This is based on the post: How to Help Someone Surviving Homelessness
If you are trying to help someone facing a serious financial crisis and potential homelessness, then this is the place to begin. This is part 2 in the 3 part series- how to help someone facing homelessness. This information is divided into three presentations:
Part 1 – What to do
Part 2 – What not to do
Part 3 – Seriously, just DON’T do this
This second presentation reviews common actions taken by those who claim to be helping people surviving homelessness. Some really believe they ARE helping. Just to be clear, none of these things are helpful. Most make the situation worse.
Platitudes. When a person is facing a crisis, the only thing they should be focused on is securing real, practical help. Responding to their concerns, fears and requests for help with platitudes like ‘it will all work out,’ ‘god has a plan’ and ‘think positive’ isn’t particularly helpful. Before you speak, stop and think: who are you trying to comfort – the person in crisis or YOURSELF?
Accusations. The widespread stereotypes that try to fault poor people for the existence of poverty has created a deeply embedded culture of blame. Surviving poverty, homeless or not, means dealing with a steady stream of accusations – most of which have no basis in reality.
Looking for ways to make poor people feel guilty about being poor is common among volunteers and professionals within the poverty and homeless industry. Some admit to (or even brag about) the behavior while insisting it’s ‘for their own good’ because that is what ‘motivates people to change.’ It’s an activity tied to the highly illogical belief that ‘poor people just need to stop being poor.’ While this accusation allows the accuser to feel superior it does nothing to help alleviate poverty.
It’s common for volunteers and poverty industry professionals to keep tabs on homeless people within their programs. This often includes using a gossip network to watch all purchases made at local stores and businesses. Simply walking into a tavern to use the bathroom or buy dinner can quickly escalate into accusations of drinking and alcoholism. This is tied to stereotypes about poor people being drug addicts, lazy and irresponsible.
Shopping for supplies at the local department or grocery store can result in a lecture about budgeting or buying things the family doesn’t need – in the opinion of strangers. A parent who purchases a few balloons and a present for a child’s birthday may find themselves being lectured like a teenager who stayed out too late on a school night. And, yes, poor families are reminded that birthdays are a luxury – basically, poor kids don’t deserve parties. All of this is tied to the stereotypical belief that poor people are inherently stupid, uneducated, immature and irresponsible.
Minimize The Pain. Trying to downplay the severity of the circumstances is not helpful. Yes, it really is that bad. Stop a moment and ask yourself, are you trying to make them feel better or are you trying to make YOURSELF fell better? Learn to accept the discomfort because this reality isn’t going to change overnight.
Religion. The way people use and approach religion is a huge problem within the homeless industry. It will be explored in more depth during a future video. For now, remember this much à If hearing that someone is dealing with a serious crisis, like homelessness, immediately sends you into a flurry of Bible quotes and time-to-convert-the-sinner behaviors – stop. Just stop and walk away.
Now that you’ve taken a step back try – really TRY – to understand that poor people are NOT being punished by god. They are dealing with a very physical, social – secular – problem. If a person surviving homelessness or poverty specifically ASKS you to pray with them, or talk religion or study a holy book, then AND ONLY THEN is it appropriate to do so. Leave the preaching for church. If you’re committed to helping someone trying to survive homelessness, then you have to respect their boundaries and their beliefs. If you are unable to do that, then you need to find a way to help from a distance because you are making the situation worse.
Try to Fix It. If you’re a fix-it person – someone who wants to make everything all better for everyone around you – then it’s time to pay attention. Be careful about what you promise to do – or even imply that you might do – for someone surviving homelessness. There is nothing worse than false hope, particularly when it is immediately followed by the complete disappearance of the ‘friend’ who realizes they can’t handle the reality of poverty and homelessness and just vanishes. POOF! Like magic.
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 focus on identifying those things you truly have the power to change. Accept reality and be brutally honest with yourself about what you can (or cannot) do.
Wait for the opportunity to help. Yes, that means sticking around.
Be prepared to be frustrated by the system. The reality of homelessness is complicated at best. There will be a lot of times when you will see a simple, seemingly easy solution to one of the challenges holding your friend in poverty and every one will be stymied by homeless shelter rules, government requirements for eligibility, the way society treat homeless people, lack of resources at local non-profits, landlord prejudice and on and on. Prepare yourself because the minute a person becomes homeless nothing…and I do mean NOTHING…has an easy or simple fix. The person surviving homelessness can be the most sane, well-adjusted, trustworthy and well-educated person you’ve ever met and getting out of poverty will still be extremely difficult and complicated. That’s just the reality of homelessness.
Hold a Fundraiser. This may seem counter-intuitive, but fundraisers and requests for private donations must be kept to a minimum. I’ve mentioned the importance of being considered a member of the ‘deserving poor’ several times already in the first presentation. Asking for donations has to be done carefully because the risk of being labeled undeserved and then blacklisted is very high.
Eligibility for access to any form of assistance is often restricted to people who can prove they have been homeless for at least 30 days and have no assets. Government benefits like food stamps or low-income housing are based on total assets and total income. Every penny received during a fundraiser will be removed from government benefits and could render a person ineligible. Eligibility for long-term benefits must be considered when collecting donations because even a successful fundraiser will only provide a one-time payment and that money will only last so long.
The general public is 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). This is what the public is trained to expect from fundraisers. When donations are collected for an induvial, there’s a very high probability that the donors will be expecting tangible, positive, and immediate results. This means there could be backlash generated from a) accepting charity and b) not being able to escape poverty – we gave you money, why isn’t this fixed? This can be extremely damaging over the long-term.
If you choose to hold a fundraiser then keep it restricted to very specific and targeted goals. For example, paying back rent or a hotel room, child support, getting a drivers license, medical bills or fixing a broken-down vehicle.
That brings us to the end of Part 2 – What not to do when helping someone facing homelessness. Please check out parts 1 and 3 and, as always, thank you for listening.