The Homeless Chronicles Pt. 12: There Are Many Ways to Help the Homeless

helping_the_homeless

If you haven’t had the opportunity or inclination to read any of my other many blogs about being homeless, I will give you a quick briefing: I’m a 49 year-old white female, college -educated former business owner and artist. I became homeless a year ago, and my blog chronicles the adventure from the beginning up until now (I’m still homeless). I didn’t become homeless as a result of mental illness, drug-addiction, alcoholism, or domestic violence. I became homeless as a result of a declining economy, just like millions of other American small-business owners. You’d be shocked to find out how fast your life can and will unravel after only two months of little-to-no income. If it could happen to me, it can happen to anyone. 

If you’re the type of person who genuinely cares about humanity, and is able to see the massive and quickly growing gap between the middle and upper classes of America, you might have a desire to help those who have fallen through the cracks. Anyone with eyes can see homeless people just about everywhere now, and the only difference between the wealthy neighborhoods and the poor neighborhoods is the number of homeless people that line the streets.

http://www.dailynews.com/social-affairs/20160504/homelessness-growing-in-la-county-as-more-live-in-cars-tents 

According to the the numbers reported by the article above, there are roughly 48,000 homeless people in Los Angeles County on a given night. I’m sure that report is very conservative, because it probably doesn’t take into account how many don’t apply for services or aid. Those people fly under the radar, and I know there are many more than anyone has been able to count. All those facts aside, the truth is still staggering to me. With that “small” number of homeless in a city that boasts a population of well over 18 million people, how then is it possible for 50,000 of them to be homeless? 50,000 is less that one-third of one percent, so how can it be that 18 million people cannot help 50,000 people?

My answer is simple: a lot of those people either can’t be helped, or they don’t want to be helped. I’m not even going to try to venture a guess as to how many of those people are “too far gone” in mental illness or addiction to be helped. I know the number is very high. So then, let’s just venture a very generous guess that half of those people are willing and able to be helped. Let’s assume that 25,000 people are perfectly capable of managing their lives again if given an opportunity. Those people fall into the category of job loss, trauma, abandonment, no family, escape from abuse, or simply having too poor of credit to rent an apartment. If 18 million people can’t manage to provide assistance to 25,000 people, then it can only mean that they either don’t want to, or they cannot help. If I were to break it down into my own little microcosm, and take into consideration how many friends I have, versus how many have helped me and how many have not, I would probably come up with roughly the same percentage as the larger model. If I have even a combined five hundred “friends,” acquaintances, clients, and Facebook buddies, and only three or four have actually helped me over my year of being homeless, I’d say that’s pretty damned sad.

Whatever the oversimplified case may be, facts are still facts. By and large, people just don’t help each other as much as they should. Sure, I know lots and lots of people give generously to homeless shelters, and bless them. Those shelters are very expensive to run, and most of them house only one or two hundred at a time. There are only a handful of shelters in Los Angeles, because they are all underfunded and they close down all the time. The Government can’t do much to help because every time they’ve tried to write homeless initiatives, the public bitches and cries so much that they can’t address the crisis with tax dollars. What else are they supposed to do? Who’s gonna pay for it? The public? The same public that votes down every homeless shelter construction project? The same public that calls the cops whenever they see a homeless person digging around their trash can in the alley? Yea, I don’t think those folks are gonna vote for a new homeless tax initiative.

So in consideration of all the factors above, how do I think this crisis could be addressed? I have a few ideas, but nothing I could mention here. But I do like the idea of somehow making it “cool and trendy” to help the homeless. Suppose, just for shits ‘n giggles, that one out of every, say…twenty people made a commitment to help one homeless person. How would that look on paper? Maybe they would take a trip down to one of the shelters and select someone who was “worthy” of help. That person would have to be of reasonable intelligence, be substance-free, and demonstrate an ability to be self-sufficient when given an opportunity. That person might then help the homeless person get a job, raise funds through their own community to pay for motel vouchers until the person got a paycheck, and help them get re-established into society. I know it’s a long shot, and totally unrealistic, but it’s worth thinking about.

