Rethinking Your Encounters With Homeless People

This complex human issue requires us to have more knowledge and more empathy.

Posted Apr 03, 2018

Ryan Dowd started volunteering at Hesed House, an Aurora, IL homeless shelter, when he was 13. He thought it was a good way to meet girls from his school, only to learn they didn’t sign up on the same sheet as he did. He went anyway and is now a licensed attorney in Illinois and the Executive Director of the facility, which serves hundreds of people per night, as the second largest shelter in the state. Along the way and over two decades, he has learned a lot about homeless individuals.

He wrote a book about his experiences at seeing people living and coping at their near-worst. Only jail, prison, or being on the verge of death would seem more difficult to experience for most people who are not homeless. Most of us take our living circumstances for granted and could not ever imagine losing all of our relationships, sources of income, and housing options, to where becoming homeless would be ever even possible. And yet, as Dowd can attest, after talking to so many of his clients, the line between who is homeless and who is not can be quite fine.

Dowd’s new book, The Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness (American Library Association, 2018), is specifically for library staffers, who clearly encounter the homeless regularly at their facilities. His book offers his years of insight and dozens of practical tools for the library folks, but his words serve as an entrance into a world few people understand, or may not even care about. As such, his book is useful for non-library people as well. Reading it will give you a new and better understanding of what the homeless population in this country endure.

He offers these statistics about this at-risk, highly-stressed part of our population:

Used by permission from youtube.
Source: Used by permission from youtube.

National estimates are that 20 to 25% of homeless people are mentally ill. Of those 70% have personality or other psychiatric disorders: bi-polar, depression, paranoia, borderline, antisocial, schizoid, delusional, psychotic). Many struggle with undiagnosed autism disorders. Many cannot learn from their repeated mistakes and are constantly in conflict and rude with nearly everyone who tries to help them because they cannot control their behavior during normal or especially stressful interactions. About 40% of homeless people struggle with alcohol abuse and 25% with drug abuse. On any given day in the US, 22% of the known homeless population are children, 40% are women, and 35% are families.

Homeless individuals, says Dowd, often have traits, ideas, and characteristics that are similar to ours and yet widely different. Based on his long observations of the people who use his shelter, Dowd suggests that many homeless people ...:

Grew up poor. (Often over many generations.)

Speak differently. (We use a “formal register” with strangers or authority figures; they use a more “casual register.”)

Have a smaller vocabulary. (Limited education hurt their development as communicators. Simple words and clear questions or instructions to them work best.)

Pay more attention to nonverbal cues. (They really read into body language, vocal inflection, tone perceptions, and volume.)

Argue differently. (Their “anger ratio” is quicker and stronger, meaning they start loud and get louder, without much warmup.)

View respect differently. (They see it as earned, through fair, humane, and consistent treatment, not shouting, force, or punishment.)

Look at time differently. (They don’t have much more than a 24-hour time horizon. Beyond tomorrow is a long time for them.)

Value their relationships with other homeless. (They are highly protective of their peers. They share lots of information with each other: safe public places; fair or mean employees in government agencies; fair or mean security guards or police; where to get free food, clothing, support, which shelters to go to.)

Value their possessions. (They have an understandably strong emotional attachment to the stuff in their bags; it’s often truly all they have in this world.)

Look at space differently. (Every room they are in is the same as any other room and is to be used the same way, no matter where it is or who else is there.)

Are funny. (They use gallows humor and can see the comedy in their existence.)

Have experienced much more trauma. (This includes repeated exposures to physical assaults, sexual abuse, evictions, abandonment, random or targeted violence, brain injuries, arrests, job loss, and relationship losses.)
Are in more danger. (They cannot always protect themselves – especially women and when homeless individuals are asleep. This population has a lot of accompanying and untreated PTSD problems.)

Want to look scary. (Looking like a modern-day version of Charles Manson, says Dowd, is an intentional protective device to keep predatory people or violent homeless people away from them.)

Have had their IQs lowered by being in poverty. (Their education often stopped early and their lives on the streets has hurt their capacity to learn and remember.)

Are habituated to threats of punishment. (Their usual and near-daily punishments – getting kicked out of a public place or threatened with jail - are not much of a deterrent to their behavior. Dowd says, “Homelessness is often the culmination of repeated punishment failing to change behavior.”)
Have way less self-worth. (Most homeless people have almost none after six months of living on the streets and shelters, and having to resort to begging to survive.)

Are treated like crap more. (Just about every non-homeless person looks down on them, literally, as they sit below normal human eye level on the sidewalk all day, asking for money. Their self-esteem fades to nothing soon after starting that process.)

Trust people less. (Their behavior and life circumstances has caused them to be abandoned by family members, employers, landlords, co-workers, friends, spouses, partners, or their children.)

Value fairness. (They hate being singled out for punishment for rules that others get to break.)

While it’s not required that you actually walk a mile in the shoes of a homeless individuals to fully understand the complexities and difficulties of their lives, Ryan Dowd’s insights are a useful place to start to help you see them as human beings in crisis. Maybe you’ll decide to volunteer at a shelter like Hesed House? Maybe you send some money to a shelter like his ( or in your city? Maybe you will just make real eye contact and offer a nod of empathic support to the next homeless person you see?

Steve Albrecht is a keynote speaker, author, podcaster, and trainer. He focuses on high-risk employee issues, threat assessments, and school and workplace violence prevention. In 1994, he co-wrote Ticking Bombs, one of the first business books on workplace violence. He holds a doctorate in Business Administration (DBA); an M.A. in Security Management; a B.S. in Psychology; and a B.A. in English. He is board certified in HR, security, coaching, and threat management. He worked for the San Diego Police Department for 15 years and has written 18 books on business, HR, and criminal justice subjects. He can be reached at or on Twitter @DrSteveAlbrecht

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