groups and charitable organizations are bridging the gap between wasted food and hungry people. A practice known as gleaning has taken off. Large farms and orchards that cannot harvest all of their produce often allow gleaners to collect the extras and bring them to those in need.
The food justice movement Food Not Bombs has a strong chapter in Long Island along with others around the country. Jon Stepanian runs particularly inspiring food shares every single day in different Long Island communities. One Sunday in Hempstead, a group of volunteers recovered and gave away 10,899 pounds of food from fifteen sources. Most of these sources are supermarkets (usually Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods), where volunteers pick up boxes of healthy groceries that would have otherwise been tossed. At the food share, people from the community can drop by and take as much as they need. Nobody is turned away. After witnessing thousands of dollars worth of groceries given away at a food share, you will seriously question why people spend so much of their cash on food. You can find a Food Not Bombs collective in just about any large urban area, and many smaller ones too, and you can certainly also start your own.
For more information regarding ways to salvage this “waste” for yourself and distribute it to others, read Jonathan Bloom’s American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It). Also, look for chapters of Food Not Bombs and Food Recovery Network in your own community. The latter organization takes leftovers from school dining halls and distributes them to people in need.
With some persistence, it is possible to get most, or even all, of your clothing for free. Many homeless shelters also run clothing drives, although finding them in rural areas can be difficult. Thrift stores can also be useful places to seek inexpensive and sometimes free clothing. The internet can also be a good source of free clothing. Websites like craigslist.org and freecycle.org are good online resources to find people who are looking to get rid of some clothing. Another idea is to organize clothing swaps with friends or in your community. It’s important to remember that living off the financial grid can often require forming strong bonds with others. What you offer each other isn’t charity, it’s mutual aid.
Renting an apartment with bad credit
Among the many hardships capitalism imposes on people with bad credit or no credit, the difficulty of renting an apartment is among the worst. Most landlords and property management companies require prospective renters to undergo a thorough credit check, and the slightest blemish on your credit report can disqualify you immediately. However, there are ways to secure a decent, affordable apartment without ever undergoing a credit check. They sometimes require painstaking work and large investments of time, but bad credit alone won’t prevent you from having a roof over your head.
If you’re willing to sublet a room in a shared apartment, the odds of avoiding a credit check are greater. By subletting, you rent a room from a tenant on an existing lease, rather than signing a lease of your own. In this way, you avoid dealing directly with a landlord or management company. The tenant you rent from will usually ask for a deposit, but he or she will rarely require a credit check. Many sublets are short term (one to six months), but some last up to a year or more. The best resource for finding sublets is craigslist.org or similar websites, but advertisements can also usually be found in community centers and social gathering points.
Another option involves joining together with a few friends who have decent enough credit to pass a credit check, and who are willing to engage in a little sleight of hand. With two friends, for example, you can search for a three-bedroom apartment. When it comes time to meet the landlord or property manager, you leave while your two friends say they need an apartment with an extra room to use as an office or art studio. Your friends sign the lease but you do not, then you live in the extra room and pay rent directly to your roommates. The odds of getting caught are low, since landlords and property managers rarely visit their tenants’ apartment. And even if they do, they must get your consent to enter. That said, the consequence of getting caught can be eviction, so this tactic should be used with precaution.
If you prefer to be on a lease, your best bet is to rent directly from a landlord rather than a management company. A management company will always require a credit check, while some landlords do not. These landlords can be difficult to find, especially in a large city with an active rental market, but it’s not impossible. Again, craigslist.org is the best resource. Avoid rental announcements with the shiny logos of management companies; search instead for plain announcements providing basic details. These are more likely to be landlord-rented apartments. Landlords rarely state explicitly in the announcement that they do not require a credit check, but you can call or email them to ask.
If you simply cannot avoid a credit check, then try to provide supplementary information about yourself to the landlord or management company that shows you are financially reliable. Write a letter explaining your financial situation in a sympathetic light. Provide a letter of recommendation from a previous landlord or an employer. You can also use a cosigner—someone with good credit and a stable income who vouches for your financial solvency and agrees to share the rental liability with you. This person is usually a parent or a friend. Keep in mind, however, that if you slip behind on rent, the landlord can legally go after your cosigner for the money.
