HOW TO HELP THOSE WITHOUT A HOME
Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help.
Who Are the Homeless?
Sometimes two-parent families; sometimes single parent families.
Families become homeless for a variety of reasons. Families are forced into homelessness from the loss of employment due to lay-offs. This has been especially acute in 2020 due to the Covid-19 epidemic. Sometimes one of the adults in a family suddenly may not be able to work because of a serious illness or accident. Without that income, the family can’t pay their rent. They are evicted from their apartment. Perhaps other new and mandatory expenses have arisen. Women with their children can become homeless to escape physical and psychological abuse.
A large number of US families can only find work in low-paying jobs. A person earning the federal US minimum wage of $7.25/hour and working a 40-hour week would have to spend 72% of their income on a $900/month apartment. The absence of savings to deal with crises in these families is common, given their normal expenses and low incomes. Homeless families often lack any relatives willing or able to provide temporary housing.
Another group of people among the homeless are the mentally ill, again without any extended family to support them. These illnesses cover a wide range such as developmental disorders, PTSD, schizophrenia, and the consequences of prolonged substance abuse. Individuals with ongoing alcoholism and drug addictions are often among the homeless.
Most homeless shelters are set up to provide temporary, overnight housing. For some of the homeless, this is all they really want and then have a strong desire to be out on their own during the day. Overnight shelter is, of course, especially needed on cold winter nights. Unfortunately, shelters, for all the good they do, cannot help out in many important ways. Life in a shelter provides quite limited access to medical and dental care, eye care, hygiene products and employment counselling. Families in shelters are often subject to separation from one another.
Yet shelters can be a small part of the life of some of the homeless. Some actually prefer the street. They don’t trust shelters OR can’t live with the shelter’s rules. They may find the shelter full or actually feel safer on their own. Some homeless prefer to shelter in a car, in an abandoned building. Some can actually have some sort of tent. About one fourth of all homeless fit in this category called “rough sleeping”.
Duration of Homelessness
In addition to considering how the homeless got there; it is useful to reflect on how long they are likely to remain homeless. There is a population of the chronic homeless. These are mostly the mentally ill and addicted. Others experience episodic homelessness, maybe 2-4 times a year – arising from addiction and from health issues. The third group are the transitional homeless; those who have suffered a major life change, typically a job loss. Finally, there are the hidden homeless. They have no place to call their own, no place for their stuff, they are couch-surfing with friends or relatives, but at least have food and warmth.
How many of the homeless are families and children, how many are individuals, and how many are chronically homeless depends a lot on what city or county one is talking about and what year the survey was taken. Covid-19 seems to have greatly increased the percentage of the homeless who are families.
Best one can do is cite a few examples:
- In Palm Beach county Florida, the school district reports about 2,000 of the children enrolled in the public schools are homeless.
- Coalitionforthehomeless.org reports 75% of the homeless in New York City in 2016 were families and 40% were children. Elsewhere individuals are usually more prevalent.
- For example, according to lahsa.org, in the city of Los Angeles 80% of the homeless on a particular night in January 2020 were individuals and only 20% were part of a family. The chronically homeless were 38%.
- The Los Angeles county-wide system seems to work well. Of 83,000 newly homeless in 2019, some 53,000 figured out a solution on their own (“self-resolved”) and 23,000 were placed into semi-permanent housing.
- Endhomelessness.org cites the one-night US-wide survey in January 2019 as showing 568,000 homeless on that night. Of these 63% were in a shelter or transitional housing and 37% were living on the street or an abandoned building. Individuals were 70% and families were 30%. Veterans were 7% and unaccompanied children or young adults were 6%. The chronically homeless were 17%.
- Fredvictor.org estimates the homeless population in Toronto on any given night to be a bit above 9,200.
Some Ways to Help Your Homeless Neighbors
- Support your local homeless charities through The Garden’s 2021 Winter Appeal (coming soon).
- Consider ongoing financial support thereafter. Your local homeless charity will certainly have a need for financial support and will use it well (yet check their rating). Beyond funding, the most important thing you can do is to call them up and ask what they need. They will know best and you should not make assumptions. Some charities will have an Amazon wish list.
Here is a list, from a charity website, of the typical items a homeless charity/shelter might need:
- hygiene kits
- new socks
- long johns
- new underwear
- feminine hygiene products
- diapers, first-aid kits
- simple refreshment supplies
- school supplies
- kid’s toys
- Perhaps you have skills, such as teaching life skills that can be put to good use at the shelter.
- With adequate supervision, perhaps enquire about taking the children on a half-day outing.
Some Ideas To Help Homeless Individuals
- NO CASH (Provide fast food or grocery gift cards instead).
- Share God’s love – you can do that by simply speaking to them and spending time with them.
- Talk to them with respect. Acknowledge their value as people.
- Recognize the diversity of their problems. Pray for them.
