A bedraggled young man not much older than my own son lay sleeping in the shelter of a store door stoop, his long hair tangled and matted, clothes soiled and tattered, a piece of ragged cardboard his only covering. I was shocked and wanted to help. To rescue. Offer a blanket. Buy a tent. Make the poor soul more comfortable. I wanted to make a difference and assumed I knew how to help the homeless. Unfortunately, some of my initial efforts to help did more to empower homelessness than to end it. If you want to know the best ways to help the homeless and make a lasting impact, keep reading.

It feels good to give, but giving isn’t always helping. Through years of community outreach experience, I’ve learned an important truth. There’s a big difference between giving someone a fish and teaching them to fish for themselves.

Best Ways to Help the Homeless: Understand the Beginning

People experience homelessness for a variety of reasons. Addiction. Post-imprisonment. Fractured relationships. Mental illness. Under-employment. Catastrophic life experiences. I have never met anyone whose life’s ambition was to be a homeless person. Life happens. If we can intervene in the circumstances at the root of homelessness and help them regain a home, it’s a win for everyone and can drastically shorten the homeless experience.

Early identification of the root causes of homelessness and prompt intervention are critical. The beginning of the homeless experience is not comfortable. Maybe the person is estranged from family so they hang out with friends. There comes a point, though, when crashing on a friend’s couch is no longer an option. Coping mechanisms fail and they end up on the street. It’s not ideal and it’s not usually their first choice.

At this point, two things can happen.  Ideally, they find it so uncomfortable to sleep on the street, especially when temperatures and precipitation make it a miserable experience, they go to a shelter and seek assistance. Though not always abundant, there are options for help. Perhaps they stay in a Salvation Army shelter for a few weeks. An ongoing search for work is a requirement to stay there, so they may find a job and begin to work their way out of their mess. A non-profit working in the area of re-housing could help them get an apartment, provide rent assistance, drug rehab, and mentoring for a year. That’s the ideal.

Uncomfortable homelessness can drive you to real, tangible help.

Best Ways to Help the Homeless: Recognize The Dangers of Comfortable Homelessness

Sometimes, though, a person experiencing homelessness gets (or is given) a tent, blankets, and supplies to survive in the woods or on the street. Even an under-the-bridge shelter can be somewhat comfortable if you have the right equipment. Suddenly, homelessness isn’t as uncomfortable and the emergency of the situation fades a bit. The incentive to get help, get clean and sober, find a job, and rejoin society as a tax-paying, earn-your-own-way citizen loses strength.

Skid Row in Los Angeles is an unfortunate example of this phenomenon. Hundreds of those experiencing homelessness now occupy 54 city blocks of tents and tarps. They know each other. They have musical instruments. Easy access to drug dealers. A strong community of like-minded people. Friday evenings on Skid Row are a lot like a community festival. Live music. Laughter. Drugs. Alcohol. People hanging out on the streets. For some, life on Skid Row becomes so comfortable that breaking out to re-engage with life and loved ones is extremely difficult. In some cases, it’s nearly impossible.

Best Ways to Help the Homeless: Offer a hand-up instead of a hand-out.

We must not fail to help and allow people to suffer needlessly. There will always be times when a hand-out is needed, but, simply put, a hand up is better than a handout. 

Hand-up-help begins with a relationship. Instead of handing someone a $20 bill, offer to take them somewhere for a meal. Sit down with them, eat together, and get to know them. Don’t talk. Listen. If they know you care, they’ll share a lot.

Be proactive

Leave your agenda at home. Building a relationship of trust is always first. The most pressing need may not be an apartment or a tent. If there are addiction issues or mental illness, rehab and treatment may be the first priority, and probably should be.

Learn about options. Don’t force help, but know whom to contact and where to take those experiencing homelessness if they’re interested. If you don’t feel comfortable transporting them, give them directions. Your city government or visitor’s bureau can probably give you a list of agencies and ministries involved in homeless care, as well as their contact information.

Network with those already involved. I engaged with city government officials long before I engaged with any of the homeless in our area. I learned what was available and where to find help. Rather than strike out on my own, I joined a group. We began by cooking and serving meals at the homeless shelter. Eventually, some of us made our way across the country to learn and serve on Skid Row. On my return, I used what I learned in Los Angeles to minister more effectively but I did not strike out on my own. Instead, I worked with established groups already active in the homeless community.

Make a plan. Most of us would feel terrible if we encountered a person in need and refused to help. We won’t be caught unprepared if we make a plan in advance. Carry snacks in your car to share. Prepare a few personal hygiene packs in advance to distribute as the opportunity arises. Keep a few fast-food gift cards to provide a hot meal to those who are hungry.

Be patient

Go where the homeless go. Sit down and talk. Take a thermos of coffee and disposable cups to share. Listen. In our area, homeless people spend a lot of time at the public library. It’s warm in the winter, cool in summer, has indoor restroom facilities, and offers free internet access. Be sensitive to those around you.

Offer grace – to the homeless and to yourself. I’ve had some stunning failures. Not every person has wanted the help I’ve offered and a few times I’ve failed to offer help because of my own fear. I’ll never forget my offer of prayer to a man who was holding a joint and his firm refusal. “Man, I’m smoking weed. I don’t need no prayer right now.” Another man told me, “I don’t need another t-shirt. I need some clean socks.” When someone dressed in a hoodie and ragged jeans, face obscured by the hood, approached our car as we parked, fear kept me inside the car. My son, however, hopped out without hesitation, chatted with the man for a few minutes, and paid him to watch our car. He did exactly what he’d been asked and was in place when we returned.

