Can a homeless person live off the land?

Greetings brothers and sisters. I am hopeful that some of you well versed in moral theology could help with understanding.

Let’s say a homeless person who is unable to find a job to supply the means he needs to eat, have shelter, clothing etc decides he wants to live off the land to survive, is he guilty of any sin? In other words, would it be immoral for him to seek some uninhabited land (perhaps “state/federal” land) to build a cabin, hunt, farm and gather to supply basic needs without any cost or permit/license etc? While technically “illegal,” would one be under the pain of guilt/sin?

I am under the impression that several saints of old have left society and lived in the wilderness (be it woods or desert) back before there was ever any thought of licenses, permits, or taxes to supply the basic means of life: shelter, food, clothing for oneself.

1 Like

If he was obeying the law of the land and wants to be a Hunter gatherer all by himself and isn’t stealing to get his supplies, then yes, he may.


We-e-e-ell… I’m no moral theologian. But from a purely practical standpoint, I’m confused by the premise?

A person capable of building a cabin and farming sounds to me like someone with the skills necessary to get a job, even if technically they might have to move to another town where more jobs are available, or they might have to take a job that isn’t their favourite thing in the world. And if someone is capable of getting a job but chooses not to, I’m not sure I see the case for appropriating public parkland (which is basically what federal land is) and effectively claiming it as their private property, without actually paying any fee to own the land they’ve taken.

Homesteading is an attractive proposition to many, and most people in life go through time periods when we struggle to find paying work in a field we enjoy. That doesn’t entitle us to occupy and build on land that the government has reserved for public park use or natural resource harvesting, without paying anyone a dime.


Catechism of the Catholic Church

2408 The seventh commandment forbids theft , that is, usurping another’s property against the reasonable will of the owner. There is no theft if consent can be presumed or if refusal is contrary to reason and the universal destination of goods. This is the case in obvious and urgent necessity when the only way to provide for immediate, essential needs (food, shelter, clothing . . .) is to put at one’s disposal and use the property of others.191

191 Cf. Gaudium et spes 69 § 1.

1 Like

Probably not for long without at least occasional contact with civilization. After a while, malnutrition sets in.

The sin, if any, is in neglecting the commandment to love one another.

I agree with other posters here but will say I think it’s sounds impossible. The idealist in me wants to think it’d work… but it truly would be hard to pull off well. I think he’s be malnourished and often ill. And if he could build a cabin a better bet may be to get a job and buy food.

There were. They still exist today, though it’s an extremely rare calling: Fr. Lazarus El-Anthony lives in a cave on Al-Qalzam mountain in the Egyptian desert and is supplied with bread from his monastery. There is also the Lykov family who lived in the Siberian forest - the elders have all died off, but the youngest daughter is still a hermit there today.

Regarding the legality, I guess the principle would be: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1). If God and the Monastic superiors approved such a plan, a monk could find a cave or hut to live in without fear of sinning.


As Vico posted from the Catechism, there ought not be any sin or guilt given that it would be for the basic/essential necessities of life.

I’m interested in the perspective of folks here who seem to think it wouldn’t be a sin (just a poor idea), even if the laws of a country forbid it?

I’m certainly open to the argument that a country that forbids building cabins in public parks/wildlife preserves/resource harvesting areas, has enacted unjust laws. But is that what people are arguing?

Because I’m confused if anyone is suggesting that it’s okay for a Catholic (who is commanded to obey lawful authorities even when secular) to disobey secular laws and build cabins and start farming on land where such use is prohibited by the legal authority over that land.

I think it would be fun if we were allowed to just set up homesteads without securing permits for land use, but as far as I know that’s not the current system (at least in most Western countries that I know of).

And I’m still struggling with the notion that a person would have such amazing homesteading skills that they can build their own cabin and run their own farm – but not secure a job at a local 7-11.


What I’m keeping in mind here is that I have known – personally known – homeless people who were straight-up offered jobs, and refused them because they preferred to panhandle. And I am also aware that there’s a not-insignificant movement of idealists who dream of moving ‘back to the land’ and setting up homesteads far from others – and I’m wary that such people might look for opportunities to say: “Well, I submitted a few resumes to a few job sites and don’t yet have a job in my preferred field, therefore I ‘need’ some other way of securing the “basic/essential necessities of life”, therefore I am now entitled to seize public land, build a cabin on it, and start a farm on it.”

Keep in mind that once they have a cabin and a farm the person is no longer “homeless” nor “lacking basic necessities”. So… once they build their cabin and farm and now are no longer in serious need, are they now obliged under pain of sin to use that as only a temporary home base from which to apply for jobs at their local Starbucks, and if they get such a job, now they’re obliged to tear down their cabin, restore the wilderness area from farmland (which will have affected soil/wildlife etc) to its original wilderness state, and rent an apartment back in the city?

