This week is National Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week, a week designated to bring attention to the plight of the homeless and those struggling with hunger. It always falls on the week before Thanksgiving, a time we reflect on all we have to be grateful for.
You already know homelessness and hunger continue to be a crisis in our country. In 2014, the U.S. Conference of Mayors Hunger and Homelessness Survey found requests for emergency food assistance increased in 71% of cities surveyed.
The survey indicated that 28% of the homeless population were severely mentally ill, 22% were physically disabled, 15% were victims or domestic violence, and 3% were infected with HIV. Not surprisingly, the leading cause of homelessness was reported to be a lack of affordable housing, especially for families with children. For instance, in L.A. County, the average monthly rent is over $1,700 with more than half of renters spend more than 30% of their income on rent.
If the travesty of hunger and homelessness is troubling you, you may be driven by compassion to help. But it’s important to know which things we do that aren’t helping the homeless.
- Don’t give them cash or any resource that can be used to purchase or trade for drugs or alcohol. Ask them if they are hungry and need food before you buy them a meal because the homeless are not always hungry.
- Don’t accompany them in a store. Homeless often have to resort to theft in order to support their drug habit and they could use you as a cover or accomplice to steal from a store.
- Don’t put them in your car or give them a ride anywhere. If you suspect they are in danger, call 911 immediately, but don’t get involved, or else you might also become a victim.
- Don’t let them know where you live or bring them to your home, otherwise you put your possessions and family at potential danger.
- Don’t ever enter a homeless camp to deliver food or help. These individuals have learned to distrust others and will not welcome your intrusion. The camps are usually a hotbed of drug activity and prostitution. Frequently, they contain a drug producing operation, and you put yourself at serious risk by entering, regardless of your motives.
Understand that a homeless person who has been living on the street for a while has become adept at survival. He can be very persuasive at convincing you to help him in ways that are actually counter-intuitive to what he needs most, but what he wants at the moment. Addiction and mental illness, which are prevalent in the homeless population, will keep a person from making good choices, of course, and may drive them to desperation.
So what can you do to help combat homelessness and hunger in your community?
- Find out who the existing agencies are in your community that serve the homeless and poor and partner with them. Give them a call to find out what needs they have and how you can help.
- Give a cash donation to agencies that are serving the homeless and hungry. Most organizations are non-profit and exist due to the generosity of donors. A small monthly donation will help keep them operating.
- Donate your unneeded goods to your local organization. These organizations are in need of your gently used or outgrown clothing, for men, women, and children. Especially needed items are blankets, coats and jackets (particularly in colder locales), socks, gloves, and hats. Even your old worn sneakers are desperately needed as homeless often lack shoes.
- Buy and donate toiletries. Round up those samples you received in the mail and the hotel bottles. Hit the dollar store to purchase a few extra items, especially razors, shaving cream and deodorant. Clean out that stockpile of shampoo and toothpaste you amassed from couponing and drop it off at your local shelter.
- Volunteer at you local shelter or food bank. Most kitchens can use help to put together food boxes for the poor or toiletry kits for the homeless. The soup kitchens often receive plenty of volunteers during holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving, but they can use your help throughout the year. Get some friends to serve on a schedule of once a week or month.
- Mentor or sponsor an individual in a recovery program. There’s never enough staff to meet the demands of all the clients in a non-profit recovery program. Your mentoring relationship will encourage and help direct a man or woman seeking to stay sober and choose a better life.
- Teach a class or workshop at a shelter or recovery center. For individuals who have long been homeless or in an addiction, they lack normal life skills. Your knowledge in education, personal finance, job hunting, or parenting is in great need. You don’t have to be an expert, but you have a lot of life skills to share.
- Carry water bottles or Zip-lock bags of snack items like granola bars or cans of beanie weenies to give to a homeless person that you meet on the street and are in immediate need. If your local mission or shelter has a business card with directions and a phone number, include that as well.
- Hold a donation drive at your place of work, worship, or kid’s school. Rally others to donate socks, underwear, or toiletry items and donate it to your local shelter.
- Finally, recognize that some people want to be homeless. You don’t have to respect their illegal or immoral choices, but you do have to respect their right to be homeless if they choose that lifestyle. Addiction and mental health battles are not easily overcome, and it will take time for individuals to choose a better path.
Change will happen when we bring dignity to the homeless one person at a time — not a whole city or homeless camp. Strike up a conversation with that homeless gal you see at Circle K every time you stop for gas. Encourage her to get help and remind her where she can go. And if you don’t see her at the Circle K anymore, it might be because your words and kindness motivated her to finally get the help she needed to recover.