How should you respond when someone facing homelessness asks for help?
You may encounter them while you are walking around town or in a parking lot. You see them when driving. They are on highway exit ramps, sidewalks, or standing in the median.
Their signs read “Homeless, not Hopeless” and “Anything Helps, God Bless.”
Or—as in the case of Speak Up writer Mark Gansert—something more creative:
Whatever the sign says, the underlying message is clear: Help me!
And how should you respond? That’s a question folks ask often, especially as the seasons change and it gets colder.
There are many different approaches. The easiest approach is of course to look straight ahead keep moving. But that doesn’t sit right with many folks.
Below are a couple recommendations, based on hundreds of encounters and over a decade of conversations.
Here’s our simple formula.
Give something useful.
This is easy, powerful, and often overlooked.
What does it mean to honor someone?
To honor is to show respect and esteem. It is hold in high regard. It is to consider the interaction a privilege.
When you look at this person, try to look beyond the messiness of their circumstance, and see them as someone worthy of love. See them as a child loved by a mother. A person in pain. As someone struggling for dignity.
You can assume that they are mostly treated with dishonor. They are routinely cursed and shamed. They look at themselves with disappointment and disgust. Passersby call insults at them. Maybe they endure abuse and violence and have come to see as that as normal, even deserved.
So treat them like a person. Ask their name. Make eye contact. Truly listen. Express empathy. Let them know you recognize that homelessness is an experience not an identity. (“Your signs says you are homeless, that must be really rough.”)
Once when a woman approached my car, I took off my sunglasses before we started talking. She immediately started crying and thanked me for giving her the dignity of eye contact.
Another time, I saw a man who was sitting dejectedly, holding a sign, but not approaching or even looking at the drivers. When I rolled down my window and called out a hello, he jumped up with an enormous smile. “You surprised me! Most people just drive by like I’m a ghost, like I’m not even here.”
These are simple, small things. But they can be humanizing and hope-giving. Your simple kindness may be like cool water on a hot day.
Read Part 2 below: