The Second Email

(To see the first email, skip down one post)

So basically I should just be his friend, talk to him, and give him food, clothes, and/or money? I’ve always wanted to give to people in need but questioned myself because I wouldn’t be helping them get out of their situation, and I consider that to be the goal of helping them. What ultimate good is there in giving them material things if they only stay homeless? I suppose that he may trust me more and open up to me, but there is a lot more he needs than a friend he sees once in a while to get out of homelessness. Today I was hoping he would use the money to go to a shelter for help because he didn’t seem to know about them when I suggested them, but I suspect he won’t do that if he is scared of living a better life. Do you think that if I am his friend for a long enough time, he may one day have enough strength to face his pain and be ready to attempt getting out of homelessness? Do you personally know anyone who got out of homelessness with the help of a friend?

I will contact the homeless outreach centers in this area and ask them how I can help him. Is there a way to tell addicted homeless people apart from non-addicted homeless people?

My Reply:
Not to be too facetious, but I just thought of something and I laughed. You cannot put bread of either side of a cow and call it a BigMac. There’s a lot of processes the cow must go through before it is ready to fulfill its destiny as my lunch. In the same way, the journey out of homelessness is long and involves many many steps. That is one of the more common misconceptions about homelessness, expectations of recovery are overly optimistic most of the time. And this naivete can have some negative effects. If someone starts a relationship with a homeless person with promises of help, but after some period of time becomes frustrated with what he considers to be a lack of progress, and thus abandons his “project,” the homeless person suffers for it, feeling rejected and unworthy, and certainly reticent about going down that path a second time. There will come a time when your contribution to his life will result in his accepting shelter, but it may require a lot of work on your part before he’s ready for that step.

Nobody gets out of homelessness without the help of a friend, or family member, or case manager. I’ve never seen anyone successfully go it alone. Of course we have our American mythos of independence. And I’ve heard some formerly homeless people claim that they took that journey alone, but it only takes a few questions to find out that there were people all along his path that supported his efforts in one way or another.

It does seem to require experience to spot homeless people and knowing if the story they tell is legitimate for not. I can spot a homeless drunk with no effort, but that may be because I have lived among them for so long. The homeless newspaper in town has a strict rule against allowing people to sell the paper while intoxicated, but they do it all the time. It’s not for lack of enforcing the rule as much as the staff’s inability to recognize the signs. Only experience will provide you with such skills, and experience requires time and effort.

Giving material things, food, a movie pass, etc is the first step in building a relationship with him and the trust that will eventually come. Those seemingly insignificant things will lift your homeless friend, if just a small amount, to a better standard of living, making his life at least a little more tolerable. Homelessness is not a static lifestyle. The speed at which mind, body and spirit erodes is heightened under the weight of homelessness, and without any efforts to counter this, homeless people age more quickly. The average life expectancy of homeless people is about 20 years less than other non-homeless people. Part of this is due to the abuse drugs and alcohol, but other factors are involved, such as the constant exposure to the elements and the loss hope that things will eventually get better, and that life may eventually be worth living. But more than receiving material goods from you, your homeless friend will benefit from having spent time with you. This alone sends a message to the homeless person that someone truly cares.

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About Kevin Barbieux

I have been diagnosed as being chronically homeless. I write about my experiences and opinions of being homeless

One comment

  1. Just thought I'd chime in that I made it from homelessness to employed and in my own place completely by myself. Camped in the middle of a swamp for over a year, found a place to take a shower, got a temp job, went permanent, paid rent for two years. All while telling nobody, and keeping my distance from the other homeless and any social services. I did receive some encouragement along the way from an employee at a day shelter though.

    It's extremely difficult, but not unheard of. It's much easier when jobs are plentiful though. Actually I am homeless again faced with many uncertainties, and I'd say that as difficult as the first steps are, the building of a long term support structure around former homeless is even harder. The isolation that led to homelessness doesn't go away, and living among normal people with completely different values just reinforces the alienation.

    So, back to your posts topic, helping someone lift themselves out of homelessness is great. But, perhaps the bond you build in the process will eventually be the most important ingredient.

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