About 610,000 people are homeless on any given night in the United States.
Roughly one-third of them spend their nights on the street, unable or unwilling to take refuge in shelters. The unsheltered homeless are a particularly vulnerable group, prone to suffering from the elements, harassment and violence. The unsheltered are also highly visible, scattered across parks, subway stops and street corners, an enduring presence in the public landscape of most major American cities.
Long-standing myths that blame homelessness on laziness or reckless drug use mean large portions of the public are reluctant to help those in need, and are even critical of those who do. Day-to-day interactions between the general public and the homeless are often fraught with awkwardness or tension, given the pervasive stigma that homelessness carries in society.
Many people try to ignore the homeless altogether, avoiding any meaningful interaction. Even worse, when conversations do occur, well-intentioned people will sometimes say the wrong thing and exacerbate the very real feelings of isolation and depression that many homeless Americans experience every day.
Mic spoke with several organizers who work to combat homelessness to come up with some simple tips on how common missteps and misguided assumptions in conversation can be avoided.
A routine thing a homeless person will hear runs something along the lines of, "I'll give you some money, but only if you don't use it to buy drugs or alcohol." Assuming a homeless person does suffer from the disease of drug addiction, they do still need money for other things to survive, and in the aggregate, donated money will be spent on those things.
But more importantly, if the person is capable of functioning independently and you want to give money, give it without conditions or patronizing comments.Experts observe that someone in a crisis is going to spend money on what's needed to manage that crisis. A growing body of literature suggests that direct aid in the form of cash — without any strings attached — is generally an effective way to mitigate poverty.
A number of inappropriate comments are around the issue of whether homeless people work. Contrary to popular opinion, many homeless people work. A 2002 study by the Urban Institute showed that about 45% of homeless adults had worked in the past month. Many who experience homelessness were previously living paycheck to paycheck for a long period of time in cities that have few affordable housing options, and have been pushed into the streets by one crisis too many. Once you become homeless, it's extremely difficult to maintain the sanitation and order in your life required to keep a job.
So, asking a homeless person, "Why don't you just get a job?" is full of troubling assumptions. Among those who don't work, their lack of stable employment can be explained by way of problems that would incapacitate anyone: A majority of single homeless adults suffer from mental health problems, major physical health problems or the disease of drug addiction.
It's not uncommon for people to ask, with good intentions, if somebody is homeless. But asking directly, "Are you homeless?" has the potential to be offensive, as the term carries a toxic stigma. An individual could be between homes and still not perceive that as grounds for being labeled as a homeless person.
In other words, there's a difference between experiencing homelessness and identifying as homeless. A subtler alternative, if trying to ascertain if someone is in need, is to ask, "Where did you stay last night?"
It's also not your responsibility or your business to figure out what produced their current circumstances — leave that to the professionals. So, avoid questions like, "How did you become homeless?" Instead, ask somebody to tell you his or her story, or where he or she is from. "People are eager to share their story, but you want to respect their limits," says David Pirtle, a speaker with the National Coalition for the Homeless who has experienced sustained bouts of homelessness in his life.
Michael Stoops, community organizer for NCFH, also cautions against asking a homeless person if they have family. Basically everybody has at least some family, and this reality can compound the feeling of alienation for someone who is homeless. Asking about family for people in such a precarious emotional state can sometimes evoke troubling memories. Instead, leave it to the discretion of someone who is homeless to disclose their personal narrative on their own terms.
While anti-homelessness organizers have plenty to share on what not to say, they also think that there are a lot of things people should be saying. For example, the simplest and most overlooked thing to do in any interaction with someone who is homeless is simply to say "hello." Eye contact, a wave, a smile, a greeting or a "How you doing?" goes a long way for someone living in the isolation of homelessness. "Talk to folks like people — it's not rocket science," Pirtle says.
Just as two strangers in any other context (such as at a cash register) view their encounter as an occasion to exchange pleasantries, so too it should be when walking by someone asking for change.
If you decide to stop and have a conversation, ask the person their name and introduce yourself. "When you're on the streets, nobody ever calls you by your name," Stoops says.
Most homeless people have some idea of services available to help them endure their crisis, but they don't have an easy way to keep track of resources, especially when they have mental illnesses or serious substance abuse issues. It's always helpful to ask if they know where the local shelter is. Of course, then it's your job to know where a close one is, or look one up.
A vast majority of the time, somebody is not going to have a desire to start up a deep conversation with a stranger, and that's fine — that applies equally to both people with homes and without them. But if you're going to have an interaction, it should be just the same as with anybody else: polite, helpful and nonintrusive.
Editor's note: The headline and formatting of this article has been updated.