Treat Homeless Men and Women with Dignity
Homeless men and women are part of an expanding, often faceless community. When we come in contact with homeless people, we may feel repulsed, annoyed, even angered as we avert our eyes and think, "Why don't they do something to help themselves?" or "If I look them in the eye, that'll just encourage them to ask me for money" or "They choose to be homeless."
Frequently, it is our lack of understanding about the complexities of homelessness that fuels our prejudices and fears about homeless people. Somehow, that gives us "permission" to act less compassionately towards a homeless person — who is, after all, a human being just like us.
Homelessness goes hand in hand with poverty. In fact, "a growing shortage of affordable rental housing and a simultaneous increase in poverty" are the primary causes for the rise in homelessness, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. Unemployment rates have soared in the last decade, and foreclosure has become a national issue. Local and state homeless groups report a 61 percent rise in homelessness since the foreclosure crisis began in 2007, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
While any of us could lose a job or face an unexpected illness that puts us in financial trouble, times are especially tough for the working poor -- those men and women who are earning the minimum wage. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), a family with one full-time worker earning the minimum wage cannot afford the local fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the United States. Simply put, a person can be a hard worker and still not be able to make ends meet.
In his book 54 Ways You Can Help the Homeless, Rabbi Charles A. Kroloff offers additional insights about homeless men, women, and children:
And with the loss of an actual home comes the loss of a person's sense of safety, belonging, and self-esteem. Fortunately, you can make a difference in the life of a homeless man, woman, or child.
I Did This!
When you encounter a homeless person in a safe environment, respond with kindness. Make eye contact and give the same respect as you would to any other person that you come across during your day. Don’t look away from homeless people as if they do not exist. Your respect can reaffirm the humanity of a person at a time when homelessness seems to have stripped it away.
Deciding whether or not to give to panhandlers is a personal decision. Some may not give money out of fear that it may be spent supporting an addiction. Although this is occasionally true, the National Coalition for the Homeless notes that the money usually helps someone buy a meal, afford housing, buy clothes, purchase an ID to stay in a shelter, or pay expenses such as childcare, healthcare, or transportation to a job.
In some cases, instead of giving money, people carry granola bars, peanut butter crackers, sandwiches, or fruit to give to homeless people. Or, if you don't want to give money, carry fast-food certificates. This will alleviate any fears about the way your money could be spent.
If asked for money and you don't feel comfortable, a simple, "I'm sorry, I can't help. Take care" or "God bless" goes a long way.
Take a moment to read Panhandling: A Little Understanding, which offers first-hand insight into how it feels to resort to begging people for money.
For more suggestions on how to treat homeless people with respect, see Kroloff’s entire list of 54 Ways You Can Help the Homeless.
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