When you see a homeless person on the street, what’s your first reaction? To walk a little faster or drive by? Avoid eye contact? To sympathetically tell them that you have no cash? How do you explain it to your kids? Are you conflicted by your urge to help but wonder if money will only be used for alcohol or other harmful purchases?
All of these are normal, understandable reactions. I would like to invite you to take a step back and think about homelessness as a temporary condition and not a contagious disease – think pneumonia not tuberculosis. We forget to keep in mind that people that have become homeless have gone through traumatic things to get there (loss of job, loss of family, war, domestic violence, medical issues, addiction, etc.) and most often they are trying to cope in the best way they can. Like someone with pneumonia, a homeless person, if left untreated and without help, can easily die. Conversely, with proper help they can flourish. Unlike tuberculosis you do not risk getting sick by helping.
“Being homeless is neither a life sentence nor a stamp of one’s potential. It’s a temporary situation that requires the support of all to overcome.” – a formerly homeless single mother.
The first thing to remember is that a person experiencing homelessness is first and foremost a person just like you and me. They want to be treated with dignity and respect. Do your best to not be judgmental, look them in the eye, and have a short, kind conversation. If you are prepared, perhaps also offer them food and information on other resources that are available for them.
However, please keep in mind that in any situation, it is important to use common sense – if a person appears to be a danger to him/herself or others (e.g., acts in an aggressive manner, wanders into a street, etc.), it’s best to keep your distance and call 911 if you feel it’s necessary. Also, please note that I am not recommending that you try to get into relationships with strangers. However, when educated, you and your family can possibly have a great positive impact.
In our family, I asked my kids why they thought someone might be homeless and what they thought a homeless person needed. How could we help as a family? Their responses were simple and thoughtful. Before I knew it, they were rolling down windows and/or greeting people to wish them a better day, handing them a granola bar or water, and telling them about 211 (the homeless hotline). Now on our weekly grocery run, we always remember to get two extra boxes of granola bars, 2 bags of fruit, and extra water bottles, which the kids use to restock both cars when we get home. Not only are they more understanding and eager to help, but they have also shared what they are doing with their friend’s families, who are now doing this too!
My family’s response is only one example in the basic framework of respectfully giving kindness, possibly food and information. There are many other ways that your family could choose to do this. As with most things in life, if you take a little time to be prepared, your impact will be greater, perhaps even life saving.
Below are a few more suggestions. If you and or your family would like to get more involved, try volunteering at a local food bank or shelter. If you are looking for a deeper level of involvement, I encourage you to explore participating in a mentorship program like Imagine LA’s that matches families who have experienced homelessness with a team of volunteers (from a company or faith community) that are trained to walk with and mentor each family member for two years (www.imaginela.org). We, and the many other services organizations in LA, are always looking for committed organizations and individuals to help us in our efforts to end homelessness in Los Angeles, one family at a time!
Once you decide you want to get more involved with reaching out to LA’s homeless population, make sure to be:
1. Respectful: When choosing to approach someone who appears homeless, try to remain non-judgmental. Remember, this is another human being, and in many cases there are factors outside of their control that led to their circumstance. Individuals who are homeless should still be treated with the dignity and respect that you would afford any other individual (e.g., look them in the eye, try to make conversation, etc.).
2. Prepared: Before approaching, do your research and plan for your ability to assist. You are unlikely, in a single interaction, to “save” a person from homelessness. However, you can be of great assistance in the moment, and potentially help them get on a path towards self-sufficiency. This will depend greatly on the individual, so try to go in with tempered expectations!
· 211 is a valuable resource. 211 is the nation’s largest phone resource bank and its operators can assist with advice on local shelters, food banks and other necessary resources. Just like 911, it can be dialed from any landline within Los Angeles County, so even if you are in an unfamiliar neighborhood, you can call and access local resources. When interacting with an individual who is homeless, you can either advise them of 211, or call with them and help walk them through the process.
· Get to know your local resources like shelters and food banks. You can easily find homeless services near you through a simple Google search. By learning about those organizations you can better understand the issue of homelessness in your area, as well as what sorts of services are offered. As such, when you approach an individual who is homeless, you will have a sense of what services are offered locally and can advise them effectively.
· Talk with your family and formulate your unique plan. Don’t forget to celebrate and discuss the results when you do it! I have noticed it makes for great family dinner conversations and essay topics….
3. Kind – Food & Information: Though most individuals who appear homeless will ask directly for money, in most situations this is not recommended. Giving a dollar or two here and there is simple, but it tends to enable an individual to remain on the street rather than helping long-term. If you’re in a pinch and don’t have time to make conversation or direct the individual to local resources, it is generally preferable to give a meal or a snack than to give money directly. An easy way to do this is by keeping extra boxes of non-perishable food and water in your car to hand out rather than cash. Most people requesting money will be thrilled to receive food, but occasionally, an individual may become upset that no money was offered. In those instances, remain calm and leave rather than try to console or argue with the individual. Every situation is different, so we encourage you again to proceed with caution and use your best judgment before engaging with anyone.
In life, we all could use a little more respect, kindness and information. People that are experiencing homelessness are no different and you and your family have the ability to offer all three.
Jill Govan Bauman is President & CEO of Imagine LA.