What Can I Do About Homelessness?
The most common question that I get about homelessness is simply, “what should I do?”
“I see someone panhandling on the sidewalk, what should do?”
“I’m waiting for my train in Penn Station and there are people everywhere who appear to have no train to catch and no way to catch it, what should I do?”
“Someone approaches me and asks for money, what should I do?”
“There are 60,000 men, women, and children in the NYC shelter system, what should I do?”
The reason why people want to know the right thing to do is because they are so afraid of doing the wrong thing. They don’t want to enable someone to remain homeless, they don’t want to make a bad situation worse, and they don’t want to put themselves in a scenario that can get out of control. So, because well intentioned folks don’t know what they should do, they do… nothing. If you hear nothing else, hear me now: doing nothing is not acceptable.
So, I’m going to walk you through some simple steps that will hopefully empower you to do SOMETHING.
The first thing you can do is decide. Decide that our homeless neighbors are not just a nuisance or an eyesore, but human beings who are made in the image of God and deserve our respect, our consideration, and our time.
But it can’t stop with a decision. Decision needs to lead to action. One simple step you can take is to put your phone away as you walk from point A to point B. Too many of us are walking the streets of NYC with headphones in our ears, and screens in our faces, and as a result, we are walking right past men and women who are lonely, struggling, and disabled.
One time I was in Penn Station waiting for my train, listening to music, lost in my own world, and it took someone three tries to break through and get my attention before I tentatively removed a single ear bud and heard him out as he asked me for change. We need to put our phones away and focus our attention on the people that we walk past, sit next to, and travel with. It is physically impossible to love a neighbor that you don’t see.
Once you see the human being right in front of you, you should engage. Believe it or not, I don’t much enjoy approaching strangers. It just feels uncomfortable. I feel like I’m bothering the person. I think things like, “he doesn’t want to talk to me.” Usually, by the time I walk up to someone, I’ve managed to create an elaborate backstory in my head about his aversion to people and why the next guy who comes across his path will get the full brunt of his frustration and anger.
Now, I don’t even like when the UPS guy delivers a package to my house because he always rings the doorbell, which sends my dog into a mindless fit, and in that split second, I have to decide if opening the door is worth the risk of talking to someone I don’t know.
But at least I have a door to hide behind if I want to. Our friends who are homeless don’t often get the luxury of having someone ring the doorbell. Most well-intentioned people just storm through the front door like Kramer on Seinfeld. Please don’t barge into someone’s space and assume that just because he or she is homeless, she don’t get a say in whether or not she talks to you. This may sound overly simple, but you can ring the doorbell of any homeless person by making eye contact and saying, “hi.” If the person ignores you, pretends you’re not there, or curses you out, just take a hint, and assume that no one is home.
Homelessness is intrinsically lonely. The truth is, for every one homeless person who wants to be left alone, ignored, or behaves obnoxiously, there are ten more who are desperate for a friend.
So engage by ringing doorbells left and right. Be the person who refuses to let our brothers and sisters in the street go another hour before someone reminds them that they exist and that they matter. Don’t punt that responsibility to someone else, because someone else might not be coming. Once you ring the doorbell and the person invites you in, by responding positively or answering your question, don’t forget that standard, socially acceptable rules of conversation apply.
One time, I was sitting on the floor of Penn Station chatting with a new friend when a woman walking past us stopped abruptly, looked at my friend (totally ignoring me), and said, “my church feeds the homeless outside every Thursday. You should come. You need it!”
She didn’t say, “hello.” She didn’t introduce herself or ask for my friend’s name. She didn’t even find out if he was homeless before declaring him to be one of “the homeless.” My friend handled the interruption far more graciously than I would have. He smiled. Thanked her and explained that he was ok and she walked on without saying goodbye.
When you meet someone at a party, you typically don’t open with, “Are you homeless?” That’s just awkward.
Start at the beginning. What’s your name? Where are you from? What do you like to do for fun? How’s your day going?
If someone is truly in acute need, these kinds of questions will quickly reveal what’s going on. If he or she isn’t interested in a longer conversation, that will also become clear.
Don’t feel pressure to guide the conversation. Just show interest in the human being standing or sitting right in front of you.
If the person does tell you they need money, or a ride, or a ticket somewhere, don’t freak out.
I feel like every day the city is full of people walking around terrified that someone will ask them for money. As though the moment someone asks you for a dollar you either have to empty your bank account into his cup or he might kill you!
Personally, I don’t like giving money to people in the street. Not because I’m worried about them spending it on drugs or alcohol, even if that’s what some folks do, but I don’t give money to people because I’ve found that it sets up an unhealthy relationship dynamic.
I also like to ask people why they are asking complete strangers for money. I feel like once someone opens that door, it’s okay to walk through it.
So the guy who approached me in Penn Station asked me for some change so I asked him why he needed the cash. He answered by saying, “I’m going to be honest, I’m an alcoholic and I need to go buy a beer.” I thought, man, you picked the wrong guy to ask for money…
When you ask why someone is asking for money, sometimes people will open up and give you the Gospel truth. Other times they will lie to your face. But please try to remember that lying is not unique to homeless people.
It’s not your job to discover if the person you are talking to is lying. Especially if you decide ahead of time that you have a personal policy about giving cash to strangers. It really doesn’t matter if the person is telling you the truth, because you can’t be hustled if you’re not giving money. And if you decide to give money, recognize that it’s no longer yours and you can’t judge them for how they spend it.
This is one reason I don’t recommend giving money to strangers.
I’m way more likely to judge people and put expectations on them when I give them money. It’s easy to feel like they owe me something, but since I don’t expect homeless folks to pay me back, I tend to demand repayment in things like respect, appreciation, or even a photo that I can post on my social media feed for some applause from my peers.
The issue isn’t panhandlers, it’s me.
If someone does ask you for money and you decide ahead of time that you aren’t going to give them any, try being honest. Don’t tell the person, “I don’t have any.” Say, “I don’t give money to strangers.” One time I told someone that and he got mad, “why don’t you just lie to me?”
I said, “because you deserve better than that!”
If you want to have something to give to someone who is asking for help, I recommend new socks. Most of you probably walk around NYC with a backpack, briefcase, or purse. Why not buy a pack of new socks at the store and just throw one pair in there for someone that you might meet as you walk around the city? You could also carry gift cards to Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks. These cards don’t just buy coffee for someone, they also buy a few minutes of heat or air conditioning.
If you want to take an even bigger leap into the world of engagement, instead of just giving someone a gift card for coffee, try offering to treat someone to coffee. Some of my best conversations have happened over a shared meal with someone who asked me for money.
The next thing to remember is that Boundaries are healthy. If you meet someone for the first time, second time, or third time, please don’t bring that person into your apartment for a shower.
Boundaries are always easier to take down than set up, so make sure you establish them right up front.
If the person asks where you live, you can be vague and use general language. If the person pushes the issue, feel free to say that you don’t give that personal information to people that you just met.
If someone says something inappropriate to you, tell the person that you won’t be friends with someone who talks to you that way.
Ladies, please remember that many of the men who are in the street were never taught how to appropriately engage with an attractive woman. If someone says something offensive to you, feel free to say, “that’s offensive. I can’t be around someone who talks to me that way.” If someone curses you out, just him goodbye and walk away. That’s what you would do for anyone else, there’s no need to surrender your safety, dignity, or well-being just because someone is homeless.
At the same time, boundaries work both ways. It’s up to us to make the person we are engaging feel safe as well. Did you know that statistically speaking, homeless folks are way more likely to victims of violent crime than you or me?
It’s not a good idea to approach someone with a big group, or to make someone who is sitting on the sidewalk feel intimidated by hovering over them. It’s always helpful to ask permission before sitting down next to someone.
It’s also not a good idea to wake someone up. Homeless folks average anywhere from 2–4 hours of sleep every 24 hours.
I don’t know about you, but sleep is precious to me. I can’t imagine not being able to crawl into my own bed every night.
The last thing I would want when I fall asleep is to have some strange person poking me or yelling in my direction so that they could give me a pair of socks. Just let them sleep.
Feel free to look for signs of life. Make sure their chest is going up and down or their lips aren’t blue (especially in the winter time), but if they appear to be in relatively good health, let them be.
Another good principle of productive engagement is “2 way conversation.” As we’ve heard about tonight and as we know, mental illness is a real thing, and drugs and alcohol can be legitimate barriers to healthy relationship.
So, don’t force it. If someone is in full blown psychosis, or extremely volatile because he is drunk or high, don’t choose that opportunity to have a chat. In those situations, you can call 311 and report that someone who appears to be homeless is having a bad day and could use some assistance. Or if there is a police officer nearby, you can ask them to keep an eye on the individual because you are concerned for his safety as much as anyone else’s.
Just use two-way conversation as a guide to know if this is going to be a healthy step in the right direction.
The last thing that you can do is learn about the resources and the organizations that are around to help folks who are struggling with homelessness on their journey.
Learn where the free beds are for people with no place to sleep. Learn where the drop-in centers are. Learn about the city shelter system. Sign up for mental health first aide training. Sign up for Overdose Prevention Training.
Guys, we live and work in the city with more resources for folks who are struggling than any city in America. Take advantage of it.
If you’re too nervous to engage people on your own, sign up to volunteer with one of the Rescue Alliance organizations. Sign up for one of the monthly Don’t Walk By outreaches that happens in NYC.
Please don’t own the responsibility of saving someone from homelessness. But please don’t ignore the responsibility of being a good neighbor. I think it’s easy to assume that because the folks struggling with homelessness in our community don’t have doors, or doorbells, they aren’t our neighbors.
In the first century one of the religious leaders asked Jesus a similar question: “who is my neighbor?”
In response Jesus tells the famous story of the Good Samaritan. It’s the story of a stranger who was walking home after a long day of work, but who clearly didn’t have his headphones in his ears or a phone in his hand, because he noticed the man crumpled in a ball on the sidewalk. I’m sure he rang the man’s metaphorical doorbell by asking if the person was ok and checking to see if he was breathing. Then he engaged by calling the guy a cab and transported him to the ER. But he didn’t just leave him there. This religious and cultural outsider made sure that the man he met would be treated and cared for.
My friends, most homeless folks will not require that level of emotional and physical investment. But just because someone doesn’t have a doorbell, apartment, or house, doesn’t mean that he is not your neighbor.
So, “what should you do?” DO SOMETHING.
~Josiah Haken: V.P. of Outreach Operations, New York City Relief