Chelsea Roff: Is Homelessness a Choice?

In 2000, Daniel Suelo decided to give up all of his possessions and move into a cave in the Utah wilderness. He simply walked into a phone booth, pulled out 30 bucks, and left it (and his life) behind. Twelve years later, he still doesn’t have a driver’s license, bank account, modern home, or take any financial support from friends or federal welfare. He lives in the canyon lands outside of Moab, Utah, and to survive he harvests wild foods, eats roadkill, and dumpster dives.

What makes him different from any other homeless person? Well, according to Daniel his way of life is a conscious choice, a form of spiritual activism.

Here’s a statement from his blog (yes, he blogs):

“My philosophy is to use only what is freely given or discarded, what is already present, and already running (whether or not I existed). I don’t see money as evil or good: how can illusion be evil or good? Attachment to illusion makes you illusion, makes you not real. Attachment to illusion is called idolatry, called addiction. I simply got tired of acknowledging as real this most common world-wide belief called money! I simply got tired of being unreal.”

Call me naive, but I find stories like Daniel’s absolutely fascinating. Several months ago I moved to Venice, California… a city that is home to many who are homeless by choice, or at least that’s the story they tell me. Venice is a place where the boundaries that usually separate the castes of society — the rich from the poor, the artists from executives — aren’t so clearcut. I talk to a lot of homeless people. John and Nancy use their food stamps at the Whole Foods by my house. A group of sometimes rowdy teenagers sleep just a few paces from the door to my yoga studio. They’re my neighbors, after all.

Yes, I’m one of those people. A girl who stops on the Boardwalk to chat it up with the “struggling artists” on my morning walk. I love to hear people’s stories. I feel drawn to the people society has cast off as crazy, lazy, or simply just mentally ill. Perhaps  they are all of those things… perhaps they’re not. It doesn’t matter to me. Everyone has a story to tell.

This is Daniel’s story:

The American Who Quit Money To Live In A Cave from David Eckenrode on Vimeo.

I don’t agree with Daniel’s philosophy. I don’t think the best method to solve our economic, social, and political crises is to withdraw from “the system”  (whatever that means) altogether. I think there are innumerable actions we can take from within our current paradigm, starting and perhaps most importantly with how we spend our money. That said, I think Daniel’s story — and those I hear from the artists I meet on the boardwalk — present an interesting question:

Is homelessness ever a choice? And by choice, I mean a conscious decision made by a person not struggling with mental illness or a lack of resources? Is homelessness a problem to be solved? Or a circumstance to be better understood?

What do you think?

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photo by: Noel Feans

About Chelsea Roff

Chelsea Roff is Managing Editor for Intent Blog. She is an author, speaker, and researcher writing about science, spirituality, women's health, and humanitarian issues. Visit her website to read past writings, watch video interviews, and see her teaching schedule. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. Fascinating. I couldn't do it. The missing puzzle piece of it all is Daniel's ridding or absence of any desire for social approval. While I think there is some admiration to be given to Daniel's story, I think he, along with many others, mistake social behaviors as "illusions." And social behaviors are good to reflect upon as to why they are there and how they affect us as a society, but to completely dismiss so many social behaviors and interactions with other people seems to me like there is something deeper than just a different ideology than everybody else. Probably Autism.

  2. I had the misfortune to live in my car for 3 months. I was really smart about it. I was in junior college. I showered in the gym. I had a place to get mail. I had a phone number you could leave messages at. I had a job.
    Where I slept was always a problem. I always felt worried. I generally parked near the school. This was in northern California. The weather was always mild. I live in Texas now. I would not want to try it again. Texas has such extreme temperatures. Hot and cold. In the end, it was just the lack of affordable housing. That is what threw in me in that situation.

    I never want to do that again.

  3. I think finding a middle ground will be the key to obliterating needs, like-food-money-shelter. If we as a society could all share and share alike, if we could develop technology and housing and resources in a way that is not just for the few who can afford it -but instead purposefully and consciously create for all our citizens, that is the key to a utopian society.

    Saying "You don't need." to someone who needs "things" is useless instead solve the route of the problem and get rid of the "need" for anything. Why move backwards and brush off all the advances that have been made in our world. Instead of walking off the grid lets instead distribute more freely to everyone and in fair portions. If we did that we would not need money.

