Homelessness- How Can I Help?
During the rush of our busy lives we bump into those who are going about their day just trying to survive. They may have ragged, dirty clothes, smell bad, or may look pretty clean. But one thing is true- they need a friend. During certain times of the year we give to the homeless or organizations that help the homeless. In my hometown of Portland, Oregon is a high percentage of panhandlers. These are the people you see at intersections holding a sign asking for help. Too, you see them walking the streets asking for spare change. Portland is known for being the most generous to panhandlers.
People want to help, but often are left wondering what to do. Do you give to the person holding the sign? Is giving money, food or clothing to a homeless individual enough? Is that what they need? While there are many organizations doing wonderful work to help the homeless population, there are specific things that you as an individual can do to make a difference in the life of a homeless person.
Why can't the homeless just get a job?
Let's begin with a few things not to do when helping the homeless:
1. Do not judge
A common complaint that I hear from the homeless is that they are tired of being judged before people get to know them. Understanding that the homeless population is made up of gifted, intelligent and educated people will help you to overcome judging people you don't know. Many of our misconceptions come from ignorance rather than fact.
One common judgment I hear is that they are homeless because they are drug addicts or alcoholics. While this may be true for some, we need to realize that many homeless people are not addicts, and those that are began using drugs after becoming homeless to forget the pain of being homeless.
What you will find out as you get to know these individuals is that they are real people just like us.
2. Do not generalize the need
We can be guilty of generalizing what the homeless need. We think they may need housing or rehabilitation or a number of other things. While this may be true for some, it isn't true for others. Getting to know them on an individual basis will go a long way in learning what each person needs. Too, we can't make the mistake of thinking they just need to get a job. While many want to work there are many more obstacles to obtaining steady work when you are homeless.Companies are a bit hesitant in hiring homeless individuals. Often this kind of attitude that they just need to get a job is a cop out on our part. Somehow we feel justified and free to do nothing to help.
3. Avoid treating the symptoms
I often tell people that homelessness is not a problem. It is a symptom with an underlying cause. The root problem needs to be dealt with. Government agencies can be especially guilty in this area. They believe that the solution to homelessness is housing. Many could provide their own housing,and want to do so, if they had steady work. Some may have a root problem of health problems or abuse that they struggle to overcome. Whatever the root problem is, try to avoid treating the symptoms and just getting them into housing as that allows the root cause to remain.
A Message from Andy Bales of Los Angeles
Now let's look at steps we can take to help the homeless:
1. Be a real friend
I daily go out on the streets and into homeless camps to hang out with them. This gives me an opportunity to get to know them as a person and know what their needs are without them even telling me. I once asked a group of them to tell me what they needed since winter was coming on. Their response was, 'we just need you to be out here everyday guiding us and being a friend'. Homeless people are not stupid. They know how to live life. Many were "successful" at some point. A couple guys that I know were business partners with millions of dollars and large homes in the suburbs. Things went wrong for them and they ended up homeless. They are not bitter. They roll with the punches. They often don't want a hero, just a friend. From a genuine friendship can flow the answers that they need.
The fact is that most of the world is against the homeless. One such example are the many unjust laws that exist on the federal, state and local levels. A major way to help the homeless population is to advocate for justice for them. One way I do this is by being present at city and county meetings to speak up for the homeless. They need a voice. Since I am not homeless and am a leader in my community I cannot be easily written off.
Some advice as you advocate for the homeless is to be relational with civic leaders, don't be overly aggressive, choose your battles, and hold law enforcement accountable. Your biggest battle will be with the police. The police must follow the law, and you shouldn't expect them to not do their job. However, there are a few police officers that over reach and become difficult to deal with. By filing official complaints about those officers and stepping in and gently reminding them of their boundaries you will begin the process of bringing justice for the homeless.
3. Help them find needed resources
Homeless individuals know about the government resources available, but many have either been neglected or in some way the resource was of no help. What you can do is find good private resources and help them connect to those resources.
4. Use a holistic approach
We can tend to approach the homeless with a big blanket that is supposed to fix everything. We need to remember that humans are complex beings and no two are alike. So, as you get to know these people intimately then you will know more what their individual needs are. To use a holistic approach to helping these individuals is to help them emotionally, physically, mentally, socially and spiritually.
Emotional- As humans we have many aspects to our makeup. One aspect is emotions. Many homeless people have endured abuse of some kind and are emotionally wrecked. By helping them heal and find wholeness again you are helping deal with root causes.
Physical- Living a homeless life brings about physical harm, be it with tobacco, alcohol, drugs, low quality food, or dealing with disease and weather. As you help these people you will need to address the need for physical healing by providing quality food and quality health care. I am in the process now of finding money so that the homeless people that I know can be helped by a naturopathic doctor if they desire.
Mental- One major cop out when dealing with the homeless is to say that they have mental illness. While mental illness does exist, it certainly isn't as widespread as some would have us believe. One individual that I know has signs of mental illness, but since I know him well I know that he is far from being mentally ill. He steps in to traffic on a major highway and points at drivers and yells at them. When he does I pull him back onto the sidewalk and talk him back down to a calm level. Many think he is mentally ill, when in fact he is quite mentally well, except that he is very angry at the world for judging him constantly and that is what he yells at drivers- ' stop judging me you...'. These people have had to endure so much abuse that they will need help to get back to wholesome thinking patterns.
Social- Many of the homeless that I know have no clue how to have a good relationship. Since they were little children they had drug addicted parents, and then after growing up they have had one bad relationship after another. To help them holistically you will need to also teach them and show them how to have good, whole relationships.
Spiritually- As humans we have a spirit. We have a need to connect with God. By helping them make that connection you are helping them find meaning in something other than themselves. While I am a Christian I do not encourage them to go to church. I encourage them to connect with others as a community so that they are fully involved in worship and encouragement. This gives them an opportunity to share their gifts.
Implementing these principles will go a long way in making a difference to the homeless in your community. Keep in mind that no one person or organization can change everything, but you can make a difference. I encourage you to avoid many of the traditional approaches to the homeless population, and to begin by building authentic friendships with these people. What you may find is that you are the one who is changed in a positive way.
Links to people who help the homeless
- Clackamas County Love INC
This the Clackamas County, Oregon division of the national organizaton, Love Inc.
An organization that helps churches connect with their neighbors, even their homeless neighbors
- Knowing Me Ministries
Knowing Me Ministries is a Christian outreach in Portland, Or. We reach out to the homeless and less fortunate and show them the love of Jesus in a real and tangible way.
- Dignity Advocate
An organization that advocates for the homeless
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