As the weather has been getting chillier, a topic that has been on my mind is homelessness. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was walking out of mass and a homeless man asked me for some change. As someone who rarely carries any cash I painfully shook my head and hoped he believed me when I responded “sorry, I don’t have any”. I then watched as masses of people exited the church saying similar things or just ignoring the man, and I was overcome by a feeling of guilt as I became aware of the hypocrisy of the situation. At the same time, however, I cannot call out hypocrisy without acknowledging that I am not innocent of being part of this do-nothing crowd. It’s easy to fall into your daily routine and ignore the same homeless people you see every day on your way to work. It’s easy to numb that discomfort or even guilt you feel with thoughts about how you have nothing on you to give them, you’re in a hurry, or maybe they’ll use the money that you give them on drugs.
As an optimist however, I choose to believe that there are good people out there. I have been surprised in DC by the amount of people I have seen sitting on the ground talking to the homeless and offering them comfort in the form of a meal, some money or just a conversation. A good friend told me recently that she spends her lunch breaks with a homeless man that sits outside her office everyday. With the limited money she has, she buys him lunch and a newspaper, and nods along to his stories and thoughts that few will ever hear. This is so good. At the same time however, I know many good people who refuse to do something like this due to fears and misconceptions or simply a lack of knowledge about what (if anything) they themselves can do. For this reason, we need to look at statistics and understand the reality of homelessness.
The U.S Council of Economic Advisers stated in their economic report for 2019 that currently, over half a million people in the United States are homeless. About 35% of these people are unsheltered. In terms of numbers, the U.S does have enough beds to house the homeless population every night. What these numbers don’t take into account however are bed shortages that individual cities can experience, as well as the poor conditions of shelters, that often push the homeless to choose a cold night outside over night in a dangerous or unsanitary shelter.
In a radio show by NPR, David Pirtle, an advocate for the homeless, spoke about his own experiences as a homeless man for 2.5 years in D.C. He explains how his untreated schizophrenia made it difficult for him to maintain a job and quickly left him on the streets. Pirtle spoke about how for most his time homeless, he chose the streets over a shelter. He attributes this to his schizophrenia and paranoia as well as the stories he often heard about how “shelters are dangerous places, that they’re full of drugs and drug dealers, that people will steal your shoes, and there are bedbugs and body lice”. He also talked about the difficulty of looking for jobs while staying at homeless shelters which often require people to line up starting at 4:30 pm to get a bed for the night. Pirtle experienced a major turning point when he was arrested for stealing food and instead of being charged, was spared by a judge who put him on medication and placed him in a shelter where he felt safe.
What this story makes me realize is that it’s not as simple as “just go to a shelter”. Those people we see freezing at night may be afraid, mentally ill, prefer something they know over something they don’t, or perhaps could not make it into the shelter they chose to give a try. The director of the Boston Emergency Shelter Commission, James Greene, talked to NPR about his experience as a street outreach worker where he spent years encouraging homeless people to go to shelters. In his description of his work, he commented that it normally takes multiple weeks of building a relationship with someone and establishing trust, in order for them to even consider going to a shelter. In short, it’s not a simple task.
The next point that I’d like to bring to light is the causes of homelessness. A common belief held by many is that those who are homeless put themselves there, which is easy to say when you are not homeless. The Treatment Advocacy Center found in a study that about 1/3 of the homeless population is struggling with serious mental illnesses. The issue of mentally ill people and homelessness arose when various state-owned mental hospitals closed down in the late 20th century. This issue continues to increase in severity as there are fewer resources and spaces in psychiatric hospitals. Mental illness only intensifies the hardships of being homeless and thousands of people today are left to struggle with something that they cannot control in extremely difficult situations.
Amongst those with mental illnesses, there are many veterans whose life circumstances after serving our country have left them homeless. It is estimated that in a single night in January 2019 37,085 veterans experienced homelessness (National Alliance to End Homelessness). Many of these veterans struggle with PTSD, trauma, substance abuse and other mental health challenges which put them at risk for homelessness. In addition, many veterans lack housing stability, struggle to find a job and lack social and familial support.
Adding to these two major demographics are women, men, children, adolescents and elderly people who have experienced familial or domestic violence and could not find immediate housing. There are also refugees and immigrants who come to the U.S and are forced to live on the streets while they seek help and/or a job. One of the mothers I met at a refugee shelter once told me of the unimaginable month she spent with her babies, homeless after arriving in the United States as a refugee fleeing violence in the DRC.
Underlying many of these causes are many structural factors created by society that limit the space certain people have to move away from homelessness. High unemployment rates, lack of affordable housing and poverty create barriers for those who may already be at a disadvantage. Even in the case of those who have been in prison, have abused drugs or are alcoholics, we as people on the other side are not given the duty of judging.
With this mindset, we can ask ourselves: what can I do? There are a few things.
Educate yourself: This is one thing that you have already started doing just by reading this post (nice!). Continue to educate yourself and others to fight against prejudice and misconceptions.
Carry gift cards: Yes, it is true that you don’t know where the cash you give goes; a safe option is to give gift cards with a couple bucks to places like Walgreens or a restaurant.
Be kind: There’s nothing wrong with saying hello or simply acknowledging someone you see out on the street. Respecting the humanity of everyone is important and can be very valuable to someone who receives little to no interaction with other people. If you’re courageous like my friend, consider buying yourself two sandwiches and share one.
Donate: This is another way you can give money and know exactly where your money will go. Here are some major non-profits in the U.S. that work to help the homeless. Also consider donating clothing that is in good condition. Avoid donating the clothes you have that are torn, stained or very worn out. As mentioned, respecting human dignity is important. You can also reach out to your local homeless shelters and ask if they are looking for any specific types of donations.
Approach the people with signs: Ask them how you can help. Maybe you can buy them a meal, help them locate a shelter, or get them a blanket to fight against the cold.
Carry care-packages: This one I learned from my Abuela who always carried loads of supplies in her little car in Colombia to give to anyone in need. There are dozens of care package how-to’s online but here’s one. Again, aim to put high quality supplies in the bags and not cheap stuff that won’t last. Also be cautious not to mix food and soaps or other items with chemicals.
Volunteer: There are soup kitchens and homeless shelters in nearly every city. Consider giving an hour or so or even consider becoming a regular volunteer. Its extremely valuable to form relationships with people from different walks of life; you’ll always find yourself to be a student to their stories and experiences.
Cash? This one is tricky. There are some economists who worry that giving cash may lead to negative outcomes. Time and time again however, I have heard comments and stories that made me reconsider this. This past Sunday at a Friendsgiving, I set next to a young woman who shared with the group that she was thankful for her home which she did not have just a couple of years ago. In talking about her experiences as a homeless woman, she repeatedly told us “if someone asks you for cash, give it to them”. Considering these statements were made out of her own experience-based feelings, I believe there is a lot of value to them. That being said, it is indeed hard to know where the cash you give out goes, but its up to your own judgement to decide whether or not you choose to take that risk. Regardless, as you can see above, there are many many other ways you can help out.
In reacting to homelessness we should approach the issues not with the intent to simply numb our guilt, but with the intent to actually do something important. Work to reject the prideful thoughts that are used to convince oneself that the people who are homeless deserve it. Catch people in their fears and misconceptions and remind yourself and others that a homeless person may be a mother, a rejected child, a refugee and most importantly, remind yourself that they are a person. They are doing their best, just like everyone else. Instead of questioning them, judging or searching for malintent, remind yourself of the side of life you’re on and consider all of the good that you can do.