Or is someone arguing that anyone who ever reaches a temporary state of homelessness/joblessness is now entitled to choose their own portion of free public land for life and for their descendents, to make their private property and build whatever they want on, and replace the local wilderness biodiversity with whatever they personally choose to subsistence farm?

Boy would you see a boom in ‘homelessness’ rates and homesteaders. There are people slaving away at normal jobs now just to save enough money to buy the land to properly homestead. If there were a sneaky ‘free’ way to do it… I’ll be interested to watch.

1 Like

I’d suggest you re-read the Catechism quote Vico posted:


The catechism says that theft is permissible if it is the “only” way for a person to obtain food, shelter, etc. That is almost self-evidently not the case with an able-bodied person capable of building a cabin from scratch, and successfully subsistence-farming from scratch. That person has hard skills and resources both physical and knowledge-based, marketable in almost every economy in the world (with construction companies, on farms – even working in a local hardware store or plant and seed shop).

I’m keeping in mind here that your scenario didn’t hypothesize temporarily setting up tent, and merely hunting/gathering while continuing to apply for work at 7-11’s in nearby cities. I can certainly see the argument for such temporary and desperate measures being legitimate.

You included “build a cabin” and “farm”. It takes a while to build a cabin and it takes months to grow farm crops, and in the meantime your hypothetical person is clearly having their “immediate” survival needs met without yet having either cabin or farm crops. So it seems like it cannot be argued that the cabin or farm are their “only” way to meet urgent, immediate need.

If there are countries where this is technically legal, have at 'er. If it’s a thing in the Egyptian desert or the Russian wilderness, sure. But if a country’s lawfully elected government has specifically set aside portions of state-owned land within its borders to be maintained as wilderness preserves, public parks, or resource-harvesting sites, then I’m going to look with a very skeptical eye upon anyone who claims to be simultaneously capable of building a cabin and running a farm, but not capable of getting a job in a hardware store or getting hired as a farmhand. At that point I start to hear “hopeful homesteader looking to snag free land”, not “desperate homeless person taking the only available step to meet an urgent need”.

1 Like

I appreciate your very strong worded and passionate thoughts.

It’s always good to keep in mind that the Lord loves the poor and the needy. We all should be careful at making harsh and rash assumptions about their condition.

I haven’t said a word against the poor or the needy.

If I’m speaking with passion here it’s from recognizing the opportunism in my own soul, that perks up at the thought of stealing land for homesteading without having to pay for it, and claiming “need”.

Also I live in a place where there is absolutely zero basis for suggesting that a homeless person’s immediate needs will be better met in the woods than through existing social services.

I’m honestly open to hearing about the specific situation you think may realistically fit the situation you proposed in your question. Perhaps I’m suffering a failure of imagination.

But I notice you didn’t offer a reason why an able-bodied person capable of building a cabin and successfully farming from scratch, can’t get a job in a 7-11 or feasibly access their immediate survival needs through a soup kitchen and homeless shelter. You jumped straight to suggesting they should be allowed to steal and privatize land that belongs to the larger community, without regard for the fact that there may be laws in place regarding the use of that land for a good reason (e.g. preserving biodiversity, managing resources sustainably for all). All I’m suggesting is that you haven’t yet made a strong case for why stealing land and building long-term developments on it like a cabin and farm are actually the “only” means a homeless person could take to access their immediate survival needs.

Marketable, yes. Guaranteed a job? No.

Let me ask you… how much money, on average, does it take to provide for rent, utilities, food, clothing and (perhaps) transportation? Would a 7-11 job meet those needs? Would a farm hand pay enough to take care of those obligations?

From what you’ve posted, you appear to make grave assumptions thinking that jobs are falling from the skies and that there is no such thing as unjust wages, labor, or hours. Do you believe that all homeless people got that way through faults of their own or that they have the means to find and keep a job… regardless of their talents?

What about nomadic people like Romani?

Are they required to get 9-5 jobs?

I have lived in one of the most expensive cities on the entire planet earth with expenses that could have been more than covered on less than the minimum wage there.

It’s doable. You just have to live frugally and share housing, etc. I did. It worked fine. People who made more than me seemed to complain more (but also seemed to expect more; I can’t account for the expectations other people have).

And while working for minimum wage I would personally sit with homeless people, buy them meals and eat with them and talk with them.

It’s a straw man to suggest I might “believe that all homeless people got that way through faults of their own”. I have not stated this. Nor is taking a position on this even relevant to the question you asked on this thread.

