This post isn’t personal finance related, but I came back from volunteering at a homeless shelter this morning in our town and need an outlet for my thoughts.
Only my very close friends know that I spent almost 3 weeks homeless about 6 weeks after I left the cult at age 14.
My temporary housing situation fell through, and I had nowhere to go.
I had a choice of either going back to the cult, or figuring something out on my own in the interim.
After 14 years growing up in a very abusive cult, experiencing homelessness was easily the most terrifying, degrading and humiliating experience of my life.
I’m 31 years old now, and I still have nightmares about those few weeks. I’ll never forget how invisible, isolated and hopeless I felt, not to mention unsafe.
I’m incredibly lucky that this was just my reality for a couple weeks. Many people struggle with homelessness for months or years.
Regardless of our net worth or personal situation, we can all help someone who is experiencing homelessness, in some capacity.
If we don’t have the means to donate money, we can donate food or extra household items. We can volunteer our time at homeless shelters, soup kitchens or our local homeless advocacy coalition. We can also help advocate to create the systemic changes needed to end homelessness, and educate ourselves and others on the root causes.
Here are 30 impactful actions anyone can take to help someone experiencing homelessness:
1. Understand people who are experiencing homelessness:
- Talk to them, and learn about what actually caused their homelessness.
Every situation is unique: a person who is homeless may be someone who lost their job, coping with an addiction or major health problem, a runaway youth (as in my case), or someone struggling with a mental illness.
One of the first steps in helping people who are experiencing homelessness is to see them as people first, to find out their story, and to find out what they need.
2. Respect people who are homeless as individuals:
Treat them with the same respect as you would people you know and care about. How would you like to be treated by a stranger if you needed help?
3. Be kind, and don’t ignore or dismiss them:
It’s amazing the difference you can make in the life of someone who is experiencing homelessness simply by responding to them, instead of pretending they don’t exist.
Smile, make eye contact, engage, ask questions – don’t act as if they’re invisible.
4. Consider giving money directly to the person:
- Many people fear that giving money to the person directly could support an addiction. This is only occasionally true.
- Consider that the money might help buy food, pay for transportation, cover housing costs, buy clothes, or pay for other costs such as childcare or healthcare.
- If you don’t want to give money, buy gift certificates to restaurants or stores. I carry a stack of these with me so I can hand them out as needed. My older sister does the same.
5. Connect the Person to the Nearest Food Bank and/or Soup Kitchen, and Homeless Shelter:
- Go online and find your town, city or state’s nearest food banks, soup kitchens and homeless shelters.
- Carry a list of cards with this information, and hand them out to people who need them.
6. Get Help in an Emergency:
- If you see someone in physical or mental distress, either call 911 or your state homeless outreach hotline to get them help immediately.
- If someone is having a mental health crisis, contact your city or state’s nearest Crisis Response Center. Call the center and notify them of the person’s location. The CRC’s can help evaluate the person and give them mental health treatment.
7. Donate clothing and blankets:
- Not having clean, quality clothes and shoes can cause difficulties for the person outside of just from a practical perspective. It hurts the person’s self-image and damages their chances to get back on their feet.
- If you can afford to, donate extra clothes or clean blankets either to a local shelter or directly to someone experiencing homelessness. During cold weather especially, winter clothes items are usually critically needed.
8. Make Homeless Survival Kits:
- I’ve started a group in my city that creates and distribute Homeless Survival Kits. These have items like cups, pots, pans, soap, shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrushes and other personal care items, which are desperately needed.
- One of our members donates the use of his van, and we organize drives around town each week to pass out these items.
9. Donate Household Items:
- Call your local homeless shelter or service provider and ask if there are any household items which they could use.
- The group I created routinely organizes drives around our town to collect items like kitchen utensils, furniture, books, toys, games, diapers, etc, to donate.
10. Donate Phone Calls:
- Someone experiencing homelessness is often not able to contact family or friends frequently. Consider offering them the opportunity to make free long distance phone calls or you can also donate pre-paid phone cards.
11. Donate A Computer:
- If you have an old laptop you no longer need, instead of selling it, consider donating it directly to the shelter or service provider.
12. Donate Books:
- Call your local shelter and find out if they could use a donation of books.
- I’ve organized five book drives so far, and we’ve managed to create a small library at my local shelter. Every time we volunteer there, I see books we collected getting used constantly!
13. Help Find Job Opportunities:
- Despite what alot of people might say, most unemployed homeless adults and teenagers desperately want to work, and will, if given the chance.
- I’ve made a list of over 120 different companies, schools and churches in my state that hire people experiencing homelessness. I ask my network frequently if they know of any organizations to add to this list.
- I pass my list on to homeless shelters, and those I meet that are experiencing homelessness.
- My group also routinely organizes workshops at our local homeless shelters to teach skills that could translate into job opportunities.
