That is an awesome question, and it would be awesome if I could give it an all encompassing answer. But homelessness is large subject, and will require a large answer. I can’t do that here in one blog post, but I will hit some important highlights, so to help people get started.
Universities have developed entire schools to address major social issues. We have African American Studies, Women’s Studies, etc., but “Homelessness Studies,” does not exist. It is my fervent hope that one day soon, a school of homelessness studies will be created, bringing together all the knowledge currently possessed concerning homelessness, bringing together the best minds and the most knowledgeable people, to conduct extensive research on the subject. All of this knowledge could then be made available to students majoring in the field. Currently, no institution of higher learning offers such a degree. But certainly it is needed. Enough is already known about homelessness to create an in-depth curriculum. And from what I’ve seen, there are plenty of people interested who would pursue it as a career. Until such time, people will have to settle for sending their questions to people like me, I hope I can do it justice.
Based on what I know about homelessness, from my 30+ years experience dealing with it, this is how I would answer the question, “How can I help the homeless.”
1. Gain knowledge.
Certainly knowledge comes with experience, but there is a lot you can learn about homelessness even before engaging homeless people. There are many sources of information about homelessness that you can study.
As with anything, be leery of self proclaimed experts. Many homeless advocates don’t really know what they’re talking about. Also be careful of people who approach homelessness with an agenda. For example, many Protestant Christian organizations use the plight of the homeless as a means of promoting their religion. Treating homelessness as the result of “sin”, they attempt to solve homelessness through conversion to their religion. Because of this they tend to deny proven secular solutions. They also discourage the homeless from seeking help from any organization other than their own. The thing is, homelessness is such terrible affliction, we should be encouraging the homeless to use whatever resources work for them, so to end their homelessness.
Here are some media recommendations for your search for knowledge.
These are first person accounts of homelessness that speak the truth. There are other books that are just as good, but these are my favorites for personal reasons. Just moments ago I did a quick search on Amazon.com of the key word “homelessness”. It looks like an explosion has recently happened. Dozens of new books are now available thanks mostly to self publishing on Kindle. (I really must get my book finished.)
a. Being Flynn – (originally published as “Another Bullshit Night In Suck City”, the name of the book was changed when it was made into a movie.
b. Under The Overpass – though a “christian” book, the story is honest and describes homelessness and the personal events of the author objectively.
c. Down and Out in Paris and London – although written a while ago, many things described in the book are just as true today.
a. Joe – Not only does this story reflect the realities of homelessness, as some experience it, the key role of the father was played phenomenally by an actual homeless man.
b. With Honors – As a movie it’s not so great, but as a learning tool about homelessness, it works.
c. Lost In Woonsocket – a documentary – what starts out as a patronizing reality tv show gets thrown off track by actual reality, and truth is documented.
d. From Homeless To Harvard This movie turned out much better than I expected it would be.
a.National Alliance To End Homelessness – this non-profit organization is the most progressive forward thinking group. It accomplishes the most in ending homelessness.
b. United States Interagency Council on Homelessness – This is the website for the US government’s extensive efforts to end homelessness, often working in tandem with the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
c. Housing First – Introduces the concept of using housing, not as a reward for recovery, but as a tool to bring about recovery.
Got all that? Great!
OK, don’t worry if you don’t have it all committed to memory before moving ahead, just know that such information, and more, is available, and that it will add tremendously to your understanding of homeless people and homeless services. On the other hand, don’t feel like you have to rush into serving the homeless immediately if you don’t feel like you’re prepared to do so. Take the time to study up and increase your knowledge first, if that works better for you.
2. Become Aware
To me, most efforts to “raise awareness” of homelessness are disingenuous at best. Having all the awareness in the world about homelessness, or any other subject, isn’t going to be of any help, if that awareness does not inspire people to take action. So, when I say that people need to become aware of homelessness, know that such is only a precursor to getting involved in the actual work of serving the homeless.
So, of what should you be “aware”? To my mind, understanding the source of our fear of homeless people is crucial, otherwise we might not ever get over it. Despite the size of our country’s total population, we are still a very segregated people. Some of this segregation we bring on ourselves, but there is also a level of institutionalized segregation that won’t go away until significant changes are made in the design of our society. Fear of the unknown is natural, but the fear of homeless people doesn’t come from the fact that people are homeless, but because we know nothing about them. Take comfort in knowing thats spending time with homeless people actually increases your empathy for their plight.
Also, be aware of the current trends in the homelessness industry. There have been recent changes and more are coming. Stay apprised of what’s happening on the cutting edge, as it were, because that’s where most of the opportunities to do good will be coming from.
3. Identify the different types of help needed
There are several separate aspects of homelessness needing your help. There are the daily survival needs, (short term needs) and there are the ending homelessness needs (long term needs). Ending someone’s homelessness often takes time. Even those programs called “Rapid Rehousing” can take months to accomplish. Until the homeless person is off the streets and housed he/she will have continual daily needs. Food, shelter and clothing are at the top of that list, followed closely by facilities to maintain health and hygiene – showers and washing machines and dryers, personal storage space, hygiene products and essential medicine etc.
As I’ve written before, a good night’s sleep may be even more important than everything I just listed. Know that being accepted into a homeless shelter may not guarantee a homeless person good sleep. Creating an environment conducive to healthy sleep is hard to achieve when 100 or more homeless people are crammed into a single dormitory. And, warehousing the homeless, stacking them on top of each, as close to each other as possible, is plainly unethical.
For those who sleep outside, protection from the environment, from street predators, and from the constant harassment from “citizens” and the police is a necessity. Homeless people who stay outside should still be allowed to use their tents and sleeping bags and whatever other possessions they have for their protection. Denying them these things only worsens their homeless situation, which in turn makes it more difficult for them to overcome homelessness. Politicians and the police need to hear from homeless advocates, to be reminded that the homeless are citizens deserving of protection – and to not be treated as criminals.
In upcoming posts I will discuss how to provide for the needs of the homeless in more detail.