A human response to homelessness

You may see them on your drive to work, walking your dog in the park, or at intersections with crumpled signs asking for help. They are people without a home, sometimes even without shelter for the night.

More than half a million people are homeless in the US in a 12-month period, and nearly 200,000 of them sleep without shelter every night.

“I think COVID has made people more aware of the problem of homelessness,” said Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness in Washington, DC. “Everyone was told to stay home during the pandemic and people became acutely aware of those who couldn’t because they had no place to live.”

How does someone go from working and having a home to living on the street? It’s not always easy to say. In some cases, bad decisions can play a role. But more often the circumstances take on a life of their own.

“People are often too quick to point to individual decisions as the reason for homelessness versus structural problems,” said Carolina Reid, an associate professor of urban and regional planning at the University of California, Berkeley, and research advisor for the Terner Center for Housing Innovation. Those structural problems include low wages, lack of affordable housing, lack of jobs and entrenched patterns of racism ingrained in our society and its infrastructure, she says. Other problems that can cause people to live without a home include:

But it’s not always easy to know how to respond compassionately to people living on the streets. You may want to help, but find it difficult to connect directly with someone you don’t know. And it is true that there are more mental illnesses and substance abuse among the population of people who are homeless. That can also make it more difficult. But, experts say, there are things you can do to help in a compassionate way:

Acknowledge them as people first: “People who are homeless” is the term many experts suggest. It may seem like a small thing, but it recognizes that these are people first and foremost. Homelessness is simply a description of their circumstances. You can also use other phrases, such as “people without shelter” or “neighbors in need.”

Know the root causes: It can be tempting to think that someone who is homeless is on the street because of bad decisions. But the reality can be more complex. Many may be without shelter because of problems beyond their control.

“Everyone makes bad choices, but those of us with strong networks can often bounce back,” Reid says. Knowing the many reasons why someone has no place to lay their head at night can be a good first step in making a difference. You can learn about the roots of homelessness at advocacy groups such as the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Donate Time: Look for organizations in your area that are doing something to serve those in need – be it a faith-based or secular nonprofit.

“These organizations rely heavily on donations, be it time or money, and they are all stressed by COVID,” Berg says. Since the pandemic, many shelters have had limited practical tasks, such as serving food. See if you can help virtually. Small tasks like helping out with mailings, phone calls, social media, or even making hygiene kits are other ways to lend a hand.

Donate money: Donating to homeless support organizations can help with everything from a hot meal or shower to the provision of services such as drug and alcohol counseling and job training. Nonprofits also make it easier to donate. Many offer online giving or the option to set up automatic monthly or quarterly contributions.

Donate items: Shelters need canned food, gently used clothing, and personal care items such as soaps, deodorants, and women’s products. “These organizations need donations, but they need support year-round, not just holidays,” said Tracy Porter, founder of God’s Hands and Feet Global Ministry in Pasadena, CA. Porter, who was once homeless, is now dedicated to helping people in the same community.

For people who live on the streets, blankets and jackets come in handy when temperatures drop at night, Porter says. And don’t forget the little people. Unfortunately, younger people make up a large proportion of those living without shelter. Consider donating backpacks and baby gear. Many organizations will post their needs list online, or you can call to check.

Call the Mayor: The mayor’s office is used to hearing concerned citizens about a variety of topics. If homelessness is a big deal to you, don’t hesitate to get in touch. Ask them to bring forward the ideas that are proven to make a difference. Visit the website of your mayor’s office to see what’s planned in your area.

Be a friend: If you feel safe and you are so inclined, consider talking to people you meet who don’t have a home. Ask them what they need: food, money, water. Money may be used for drugs or alcohol, but the risk may not be as high as you think. In one study, those who received cash went home faster and spent most of their money on food, medicine and personal care items.

Call the experts: Some cities have decided that law enforcement isn’t always the best response to homeless people, especially those with mental illness. The police focus on crime, and homelessness is not a crime. Find out if your city has a phone number for mental health professionals who can respond if you see someone who needs help. You can also try local advocacy groups that have experience with sheltered populations. They may be able to point you to more resources.

Consider raising a child: Children in foster care are more likely to become homeless. Some are out of system with no support. Others continue to fight against problems that stand in the way of a stable life. Becoming a foster parent can break this cycle.

Write to your congressman: Homelessness is a big problem, and that means major expenditures may be needed to solve it. Consider contacting your local congressman at www.house.gov to find out who is responsible for homelessness bills and expenses and do what you can to support them.

Be patient: Experts like Reid and others suggest that we all have patience and empathy for the system. “This problem has evolved over decades and is not going to change overnight,” she says. Nonprofits are on the front lines and there are things you can do too.

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