You asked if stealing (you specified building permit-free and fee-free) and privatizing state-regulated land and building permanent structures on it (like a cabin) and permanently affecting the biodiversity of local wilderness areas (by changing the flora from biodiverse plant life to farming crops) could be justified by Catholic moral theology on the premise that it is the only possible way for a homeless person to meet their immediate need of accessing food or shelter.

I am asking in return how you can possibly suggest that this is a realistic question.

Until evidence is provided otherwise I reject the premise that an able-bodied person capable of building a cabin and farming from scratch is literally unable to find a more socially appropriate way to access their immediate food and shelter needs, than violating existing laws and stealing it in a way that seems intended to be long-term and ongoing (again: you said cabin, not tent. Farming, not just hunter-gathering. You are proposing homesteads, not just meeting immediate needs).

If we want to argue the law should be changed to allow all citizens to portion up public land and settle it, I’m open to the discussion. In the meantime I don’t appreciate the pretence that I’m jabbing at the poor or downtrodden by pointing out that there are reasonable alternatives to such free-for-all settlements and decimations of wilderness areas. If the moral question hinges on whether stealing is the “only” way to obtain food/shelter, and we can establish that in a given specific city it is not, then as far as I am concerned, that is the answer to that question.

I appreciate your response. Thanks.

1 Like

I have no opinion about nomadic peoples.

Frankly I have no opinion about Americans.

I frankly find it annoying to have to argue the position I’m having to argue right now. I think working at 7-11 would suck and I get why nobody would want to do it. I’d love to be a homesteader, and I’d be delighted for a government to adopt a distributionist position that starts every citizen (or at least family) off with a certain portion of land, on which they can build/farm what they like.

But that’s not the question that was asked. The question wasn’t, ‘What should we vote for a country’s laws to be?’

The question was whether, assuming a country’s laws already are what they are, and the state considers itself to own uninhabited land (and is keeping it uninhabited on purpose for some reason, whether wilderness preserve, public park, resource harvesting regulated by the community as represented through elected officials, etc) Catholic moral theology permits a person to go steal public land (privatize what was public, portion it off: build a cabin on it, start farming on it) without paying any fee or securing any permit, if it’s against the law in that country.

And the premise suggested that this might fall under the catechism definition, but the catechism definition specified that theft acceptable when it’s the “only” way to immediately access food/shelter. My point is that an able-bodied person capable of building a cabin and starting a farm from scratch, doesn’t seem to meet that criteria, unless we’re talking some very specific situation very far removed from normal experience of the homeless in most western societies.

1 Like

I actually wasn’t messing with you :slightly_smiling_face:

I think it’s an intriguing question whether somebody could live off unclaimed land and not have a 9-5.

I mean, people go and camp in national parks, there’s places to hunt, it’s kind of neat to think about living off the land.

As long as you obeyed local laws, of course…

:slight_smile: Fair enough. I’m sorry I’m coming off so heated in this thread. I think I honestly am mainly smacking down my own instincts to say: “Yes! Land grab! I’d love to get in on that action, so let me find a way to say it’s probably fine!”

I think the question of “unclaimed” is key. If a country legally considers certain portions of its geography to be up for grabs, for any citizen to settle and farm without fee or permit, that’s one thing. My concern comes in if a country has a legal prohibition against this, because of the variety of reasons there could be for the prohibition, whether the general public knows the reason or doesn’t know the reason.

And another risk there could be that if you build without a permit, the government could come along at any time and destroy what you’ve built, without compensating you for it, because they want to build something else there or develop that land in some other way. They could even penalize a person in some way. That’s a legal not a moral angle, but I think both are relevant.

Again, my thoughts here are basically premised on the suspicion that this question gets less at what the most immediately helpful survival method is for a homeless person, and gets more at looking for a religious loophole to get around obeying the law, for a person who just really wants to do homesteading and doesn’t want to acknowledge that they need to somehow negotiate this with a larger human community. For the record I wouldn’t be fussed about an actual long-term homeless person building a cabin in the woods. Kudos to them (although if it became too widespread a trend I do think the larger society would have to step up with a better solution, because that could be ecologically devastating). But a college student who just doesn’t like their scope of job options, and fantasizes about living in the woods (I have been this student, and have been friends with these students), no. They get my side-eye and do not get my speculative A-OK to steal land that the larger society, through democratically-elected representatives, have decided should be preserved for other use. If they really want to live in a rural area, build a cabin, start farming, they can work to pay off the cost of the land, or do the paperwork/apply for the permits. It’s a pet peeve of mine when someone thinks they should just be able to cut around that stuff and “take”, and in my experience it’s usually not actual-homeless-people who ask a question like this.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit