How to Be a Better Neighbor to Homeless People

A guide to treating everyone who lives on your block with compassion

Photo credit: MichaelGaida via Pixabay

The Street Sheet, the street newspaper in San Francisco where I served as editor from 2013 to 2015, doesn’t have many in-house style rules. The goal of the newspaper is to lift up the voices of people experiencing poverty and homelessness, and my job as editor was to be invisible, allowing people to speak in their own voices whenever possible.

One major exception is a rule to correct all references to “the homeless” to “homeless people”.

One of the the Street Sheet’s goals is to make clear that homelessness is a condition, and that anybody can become homeless. Referring to “the homeless” indulges a comforting but false idea that homeless people are too different from you to deserve empathy — just mere pity.

By the time I left that job, I was totally uncompromising in my defense of homeless people. I refused to give an inch to anyone who would elevate their personal discomfort over the rights of homeless people to seek shelter. I gave complainers no quarter. I got in a lot of fights with people. I was righteous, completely correct, and also, a huge drag at parties.

More recently, I started working as the resident manager of an apartment building across the street from Golden Gate Park, where a large concentration of homeless youth live. The neighborhood homeless shelter closed in 2013, and the nonprofit that managed it, the Homeless Youth Alliance, faces vicious opposition from neighborhood residents in their ongoing search for a new location. Powerful neighborhood groups are currently gearing up to fight a new affordable housing development because they’re very concerned about potentially having to look at a tall building every day.

A small group of young people live outside of my apartment building. I get complaints about them about once a week. And now, as a resident manager, I’m not in a position to simply argue with my neighbors that they’re wrong for complaining about homeless people.

As it turns out, the complainers are also not always wrong. My sidewalk neighbors are truly awful neighbors. They don’t clean up after their dogs, they leave trash on the street, they get drunk and loud at night, they’re rude to passersby on the sidewalk, they leave trash in front of the building, and they’re just a generally unpleasant presence.

So now I have a dilemma on my hands. It’s my job to take care of my resident’s complaints. But I also continue to empathize with the folks living on my street, in spite of their awful behavior.

My response starts from here: my neighbors might be awful, but they’re also essentially powerless. Their rudeness comes from their need to defend what little they have. And change has to come from the people who are more politically empowered—namely, their neighbors who can afford San Francisco’s insane rents.

But to change people’s minds, you have to begin from where they are. Arguing doesn’t work. So, this is my new, non-combative guide to becoming a friend to homeless people.


Teach yourself to see homeless people as people

Before you can even begin to address homelessness as an issue, you have to become comfortable with literally addressing homeless people. One of the easiest and most effective ways to do that is to get in the habit of actually seeing, and making eye contact with, homeless people.

During my time as editor of the Street Sheet, we wrote a grant to fund free uniforms for our vendors. We gave away t-shirts, aprons, and badges with the Street Sheet logo that many vendors wear when they sell papers on the street.

Why spend money on something so superficial?

The material reality of homelessness is hard, but it’s compounded by the feeling of invisibility, when people won’t meet your gaze or respond to your attempts at conversation. The effects of social invisibility are a subject of social science research, especially its effect on African-American males, who are disproportionately likely to become homeless.

The uniforms helped vendors be seen as a legitimate presence in public space, reducing the chances of a negative interaction with security guards or police. But more importantly, the uniforms also help the vendors literally be seen — the uniforms make it more likely for people to actually look at them, and help reduce the fear people have of making eye contact and interacting with a homeless person on the street.

A recent study of “toxic online disinhibition”, i.e. “trolling”, suggested that the largest contributing factor to nasty behavior online is a lack of eye contact. It stands to reason that the same thing applies in real life — a lack of eye contact makes it easier to think of the person you’re avoiding as a problem to be solved, rather than a human being.

So make eye contact, especially when you encounter someone asking for help—even if it’s just to say, politely, that you can’t help today. In my experience, the worst thing that’s likely to happen is an awkward conversation that goes on a few seconds longer than you might have liked.

Eye contact can have profoundly positive effects for the person being seen, and more importantly, it can help you see homeless people in need of help, instead of “the homeless” as a problem.


Understand how we got here, and that another world is possible

The next step you can take is to understand what homelessness actually is — why people are homeless, and why we have the levels of homelessness in our society that we do.

I started working at the Street Sheet in 2013 thinking I knew much more about homelessness than I actually did. Two particularly surprising facts completely changed my perception of the problem.

The first is that homelessness, in the form of the large-scale social problem we know today, is only about as old as I am. Rates of homelessness skyrocketed in the 1980s as the federal government cut funding to cities for public housing. The level of homelessness we now take for granted was considered a crisis less than a generation ago.

The second is that in my home city of San Francisco, about 70% of people experiencing homelessness were housed residents of San Francisco before becoming homeless. They worked and paid rent just like everybody else before some catastrophic event, like a job loss or an eviction or a natural disaster, led to the loss of their home.

This data flies in the face of the most common misconception about homeless people — that they “chose to be homeless”.

This is not to say that personal choices don’t matter, but it’s irrational to look at individual choices in a vacuum. People make choices in a larger social context, and that context, in many of America’s urban areas since the 1980s, is one of scarce affordable housing, insufficient housing construction, and decreasing resources for making housing affordable. Complaining about the people downstream from all of that just doesn’t make sense.

You can help yourself, and homeless people, by reading the history of the emergence of homelessness as we know it today — especially pieces written by people who were on the front lines, like this feature on New York City homelessness by the Coalition for the Homeless, this report on homelessness in Los Angeles by the Inter-University Consortium Against Homelessness, or this explainer by San Francisco’s KQED.


Resolve to stop calling the police, and stop giving the police more power

The political choices required to fix the structural issues driving homelessness are hard, because they require sacrifice.

The most politically empowered people don’t want to live next to homeless shelters, or even affordable housing developments, in part because they believe it will negatively effect home values.

They also, understandably, want to feel safe. And despite the fact that homeless youth in particular are more likely to be the victims of crime than to be perpetrators, people still perceive a threat from people who live on the street in their neighborhoods.

So when people make political choices about how to deal with homeless people, it’s not surprising what kinds of choices they make. They make choices like approving San Francisco’s “Sit/Lie” law, which created new crimes used to target homeless people. They choose things like 2016’s Proposition Q, which gave the police new powers to dismantle tent encampments on sidewalks and under freeway overpasses. They choose, consistently, to make merely being homeless a crime.

These laws mainly make being homeless more difficult, increasing the cognitive load of poverty that makes everyday things more difficult.

The predominant message our society has for poor and homeless people is that they are at fault, and they need to work to better themselves and improve their situation. But at the same time, the proliferation of homelessness criminalization laws aims to make that self-improvement more difficult.

It’s one thing to call the police when someone is in danger, or causing danger to others. It’s another thing to call the police (or to vote to give new powers to the police) just because someone is doing something that annoys you.

Involving the police in your personal grievances with homeless people may sometimes make the acute problem go away. But the police always make life harder for people who are already on the receiving end of huge systemic issues—issues that more policing can’t fix.

Calling the police also sometimes puts people’s lives in danger, like when San Francisco police shot and killed a homeless man after someone falsely reported hearing a crying baby in a tent encampment.

Once you realize that homelessness is largely the result of political choices, there’s one simple one you can make right away: resolve to stop calling the police on homeless people.

It’s true that some homeless people can be dangerous, and that some of that danger is due to untreated mental illness and drug addiction. It is also true that both of these are systemic problems that are not handled particularly well by the police. Many cities have alternative agencies to call when you see someone having an apparent mental health crisis. The keywords to look for are “Crisis Intervention Team” or “Homeless Outreach Team.” Learn those numbers, and save them! If you can’t find them, write your local representative or your mayor.

If your city doesn’t have those alternatives to policing, make some noise and try to get them for your community! The Crisis Intervention Team model, also known as the “Memphis Model”, is an effective and growing alternative to pure policing as it concerns people experiencing mental health crises. CIT International is a great place for resources.


Advocate for homeless shelters and supportive housing in your backyard

Lots of people claim to want to build more shelters and supportive housing, but when the rubber meets the road, they don’t. People have a much easier time choosing to criminalize homelessness than they do making the decision to house the homeless near them.

In order to fix the deep scarcity of public housing that’s been piling up since the 1980s, cities all over the U.S. — and especially on the west coast — are going to need to build a lot more housing, at all levels. That includes affordable housing and homeless shelters. If you live in these cities, some of it is inevitably going to be near you.

A small step you can take is to write, call, or show up in person in support of these projects. They rarely have a vocal constituency in their favor, and they always face organized opposition.

If you don’t know where or how your city decides on these projects, call or write your local representative. Another way to find these plans and meetings is to find local meeting archives using Granicus. Granicus provides meeting archiving services to local governments around the United States. Searching Google for “(your city name) Granicus” can lead you to the archives, or you can use Granicus search.


Fight evictions of homeless people when there’s no alternative housing for them

I worked on an anti-eviction campaign in 2014 to help save the homes of about 60 people who lived on an undeveloped piece of land that juts out into the San Francisco Bay called the Albany Bulb. It didn’t surprise me that people who lived nearby were trying to force the homeless people out — that kind of thing happens all the time. What did surprise me was their argument for doing it.

Many of the people working to evict the residents of the Bulb claimed it was for the residents’ own good, because living on the Bulb was unsafe and inhumane. They appealed to compassion, claiming that evicting these people would get them out of an unsafe situation and into a better one somewhere else.

The problem is that safer situation didn’t really exist, and the people pushing for eviction weren’t working to create an alternative. The people who were evicted ended up living on the street, or in cars, or quadrupled up in homes in unsafe neighborhoods, and only then because of small, temporary rent subsidies.

The same argument is used all the time to oppose construction of temporary shelters, or tiny houses, or live-in bike trailers, or RVs parked on residential streets — the thinking is that these types of housing shouldn’t be allowed, “because people shouldn’t have to live like that!” But the reality is that those unconventional structures are better than nothing.

I used to live in a 160 square foot shipping container. I don’t believe everyone should have to live in only 160 square feet, but I also know it’s better than living on the street.

A step you can take is to learn about the actual, existing conditions people are living in where you live, and judge potential solutions in light of the reality, instead of the ideal.

Look up how many homeless shelters are in your city, and how big the waiting list is. San Francisco publishes this data, as do many other cities. Familiarize yourself with laws that criminalize shelter, like San Francisco’s ever-expanding “oversize vehicle ban”, or the new law in Los Angeles targeting people living in vehicles. Understand how few options are available to homeless people when one type of shelter or another is “banned”, and take that into account when you consider responses to homeless people.


So what about my neighbors?

I acknowledge that the folks living outside my apartment are people just like me, just trying to get by in an extraordinarily tough city. I realize they’re at the wrong end of a bad situation that’s the result of some awful political choices. I’ve encouraged the tenants in my building to complain to me instead of calling the cops. I’ve shown up to neighborhood meetings to get the old McDonald’s turned into a temporary homeless shelter, followed by permanent supportive housing that’ll be so tall it’ll make steam come out of the NIMBYs’ ears.

But my sidewalk neighbors are still jerks.

So what did I do?

I went outside and asked them to quit being jerks.

One of them has a cell phone, so I took the number down to call them in case there were any complaints. And I had the ratty couch hauled away, because there’s a perfectly good park to sit in across the street.

They still don’t like me, and I still get complaints. But I try to say “hi” every day, and get to know them on a level other than “those pain-in-the-ass kids that live on the sidewalk”.

It’s not perfect, but it’s a small step in the right direction.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Matthew Gerring

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I'm a journalist and software engineer based in San Francisco, California, writing stories and code to help make better sense of the world.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.