Most likely the people who read my blog are in no way interested in investing that kind of time and effort into saving the life of a stranger, so I will provide a short list of a few easy things that could be done for a homeless person. But first, some assessments must be made: what kind of homeless person are they? Let’s say this person is of reasonable intelligence and able-bodied enough to be employed, and all they need is a place to live. Do they live on the street, or do they live in a car? My advice to anyone who is passionate about taking action for this growing epidemic is this: educate yourself. Most homeless people have experienced loss and pain on a scale that you probably can’t imagine. Not only have they lost everything and everyone that they loved, they have also become a social pariah. They are in pain, so treat them with compassion.

The level of help and involvement you are willing to put in is obviously up to you, of course, but it is also up to them. If you feel comfortable enough to sit down with someone who is homeless, then listen to their story. Find out what they actually need. It might not be what you expect. Of course every homeless person wants a home, but that doesn’t mean you have to rent them an apartment. It could be something as simple as needing a bus or plane ticket to live with a friend or relative. Maybe you know someone who needs a live-in caregiver/handyman/driver. Maybe you know someone who has an apartment building that could use a manager or maintenance man. Do you have a guesthouse that someone could stay in while they did some work around the property? Sometimes homeless people wish they just had a place to take a shower and wash their clothes once a week. Sometimes the only thing stopping them from getting a job is not having a couple of clean outfits, or a valid ID and address to put on the application. You could rent them a P.O. box, you could take them to get their new driver’s license. If they’re a car-dweller like me, you could let them park in your driveway one night a week so they can use the electricity to watch movies on their laptop. Do they have a dog? Take the dog to the vet for a checkup. Do they need to have their teeth cleaned? Take them to a low-cost dentist. You can take them to get some new shoes and a few pairs of new socks, take them to get a nice haircut. Buy them a nice warm coat and gloves. Ask some of your neighbors if they need work around their yard. How about buying them a $30 smart phone from Walmart with a pre-paid card that you could reload once a month? Another great idea is a gift card from a grocery store, so they can get any kind of food they want, hot or cold! Even something small and “safe” like a care-package with soap, toothpaste, baby-wipes, and socks would be appreciated. Instead of recycling all those plastic bottles and aluminum cans, why not save them up and give them to the homeless guy that you see by your place of employment? Why not organize a fundraiser once or twice a year at your job, and give the proceeds to a shelter nearby?

All of the things I mentioned above are clearly going to be based on your ability to assess this person’s trustworthiness. You’ll know right away if they are, just as you know right away if any stranger, homeless or not, is “safe.” Trust your instincts. More often than not, they will be so grateful that anyone is willing to help them, that they will not want to mess that up. If you talk to the people who run these shelters, they’ll be able to tell you right away who is a candidate for help, and who is not. The best way to meet homeless people in a safe and “guided” environment is to go and volunteer at a soup kitchen for a day. Just look around and you’ll be able to tell the difference between the ones that are mentally ill and the ones that are easy to talk to. If you’re a woman, then go volunteer at the Downtown Women’s Center. Volunteering on a regular basis will give you a much clearer picture of who is deserving and receptive of real help down the line.

So if you’re the kind of person who sends a $20 bill to the local shelter every Christmas, then bless you. But you just paid for a couple of #10 cans of corn that will be gone in one meal at a shelter. That’s great, but wouldn’t it be more gratifying to pick one homeless person and help them in a big way, like helping them find a job or a place to live?

RECAP:

  • Care package (tampons, soap, deodorant, toothpaste, snacks, etc.)
  • YMCA Membership (for showering and exercise)
  • Inexpensive smart phone from Walmart ($30)
  • Recyclables (plastic bottles, aluminum cans)
  • Bus/plane ticket to be with family
  • Veterinary checkup for their dog
  • Dental services/teeth cleaning
  • Current ID/Driver’s License
  • Grocery Store Gift Card
  • New shoes and socks
  • Fast food gift card
  • Monthly bus pass
  • Gloves and scarf
  • Motel vouchers
  • Warm coat
  • Yoga Mat
  • P.O. Box
  • Haircut
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