Collective housing takes various forms, from condo co-ops, to cohousing facilities, to intentional communities, or communes. If you have poor credit or limited income, the form most relevant to you is probably the rented collective house. This is similar to sharing an apartment as described above, but with a greater emphasis on community. In a rented collective house, residents typically eat meals together, hold weekly house meetings, and engage in group activities. They tend to rent multilevel houses rather than apartments, and they tend to have more residents than in conventional shared apartments. For this reason, rent is usually very affordable. The landlord situation can vary in collective houses; sometimes one person is on the lease, sometimes nobody is. Rarely is everyone on the lease, so collective housing is a good option for people with credit concerns. The Fellowship for Intentional Communities has a great directory for finding collective housing both nationally and internationally.
If paying rent is not feasible for you, or if you simply want to save money, squatting—living in an abandoned building—is a widely employed practice with a rich history. By squatting, you not only live rent-free, you also challenge the regime of private property that undergirds capitalism, making it a choice political act for many. Currently in the United States, there are five times as many vacant homes as there are homeless people; in a housing system based on supply and demand, houses remain empty instead of going to the people who need them most. This system can and should be contested. However, squatting comes with definite risks and difficulties that all potential squatters should bear in mind.
If you choose to squat a building with other people, take care in deciding who your co-squatters will be. You will be sharing a living space with them, often under adverse conditions, so it’s important that you get along well together. Kicking someone out of a squat—or getting kicked out yourself—can be a painful process, so try to avert this by choosing cohesive housemates at the beginning. Once you choose your housemates, consider drawing up a list of house rules together. These can include “No violence in the squat,” “No hard drugs” (hard drugs can give the cops a pretext for evicting everyone), “No stealing from housemates,” and other rules that will foster a safe, stable environment. These rules won’t necessarily prevent hostile behavior, but they will provide a basis for holding someone accountable if they do something that’s harmful to the household.
After you find co-squatters, it’s time to select a building to squat. You may want to focus on neighborhoods with buildings that are already squatted, since you’re more likely to find other abandoned buildings there, and the neighbors are more likely to be accepting of squatters. Wherever you squat, you should find out if your chosen building is privately owned or if it has been seized by the city government. Your chances of holding the building are greater if it’s been seized by the city, while a private owner can evict you fairly easily. You can check on the status of the building by visiting the Register/Recorder of Deeds in your city or county.
Do an inspection of your chosen building before you move in. (You may want to do the inspection at night to avoid detection, but remember to bring a flashlight.) It’s easiest to enter a building through a window, but if this doesn’t work you may need to get creative. Once inside, inspect the floors, stairs, and roof. If any of these is severely damaged and irreparable, the building is unsafe and you should choose a different building. If you see exposed insulation, which may contain asbestos, choose another building. Inspect the sinks, toilets, and plumbing. If these aren’t in working order, getting them to work will be a challenge. If you move into the building, you may have to cart water in from outside. Even if the building is habitable, it is likely to require repairs to be made comfortable.
As much as possible, make your squat look and feel like a genuine home rather than a crash pad. This will not only be more comfortable for you, it will also signal to your neighbors and the authorities that you intend to take care of the property, which can delay or even avert eviction. Laws around squatting vary from country to country, and even in the United States, squatting laws vary from state to state. Check the laws in your state. In some cases, the cops will decide that evicting you is more trouble than it’s worth, while in others they will evict you right away. Even if you avoid eviction by the cops, your local housing department may try to evict you, but this entails a long legal process. It’s very difficult to avoid eviction entirely (although it’s not impossible), but every day you live in the squat is another day with a roof over your head.
With millions of foreclosed properties around the United States, a movement has emerged to move homeless people into vacant houses. One of the organizations doing this is Occupy Our Homes, which has moved people into homes in New York and elsewhere. Take Back the Land, based in Miami, has been reclaiming unused property and defending people against eviction since 2006.
Health and Care
Access to health care is a basic human right. Unfortunately for those who are uninsured and living off the financial grid, that access can be hard to come by, especially in rural areas. Taking care of your personal health by exercising, eating well, and washing your hands is important but for many is not enough. If you have a chronic condition or come down with a serious illness that requires medical care, there are some options that won’t send you into crushing medical debt. If you’re unable to avoid medical debt or already have it, see Chapter Three.
