You should not expect to solve homelessness yourself. However, you can take specific steps to reduce the problem. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates that the number of homeless people over the last few years has ranged from from 600,000 to 1.5 million. Despite the scale of the overall problem, individuals taking effective action on their own can combine into a surprisingly large impact.
1. Consider the individual, not the masses.
You may be familiar with an old saying along the lines of “one death is a tragedy, a thousand deaths is a statistic.” It is unfortunate that people often sense tragedy on a small scale but tend not to on a larger scale. This statement could not have been any more true and obvious over the last year.
This affects not only how people see death but also perceptions of other problems, including homelessness. When you look at the overall problem, the details are lost and you can be left with a feeling of despair about being able to do anything at all. The problem seems too big.
Yet each homeless person and each family facing life on the streets has an individual story that may be quite unlike the stereotypes surrounding the homeless. Maybe the homeless person is working but due to the cost of housing/rent, they just can’t afford a deposit or rent payment. Maybe the homeless person fled a domestic abuse situation (for their own personal safety) and left their life behind.
This first step in empathy and trying to understand each story is individual is personal and quiet, something you will do only in your mind. That exercise is to consider the homeless reality of just one individual or family.
2. Listen and educate yourself first, ask questions next, seek solutions last.
There are powerful stereotypes about the homeless. Just like there are powerful stereotypes about race, sexuality, gender, age, and much more.
Stereotypes of all kinds interfere with really hearing and listening to reality. Or educating yourself to reality. Each homeless person or family has a story, but to discover it you must do something unusual, something that they know others are not willing to do. That is, listen to them.
Can’t listen or not comfortable doing that? Then read their stories in books, blogs, and other sources. As many people who struggled in the past, and who may have been homeless for a period of time, have shared and do share their stories. Educate yourself – fight the stereotypes.
Seek to understand how they became homeless. Try to fully grasp all of the obstacles they face, because it is rare that one obstacle can be resolved without addressing others. Once you have heard what the person or family has shared, ask questions to clarify anything that you don’t understand. Only when you thoroughly comprehend where they are can you work with them to find solutions to get them to a better place.
3. Hire people, not machines or technology.
Do you own a business? Or have the means to give back financially, to try to make even a small difference in someone’s life, even if it is just one person? Employing a machine instead of people is not always the best answer. Consider, for example, the need to clear an area of leaves, dirt, and other natural accumulations. You could buy a gas-powered blower and do the work yourself (hiring one person), or you could hire two or three people to use brooms. The blower will require an initial outlay of $75 or more and then require ongoing maintenance and fuel, the money from which will go to people who are already housed. It will also create noise pollution and air pollution (fumes and particulate matter).
However, hiring a few people down on their luck to sweep the area could be done for under $50, will be quiet, and will not pollute the air as much. Plus, you will know that the money you spend will go to people who desperately need it. As just one of the many causes of homelessness is the cost of housing and rent. There are many freelance websites out there in which you can find local help. Find a list of local freelance websites.
Get these stats. Someone working a minimum wage job can’t afford a modest one bedroom apartment in 93% of US counties and they can’t afford a two bedroom apartment in 100% of counties per the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s. Other studies show similar stats. But as some people may know, minimum wage varies by state and city. Even taking those local rates into consideration and looking at the cost of housing based on local minimum wage rates and local rent, the average worker would need to work 97 hours per week to afford a modest two bedroom apartment. That is right….97 hours per week.
The high cost of housing, which has increased greatly over the last several years and annual monthly rent increases continues to go up faster than annual wages, is but one driver of homelessness. This is why hiring a person, and giving someone an opportunity, can help fight the problem.
4. Meet an immediate need of a homeless person or family.
A person living on the street will not be looking to the distant future and planning how to get from where they are to a better life. It’s not feasible to think ahead like that when they are focused on where they will sleep that night, how and where they will obtain food, whether they will be ousted by police, and other immediate concerns. If you can meet an immediate need, such as a purchase from a fast-food dollar menu, you might use the relief they feel to discuss their future. (See “listen first” above.)
5. Meet an ongoing need.
Being homeless isn’t just about not having food and shelter. Living in a stable home provides a foundation that supports continued stable living, but those who are homeless or that are born into poverty lack that foundation. Some examples include: a mailing address allows for job application and government support. Closets and chests of drawers allow for clothes storage that can be used when interviewing for a job. Internet access allows for jobs search, researching government programs, and more. Affordable transportation to find and keep a job or gain new skills. Emotional support from a healthy environment. And so much more.
The homeless (and many people born into a cycle of poverty) lack these basic needs, making it fundamentally harder to get off the streets. As do many people that live in poverty – thus the cycle of poverty. If you can meet one or more of these needs for one homeless person or family — perhaps by offering a reliable place to receive mail, or ensuring they have the computer skills and internet access to use modern information tools — you can help establish that foundation for them until they can build their own. This is part of what the government’s housing first program is intended to do, as it will try to help a small number of homeless people get into a stable environment first and foremost, then work on building a more stable future.
You might never be able to get even one homeless person off the streets, and you certainly won’t solve homelessness in general. However, there are steps you can take to effectively move people in the right direction. Even if you try to make a difference, it is better than must people do. And who knows, maybe you can make a difference to one person or more, or to society in general. The suggestions listed above are not as easy as handing spare change to a homeless person, but they can have a much broader and long-lasting impact.