How to Help the Homeless

Resources for your dilemma

Posted Jul 25, 2016

When people discover that I have not only worked with homeless people for the past thirty years but have also experienced homelessness as a young adult, the number one question they ask me is, “So what should I do when I see a homeless person on the streets—what can I possibly do to help?” In fact, while working today at the University of Washington, a longtime and well-known health journalist asked me this question. So, for her, and for all the other well-intentioned people out there with the same or similar questions, here is my list of “Simple things you can do to help the homeless” followed by a list of my favorite resources for finding out more about homelessness:

  • Respond with a smile and a kind word—even if it is “No—sorry” when you are asked for a handout for coffee, a meal, or spare change. There’s nothing worse than for a person to be ignored.
  • Carry fast-food restaurant certificates and flyers with local resources to give to the homeless when they ask for food or money.
  • Buy Real Change or whatever your local homelessness/poverty issues newspaper is—if there is one in your area. If there isn't one in your area consider helping to start one.
  • Support an agency that provides services to the homeless, especially agencies that also work on upstream solutions to preventing homelessness, such as low-income housing or job-training programs. An example is Habitat for Humanity, whose vision is of a world where everyone has a decent place to live.
  • Be informed and become an advocate for local community solutions to homelessness and poverty, as well as state, national, and international ones.
  • Consider joining advocacy organizations, such as the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

The following organizations are all well-respected sources of up-to-date information and resources for individuals, groups, and communities to learn more about homelessness and what to do about it.

I personally do not give money to anyone asking for spare change. That is a choice I make, not because I am concerned people will use the money for drugs, alcohol, tobacco or anything else I may consider unhealthy choices, but because I have decided to use my money to support agencies I know and work with and which provide direct services as well as advocacy. I do make sure that I try to make eye contact and say a polite, “No, I’m sorry, I can’t” whenever anyone asks me for money. And I do intervene nicely but firmly whenever I witness someone belittling a homeless person with derogatory comments like “Just get a job!” Such aggressive, judgmental comments should not be tolerated in a civil society.

Josephine Ensign
Source: Josephine Ensign

Note: the list of resources and “Simple things you can do to help the homeless” is adapted from my forthcoming medical memoir, Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net (Berkeley: She Writes Press, August 9, 2016).