Ever Wondered What To Say To A Homeless Person?
Here Are 5 Things to Say And 5 Things Not to Say
by Winston Ross – Author at
The right words can make a big difference when talking to someone living on the streets.
When you see a homeless person, what do you do?
Most of us tend to have the same response: We avoid eye contact and walk a little faster. But you might also ponder the situation, thinking to yourself, What’s his story? How did this happen to her? How long have they lived on the streets? Maybe you even wanted to help, but didn’t know how to start a conversation.
Should you decide to talk to one of the more than 600,000 homeless individuals in the United States, what you say is vitally important. Utter the wrong thing, and you make a person in crisis feel less than human. Make the right comment, however, and you just might provide the help that he or she so desperately needs. Here’s what the experts advise saying and what’s better left unsaid.
What to Say
1. “I don’t have money, but is there another way I can help you?”
“This is an especially good thing to say if you’re uncomfortable handing over cash or don’t have any to offer,” says Jake Maguire, director of communications for Community Solutions, a national organization dedicated to solving complex problems like homelessness and poverty. Undoubtedly, money is something that a homeless person needs, but often there is a specific thing that can quickly help that individual out of a dire situation. Shaun Gasson, a 32-year-old homeless man in Portland, Ore., says that someone once asked him if he needed clothes. Not only did the generous soul leave him three bags of nice clothing, but also gave him a bike and some money.
You might also consider asking the person if she or he is actually homeless. Kara Zordel, executive director of Project Homeless Connect, a San Francisco agency that links the homeless with resources in the city, says that she often will say to a person on the street: “I see you sitting out here every day, and it makes me wonder where you sleep at night.” This allows Zordel to do a better job of helping others. Sometimes a person isn’t homeless and doesn’t need a place to sleep, but might be in desperate need of something else. In that case, Zordel often hands out pairs of socks or granola bars, along with her agency’s business card. Greg Staffa, a homeless man in Farmington, Minn., suggests filling plastic baggies with nonperishable raisins or chewing gum, which will definitely be consumed.
2. “Did you catch the game?”
Athletic events are often shown on televisions in shelters. “Talking about sports can be one of the most interesting, neutralizing things,” says Robert Marbut, a homeless advocate in San Antonio, Texas. So while the game you’re referencing depends, of course, on your locale, bringing it up is like talking about the weather — sports is a topic of conversation that you don’t have to be of a certain class to experience.
3. “Good morning.”
Or say “hi” or “hello” or try to acknowledge the person in some way. “It’s good to hear kindness,” says Joe, who has been homeless in Portland, Ore., off and on for the past 16 years. Regardless of what your greeting may be, it’s important to look the person in the eye when speaking. According to another Portland man, Troy Thompson, who has been homeless several times despite being a skilled carpenter (when he can’t find work, he can’t afford to pay rent), one of the many difficult things about being homeless is that you feel less than human. “It’s like being invisible,” he says. Adds Marbut, “The non-homeless person almost never looks the homeless in the eye. If you just look a person in the eye and sort of nod, it’s the most respectful thing you can ever do.”
4. “How are you doing? Would you like to talk?”
These questions are great because they’re open-ended, Zordel says, giving the homeless person a choice either to brush off a deeper conversation or engage in one without judgment or pressure. Don’t be surprised if the individual isn’t interested in chatting, though, says Joe. “You’re getting into people’s personal lives. Maybe they don’t want to discuss that with a complete stranger.” If, however, the person is open to talking, this can lead to a real conversation — and maybe even provide a way for you to offer help. But even if you’re just having a casual exchange, you could be satisfying an important need: social connection. Many who live on the streets battle the feeling that they’re inadequate or nonexistent to the rest of the world. Having a real conversation can reduce those sentiments.
5. “I will keep you in my thoughts.”
Offering a wish of good will can be a powerful thing to someone who’s homeless, says Gasson. And for those that are religious, saying a prayer for the person can provide some comfort. “When somebody prays with you, it just makes you feel a little better,” he says. Which is the exact feeling you hope to give to someone who’s without a home.
What (Definitely) Not to Say
1. “Why don’t you get help?”
This assumes the person hasn’t already tried to get help. It also infers that homelessness is that individual’s own fault or a result of his or her own failings. Most homeless people are not chronically on the street. Instead, they’re living there temporarily because of an awful situation — whether it is because of a job loss and a resulting downward spiral, a flight from an abusive partner or an exorbitant rent increase while on a fixed disability or Social Security income. These individuals may have already tried a dozen different ways to get help, only to hear that they don’t qualify for a specific assistance program, for example. Or, they might not be aware of existing resources, in which case you could actually make a huge difference by pointing them in the right direction. Tell them about charitable groups like the Salvation Army, Safe Harbor or any local agency or nonprofit that works with the homeless. Or call your town’s 311 hotline and request a visit from an outreach or social services worker, suggests Maguire.
2. “Here’s a dollar. Please don’t use it to buy alcohol.”
If you choose to give someone money, it must be given without strings. Yes, a person who is homeless may use your gift for something that doesn’t necessarily help his situation, but your generous action could also provide an opportunity to start a conversation — and eventually lead to an opening to approach with more substantive help. “Not everyone is ready to receive what they need today,” Zordel says. “But we can take the first step together, engaging and building a trusting relationship…without expectations of the individual.”
3. “Why don’t you go to a shelter?”
To some homeless people, the conditions at some shelters are worse than on the street. Shelters can be loud, dangerous or require quiet times that don’t align with a person’s sleep habits. Plus, in many parts of the country, particularly big cities, there may not be enough beds available for the homeless population, adds Jenny Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco. For example, “There’s one shelter bed for every five homeless people in San Francisco,” she says.
4. “You don’t seem like you should be homeless.”