    That is what I think anyways… I doubt I will ever see that day come in my lifetime though, It will most likely take us 100 years or more to figure it out, not over night.

    1. I totally agree with you, progress can not be stop as easily. and it is impossible to eradicate hundred of years of misuse and unjust redistribution of wealth in a short span of time. if it was not for technology and progress many people would still be in total obscurantism of what happen in the world and nowadays more people are getting more involved in participating in the changes directly and not relying only on the big corps ( red cross etc ). What is so funny Rorke i was thinking as well of the span of hundred year .. 🙂 . we are the change we want to see in the world 🙂

  4. I was homeless for four months. I lived in a women's shelter. For me, it was part choice, part necessity. I had to escape a dangerously abusive situation. The shelter was unpleasant, but it was the last place my abuser would have looked for me. That made it perfect for my purposes.

    There was a fascinating mix of women at that shelter. A couple really *were* there by choice. One called herself a missionary, called to minister to the women at the shelter. She had a powerful calling, and was one of the most spiritual people I've met. Another woman (who left shortly after I arrived) was a graduate student, studying homelessness from the inside out.

    Having said that, a lot of the women there were there by chance, mishap, or illness. One stick-figure of a lady babbled constantly to herself. If spoken to directly, you had about a 50-50 chance of getting a coherent reply. Another woman was convinced that she was the illegitimate daughter of a late musician, and constantly speculated on how she could get "her" inheritance. (If you looked at the dates, it was clear she was mistaken; she was born several years after the musician had died.)

    Some of the women had just fallen through the cracks. Earlier that year, this city was slammed by a natural disaster, and a lot of the women at the shelter were there because of that. They had too much money to get government assistance, but not enough to get on their feet otherwise.

    Some I don't know why were there. Some women struck me as being able-bodied and of sound mind…but still sat at the shelter. Maybe they were lazy. Maybe they had issues I couldn't see. I don't know.

    Homelessness is a very complicated issue, and not something that is black or white. If my stay at that shelter taught me one thing, it was that nothing is as simple as it seems. If there is an answer to your question, I'd say that it is something to be understood. Some people really are free spirits that are happiest living in cars or caves. Others need help, guidance, and psychiatric care. Still others need help into housing, and training on how to handle said home.

    We all have different stories. Perhaps what we need most is understanding.

  5. I am "homeless", however I prefer the term "houseless". It was started by choice, I had no ties keeping me in the city of Seattle, where I spent the last 6 years in. I had the choice to either re-integrate, get a new job, a new place to live, and re-attach myself to society, or do the one thing I had always wanted to do and travel with what little money I had. I chose travel.

    After the first month, I discovered that I could travel much more freely, without the use of money. I didn't have to stay in hostels, and I could experience the beauty the planet had to show by essentially camping outside. Almost 3 years later, I'm still traveling with basically no use of money put forth toward my living/sleeping situations, or motion through the land. I sleep outside, in the woods, or on floors and couches of friends I visit around the country. I travel by hitch hiking, train hoping, walking, carpooling, and currently by bicycle touring. I have been to 42 states. I reduce, reuse, and recycle anything and everything I can from food to clothing.

    I don't ask for money, like most homeless do. I do create artistic items, jewelry, art, leather working, etc, and often sell it at proper opportunistic times like at farmers markets or first Fridays. However, I have little to no need of the money I get and it usually just sits in my pocket until I need to fix something on my bike, or buy new supplies for my arts.

    The only thing I need is food, and food is free. I do have food stamps that supports my habit of being a vegan. Usually free food isn't vegan in the slightest. I don't feel like I am mentally ill in any sense of the word. I choose this way of living. I am homeless, I live off of little to nothing, I reuse everything I can so little is wasted. I even dumpster dove in the past before I went vegan, tons of food is wasted every day in our trash cans.

    I have excluded myself as best as I can from society. The only thing keeping me tied is facebook, and food stamps. I don't feel it is necessary to continue to support a system that does't know how to cure itself, so I try to lead by example. A small foot print, makes our planet last a little longer. There is absolutely no need for money, but the world is so tied to it, it makes it necessary. I have found that the trade and barter system is a lot more effective than any system based on imaginary paper with numbers. That requires everyone to be more friendly with each other, but I have found that a lot of people just live in fear. They attach themselves to something they think is safe, which is more often than not: money.

