How To Help Someone Facing Homelessness

how to help

If you are truly trying to help someone facing a serious financial crisis and potential homelessness, then begin by familiarizing yourself with the realities of poverty. In the United States, there are resources available, but they are limited. Extremely limited. That means survival depends on multiple factors, including: 1) identifying available resources by researching local agencies and organizations, 2) applying for said resources and 3) finding alternative resources.

Anyone who has survived poverty or homelessness for any amount of time is acutely aware of the power held by those who make resource-distribution decisions, and the frequency with which said decisions are based on a subjective opinion about the recipient’s relative worth. This is an unfortunate reality born out of extremely limited resources. No matter how altruistic a social worker or non-profit volunteer is, when a program has enough money to cover the needs of 100 people and it receives 500+ applications, decisions must be made.

Also, keep in mind that many non-profits are provided opportunities to collaborate with wealthy benefactors or other organizations on a limited basis. These are purposely unadvertised programs made available to ‘hand picked’ clients. Effectively, they will examine the people who have applied for publicly advertised programs and select those who are considered a good fit.

For all of these reasons (and more), it is important to present the best possible argument for being selected as a recipient.

The following suggestions provide practical advice for helping a person survive poverty or homelessness while laying the groundwork for (re)establishing financial security. The links embedded within this post provide further information and additional examples directly related to the points covered.

what to do

Educate Yourself

  • Deserving vs undeserving poor: The concepts of deserving vs undeserving poor are extremely important to understand. An examination of these terms can be found HERE. For the purposes of this blog post, remember the following: surviving homelessness or a financial emergency requires help. Finding a way out of these situations requires more help. Getting that help is heavily dependent upon convincing those controlling needed resources that you (or your friend) are deserving of assistance.
  • Realities of poverty: Every region is different. Walk or drive around the area and take the time to actually see homeless people and low-income neighborhoods. Visit the homeless shelter. Research both resources available and news stories about the deaths of poor and homeless people in your area. Try to get a sense of what this person is actually up against, and then remind yourself that you will never truly understand what this is like until after you have lived it.
  • Biographies and books: Another source of information are the biographies of people who have survived extreme poverty and nonfiction books about poverty and homelessness:

Publicly Associate: Continue spending time together. Whenever possible, make a point of doing so publicly; here’s why:

  • Lifts the spirits. This kind of crisis will send a perfectly healthy human being spiraling into depression. Simple and authentic acts of friendship can help fight the depression that inevitably comes from living with the stigma of poverty.
  • Networking. It improves the possibility of positive networking, and that could lead to a job.
  • Protection from predators. Surviving homelessness or poverty requires making alliances. Individuals without a support group or network are frequently targeted by predators.
  • Deserving Image. It enhances the individual’s standing as a member of the ‘deserving poor.’
  • Community. Provides access to and a sense of community, which has been proven to be a key factor in getting out of poverty.

Listen: Anytime someone you care about is faced with a crisis it is time to put on your listening ears and let them talk. Don’t judge, don’t get offended, and (for the love of Pete!) do NOT break confidences!

  • Initial Crisis: Act as a supportive, confidential and reliable sounding board whenever this person needs it. This is a situation that will push every button a person has. Chances are very good that all sorts of angry words, profound thoughts, offensive opinions and absolute nonsense will come pouring out of their mouth. Just let it flow. When they return to their rational selves, gently help re-direct that energy into brainstorming possible solutions.
  • As Time Passes: Like it or not, there are no quick fixes for financial problems. This is going to take time. How much time? It’s impossible to say – weeks, months, maybe even years. Keep listening. Sometimes listening is hard, but surviving is harder. Remember that.

Brainstorming: This is an activity that most helping professionals and assistance-providing-organizations actively and aggressively squelch due to a pervasive social-cultural belief that people in poverty must completely focus on taking any work offered for any amount of pay. This is the worst possible advice, and here’s why:

