We sat over waffles and coffee and she asked me to share what I could about homeless people. She had helped and been frustrated at times that it didn’t seem to “work.” That got me thinking.
There are many success stories when befriending homeless people. I can think of half a dozen without trying. But all of them begin and end with two words and thoughts–patience and understanding.
People who had the wisdom and strength to seek help and the patience with themselves and me to request on going assistance are no longer homeless.
So how does one really “help” the homeless?
Here’s what I’ve seen which works:
- Don’t assume anything. You have no idea how that person became homeless. It’s not usually one thing but a series of events. Listen and learn and ask questions–a lot of questions–until you can sort out how they are in the position they’re in and offer help from there.
- Help in the way they want. Homeless or not, all people have preferences. It’s important to honor that if you’re going to be helpful. Ask what they need and then offer what you can that fits their request, not your preference. I’ve seen people give cans of food to homeless folks who have nowhere to cook and can’t carry heavy stuff in a backpack. I’ve seen hard candy go to people without many teeth. “Helping” in a way that’s not what the person needs only leaves them less empowered.
- Homeless people are people first. They are not their circumstance nor are they a project. Find common ground and discover things about them that attracts you as you would anyone you are thinking of becoming friends with. Offering help to a friend is a very different feeling than being a project for someone. If you don’t vibe, if you don’t see friend potential, then offer a warm smile and the ones in your pocket and move on. They may not be for you.
- Patience is key. It took time to become homeless and it takes time to dig out. Popping for a hotel or letting someone crash on your couch for a week is not going to get them back on their feet. If you have long term accommodations and the resources to be a friend and allow them to process what’s happened, that’s truly helpful and may, over time, make a difference. If you just want to help very short term, that’s fine. But if you still see the person panhandling don’t be discouraged or angry. Your one act of kindness doesn’t wash away the years they’ve been down.
- Do not assume there are “services” for that person they aren’t accessing. Nearly every person on the homeless spectrum is aware of the alleged services which exist and have accessed them at some point. The Trail card for food assistance offers around 100 bucks per month for a single person who has no place to cook and it doesn’t cover hot food. So they’re looking at a catch 22. They still don’t have enough to eat. OHP is truly helpful but it does not cover everything fully and what it does cover is not always easy to get at such as mental health services. Many providers don’t take it. Those who do have a long waiting list. It goes on and on like this. Transitional housing is not available for everyone–in fact it covers only a rare group. It’s a broken system and it’s important to know it going in.
- Finally, normalcy is king. Homeless people are traumatized people. They have been attacked, many seriously, they have not had a good night’s sleep in a very long time, whatever self esteem they once had is pummeled. They are often suffering from chronic pain of one sort or another and cannot imagine feeling good. They offer stories as payment and may talk your ear off as a result. They may also need deeply to be heard and honored in that way. Be patient with them and with you. Establish normalcy and routine. Take them to lunch inside at a restaurant on Tuesday, pop for a movie ticket and see a film on Friday. Set patterns so they have something to hold on to. No one wants to stay in the bottom of the well and you can help them lighten up.
The reason we still have homelessness is due to certain assumptions. As a society we assume homeless people have made unforgivable mistakes, are dangerous or refuse to seek services we provide in our society. We assume they have addictions and are generally unsafe to be around. These assumptions vilify poor people.
Fact: there is no proven data to say that homeless people commit more crimes than housed people–the fact is, according to a Stanford study and checking police records, they are more likely to be the victim of a crime than to commit one.
That said, you don’t know the person so be careful the way you would with any stranger.
The vast majority of people who are homeless are unhoused due to basic math-math which has changed dramatically over the past twenty years. A ten dollar per hour job cannot pay for a $1,000 dollar per month apartment even if you work full time. Most jobs only work people 30 hours per week. That puts you at about $900 take home.
The original minimum wage was established and indexed based on the cost of living–but that was in 1938! A living wage in Jackson County Oregon where I live is $16.43 per hour. Most people do not earn that.
Low vacancy rates at less than 2% and supply and demand economics make housing costs high while wages are low. This adds up to homelessness.
Add to that the safety nets we once had have not existed since 1995 when “welfare” was officially scrapped. Homelessness is up by up to 25% in West Coast cities. Most folks who are homeless did not travel to those cities. They are natives. Three people out of four who are homeless grew up there.
Who is homeless? You- if you miss a few weeks of work. Me- if I get sick and cannot produce work daily. All of us if the economy does not change.
If you want to help a homeless person understand these facts. Telling them to get a job or access services doesn’t help but discourages. Over time, with care, patience and understanding, it eventually gets better. What that looks like is different for everyone. Never doubt that your care makes a difference even if you can’t see it.
Life is hard but we can choose to make it easier. We can do this long term in our systemic approaches and you can do it short term for the guy next to you on the park bench–but remember this one thing first:
It all starts with a conversation. It is helped through understanding and deep patience.
You ready? Me too.