- Make sure you yourself are SAFE. Be in sight of others always. Be aware that some small percentage of the homeless have criminal behaviors and some others are mentally ill. They might manifest their illness through violence.
Additional Online Resources
- Rescue Mission. A great number of cities and areas have Rescue Missions, each location seems to operate its own webpage. Google ‘rescue mission’ and pick one near you. Learn what they are doing in your area.
- Volunteers of America (voa.org). It’s an organization worth knowing about. Open the Menu, then select ‘Our Services’ to see what another group does.
- Covenant House (covenanthouse.org). The Youth Homeless page contains a lot of good information.
- Bowery Mission (bowery.org). The Bowery Mission is a New York City charity, but you can learn a lot about homelessness in general. Click on The Need, then read ‘Facts About Homelessness’ and ‘Tips on Helping the Homeless’.
- The Renewal Project (therenewalproject.org). This is an Allstate Insurance company sponsored charity. There is a useful page on what homeless shelters typically need.
- Lifebridge North Shore (lifebridgenorthshore.org). Lifebridge is a charity for the northern suburbs of Boston. Lots of good insights and ideas for how homeless people can be supported by a community.
- Invisible People (invisiblepeople.tv). Yet another really good place to learn more.
- Fredvictor.org – A Toronto charity with reasonable data. Recent data on homelessness in Canada provided difficult to find. Homelesshub.ca may also be useful.
- Endhomelessness.org – This site has good US data.
- Pitinoshelter.org/ten-myths-about-homelessness – A good read to dispel any residual doubts you have about the sorts of people who need help.
Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless.
Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help.
“Helping the Homeless” is not always as simple as it sounds. This is because homelessness comes from a complicated mix of reasons, including: physical or developmental disabilities, racial inequality, mental illness, or drug addiction. Although, as individuals, we may not be able to solve homelessness, as followers of Christ we have a responsibility to share Christ’s love (Luke 6:27-36).
My interest in helping this population began when I was 16. I had a high school co-op in a local community center with a dietician. It was located in a downtown area and I took a city bus from my school to the bus terminal and walked about 15 minutes from there to the community center. On that 15-minute walk I saw many people day after day that spent their day on the streets.
Now, some of you may be thinking: How safe was it for you to be walking in that area alone? That is a common fear that many people have about people who are homeless. Although, at first my walk from the terminal put me on edge, over time I became friendly with several of the people on my way. Sometimes sharing my lunch with them and other times just a smile.
With the dietician, we would host open community kitchens and I would see some of them come in and learn to cook with us. We would also go to shelters and teach people how to make food on a budget. Looking back, that was the beginning of how outreach became a fundamental part of my faith: “I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:36,RSV).
Just last year, my city instituted a security taskforce to keep homeless people off of private property,in hopes of reducing crime in the city. Although I do not still work in the community center, I do see its effects as I work doing COVID-19 door screening at the farmers market down the street. People who don’t have stable shelter are now pushed around the city as the security forces tell them that they need to leave. Put yourselves in their shoes for a minute: How does the constant movement affect your mental health? Where would you go if city and private property including parks were off limits? These are just some of the things that affect those without shelter in my area. It can be so helpful to know what our neighbours are needing so that we know best how to help them.
So, how can you help people who are living unsheltered?
- Learn about homelessness and the specific problems that people in your area are facing. This can be done by doing research, reaching out to a local charity, or making connections with the people you see on the streets. The more concrete facts you have about homelessness the better. Ultimately, they are all people that deserve respect and not pity, fear, or ignorance.
- Spread Awareness: Share your learning with others and organize events to help people in need! For example, a fund-raiser at your ecclesial hall for a local homeless shelter.
- Avoid giving money as this can fuel problems. Alternatively, carry some food vouchers in your purse – for places like Mcdonalds, Subway, Taco Bell or Starbucks. When you see a homeless person, you can then offer a voucher to at least make sure that the person has a meal.
- If you are approached by someone who asks you to help them find shelter, a good rule of thumb is to phone 211 (see: https://www.helplinecenter.org/2-1-1-community-resources/). This service will help you to signpost people to local help.
- Just spend five minutes listening and talking to the person without judgement, to make them feel visible and valued. If they are near a grocery store where you are going to shop, ask if they need anything.
- Time: Volunteer with a charity that helps people in need such as a food back, homeless shelter, or community garden;
- Money: Donate to a local charity or use your money to create kits for those in need. If you’d like to make up care packs, here are some instructions on how to do that. There is also an opportunity of having a grant from The Garden to help you: https://thegardenoutreach.org/boxes-of-love-care-packs/
- Clothing: Investigate donating clothes to your local shelter. Interview attire can be very helpful for those looking to get into the workforce. Also, if you live in a cold climate boots and other cold weather clothing is in high demand;
- Hygiene Items: Donate items to a shelter to give to their clients;
- Food: Donate food to a local food bank or pantry .