  • Hope: Brainstorming all possibilities, no matter how outlandish, helps re-establish hope. Some things are not possible right now, but there’s always someday.
  • Direction: Setting a long-term goal can help to clarify the next best move. The financial situation may be desperate right now, but that does not eliminate the possibility of reaching any number of life or career goals at some point in the future. in fact, if the person is able to identify a long-term goal, then looking for immediate opportunities that move in that general direction can both simplify and improve the employment-seeking process.
  • Perspective: By seeing the actions taken in the immediate moment as steps on the path to a much different (better) place, the individual is able to achieve a more positive perspective overall. This is invaluable when writing resumes or sitting through interviews.
  • Possibility: For some reason, brainstorming sessions have a way of making people more aware of opportunities. After taking some time to look at seemingly outlandish goals, something within immediate reach will be identified. A contact, a job posting, a passing conversation…any number of resources and leads will be revealed. It just requires allowing the mind to focus on what is possible.
  • Toxic Work Environments: If an individual goes into the job-seeking process willing to “take anything from anyone in exchange for whatever paycheck is offered” then chances are very good that an unethical manager will use the opportunity to exploit the individual to the fullest possible extent. The end result? Job loss and a tarnished work record. Possibly worse.

Tangible Help: Helping out in small ways provides more than financial assistance, it lifts the spirits and establishes an ongoing sense of community. It makes taking that next step out of poverty possible.

It is your responsibility to identify what you are both willing and able to do. Therefore, I suggest sitting down and making two lists: a) things you can do in the short term and b) things you can do over the long-term (read: years). After you have clearly identified your own limits (to yourself), it’s time to take action.

How you communicate this information will depend on the person facing poverty/homelessness and your relationship. Sometimes simply showing up with a casserole is the best thing you can do. Other times, it’s better to discuss the available options ahead of time.

A few suggestions/examples:

  • Make dinner once a week.
  • Help with laundry.
  • Offer to babysit.
  • Provide access to a shower.
  • Help establish a permanent mailing address.
  • Regularly meet up for coffee and conversation.
  • Research local agencies, organizations and shelters offering assistance. Make a few preliminary phone calls, inquiring about options and requirements.
  • Network with people who know how to utilize the local resources for survival. Most people find good solid information through places of worship, community organizations, and 12-step programs. Ask the people in your own network of friends and family for recommendations about both resources and people who might know more about local resources.

Odd Jobs: Helping to identify and arrange temporary work is a valuable form of assistance. Whether it’s above-board, under-the-table or in-trade, odd jobs provide access to resources and opportunities:

  • It enhances the individual’s standing as a member of the ‘deserving poor.’
  • It qualifies as freelance work and/or self-employment which provides solid networking opportunities while helping to fill a time gap on a resume.
  • It’s easier to find a job when you have a job.

what not to do

All of the suggestions included here under “What Not To Do: apply to anyone going through a crisis. For more detailed information, look for workshops or books focused on helping people in crisis. Homelessness (potential or realized) is a crisis of enormous proportions. It involves grief, fear, anger, and many other emotions. Another source is books about helping people (or yourself) through a crisis:

Platitudes: When a person is facing a crisis, the only thing they should be focused on is securing real, practical help. Saying things like ‘it will all work out,’ ‘god has a plan’ and ‘think positive’ aren’t particularly helpful. Before you speak, stop and ask yourself: who am I trying to comfort, me or them?

Accusations: Throwing on the guilt, expressing your opinion of purchases made in the past (near or distant), and lecturing on every single bad decision you believe this person has ever made is simply not helpful. Chances are very good these things are already running through their head (over and over). Focus on finding solutions for the immediate problem and planning for what lies ahead. Let your opinions of the past remain unspoken until a more appropriate time. Learn to accept the fact that this day may never come.

Minimize The Pain: Yes, it really is that bad. This person is going through a tough time and it hurts. Saying things like ‘stop whining,’ ‘cheer up’ or ‘look on the bright side’ while trying to insist that it’s ‘not that bad’ is not helpful. It IS bad. Pretending otherwise will only lead to more disaster. Learn to accept the discomfort.

Try to Fix It: There is nothing worse than false hope, particularly when it is immediately followed by the complete disappearance of the ‘friend’ who can’t handle the uncomfortable realization that this really and truly cannot be fixed. Accept reality and be brutally honest with yourself about what you can (or cannot) do. If you are a fixer by nature, keep your mouth shut and your ears open – there will be plenty of opportunities, usually on a smaller scale. It is your responsibility to 1) focus on identifying those things you truly have the power to change and 2) wait for it.

