Want to learn how to help the homeless?
Our team has put together a comprehensive guide on how to help the homesless. We hope you find this guide informative, and share with frends and family so we can all do our part to help the homeless.
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As I exit the freeway and climb the ramp to the traffic light, an all too familiar sight comes into view. Walking toward me is a tattered man with a tattered cardboard sign in thread-bare clothing. His sign reads, “Homeless and Hungry.” What should I do? The man looks as if he could use some help but I’ve heard that a lot of these “homeless” people aren’t homeless. They’re panhandlers looking for a quick and easy handout. I’ve also heard that even those who truly are homeless and look as if they need a meal will probably use the money for alcohol or drugs. I certainly don’t want to support that.
As the sign-bearing man gets closer to my car, I fidget, hoping the light will change in time to save me from having to make a decision, either to ignore him by refusing to make eye contact or by handing him a dollar or two. I don’t like either outcome. The former causes some vague sense of guilt and the latter make me wonder if I’m being a chump. Look, I want to help, but I mean really help – in a meaningful way. So what should I do?
I Want to Help the Homeless!
The most important thing I’ve learned in my years as the Executive Director of Homeless ID Project, a social services agency serving the homeless in Arizona, is that darn near all of us want to help the homeless! Maybe we even need to help. It seems to be in our DNA.
My grandmother wanted to feed the world. My father wanted to help the neighbor with car problems or a remodeling project. It seems almost everyone is anxious to lend a hand. Children, too, generally want to help and when parents, grandparents and teachers provide opportunities for kids to help others and to be charitable, something special happens – those kids grow up to be mature, compassionate, caring adults. They develop into lifelong good citizens of the world for the next generation. They learn the key to living a life of grace and contribution.
That’s it! We want to help. Most people want to help, wouldn’t you agree? We want to share our humanity. We want to make a difference in our community. We want to lift those less fortunate. Darn near all of us want to do something, but we want our efforts to truly help and we often aren’t sure how to begin, what we could possibly do, or where we might be of use. Maybe a little direction is all anyone needs to get things started?
How Can I Help?
Saying that ‘most people want to help’ is not a bold statement. It is well-documented. In fact, it’s been shown that we want above all else to make a difference in our own back yard, so to speak, and that the closer to home, to our own community, the better. We want to invest our contribution, our assistance, in a way that allows us to see the real difference we make. I am struck by the words of author and fundraiser, Lynne Twist in her inspiring book, The Soul of Money, that for her, fundraising is not a matter of “twisting arms or playing on emotions” but rather as creating “… an opportunity for people to engage in their greatness.” Most of us want that.
Is Homelessness a Choice?
A quick word about the naysayers. It’s easy to find people who think that homelessness is a choice or that poverty reflects the intentional choices people make and that those who have made their proverbial beds might be best left to lie in them. I don’t subscribe to such views but there are people I know and love who do and they are quick to offer anecdotal support for their position. Also, it’s my experience that even those who express such views will bend over backwards to help where they can. I do believe that on some level, we all want to help; to find solutions that provide hope to a fellow human being.
Can I Actually Help the Homeless?
This may be the $64 thousand-dollar question! We want to help the homeless but what can we do to make a real difference? Where can we actually have an impact? As an American male born in the middle of the 20th century, I am drawn to a quick fix like a moth to a candle. Maybe you are too. I have used the quick fix method to annoy my wife and children for years and after all this time, despite a known lack of effectiveness, the quick fix remains my go-to position. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Regardless, I am never without an answer, even if it’s wrong.
Given that, and in the absence of what I’ve observed in my time working with the homeless, I can come up with numerous ways to help a homeless person – at least temporarily. Some of the more obvious solutions aren’t long-term and some of them may even create additional problems for the person being helped and for the immediate community. For example, cash in hand – maybe not such a great idea considering the cash may be used for something other than food, clothing and shelter. Some think they are helping by handing out the leftovers from a recent restaurant meal. Community groups have been known to hand out specially prepared meals near a homeless dining kitchen, and while such an activity can help to build the spirit of the group as they fill and wrap burrito after burrito, the well-intended offering of food may cause a whole new set of issues for the homeless and for the network of providers serving the homeless.
