In my novel, God Doesn’t Love Us All the Same, an unusual bond forms between Vera, an old homeless woman and Janine, the young woman who tries to help her. Their meeting takes place on a cold, snowy night when Janine, in a random act of compassion, invites Vera to a coffee shop for something hot to drink. When Vera accepts the invitation Janine immediately feels a discomfort born out of a misplaced sense of responsibility. “Suddenly I felt even more awkward while wondering what I was supposed to do with her after coffee. Take her to a shelter…or…what?” However, Janine has a common misconception about homeless people. While they may want, need, ask for, and accept help in the moment, generally they are not looking for a caretaker. They are looking for a way to survive on their own terms.
My first experience working with the homeless was in a meal service hosted by an organization that had been doing it for over twenty years. I met a former navy officer who ate there regularly. His name was Bob and looked as if he had had many tough years on the street. Inside the center he was very nice. We chatted and he even gave me a hug goodbye with a heartfelt “God bless you.” However, five minutes after stepping outside I spoke to him again and he was standoffish and suspicious. As a worker at the meal service he appreciated my help and involvement, but on the outside he was none of my business. It was like he flicked off a switch and, as it turns out, that is a common behavior among many of the homeless.
Working with the homeless can be one of the most rewarding experiences in life because it requires a renewed mind. However, it can also be very challenging. To be most effective, it’s best not to assume, judge or stereotype individuals. Besides varying life stories, there are also varying lifestyles and knowledge of them is essential. Here are some examples:
Camps -Entire families with children (enrolled in school) live in the woods and sometimes form small communities. Unless well known and trusted, they are suspicious of outsiders. Venturing into these camps, even with the best of intentions can be dangerous and is not recommended.
Street – The familiar homeless people to the general community are the ones who take up residence on the streets or in the city parks, often in downtown areas. There are usually single men (some women), often with mental illness or substance abuse issues. Resigned to their situation, they are not very interested in conforming. Depending on how they are approached, they could become hostile.
Shelters -Some homeless families have received enough assistance to get temporary shelter, including emergency stays at motels. However, later they may have to resort to living in their cars. These families are often displaced due to financial woes (losing job and then home) or domestic violence. They appreciate assistance, especially with getting food, jobs and clean clothes.
Relocated – This group can be found sleeping on floors and doubling up with friends and family. With this type of temporary support in place, this group may not be included in the homeless statistics and subsequent budget for social programs. Pride or shame may not make it easy to accept help from unknown outsiders, will use social programs.
Outreach to the homeless is ongoing and help is always needed. Check for local opportunities with established organizations. Your time will make a difference.