In large cities, free clinics are a great option for non-emergency care, but they have some downsides. A free clinic is often as free as the name suggests, but if you have the resources they will sometimes ask for a small sum of money. However, the bill will be nowhere near the cost of going to an ER or a private doctor without insurance. The biggest problem with free clinics is that they are run almost entirely by volunteers and the demand for these clinics often outweighs the staff resources. If you are going to a free clinic in a city like New York, be prepared to wait for a very long time. You might not even be seen that day. It all depends on the number of doctors working that day and the number of patients that come in. The National Association of Free and Charitable Clinics can help you find a free clinic in your area, or a clinic that can help with your specific medical concern. Unfortunately, according to the NAFCC there are less than two thousand free or charitable clinics in the United States and most of them are in urban areas.
Convenient care clinics
A “convenient care clinic” is the name given to clinics set up in retail stores like CVS, Target, and Walgreens. These clinics are not free but are usually about half the cost of seeing a doctor without insurance. Generally these clinics are staffed by nurse practitioners or physician assistants. They handle minor health issues like sinus infections and provide preventative care. They cost more than free clinics but you will be seen faster.
No one wants to go to the ER, but do not let fear of medical debt keep you from getting medical help. Not getting medical help when you need it could cost your life. No matter what, ERs have to treat you. While hospitals will slap you with large bills, you can often negotiate down the cost, especially if you are willing to pay cash, as it circumvents dealing with insurance companies, which is something that many doctors like to avoid. Lying to the ER is usually an option as well. This entails giving a fake name and a fake address, so if you’re going to do this, make sure you do not bring your ID with you to the ER. Do this at your own risk, as it is illegal and if you are caught you will face legal action, especially if you use a fake name to obtain prescription drugs.
Most people know that if you are sixty-five or older you can get Medicare, but free government health care is available to others as well. Medicaid is a government health care program that serves mostly low-income people. You must make below a certain income level to be eligible for Medicaid, and this level varies from state to state, but it’s usually set at or near the poverty line. Medicaid will count money in your bank account as income, so in some cases it’s best not to leave a lot of money sitting in the bank. They also count wages, salaries, pensions, veterans benefits, and social security checks as income. However, being poor will not guarantee that you can receive Medicaid if you are under sixty-five. You need to also have a qualified disability. Remember that a disability doesn’t just mean a physical disability; certain diseases or conditions, including mental health issues, also count as a disability. Basically, if you have a disease or condition that limits your daily functioning—meaning you have trouble with things like dressing yourself, eating, and moving around—there’s a good chance you can receive Medicaid. Another thing to remember if you are disabled and file for Medicaid is that most people have their first request denied. If your request is denied, appeal it and keep appealing it until you’re accepted.
If you do have a chronic condition, it is in your best interest to look for agencies that advocate and offer help to individuals with those conditions. These types of agencies can often help patients find free or low-cost medical care.
Dental and vision care
Many colleges and universities offer free or sliding-scale dental and vision care services. An online search for your area can usually turn up one of these institutions. While this isn’t very helpful for most rural residents, it’s always worth researching.
Until now you’ve read about how a certain group of people in our society financialize things like housing, health care, and education. But instead of working to guarantee these rights at little or no cost to us, those in power have used our demand for homes, medicine, and schooling to turn a profit.
This is the problem we face: they see our rights as assets. Education to them is another opportunity to generate revenue. Therefore, their interest in it only goes so far as their own financial benefit.
Free education is the opposite. Whereas the financiers offer education for their benefit, we offer education for everyone’s benefit. Whereas the financiers ask that you pay dollars, we ask that you pay attention. Whereas financiers capitalize on demand for education, we collectivize it. Whereas the financiers force us into debt bondage, we only ask that you promise to come back next week.
The “free schools” below are only a few of the institutions committed to this kind of education. They’re in different places, but their formula is basically the same: this is our education, right now.
- The Art School in the Art School (Syracuse, NY)
- The Center for Popular Economics (Amherst, MA)
- Knowledge Commons (Washington, DC)
- The Lawn School (New York)
- The Paul Robeson Freedom School (NYC)
- The Public School (USA)
- The Social Science Centre (Lincoln, UK)
- The Trade School (New York)
- The Workers’ and Punks’ University (Slovenia)
As higher education continues to weaken through corporatization, some educators have taken to the screens. The websites below and their host institutions sometimes advocate not going to college, taking a series of online courses, and spending your time doing something more worthwhile. To compete, major universities have begun offering their own online courses for free. Others are just trying to take advantage of new technologies that disrupt status-quo education models. The education these websites offer is free in the sense that they are free of financial cost and free of the clunky bureaucracies that universities seem to cherish. However, if you believe (like many of us do) that education is more than individualized information delivery through a computer, these may disappoint:
Walking will always be one of the best and healthiest ways to get around, but it’s not always the most practical from the perspective of getting places in a reasonable amount of time. For the able-bodied, bikes are a good way to get around if you lack a car or access to public transit. Unfortunately a good bike can be pricy. A bike share, however, is a program where bikes are placed all around a town for anyone’s use (although some of these programs charge a good bit of money and require a credit or debit card). Unfortunately there are only a few major cities in the United States that have bike share programs. It will probably take a while for most of the country to catch on to bike share programs so in the meantime freecycle.org and craigslist.org are good places to look for free bikes.