Food handed out often ends up partially eaten or not eaten at all and then discarded on the street. At best, this creates litter which needs to be cleaned up by neighbors or local sanitation personnel. Such litter could also attract rats, pigeons and other disease-carrying critters. Maybe the recipient of your burrito or restaurant leftover has just eaten and so decides to save the meal for another day. Since there is no refrigeration on the street, you may be the unwitting giver of a food-borne illness. A lesser consideration may be simply that the local food kitchen has prepared a meal for your target, and that meal goes to waste along with the resources consumed in preparation and delivery.
So What Can I Actually Do to Help the Homeless?
You might begin by surveying the homeless landscape in your city or town. Do some research. What agencies, community groups or churches are out there already helping the homeless? What are they doing? If they are doing something that synchs with your vision of helping, could you help them? Pick up the phone and talk with people in those organizations. Show up at their office and ask how you can help. Virtually everything being done by existing agencies is necessary and helpful to those experiencing homelessness. You may be able to magnify that impact.
Our organization, Arizona-based Homeless ID Project, provides replacement identification documents for those who need them, and we work collaboratively with other agencies across Maricopa and Pima Counties in Arizona where an ID is needed in order to providing resources to those seeking to end their homelessness. Most of us have not thought about it but it is impossible to get a job or housing, to open a bank account, or gain access to basic services without an ID or birth certificate; Lack of an ID makes it impossible to escape homelessness.
The work we do is fundamental, impactful and surprisingly rare. There are a mere handful of organizations across America doing this work though the need exists wherever homeless individuals seek to end their homelessness. I shudder to think how many across the nation remain homeless for an extended period of time due solely to a lack of a plastic card or piece of paper.
A Word About Homelessness…
The homeless population is not a monolith. We live in a complex world and much of it can be difficult or even impossible to understand. Our reaction to this is to attempt to simplify by categorizing our experiences and our observed world into a few buckets. For example, consider the phrase ‘homeless person.’ What picture does that phrase conjure up in your mind? For me, and despite working directly with the homeless for several years now, the picture that comes to mind is that of a scruffy, gray-bearded old man sitting on a curb. Sometimes he’s holding a sign.
But my default picture (and maybe yours) is not actually representative of the typical homeless person – in part because there is no typical homeless person. The fact is that the person I envision is most certainly homeless – even chronically so – but most of those experiencing homelessness probably look more like you and me than like my scruffy, gray-bearded old man.
It may surprise you to know that only fifteen percent of the homeless today are chronically homeless; ten percent are episodically homeless and the balance are temporarily homeless. With the kind of assistance provided by Homeless ID Project and similar organizations, a homeless man or woman will be empowered to find an end to their homelessness. It’s worth noting that about half of those experiencing homelessness are in families with children. Homelessness is not a monolith.
…And Word About Fish
You’ve heard it before: “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” Given the above, is it sufficient just to give a fish? Sometimes, certainly. I am unlikely to possess the resources to help a chronically homeless individual end their homelessness and yet, by god, that scruffy, gray-bearded, chronically homeless old man sitting on a curb does need a fish and he needs it every day just to stay alive!
On the other hand, the majority of those experiencing homelessness today both want and need help ending their homelessness – and the sooner the better, because the strongest predictor of someone entering the chronic phase of homelessness is time. Temporarily and episodically homeless individuals need help in order to end their homelessness and they need it as quickly as possible, lest they become hopelessly and chronically stuck!
So, as you look at how you might help the homeless, consider working with organizations which offer a way out of homelessness and not just those focused on providing a more comfortable way to be homeless.
So, Once More, What Can I Do to Help the Homeless?
Do what calls you, of course. See if that calling can help leverage the resources already in place and positioned to help the homeless.