This is another common utterance, Friedenbach says. And while it may be well intentioned, a statement like this reveals your prejudice against homeless people. It conveys to the person that, for the most part, you presume the homeless to be smelly, or drug addicts, or mentally ill. Whereas the only thing that really connects all homeless people is the fact that they’re impoverished and don’t have access to subsidized housing at the moment, says Friedenbach.
5. “Get a job.”
Homeless people hear this comment most often. But it fundamentally misunderstands and refuses even to consider what the person is actually going through. Many homeless people suffer from mental illness or other conditions that prevent employment. Or they’re on the streets because they once had a job, but suffered an injury that ended their ability to work.
Case in point: Just before becoming homeless in 2009, Staffa was making $20.20 an hour in a union job in Farmington, Minn., working for an employer he had been with for nine years. An on-the-job injury ended that, Staffa says, right in the middle of the Great Recession. For three years after that, he lived out of his car. The impact on his psyche, he says, was damaging. “Several friends of mine tell me ‘just find a job and everything will be fine.’ But I have to find myself again.”
“If I had a job, I wouldn’t be out here,” adds Joe while panhandling in Portland, Ore.
Reblogged this on Pimpf : Drifting somewhere… and commented:
think about it…. You can get into that situation faster than you can imagine…
Reblogged this on MrMilitantNegro™.
Reblogged this on It Is What It Is and commented:
Here are the correct things to say …. seems to me it’s common sense and politeness!!
Good post. Please note that giving too much money to one person can result in the person being robbed. If a lunch place is convenient, take them and buy them something to eat or at least a water. There are some panhandlers who are not homeless, which does a disservice to the chronic homeless in need. But, please know the chronic homeless are only a small percentage of homeless people.
Most homeless people are acute homeless who need a hand-up to get back on their feet. Many of the acute homeless have jobs, as you note, and some of the chronic do as well. Key causes we have witnessed for being homeless include – loss of a job, reduction in hours, healthcare crisis, some other financial crisis, car crisis or too high an auto loan, domestic violence, or substance abuse/ mental health issue. 30% of the homeless families we help come from domestic violence situations. I would add one more thing – the homeless people have no higher propensity toward substance abuse than someone housed. That is one of the great misunderstandings. In Florida, before it was ruled unconstitutional, the drug testing to get food stamps program indicated are much lower prevalence of substance abuse than people not on welfare.
One of things we have observed is homeless people no longer have a network of people to get help from. So, in addition to helping through specific volunteering, helping them network for better jobs, navigate issues, is helpful. I am sorry to wax on as I did in an earlier post, but we should help our homeless brethren, but we should also know who they are, as well.
I have been a volunteer Board member for several homeless agencies, so please forgive my passion for this topic. BTG
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Thank you, BTG. We feel that we learn something every-time we read one of your comments 🙂
Write for us sometime?
Thanks Mike. If something resonates on my blog, let me know if you want to repost. Best wishes. I love your blog.
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Excellent and informed post. I don’t know about the US, but here in the UK without proof of address (a home) it’s impossible to get a job, bank account or any kind of benefit so the homeless can end in a “catch 22” situation. Thankfully we do have some excellent organizations that help (Salvation Army or Crisis for example) and one of the best things one can do is try to get the homeless person in touch with them (though they are often limited by funding etc.)
Something everyone should do at least once in their lives is visit a homeless shelter. I took my kids along with some friends to sing carols for a Salvation Army one, one Christmas. My kids never forgot it. My son danced with all the ladies and my youngest sat on their laps. I saw several folks in tears due to the kids total acceptance of them as friends (of course this was in a child friendly safe situation).
Crisis run a Christmas program every year in which you can sponsor a homeless person to stay in a shelter over Christmas. They get support, counseling, activities and lots of help. You also write a personal message to your “person” on a card which they’ll be given when they arrive. I did it last year and intend to do so again just 25 pounds to give someone a chance to get back on their feet is the best of Christmas present giving.
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Thank you Claire! 🙂 Keep up the GOOD work 🙂
Crisis do excellent work. I volunteered with the theatre group at Crisis Skylight in Commercial Street for a while, a beautiful experience.
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Reblogged this on love to read, love to write! and commented:
I’m so glad this has been written. I worked with the homeless population for awhile and one of the biggest issues that was shared universally was the problem with dehumanization. We literally ignore people who ask for money out of our own discomfort and as a result we continually reinforce the idea that they aren’t worth a thing. If we want to do anything to help change homelessness and the people affected by it, we have to work to eliminate the stigma and start treating everyone like actual human beings.
Thanks for writing/posting this blog, I hope it helps inform people on how to address these kinds of situations!
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Reblogged this on Zenkatwrites's Blog and commented:
A good article, but also passing along a good blog. I enjoyed several posts this morning!
“more than 600,000 homeless individuals” — I’ve seen you post that number in another one of your blog posts recently, that number seems way too small to me, way too small!
I was homeless once for about eight months in Anaheim California. Other than most of what you described up above about homeless people feeling dehumanized and thought of negatively by others and how they react to a homeless person when they pass by one – oddly enough, I was never more at peace. I don’t know why; perhaps because I was at an all time low and there wasn’t really any further down I could go — so maybe there was a sense of relief in that.
Sadly, I see myself being homeless again in the not too distant future and this time, it will most likely be a permanent situation for me.
Mark, is there ‘anything’ you can do to slow/halt/prevent this?
Reblogged this on IdealisticRebel's Daily View of Favorites.
A fabulous post that stops you in your tracks and makes you think.
I live in the UK and support a charity called Centrepoint, that helps to get homeless kids off the street. In this day and age it’s unthinkable that anyone, anywhere should be without a place to call home.
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Thank you, Dorne.