12 Realities of Homelessness You Need to Know when Helping

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Knowledge is power. Knowing how to help those who are short or long term without homes involves knowing how their needs are both similar to and different from your needs.

  1. People who have just entered homelessness need to learn a new set of skills extremely quickly.  The learning curve is steep, and the price for not understanding the rules can be terrible.  Teaching them basic safety skills and important resources can greatly shorten both the length of their homelessness and the trauma it causes in their lives.
  2. People who have been homeless for a long time (anything over a few months) often develop a mindset of hopelessness where they appear to accept their homelessness and no longer try to escape it.  As a helper, a major responsibility in this case is to provide hope and encouragement against setbacks and delays.
  3. Managing hygiene can be very challenging.  Many homeless people stay outdoors or in abandoned homes by choice or necessity.  Alcohol gel and baby wipes can be used in nearly any environment, and safety razors are also much appreciated.  Hygiene issues can also be related to mental health.  Gently handing a person some soap and suggesting they clean up a bit is usually appreciated.  Comments about a person’s odor or appearance are not.
  4. Homelessness can be extremely hard on a person physically.  Often, walking is the only transportation available, and service centers that provide food, a place to sleep, clothing, and medical care can be miles apart.  Providing time and space for a homeless person to rest after being out in the weather can be a great help.
  5. Most homeless people struggle very much with how to keep their belongings.  With little or no income, many own only what they can carry, and often struggle with carrying too much in order to not lose their connections to their previous lives.  Helping them to brainstorm ways to either cull down what they own or to store it safely will help a great deal.
  6. Homelessness is inherently traumatic.  This means that nearly every homeless person you meet is dealing with the effects of trauma.  People affected by trauma can sometimes behave in ways they would not otherwise behave, and you may sometimes be the target of that behavior.  It is very unlikely that this is a personal attack.  More likely, you represent the bad things that have happened to the homeless person.  It helps a great deal to keep this in mind when serving the homeless.
  7. Homeless people have a barter economy.  Items you give a homeless person may or may not end up being used as you anticipated.  Often, they get traded for items that homeless person needed more.  This is okay, even if sometimes the item you gave is “misused”.  While it is always important to weigh whether providing something to a person will help or hurt him, it is also important to consider that the resource you provide may help in a way you didn’t expect.  Think outside the bus pass.
  8. It is very difficult to take medications regularly when a person is homeless.  Medications get stolen or bartered, it can be difficult to find water or a cup at medication time, and often it is difficult to get to the hospital or drug store to get a prescription refilled.  If the prescription needs to be refrigerated, often the homeless person is unable to do that, and the medication becomes useless or worse.  This can cause severe problems for the homeless person with a chronic physical or mental illness.  This is another situation where knowing your local resources and helping the homeless person brainstorm her options can be very useful.
  9. Sex happens.  Educating about safe sex and, if possible, providing condoms can be a very important part of your job.  This may be against your personal belief system and may deeply bother you.  It is absolutely okay to discuss how you feel about the subject with the person you are helping.  Be careful that your discussion is about the person’s actions and how they may hurt the person (physically, mentally, spiritually), rather than a discussion of the person’s worth.
  10. The homeless world is a violent world.  Homeless people are preyed on by gangs, each other, and even by police officers and “upstanding citizens”.  In this world, trust does not come easily.  It is not personal if the person you are helping does not trust you, it is natural.  It is part of your job as a helper to earn trust, sometimes over and over again, sometimes even when you don’t trust the person you are helping.
  11. When homeless people lie (and not all do), they lie for the same reasons the rest of us do – to protect themselves.  This is another situation where separating the action from the person is useful.  A person who lies has a reason for lying.  If you can uncover that reason, it is often also possible to build the trust you need to help the person change her life.
  12. People don’t become homeless because one thing goes wrong.  People become homeless because many things go wrong.   These things include family conflict, mental illness, substance abuse (including alcohol), history of childhood trauma, institutional racism, criminal background, and being displaced.  Some of these things are under a person’s control, or mostly, but many are not.

When helping a homeless person, if that person refuses a certain type of help, that does not mean she does not want help, it means that she does not see that issue as a problem right now. It is best to start work on another issue, one that the person you’re helping is willing to work on.  If the issue that she refuses to work on affects  her success at working on the issue she wants to work on, point it out and let her decide if she’d like to look again at the problem.

Helping homeless people is a very complicated task.  “Homeless” is not a single type of person.  There are as many ways to become homeless as there are people.  If you always keep in mind that the person in front of you is a person first, and homeless second, you will have made a good start on building the trust needed to be an effective helper.


  • New City Rules Focus on the Homeless (everydayfamily.com)
  • helping the homeless (itsmyrandomthought.wordpress.com)
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