To Help or Not to Help

If you’re unsure about what to do when you encounter a homeless person asking for help, you’re not alone. Some people give pocket change—but it could almost be a way of “buying themselves out” of an uncomfortable situation. Some give money, hoping the person will do the right thing with the cash. Others shake their head or mumble a “no,” irritated at feeling accosted.

Sooner or later, you’ll encounter a homeless person on the sidewalk. Or at an intersection, you’ll pull up beside someone out of work, holding up a sign. When that happens, here are some things to consider.

1. Be prepared. 
Anticipate the opportunities you will have to engage with another person. 
Develop a game plan. In time, you might find that you are intentionally walking closer to the person on the sidewalk or merging into the left lane, just to ensure you have an encounter. 

Anticipate the opportunities you will have to engage with another person. 
Develop a game plan. In time, you might find that you are intentionally walking closer to the person on the sidewalk or merging into the left lane, just to ensure you have an encounter. 

2. Acknowledge the person. 
Simply acknowledging homeless people as human beings and taking the time to talk to them in a friendly, respectful manner can go a long way. Treat them no differently than someone else you casually meet on the street or for a get-together. Linger for a moment and talk. Becoming homeless can be very isolating, discouraging, and embarrassing; remember that we all need the consistent love and encouragement of other human beings to help us make smart choices in our lives. 

3. Recognize that homeless people (and their problems) are not all the same. 
The person you meet may be a battered woman, an addicted veteran, someone who is lacking job skills, or an individual facing another seemingly insurmountable challenge. Encourage the person to get help through a gospel rescue mission; but remember it's ultimately his or her decision. Rescue missions offer immediate food and shelter, and many offer job training and long-term rehabilitation programs that deal with the root causes of homelessness. 

4. Provide an alternative to money. 
If the person is asking for food, instead of giving money, give McDonald's or Subway coupons. They are generally inexpensive and easy to carry. Better yet, bring carryout from a restaurant and sit or stand with the person and share it. Depending on the person's expressed needs, you can also offer gloves, socks, tissues, a granola bar, bottled water, and the like. Refer him or her to an agency that can provide food and shelter. Meeting the actual need is always better than giving money.

For other ideas on what to give, see Care Kits for Homeless Individuals.

5. Hand out business cards of people at the local rescue mission. 
Go to your rescue mission and find our which caseworkers are happy to have their contact information circulated on the streets. Carry a stack of their cards in your briefcase or handbag. If business cards aren't available, simply print up slips of paper with the mission’s name and address, along with the name of a contact person at the mission. During daylight hours, you might consider accompanying the person to the mission and personally introduce him or her to the staff. 

6. Don't hesitate to call the police. 
It's not uncommon for homeless people to find comfortable, out-of-the-way locations to congregate—under the end of a bridge, on a grassy flat near the creek bank, by a certain fountain in the park—and then adopt those areas as their habitats. After passersby get used to seeing them in these locations, they seldom take the time to observe movement. Be on the lookout. When it's very cold or very hot, a stationary individual might be on the verge of hypothermia or a heat stroke. Don't ever hesitate to go over and check on a homeless person. When in doubt regarding someone's condition, call the police. You might just save his or her life. 

Adapted from Invisible Neighbors by John Ashmen