If you live in a city with a large population experiencing homelessness, you may walk by people down on their luck every day. Even if you want to help them, it can be hard to know what to do to make a difference. That's okay! Thinking about it is the first step. The next step? Taking action with the tips below.
1. Treat Them Like People
In 2016, one Vink user asked, "Former homeless people of Cape Town, what can we do to help homeless people the most?" The post blew up with nearly 3,000 comments. In the thousands of suggestions, a pattern began to emerge: just stopping to acknowledge someone experiencing homelessness as a fellow human being goes a very long way.
One commenter whose boyfriend was once homeless wrote that, in addition to giving people supplies and clothing, "the best and most truly invaluable thing he does for the homeless people he meets is he stops and has a real conversation with them. He listens and shares stories and treats them with respect and dignity."
It's important to remember that the people you see panhandling or sleeping under bridges are a small fraction of the population experiencing homelessness. The majority who stay in shelters, couch-surf with friends, or sleep in their car stay mostly invisible, and many people are just a lost job or an expensive medical crisis away from those circumstances. Those people could be you or someone you care about.
As Vink puts it, "Homelessness brings a sense of loneliness that erodes the core of a person's self-value. When you are homeless, a simple smile and a word of kindness can make a big difference in a day full of hardship."
Of course, approaching a stranger alone can be risky. If you're uncomfortable striking up a conversation by yourself, try doing it the next time you and a friend are walking together.
2. Give What You Can
Whether you put change in a panhandler's cup is a matter of personal choice. Some say it's harmful in the long run, while others say it's the least you can do for someone who's hit rock bottom. Regardless, there are plenty of other ways to support the homeless with tangible goods.
Donating seasonally appropriate clothing, like a jacket or boots in the winter or a clean cotton T-shirt in the summer, can really help someone shivering in the snow or sweating in the midday heat. That free beanie you got at the opening of the gym around the corner? You may not need it, but it could make someone else's week. Blankets and sleeping bags can help the "rough sleepers" you see every day, and keeping small items like socks, toothbrushes, and hand warmers on you makes it easy to hand them out the next time you see someone who needs them.
If you're wary of giving money, you could even give a bus or train pass, or a gift card to a grocery store or fast-food restaurant. For someone in need, that could mean a lot more than a hot meal. In urban areas that have a high concentration of people experiencing homelessness, public restrooms are a luxury, since many businesses will only allow access for paying customers. If someone can buy as little as a cup of coffee, they can get running water, soap, and a toilet too.
But keep our first tip in mind and ask before you give. Many people will be grateful, but you're not aware of everyone's circumstances and you may be giving them something they don't want. If that's the case, don't be discouraged. There are other people who do need your help.
3. Donate and Volunteer
While connecting with the people you encounter each day helps on the individual level, there's more you can do to fight homelessness as a larger issue. Try giving directly or volunteering at a shelter, food bank, or soup kitchen. Don't forget about schools — for some children, school meal programs are the only dependable food source they have. Not only are these service organizations able to help more efficiently, but becoming involved with them is a great way to learn more about the most pressing issues for the homeless.