Lower your expectations. Be content to invest time to build a relationship and let God take it from there. Love your neighbor. Don’t start out with an expectation of changing your new homeless friend.

Be discerning.

Some situations are dangerous. Be willing to step away in order to live to serve another day. We are to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves, so discernment is critical in the work of homeless outreach. (Matthew 10:16)

Let love lead you. God gave His Son because He loved us and He expects nothing less in return. Love God with all you’ve got. Love your neighbor in the same way as you love yourself. Let love lead and, in so doing, consider the actual needs of the homeless rather than what you assume they need.

Consider food options. Someone who is destitute or a drug addict is not likely to have resources for dentistry. Poor dental hygiene and lack of dental care often result in gum disease and loss of teeth which can lead to difficulty in chewing. Rarely has a homeless person accepted a protein bar containing nuts from me. Because of poor dentition, they’re unable to chew anything “hard”. Seldom has anyone accepted jerky for the same reason. Those who are protein malnourished find sugary treats predispose them to rebound hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and they may decline candy, pop tarts, or other sweets.

Consider clothing needs. Used outer garments (shirts, pants, jackets, shoes) are often available for free or low-cost from charitable organizations. Used underwear and socks are never available.

Consider the space available. Most people living on the street carry all their belongings in a backpack and have limited space available for additional items. If you make personal hygiene packs, use quart-sized zipper bags. Resist the temptation to use a larger bag in order to give more. Instead, give smaller amounts more frequently.

Best Ways to Help the Homeless: Personal Hygiene Packs

Here’s a suggested list of items to include in a quart-sized zip lock bag. (We’ve found it’s cheaper to purchase in bulk, so links to the items we usually purchase are included.) Travelers often donate unused hotel amenities such as soap and shampoo but we have purchased online when supplies run short. (Hover for link*)

*These are Amazon affiliate links. If you click on the link to make your purchase, I may make a few cents from your purchase but it will not change the price you pay in any way. See below.
  1. hotel-sized soap
  2. one bath cloth
  3. hotel-sized shampoo
  4. comb or small brush
  5. travel-sized deodorant/antiperspirant
  6. small packets of baby wipes
  7. toothbrush and toothpaste
  8. new socks 
  9. emery boards
  10. a few bandaids of various sizes 
  11. new underwear (men’s and women’s)
  12. feminine hygiene supplies
  13. individual packets of sunscreen depending on climate and season
  14. long-sleeved t-shirts in cooler weather, short-sleeved in warmer weather
  15. knit gloves that stretch to fit all sizes during cold weather
  16. hand warmer packets in cold weather
  17. knit caps
  18. potted meat if you can find some with pull tab openings
  19. crackers
  20. any snack they can keep on hand to open and eat without preparation. (protein bars without nuts, etc)

Pre-packed hygiene kits are also available through Amazon.com. They have similar but not identical items. Here are two options:

  1. 96 packs for ~$200
  2. 48 kits for $153

Best Practices to Help the Homeless: Involve Your Community

Although pre-packed hygiene kits are readily available online, our preference is to include as many people in the process as possible. We make a social media ask for unusual hotel-sized hygiene items and offer an Amazon shopping list for those who prefer to purchase and send. (You’re welcome to share my shopping list but be sure your shoppers ship to your address.)

We set a date and time, usually after work one evening, and invite participation via social media, newsletters, and church and personal FB pages. Hygiene items are laid out on tables with ziplock bags at one end. Sometimes we provide snacks but not always as the time to pack 100-200 hygiene packs is far less than you might expect.

We usually add a small piece of paper with a verse and a handwritten note in every hygiene pack. Our verses vary depending on the season but most recently we’ve used John 14:1,6,15,21

We choose to use smaller bags and single-use items because we want the opportunity to engage with people again. Our goal is not to “clean up” the homeless but to build relationships and love like Jesus.

Best Practices to Help the Homeless: Keep the goal in mind

When we know our goal, we can tailor our actions and outreach to best achieve our objective. Our goal in working with the homeless is not only to end homelessness but also to engage hurting people and help them find hope, purpose, and freedom. We want to see them re-enter society as productive people who make a positive impact on the world around them. With that in mind, the root causes of their homelessness must be addressed.

Drug or alcohol addiction will not be defeated by a hygiene pack. They need a strong rehabilitation and recovery program.

Mental illness will not be solved by a sandwich and a bottle of water. They need the help of mental health professionals. 

In the same way, under-employment may require vocational training or assistance with job placement. Overwhelming medical bills may require financial counseling, a debt-reduction plan, and medical insurance or lower-cost health care.

To make a lasting impact on the problem of homelessness, we must facilitate change in the lives of those experiencing homelessness by addressing root issues and offering a hand up. 

What about faith?

Jesus described the greatest commandments with two simple statements:

  1. Love God more than anything else.
  2. Love your neighbor in the same way you love yourself.

If we’re obedient to those two commands, we’ll love the homeless with more than hygiene packs. We’ll build relationships, care about the circumstances, offer help where we can. We’ll share the hope, peace, and freedom we’ve found in Christ alone and allow His love to flow through us like a river of living water. May we start with the love of Christ, allow His love to lead us, and share His love with all we meet, including those trapped in homelessness.

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Matthew 25:40

 

featured Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

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