You can give of your time, your talent or your treasure. Consider volunteering your time. It’s important. Bring the kids if allowed. Provide the ingredients for meals to a food bank. Help prepare and serve meals at the local shelter or food kitchen. Look for opportunities in February or August – or any time other than the period of Thanksgiving to the New Year when everyone seems to feel compelled by the glad tidings and the good will of the season.
Provide clothing to a jobs program and know that your clothes may be the difference-maker in the job interview that carries an individual out of homelessness. Provide t-shirts, jeans, belts, shoes, socks and even reading glasses to agencies and organizations serving the homeless where there are clients on the spot in need of those things. Importantly, the agency will recycle and otherwise funnel the items they can’t use to do even more good.
Start your own version of the Homeless ID Project! There are only a few of us across the nation and we are working on ways to support others as they get started in their own quest to help the homeless.
Become an advocate for an end to homelessness in your community. Create resistance to NIMBY actions. I recently met a man who has worked to bring about the reality of a 70-unit unit low income housing complex in the unlikely (i.e. white, upper-middle class) suburb of Edina Minnesota! Sponsor and speak out on laws and programs specifically designed to move people from the streets in ways that allow them to rebuild their lives.
Helping the Homeless by Preventing Homelessness
A few paragraphs ago we discussed the fact that homelessness is not one thing. Remember, it’s not a monolith. Homeless individuals are as diverse as the general population. Given that, it might make sense to consider the causes of homelessness.
Working with an agency whose mission is in the ending of homelessness, I am occasionally asked for my opinion on the cause of homelessness. (There are many reasons.) A common belief is that people fall into homelessness because of addiction and mental health issues. Some do but consider for a moment that you yourself could become homeless, maybe due to a job loss or an unexpected and expensive medical event – either one of which might lead to an eviction. Consider your reaction. How long would it take, living on the street, behind a bush or under a bridge before you would begin to suffer the symptoms of something like PTSD? And how long would it be before you accepted the offer of a ‘well-meaning’ fellow street person who offered you a hit or a shot of this or that to make those symptoms disappear? Let’s look a bit more broadly at the sources of homelessness.
Families and individuals evicted from their homes are, by definition, homeless. In Maricopa County, AZ, with a population of 4.4 million, more than 40,000 families were evicted from their homes in 2018. What are the numbers where you live? The evicted may check into a hotel or temporarily sleep on the couch of a friend or relative but that does not mean they are not homeless. Rent increases over the last several years have created a fast-growing population of first-time homeless senior citizens as their fixed incomes have not kept up with rent increases, leading to eviction. streets.
On the other end of the age spectrum, we find young adults aging out of the foster care system and out of the juvenile corrections system, often without identification documents, becoming homeless at abnormally high rates.
Women and children fleeing a domestic violence situation or even a human trafficking situation are often relegated to homelessness. Helping the homeless by preventing homelessness in the first place may be as simple as understanding the causes of homelessness and working to prevent it.
There are hundreds of thousands of homeless people in the United States and millions living in poverty who are a single missed paycheck away from ending up homeless. You want to help and your help is needed. Find your niche and join the battle against homelessness.
Whether you choose to work with an existing social services agency, a community group or a religious organization, find a way to help that speaks to you and to your humanity. Feed, Clothe, House, Heal. That’s the mission of one of the larger and more effective agencies in Arizona. Each of those activities are worthy and necessary. Find an agency that does one or more of those. They need you. Find (or create) an agency working to help the homeless get replacement identification documents. It is impossible to end one’s homelessness without documents. Work in your community to prevent homelessness. It may be that you can help the homeless by doing something as simple as writing your congressional representatives demanding that work be done on both, prevention of, and resolution to homelessness.
We all want to help, really! It’s in our DNA. Seeing homeless individuals on the streets seems like something we ought to be able to solve. And as you reach into your pocket to solve that problem, consider that some kinds of help are better than others. Don’t act out of guilt. Don’t get frustrated with your inability to solve the problem quickly. But you do need to get on the court or step up to the plate and swing the bat. Get into action wherever you see yourself contributing to help end and prevent homelessness in your community. You’ll be glad you did!