When it comes down to it, is it better to ignore a homeless family, even when you want to help? What if there are children involved?
Mariellen Boyle, an Operation Warm staff member and advocate for families in need, shares her thoughts on what we should say when we meet a homeless family.
You are walking down the street, on your way to meet some friends for dinner. Ahead on the sidewalk, you see a scene that pulls on your heart. Sitting off to the side is a mother and her three children, asking for the spare change of any passerby. Some people are ignoring them, walking quickly in the other direction. Others are handing them small bills, avoiding eye contact, and shuffling forward with their heads down. Your heart reaches out to this homeless family, but you don't know just what to do or say.
When confronted with such a situation, it is important to remember your ultimate goal: not only to provide for their physical needs, but for them to know you see them and value them as people. We will talk first about the importance of how to meet and talk with someone experiencing homelessness, and then talk about things you can do to help.
- First and foremost, it is important to treat the individuals struggling with homelessness as people. Of course, this is already in your heart and your mind, but a good piece of advice is to be aware of your body language when you meet someone. Look each person in the eye and be mindful of not cringing, if they reach out a hand or accidentally graze your sleeve. No matter the struggle a person may go through, they are, before, during, and after their homelessness, just another human being on this planet, worthy of interaction.
- Go ahead and start a normal conversation. You may ask them about their story, but be prepared if they don't want to share details with a stranger. Ask them where they are from originally or, if they indicate they are a veteran, thank them for their service. You don’t have to enter into a long conversation but a small exchange may brighten their day and yours.
- Be respectful of boundaries when there are children involved. Defer to the adults before offering a child food, toys or even a shake of the hand. Smiles are always welcome.
- It is a personal decision whether you feel comfortable offering money directly to an individual struggling with homelessness. If you do, don't tell them how to use it. If this is a concern, check to see if there is a shop or restaurant near by; you can ask the family if they would like a meal, and then get it for them. A safe and effective way to help is by making larger donations directly to an established charity that supports homeless families, such as Operation Warm.
- Familiarize yourself with the homelessness resources in your area so when you are speaking with the family you can direct them to the nearest shelter or soup kitchen. They may be passing through and are unaware that there is a resource only a few blocks away. A simple, “How are you doing? There’s a soup kitchen over on 17th Street, and I think they open for dinner around five. You should check it out!” might be a great gift to them in itself. However, if they say they aren’t interested, don’t push them. Some people who have struggled with homelessness for some time may have had negative experiences in shelters and prefer to be out in the open. No matter what the reply, keep the interaction upbeat and respectful!
- Another easy way to give someone a helping hand is to create some simple "blessing bags" and have them on hand as an alternative to monetary donations. Blessing bags include small items that make the struggle of homelessness a tiny bit easier for the individual, such as socks, toothpaste, packs of peanut butter crackers, or lip balm.
- One final tip: Always think first about your safety. Never offer rides in your car to someone you don't know, and never stand with anyone in a poorly lit place. If you feel unsafe, don’t worry about being rude. Just leave the situation. Your safety is a top priority always.
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