    Of course, to each their own, live and believe what you want. I'm just living the way I think is appropriate, and I enjoy it.

    1. You say, "there is no need for money" yet you nurse in the trough of food stamps. In its' most fundamental state, food stamps are essentially stealing something from someone; something that is not yours. If you call your self a reformer, respect the property rights of others, and reform society that way – not as a welfare recipient. There is no respect in this reformation.

  6. Fascinating short film. I have been very poor in the money sense and affluent – but live about the same level despite my income. I hate waste and reuse, recycle and replace only when necessary. Money has given me the luxury of buying best, once. My husband and I are unusual in that we have no debt, we own everything we have, if we can't buy it – we don't. We save for it. Yet we are Gen X – we grow organic veggies – have for years, we shop at thrift shops for clothes – even though we can afford new. We think local and sustainably, we still work hard and pay taxes.
    Yet I find this poor man's "paradise" odd. Do you not think that he rides on the back of society? He contributes what? He may take only what is given freely or discarded – but what does he give back? It may be idyllic for him, but it would be a nightmare for a young mother with children.
    What of the clothes he wears? They all have to be made somewhere for him by a modern society. It is not a biblical living really is it? He's a 21stC man innoculated, well nourished and educated from birth in a 1st world country. He has medicine, technology and society to catch him should he fall. He is no more really than a modern day Estate Hermit, an interesting eccentric to be consulted on his peculiar lifestyle choice.
    Due to his personal circumstances he was able to make what could be seen as a selfish choice and relinquish all familial and social responsibility and go into the desert and live this carefree existence.
    Good job the desert is warm. Good job there are supermarkets and restaurants near that throw out food. ( Again, in Biblical times?). Good job he gets to them before others who are hungry. Good job he lives in the present and has no thought for the future. I wish him well.

  7. White Fox brings up an interesting and important distinction, that between "homeless" and "houseless." I see Daniel as being "houseless," but not necessarily "homeless." I personally would not want to live that lifestyle for more than a month or so, but I can see the appeal.

    On the other hand, Casey was homeless, despite it being "part choice" as she says. Because really, I don't see that being in a shelter due to abuse as a choice–for abused women to have a chance to live, most of them have to get out of the abuse, and shleters, even ones that are houses, aren't homes.

    A lifestyle like Daniel's won't be the choice for most of us, because as humans, we're both social animals and very tied to place. But it's important that we who live a more "normal" existance take heed of the lessons he can teach us. We don't NEED nearly as much as we think we do. We waste far too much of what we have. And we can survive in conditions that we think are impossible to live in. And most of all, we as humans have diverse lifestyles and values, and as long as we love and not condemn or hurt one another, we're all part of the human family.

  8. A person who could discard his/her possession for the sole purpose of detaching from, or in the name of solving economic, social, and political crises apparently has some mental issues requiring a serious examination. To make the world a better place, you have to become a better person first; so by consciously making the choice to become a homeless bum, you are contributing to the crises you are supposedly running away from. If Daniel really, truly wants to live by his philosophy, he should as well leave the USA to live in Zimbabwe or Haiti, where the inhabitants will be willing and pleased to trade their citizenship for his.
    The difference between Daniel and Buddha? Buddha sought enlightenment and taught it.

    1. I don’t really see the connection or inverse ratio of being a better person/being a homeless bum, would you care to explain further?

      I’ve done what Daniel has done, for the last 7 months, but I was more into traveling and exploring instead of being a hermit. I can understand his reasons for doing it, but I also understand the view that people see him as running away of sorts. I do think, however, that it would be rude to pass judgment on him, none of us really know the man so to conjecture explicity his reasons for this lifestyle, as well as deeming it proper or improper in any way is kind of a too cut and dried way to sum up his life. I wasn’t able to see the video (mobile phone) so maybe there is a lot more insight in the mini-doc. Perhaps he just want to lead by example, teachers come in many forms…

  9. Daniel has chosen to step outside of the socially-agreed upon reality and can therefore live in this way. He has found his home inside himself. Most people are not willing or able to do so. I can't imagine a whole lot worse than not being homeless in the sense that most people are.

  10. Withdrawing from “the system” is the only thing to do. Especially when it is a system design to distract, separate and enslave in order to control. Daniel Suelo has transcended ego and is free, not many people can say that.