Because I work in social services, it’s not uncommon for me to be asked by a friend or family member what the best way is to help someone who is homeless, especially during the holidays. I love this questions for a myriad of reasons, because it usually results in meaningful discussions, but mostly it reminds me that people are, at their core, good.
I genuinely believe that we all have a recognition of the need to help others. At work, I get to witness staff, volunteers and guests take part in the process of validating that critical human connection on a daily basis and it is something I reflect on often because, simply put, it makes me feel good. That said, there is a flip side to every coin and sometimes an act of kindness, while carried out with the best of intentions, can actually have the opposite of the intended impact. So this holiday season, if you are interested in helping someone in your community, here are a few things to keep in mind.
1. People first. It’s easy to forget how much words matter, but they do. Take, for instance, the difference between calling someone a homeless person versus referring to them as a person who is homeless. This small, seemingly innocuous flip of a few little words can serve as an important reminder that the individual you are trying to help is a human being, just like you, not merely a condition or a stereotype. Take the time to get to know them. Ask them their name, sit and talk with them, and you will quickly realize that ‘homeless’ is an adjective, not a noun.
2. Realize that stereotypes are just that – stereotypes. One of my first jobs out of college was as the volunteer coordinator at a shelter that provided temporary, but stable, housing to men and women who were homeless. As part of my job I would hold monthly orientations for people who wanted to volunteer and a question I heard on more than one occasion was, “Where are the homeless people?” These new volunteers didn’t realize that the man or woman they’d just walked past on the way to my office was, in fact, homeless, because they were so used to the stereotype of someone in tattered clothes with a cardboard sign sitting on the sidewalk. And of course there are men and women who live that daily reality, but even for them it is still just a small piece of their story – it’s not who they are, but rather what they might be doing to survive right now.
The people I’ve met and worked with who are facing homelessness have experiences that are vast and varied. Some struggle with addictions. Some were not fortunate enough to grow up with access to quality education, while others hold masters degrees and have resumes more impressive than I could ever hope mine to be. Despite these differences, there does seem to be a common denominator among many: they never expected that they could be homeless one day. The line between housing and homelessness is narrower than many of us might imagine and fraught with problems beyond the control of a single individual.
3. The best way to give is unconditionally. This goes back to the question of whether it is better to give money to someone in need, or if you should buy them a meal or give a care package. I won’t pretend know the answer, because to do so would be to assume that every person in need is in need of the same things and that just isn’t the case. I will say that when I am asked, if I am able, I give. If that means reaching for the bit of spare change in my pocket, then so be it. But if I do make that choice to give money, that is where my part ends. I don’t get to judge or determine how the money is spent or for what. I’m not a perfect person by any means, and so to hold someone else to a standard of perfection would be hypocritical, to say the least.
4. Ask how you can help. Coordinating a volunteer program at a homeless shelter taught me many things – the biggest of which was to not make assumptions about what others need the most. Many shelters have wait lists to volunteer at the holidays and at my current job, for example, we have well-meaning people show up unannounced every night of the season who will get quite upset if turned away. While I can appreciate that their hearts are in the right place, many don’t seem grasp that when they do this, they are actually creating more work for our staff. If you really want to help, take the time to ask what the best way is for you to be of service. Sometimes, especially if you want to volunteer, it might mean waiting until after the holiday season to find a role where your skills can really be utilized. Which brings me to my final point…
5. Keep the spirit of giving the WHOLE year. The problem of too many volunteers I described above is often exclusive to the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Come January and into the warmer months, the altruism many were feeling at the holidays seems to dissipate, donations slow to a crawl, and volunteers might become scarce. This inconsistency can be so frustrating for service agencies who count on reliable volunteers and donors to support effective programming.
Giving is a two-way street. We give not only to help others or make a difference, but because it makes us feel good and allows us to appreciate all we have that can’t be bought in a store. It is, in a way, the best kind of selfishness! But there are ways to deepen the impact of our giving. Be mindful, not only of who you are trying to help, but how.