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If questioned, they wanted to be able to tell the police that they were just napping, she added. People also built elaborate compartments in their cars, she said, to hide bedding. Alford said he had learned to move slowly to avoid attracting attention by rocking the car when he was inside. When he has a lot of items to take from his car to the library where he spends much of his time, he makes several trips rather than load his arms and seem like a "bag lady," he said.

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Alford, who works occasionally as a Web developer. Out here, the cops are out the door in no time when that call comes in. Experts say there are 2. Wakin said that the vigilance required to live in a car was one reason there tended to be fewer people who are drug addicted or mentally disabled living in their cars, compared with those living on street grates.

For some, secrecy can be an obstacle to needed services. Richard Pyne, who was evicted from his home after losing his job at a factory in North Philadelphia, said he did not seek help because he feared losing custody of his year-old daughter, Kristinlyn, who was living in their car with his wife, Suzanne, and him. Last April, a social worker noticed the family asleep in the car at a park, and after explaining their rights, the worker persuaded them to move into a shelter.

The strain of constantly finding a place to wash up and the stress of avoiding detection became unbearable, Mr. Pyne said, adding, "You have no idea how exhausting it gets to survive like this.

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People should remember that other factors — such as education, job training, employment, the housing market and how programs for the poor are administered — also cause people to end up on the streets. It's very painful for me to talk about how I ended up homeless.

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I will not get into all the specifics, but I lost my job and that spiralled into losing my rent-controlled apartment. I went to the city for help and was given a list of charities to contact. I reached out to all of them, hoping one could give me the money I needed to pay the rent.

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One thing led to another and now it is difficult to ever imagine getting back into any sort of stable job. I have gaps in my resume. I have no permanent address or bank account. Landlords want to see evidence of stable income. I am often asked if I have enough to eat. I will eat anything that is healthful. People who work with food bring leftovers to me.

Once a week, I help unload a farm truck because the food co-op members are not there when the truck arrives. The drivers give me delicious fruit many times. I also sweep a pavement outside of a restaurant, and the owners give me hot soup in the winter. Kind people will buy hot coffee and a bagel, sometimes pizza for me. Around the holidays, people will drop off homemade cookies and other gifts.

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Prepared food cannot be purchased with food stamps. For homeless like me, without a place to cook, this eliminates cooked vegetables and any other hot food in the winter. An alternative is soup kitchens. The volunteers work to make it peasant and serve edible food. I thank them. But sometimes, the food is filling, but not nutritious.

Starches like bread, cereals, pasta and rice are the main components of most meals. Relying on soup kitchens to eat also means most of the day is spent zig-zagging around town, standing in long lines and filing into overcrowded seating areas. There are many people with poor table manners, unhygienic habits or looking for a fight.

If you want the truth, shelters, soup kitchens and other facilities for the poor are the most unsanitary, unhealthy and dangerous places I have ever been. There is often not enough food to feed everyone in shelters. Once, a woman had a bad cold in the shelter I was staying at, so I bought three dozen oranges to share. For doing this, I was reprimanded by the staff and a social worker. A long-time tenant of this particular shelter explained that NYC was paying to feed us three daily meals and an evening snack.

But this was not being done. A week later, boxes of food were delivered, and several boxes were taken by the staff as they left that night. I have seen some of the best and worst of humanity since I became homeless a few years before the recession. My belongings have been stolen by other residents and workers at the shelters and even church personnel and pedestrians. One time, a shelter worker threw out the books belonging to the local library, causing me problems trying to get anything else from the library. Another time, my purse, which I kept inside a backpack, was stolen.

It contained a lot of information about friends and relatives and other personal papers. You cannot replace those. The worst are the showers for the homeless. At the shelters for women, all of the bathroom doors were adjusted to assist in monitoring for smoking, drug use and potential suicide. For about women, there are often only two showers and only a few hours when they are available. So a list gets made, and those on the list monitor the use of the showers, announcing who is next and reminding her to be quick.