In an ideal world everyone would be able to get around via bike or merely walking; however, one’s degree of physical ability, inclement weather, and sometimes the distance one needs to travel, especially in rural areas, may make these modes of transportation impractical for some. Sadly, sometimes a car is really the best option. Getting rides from friends is a good option but being at the mercy of other people’s good graces can be unreliable and unsustainable. Similar to a bike share program, organizations like City Car Share or Zipcar offer members the ability to basically rent a car for a few hours. Members typically log onto the website and claim a car for however long they need one. Many major cities have these programs but they usually require a monthly membership and credit card. Sharing a membership with someone is a good unofficial option. Relayrides.com offers a similar service with some perks. There are no membership fees and you’re renting cars from other people in your community.
Unfortunately sometimes renting a car from a major company is your only option, which is pretty hard to do without a credit card. Car rental companies see people who don’t have credit cards as risky. Some companies will allow you to use a check or a debit card. If you use a debit card they will most likely charge a security deposit of $200 to $500. Companies may also require you to buy insurance or provide extra proof of identity like utility bills. It’s best to call the company and find out what their specific rules are before you go.
If you live in an area with public transit, check to see if you’re eligible for any discounts. Many cities offer discount public transit tickets to people with disabilities, seniors, students, and sometimes even teachers. Microcredit tends to sound like a good idea. Maybe you need a little loan, just some seed money, enough to help you to get through a rough patch or to start something new. What if you could borrow the money from a circle of friends, or maybe some kind of nonprofit group? In that case, borrowing the money would be just one part of the deal: the loan would allow you to tap into a support network of people who would help you use the money wisely. Ideally, microcredit would become the gateway to a wide range of services, ranging from language training to legal assistance. In a situation like that, “microcredit” would mean community-based, locally administered, mutually reinforcing networks of generosity and obligation, helping people to leave poverty behind and to achieve some degree of balance and independence. That is the optimistic view of microcredit programs that has driven their expansion around the world over the past few decades. However, internationally these kinds of programs typically go hand in hand with removing populations from sustainable, non-capitalist ways of living like subsistence farming, and perpetuate a harsh morality of debt. Microcredit programs can begin to resemble banks or worse, charging loan-shark interest rates, narrowing loan criteria, and imposing harsh discipline to ensure repayment. In fact, sometimes programs really are banks: for-profit schemes without any larger social mission. Do some research, pay attention to the details, don’t be seduced by empty rhetoric. Make sure you know about the organization making the loans. Microcredit may offer a valuable boost, but it won’t work for long-term needs.
Health and care
Microcredit tends to sound like a good idea. Maybe you need a little loan, just some seed money, enough to help you to get through a rough patch or to start something new. What if you could borrow the money from a circle of friends, or maybe some kind of nonprofit group? In that case, borrowing the money would be just one part of the deal: the loan would allow you to tap into a support network of people who would help you use the money wisely. Ideally, microcredit would become the gateway to a wide range of services, ranging from language training to legal assistance. In a situation like that, “microcredit” would mean community-based, locally administered, mutually reinforcing networks of generosity and obligation, helping people to leave poverty behind and to achieve some degree of balance and independence.
That is the optimistic view of microcredit programs that has driven their expansion around the world over the past few decades. However, internationally these kinds of programs typically go hand in hand with removing populations from sustainable, non-capitalist ways of living like subsistence farming, and perpetuate a harsh morality of debt. Microcredit programs can begin to resemble banks or worse, charging loan-shark interest rates, narrowing loan criteria, and imposing harsh discipline to ensure repayment. In fact, sometimes programs really are banks: for-profit schemes without any larger social mission.
Do some research, pay attention to the details, don’t be seduced by empty rhetoric. Make sure you know about the organization making the loans. Microcredit may offer a valuable boost, but it won’t work for long-term needs.