Hold a Fundraiser: This may seem counter-intuitive, but fundraisers and requests for donations or other financial assistance from individuals and similar private sources must be kept to a minimum and restricted to very specific and targeted goals. For example, if a person needs to pay back rent and child support in order to get a drivers license and, thereby, qualify for a job, a fundraiser may be in order. If there is no employment in sight, no money in the bank and no one really knows what to do, then a fundraiser is not the right place to begin. Here’s why:

  • Expectations: People are accustomed to fundraisers run by huge non-profits, where a donation is made once or twice a year, an official thank you is provided with assurances that this donation has helped solve the problem, and everyone continues on their merry way (until next year). Similarly, everyone who donated will be expecting tangible, positive, and immediate results (e.g.: we gave you money, why isn’t this fixed?)
  • Amount: In a real-life financial emergency, even the most successful fundraiser will only go so far. $10,000 may seem like a lot of money until you do the math: six (6) months of rent and utilities, plus childcare, and that money is gone. Add in food, transportation, and other essentials, and the time-frame covered is significantly reduced. Unless the fundraiser can eliminate the housing problem, it is better to pursue other avenues.
  • Deserving Poor: The inevitable social backlash generated by a) accepting charity and b) not being pulled fully, completely and immediately out of poverty, will be extremely damaging over the long-term.
  • Problem Solving: Focus on identifying both immediate needs and long-term solutions. Addressing the immediate without considering the long-term will result in failure.

Vocalize Your Classism: A few infuriatingly common examples of stereotype-based responses:

  • I’m glad this happened to you and not me because you’ve been poor/homeless before, so you know how to handle this.
  • I don’t have that problem; therefore, you must have done something wrong and/or there must be something wrong with you.
  • I knew this was going to happen. My family told me you couldn’t handle living right. I knew you would be coming around asking for money. I never should have made friends with…one of you.
  • I know a great therapist. I’m sure they can help you address the real problem. (Read: Financial emergencies are proof of mental illness.)
  • Have you considered adoption? Obviously, you can’t handle being a parent. I know an adoption lawyer who makes loads of money, so you know they’re good people. (Note: Forced adoptions are commonly assumed to be a relic of the past. They are not. Adoption is a multi-million dollar industry and both illegal and unethical practices continue. Women and children in poverty are primary targets.)
  • Have you considered taking a budgeting class? (Read: Financial emergencies are the result of financial or mathematical incompetence – it has nothing to do with low wages and high costs of living.)
  • I thought you said you had a college degree. (Read: Higher education magically eliminates the possibility of future financial problems.)
  • But you seem so smart. (Read: Financial emergencies are restricted to those with a substandard intellect.)
  • But you seem so nice. (Read: Financial emergencies are restricted to those who participate in immoral or criminal activities.)
  • Where’s your man? What kind of a woman are you if you can’t even land a man who can pay your bills?
  • Have tried getting a job? (Note: Most people living in poverty or facing homelessness already have, and actively maintain, one or more jobs – in addition to spending a lot of time trying to survive.)

seriously just don't

Most of the following actions are justified like this:

“This will force them to change. We have to force them to do what it takes to avoid being homeless, instead of taking the easy way out. We’re just giving poor people the kick in the pants they need to get ahead. This is helping.”

Let’s be clear about one thing, none of these actions will help anyone out of poverty or homelessness. In fact, most of them will seriously impede their ability to get back on their social and financial feet. For more research-based information on this fact, look into books about the Housing First method for addressing homelessness:

The decision to participate in any of the following isn’t about them – it’s about you.

Public Humiliation: I am forever amazed at the number of people who really and truly believe: a) poverty is a lifestyle choice and b) acts of public humiliation will force poor people to ‘choose another lifestyle.’ Using this logic, acts of public humiliation are deemed to be a form of HELP.

Before you jump on the opportunity to indulge your inner predatory high school mean-girl, take a moment to imagine yourself in the same situation. Consider all aspects of this individual’s reality and ask yourself this one question: how, exactly, does this HELP? In what way is the situation improved by my behavior?

Ostracism: “When you get back on your feet, call me,” is one of the most common acts of cruelty faced by people dealing with a financial crisis that could plunge them into poverty. If this friendship is based solely on class-association and enhancement of your own public image, then you are not a friend. Telling people that they will earn the prize of being allowed to associate with you, once they have returned to a proper financial status, is disturbingly classicist and disgustingly narcissistic.

It’s this same attitude toward class that leads members of the upper classes to treat poverty survivors as though they were living with a deadly and contagious disease. Treating poverty survivors with the disgust generally reserved for extremely filthy garbage, is sadistic. This does not have a positive effect on the problem – it merely inflates your own ego.

