A guide for helping homeless persons


November 12, 2018

Editor’s note: Guest CHN blogger James Abro is the author of “Facing Homelessness.” He is also a grassroots anti-poverty activist in his community, as well as a national advocate for Homeless Citizens Rights. James helps others write about homelessness and poverty, providing editing and writing assistance. His articles have appeared in The Nation, and for blogs published by the Center for American ProgressThe Coalition on Human Needs and others. He is an active member of The Kairos Center for Religion, Rights and Social Justice.

It occurred to me recently –as a result of being in housing limbo — that a guide on how to voluntarily assist homeless persons would be beneficial to both the giver and receiver of assistance.

I think the first thing a person providing assistance needs to know is that homelessness is a more common phenomenon than most people realize. Estimates vary, but a study from the 1990s found that one in seven Americans will face homelessness in their lifetimes. A more recent study that examined  homelessness among baby boomers (people born between 1946 and 1964) found that number to be one in six. Regardless of what the exact number is,  we know that homelessness is no longer, if it ever was, something experienced only by people who are living on the margins of society. The fact is it that there’s a good chance it might happen to you or someone you know in the future.

I’ve experienced unwanted homelessness as an adult and it is not something I would wish upon anyone; but I think we need to face the facts and be realistic. The gross income gap between the very wealthy and the rest of us did not take place overnight and it will probably not be remedied any time soon.

So let us be prepared. Here are a few pointers:

A person who is experiencing homelessness is traumatized. Similar to someone who has experienced domestic violence, or lost loved ones in a horrific car accident, or lost everything they knew of life in a flash during a natural disaster.

Persons in any of these situations, including homelessness, do not need cheering up, nor do they need “to talk about it.” What they need more than anything – other than to be able to turn back time — is a place to feel safe, relaxed and peaceful. They are already overwhelmed by internal and external stimulation. What they need is time to privately process what happened to them. What is unimaginable to us is unspeakable for them.

Also be aware of a natural tendency to share one’s own troubles with others. Under normal circumstances this would evoke empathy, but not so when we are dealing with someone who has been traumatized by a catastrophic experience. There’s no room at their Inn for our troubles.

The benefits of taking care of a traumatized homeless person is that it gives you an opportunity to quiet your mind about things going on in your life in favor of being there fully for someone else.  There are many studies that have been done proclaiming the benefits of being of service to others.

Additionally, the person you are helping out may be feeling that there is no reason for them to go on living; they fear that they will never again be a “normal” person with a “normal” life. In the last decade, while being involved in homeless outreach in my community, I have watched half a dozen homeless persons die prematurely.  If they had someone close to them making a special effort to listen and offer support, they might have lived fuller lifetimes.

We don’t know if or when our economy will ever transform itself into one with a broader sense of prosperity along with a fairer distribution of wealth. In the meantime we can at least make one another comfortable getting by.