What should you do when you encounter a homeless person asking for money?
On the one hand, you want to be a good and generous person and have compassion for others experiencing poverty — or anyone when they are in need. Walking by without acknowledging them feels calloused.
On the other hand, you wonder if giving money to someone on the street actually helps, or if it just enables some of the factors that are causing their homelessness in the first place, such as an addiction.
Our generation knows what it’s like to feel displaced and lonely. We may not be experiencing homelessness when we move to a new city, but we do know what it’s like to feel like a stranger in a cold and distant place. That feeling of home — where you are known and loved and feel safe and secure — is a fundamental human need. We all deserve a good home.
It’s not easy to know how to respond to people who are living on the streets. Here are some fundamentals that can help you engage people experiencing homelessness in a way that enhances their human dignity — and builds bonds of solidarity that enhance your own humanity, too.
Make eye contact and share a conversation
People living on the street often feel invisible — like they don’t matter. Most people pass them by without acknowledging their presence. One homeless man in Los Angeles actually believed he was physically invisible, and was shocked when a boy handed him an advertising pamphlet.
So we can help the homeless by simply making eye contact with them and sharing a kind word — that human contact meets a fundamental need: to know that you matter.
Starting a conversation when you encounter the homeless isn’t as challenging as you might think. In fact, it’s much less about what you say, and much more about the fact that you’re engaging them as a human being.
Volunteer at a shelter
If you’re feeling motivated to give of your time and resources, consider the option to volunteer at a homeless shelter. You’ll be able to find a shelter in your city — maybe even in your neighborhood — that has a variety of needs, from helping to care for children to cooking and serving meals. Getting involved turns this issue into a human problem, and gives you an outlet to make a difference in someone’s life.
That’s how Becky started. She wondered about how to help the homeless and began by just showing up at a soup kitchen ready to help. The kitchen was full, so she simply sat down at a table and started to talk to people waiting for a meal. That simple interaction taught her three lessons about volunteering at a shelter:
- It’s about being present.
- It’s okay to be nervous.
- It’s about building relationships.
In the end, she realized that volunteering at a shelter was simply a way of being there for someone in need. People looking to volunteer often show up at a shelter wanting to be productive and to stay busy — they want to be useful. But sharing a cup of coffee and a meaningful conversation can nourish a person just as much as a meal, so be ready to have the courage to be “useless” if that’s what you can offer someone.
Offer the dignity of seeing everyone as an equal
Too often, people experiencing homelessness are reduced down to one fact: that they live on the streets. That becomes the one, single identifier about them to the world. So if you are wondering how to help the poor and vulnerable, remember that they have gifts to share, as well. Just by virtue of being a fellow person created in God’s image, a homeless person has something to offer us: whether that’s kindness or insight or a joke or fellowship.
When we learn how to treat homeless people with dignity, we learn that they are, indeed, unique individuals with their own preferences that deserve attention. Take, for example, Inspiration Café in Chicago, which has a mission to provide “restaurant-style meals to homeless or low-income men, women, and families in a therapeutic community that promotes dignity and respect.” That means when a person walks in the door, they are greeted, seated, and handed a menu to pick out exactly what sounds good to them on that particular day. The ability to choose a preference enhances their dignity.
So, regardless of whether or not you respond to a person on the street by giving money or just eye contact, remember: one of the most important ways we can care for the homeless is by looking at each person with dignity to remind them that they are seen and loved, and not forgotten or unworthy.