Encountering the Homeless

My friend John forwarded to me a blog post titled Giving Money to Homeless People is Okay.  The post makes a number of good points about our assumptions about the homeless and about their needs.  I thought particularly helpful were the tips the author shared at the end of the piece for interacting with people experiencing homelessness.

  • Make eye contact. It’s hard to be homeless and being ignored can be painful. Make eye contact and greet the person with a hello or good morning.
  • If you feel like giving money than give. It’s okay. Like Pope Francis said “it’s okay to give homeless people money and we should not worry about doing so.”
  • Keep in mind your safety must come first. Do not open your purse or take out your wallet if you feel it may be dangerous.
  • If you don’t feel like giving money, simply say “sorry.” It’s never a good practice to lie and say you don’t have anything.
  • If you’re not the type to give money than an alternative is to carry a few pairs of socks to hand out. I walk around with Hanes socks in my backpack. When someone asks me for money, I normally hand each person two pairs of new socks. It’s a great way to start a conversation and get to know the individual. Carry socks in your purse, briefcase or glovebox. Other items to give include gift cards or bus tokens, but I find socks are needed and easy to carry.
  • There are occasions when a homeless person is overly aggressive, has severe mental health issues or is intoxicated. If you don’t feel safe, don’t engage with the person. However, remember to have compassion as to why they may act that way.
  • Last but far from least is to simply listen. Homelessness is horrible, and people experiencing homelessness are often in crisis. They may have a simple need that you can help with. You just have to start a conversation and listen.

The first and last of those tips seems to me especially important from a Christian perspective: looking at someone and listening to them.  I was privileged to attend a lunch talk by the Dominican Fr. Timothy Radcliffe yesterday, who spoke about the first of the post-Ascension miracles – the healing of a cripple, recorded in Acts 3.  And two of the things he stressed was: Peter and John looked at him…they listened to him.

Giving food, and socks and filling other materials needs is, of course, important.  But no less important is to notice the other person as a person – to see them and to hear them.  That is why I titled this post “encountering” the homeless, rather than “helping” them.  We need to encounter the homeless.

You can read the post in its entirety here.