Gossip: Anyone facing a financial crisis is dealing with a world that is literally falling apart. The opportunities for viscous gossip will be plentiful and easily identified. Making up a juicy story out of the wreckage will do more than stir up a little dust and hurt a few feelings. The damage carries the potential for devastatingly permanent consequences.  If you can’t keep it positive then remain silent.

Call The Boss: Employers are not charities. Employees who are facing serious financial difficulties are generally viewed as unreliable (at best) or a liability (at worst). This is a difficult conversation and a private one. It is the employee’s responsibility to speak with a boss/employer when and if necessary. It is unprofessional and unethical to disclose to a current or potential employer another person’s private information.

Call The Landlord: Informing a landlord of impending financial ruin will hasten the move to the street. Landlords are running a business, not a charity; they are not going to assist a tenant facing difficult times, they are going to eliminate a risky customer and make room for reliable income flow.

Call The Landowner: If this person is already on the street and squatting in a building or on private land, contacting the owner of said property will (most likely) result in an arrest and the beginnings of a criminal record. People do not generally choose to squat. Criminal records never increase the possibility of finding viable employment. This is not helping.

It must be pointed out that there are various Faux Poor communities who choose to squat. This is not to be confused with actual poverty. People who have the ability to leave a Money-less or Stripped Down lifestyle at any time they choose are not truly poor. They are frugal, which is admirable, but distinctly different from homelessness and poverty.

There is much to be said about the Faux Poor and the ways they affect Poverty Survivors, but that will have to wait until another day.

Call DHS: DHS is the Department of Human Services. Every state in the union has a DHS office, which is responsible for evaluating reports of abuse, removing children from abusive homes, placing children in foster care, etc. They do not help families locate financial assistance or address problems related to poverty. They examine a situation, determine whether or not there is reasonable cause to initiate an investigation and remove children from the care of parents or guardians.

  • Poverty Is Not Abuse: If you are concerned about the effects of poverty upon the lives of the children, then calling DHS is not the right thing to do.
  • Double Standards: Check your double standards. If you had to turn in everyone you knew who was doing [parenting action], how many people would be on that list? Are you going to report all of them, or is this limited to a specific category of people?
  • Actual Abuse: If you have been keeping your mouth shut about a truly abusive situation because they had a nice home and a good paycheck, then a) report the abuse immediately and b) educate yourself about the realities of abuse – people with money do not get a free pass.

Assist a Stalker: Having money does not make a predator less dangerous. Being poor does not negate the right to live a safe and terror-free life. Owning property does not transform a manipulative and violent individual into a ‘good parent’ or a ‘good spouse.’

final commentsI have noticed that much of the advice given in the area of grief and bereavement is very appropriate and applicable to people surviving poverty or facing homelessness, for example:

“Research has shown that the more distressed the bereaved person appears to be, the more discomfort this will evoke in others, and the more they will avoid, derogate or blame the mourner. This means that those who are most in need of support may be least likely to get it.”

Offering Support to the Bereaved: What Not To Say, Grief and Loss Blog, PBS.Org, by Camille Wortman, PH.D.

“Unfortunately, many people associate tears of grief with personal inadequacy and weakness. Crying on the part of the mourner often generates feelings of helplessness in friends, family, and caregivers…Yet crying is nature’s way of releasing internal tension in the body and allows the mourner to communicate a need to be comforted. Crying makes people feel better, emotionally and physically.”

Common Myths About Grief, Center for Loss and Life Transition, Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.

“In the end, most of the silly things we say to grieving people could be avoided if we simply keep our mouths shut. Silence is better than stupidity, I think. In some of these sayings, we mean well, but the sayings don’t effectively communicate our concern. In others of these, we’re not really concerned about the grieving person, we’re concerned with our own discomfort”

10 Things You Should never Say To A Grieving Person, MinistryMatters.com, Tom Fuerst

“Don’t let a fear you may say something foolish frighten you into saying nothing. Say something—then listen. Friends who are grieving don’t expect you to toss off some wise advice that will instantly wipe away their sadness. What they could use most from you is an open heart and time spent listening.”

Things No Grieving Person Wants to Hear (and What to Say Instead), Oprah.com, Scott Simon

More books about grief:

6 thoughts on “How To Help Someone Facing Homelessness

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