14. Skip A Meal and Donate the Food or Money to a Soup Kitchen or Shelter:
- The group that I created started a fundraiser where volunteers skip one meal per week, and donate the food that we would have used (or the money) to a shelter or soup kitchen.
- Many of us don’t even notice the missed meal, but the amount of money and proceeds that we raise collectively each month always amazes me.
15. Be aware of your language
- Never refer to someone experiencing homelessness in a derogatory way, and don’t tolerate this behavior from other people either.
16. Get connected to a homeless advocacy coalition:
- To find a coalition near you, go to NCH’s Directory of National Housing and Homeless Organizations
- Volunteer time or make a financial contribution to the coalition.
17. Join the National Homeless Civil Rights Organizing Project (NHCROP):
- NCH’s NHCROP has nine regional field sites nationally. The organization works to track and spread awareness on a) the growing trend of criminalizing homelessness, b) the increase in hate crimes and violence against people experiencing homelessness.
18. Respond to NCH’s Legislative Alerts:
- NCH Legislative alerts give up to date information about what is happening in Congress which affects national levels of homelessness and poverty. You can sign up for alerts at NCH’s website home page.
- Contact your public officials by either writing letters, emailing, calling or visiting them at the city, county, state and federal level. Ask them what they are doing about homelessness and bring up relevant legislation.
- To find the address for your public official, go www.house.govand www.senate.gov.
- Use the Capitol Switchboard to call anyone in Congress: (202) 224-3121
19. Sponsor a Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week:
- Every year during the first full week before Thanksgiving, NCH and the National Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness (HSCAHH) co-sponsor an Awareness Week across over 500 campuses and communities around the country.
- To participate, go to NCH’s website and sign up.
22. Get Involved in your Local Politics:
- Get political, especially at a local level!
- Go to neighborhood and public meetings and advocate for low-income housing, homeless shelters, and programs that work to prevent homelessness.
- Encourage everyone you know to contact officials at any level of government.
- My group organized an event in coordination with a homeless shelter in our town where we provided papers, pens, stamps and envelopes, and sample messages, along with cell phones, so that anyone concerned could contact their elected officials to ask them to stop cuts in essential services.
23. Contact and follow your local news:
- On a local level, follow the news to stay aware on what is happening to homeless or low income people in your community, and the policies in place which impact them.
- Write the media to express your concern for people experiencing homelessness.
24. Support your local street newspaper
- Street newspapers help provide education to the general public about homelessness, while giving people who experience homelessness an avenue for expressing themselves creatively. The paper also provides employment to the person as a vendor of the paper or contributor.
- To find the nearest street newspaper in your area or to help create one in your community, go to NASNA’s website .
25. Help People Experiencing Homelessness Register to Vote:
- Every election cycle, the “You Don’t Need a Home to Vote” campaign occurs nationally to educate people on how to advocate for homeless voting rights their state, as well as to register the homeless to vote.
- To get involved, go to NCH’s website.
26. Work at a Shelter:
- You can find a partial list of homeless shelters and service providers on NCH’s website.
- Take an evening, overnight or weekend shift at your local homeless shelter.
- Shelters need volunteers for just about any task. The group I organize helps mainly with clerical work, food prep/serving/clean-up, and collecting/distributing donated items.
27. Help Fix or Build Houses:
- Get involved with supporting housing for those experiencing homelessness, by contacting your local public housing authority, or by contacting your nearest chapter of Habitat for Humanity.
28. Invite People Experiencing Homelessness to a Community Event:
- Plan a community event specifically for people experiencing homelessness, or invite them to attend one that’s already planned (i.e. public concert, picnic, city council meeting, etc).
- Organize an event at a shelter: My group plans evening programs once a month at our local homeless shelters. We host game nights, movie nights, throw holiday and birthday parties, and sponsor local performers.
29. Work with Children in Shelters:
- Call your local shelter and find out how you can help with coordinating workshops, field trips, and events for children staying there.
- Find out if any of the kids need tutors or mentors academically, and offer to help or put them in touch with volunteers who can.
30. Educate yourself, your kids, and others on the root causes of homelessness:
- Check out the sites below to learn more about what causes homelessness and how you can help:
- Annual U.S. Conference of Mayors Report on Hunger and Homelessness: http://usmayors.org/publications/default.asp
- The National Alliance to End Homelessness: http://www.endhomelessness.org
- The National Low Income Housing Coalition: http://www.nlihc.org
- The National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness: http://www.studentsagainsthunger.org/
- The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty: http://www.nlchp.org
- Homes for the Homeless/Institute for Children and Poverty: http://www.homesforthehomeless.com/
- National Health Care for the Homeless Council (Formerly The Better Homes Fund): http://www.nhchc.org/
- Universal Living Wage Campaign: http://www.universallivingwage.org
What tips do you have to help people experiencing homelessness? How do you help?