Simple (and Not So Simple) Ways to Help the Homeless

  • IMG_1230 - Version 2Respond with a smile and kind words—even if it is “no—sorry” when you’re asked for a handout for coffee, a meal, or spare change. There’s nothing worse than for a person to be ignored–unless it is for them to be ridiculed, called names, told to ‘just get a job,’ or to become the victim of physical violence. Speak up if you witness someone harassing or demeaning someone who appears to be experiencing homelessness. (See ‘hate crimes and homelessness’ below.)
  • Carry fast food restaurant certificates to give to the homeless when they ask for food.
  • Support and buy Real Change or whatever your local poverty and homelessness newspaper is. Take the time to talk with and get to know the vendor.
  • Support an agency that provides direct services to the homeless, especially agencies that also work on upstream solutions to preventing homelessness, such as low income housing or job training programs. An example of upstream services is Habitat for Humanity whose vision ‘is a world where everyone has a decent place to live.’ Not a shabby vision to have and to support.
  • Become informed and become an advocate for local community solutions to homelessness and poverty, as well as state, national, and international ones. Consider joining advocacy organizations such as the excellent National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Hate Crimes and Homelessness: There is a well-documented relationship between criminalizing homelessness (such as municipal laws against camping or panhandling) and ‘hate crimes’/violence against homeless people. Although homeless status is not currently a protected class under federal hate crime laws, there are local, state, and federal efforts to increase protection of homeless people from being victims of bias and opportunity hate crimes. People experiencing literal homelessness are very visible and vulnerable to being victims of targeted crime.

The National Coalition for the Homeless collects data on violence against homeless people. In their latest report (June 2014), Vulnerable to Hate: A Survey of Hate Crimes Against Homeless People in 2013, they found that documented cases are rising (perhaps partially–but not completely–due to better surveillance and recording efforts. Such crimes remain significantly under-reported.) This is an excellent, balanced, and disturbing report. It includes detailed case studies of victims of targeted violent hate crimes.

Last year there were 109 documented attacks on homeless people, resulting in 18 deaths. There were five documented cases of police brutality of homeless people. Over half of all cases of violence against the homeless were in California and Florida. Nationally, the vast majority of perpetrators were teenage and young adult men. In the report, they call for federal Homeless Hate Crime legislation, better reporting of homeless hate crimes, as well as education/prevention efforts such as education (enlightenment) in high schools and police departments.

Resources to Learn More About Homelessness Issues

Note: This series of blog posts on health and homelessness is based on my unpublished* book manuscript Catching Homelessness. It is the story of my experiences with homelessness, both as a nurse practitioner working with homeless people, and as a homeless person. The stories in Catching Homelessness are about events that have happened to me through my work with homeless people. The stories are all factual in that they actually happened. My perception of them at the time of the events and my memories of them inform the stories. Many of my interactions with people in these stories were within an ongoing professional relationship. Since I recount stories of specific patients I worked with, out of ethical and legal obligations, I have altered some biographical details and changed names in order to protect their identities. I have not changed the names of co-workers and friends except where indicated as such in the text.

I have kept detailed journals, both personal and work-related, throughout my life. These were invaluable resources for writing this book. Because I have a background and training in anthropology, my work-related journals were written as expanded field notes. In my journals I recorded patient stories, direct quotes, profiles and personality quirks of co-workers, my reflections on my actions and on events with which I was involved. I kept copies of my detailed monthly and year-end clinic statistics, narrative reports, and letters that I submitted to the Cross-Over Clinic Board of Directors, for whom I worked; these became sources of information for sections of this book. I also drew upon archived newspaper articles, mainly from The Richmond Times-Dispatch, the leading newspaper in Richmond at the time, and currently the city’s only major newspaper. For some chapters, I relied on interviews with people working with homeless people in Richmond, site visits, and reports (past and present) on homelessness in Richmond, in Virginia, as well as nationally.

The following books and articles were the ones that I referred to the most, or which most influenced my thinking as I wrote Catching Homelessness.

  • Zygmunt Bauman. Wasted Lives: Modernity and Its Outcasts. (Polity Press: Cambridge), 2004.
  • Ted Conover. Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America’s Hoboes. (Vintage Press: New York), 2001.
  • Kim Hopper. “Homelessness Old and New: The Matter of Definition.” In, Understanding Homelessness: new Policy and Research Perspectives, Dennis P. Culhane and Steven P. Hornburg eds., (Fannie Mae Foundation, 1997).
  • Kim Hopper. Reckoning With Homelessness. (Cornell University Press: Ithaca), 2003.
  • Joseph B. Ingle Last Rights: 13 Fatal Encounters with the State’s Justice. (Abingdon Press: Nashville). 1990.
  • Jonathan Kozol. Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America. (Three Rivers Press: New York), 1988.
  • Elliot Liebow. Tell Them Who I Am: The Lives of Homeless Women. (Penguin: New York), 1993.
  • Elliot Liebow. Tally’s Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men. (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers: Lanham, MD), 2003.
  • Paul A. Lombard. Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck vs Bell. (JHU Press, Baltimore), 2008.
  • George Orwell. Down and Out in Paris and London. (Harcourt: New York), 1933.
  • Janet Poppendieck. Sweet Charity?: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement. (Viking: New York), 1998.
  • Christopher Silver, Twentieth-Century Richmond: Planning, Politics, and Race. (The University of Tennessee Press: Knoxville). 1984.

Thanks to the organizations that supported my four years of research and writing of Catching Homelessness: 4Culture, Jack Straw Writers Program, and Squaw Valley Community of Writers. I extend my thanks to the wonderfully supportive librarians in my life, Lisa Oberg and Joanne Rich, of the University of Washington Health Science Library in Seattle. Many thanks to Wendy Call, Waverly Fitzgerald, George Estreich, Drs. Barbara McGrath, Stephen Bezruchka, and Sheila Crowley for reading and providing constructive feedback on earlier drafts. Thanks also to the members of my writing group, The Shipping Group, and to Karen Maeda Allman of the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, for providing writing space and encouragement. A special thanks goes to my husband, Peter Kahn, my son, Jonathan Bowdler, and my daughter, Margaret Kahn, for all their love and support throughout the process of bringing this writing to life.

*Most all of Catching Homelessness has appeared in print in various forms and venues (including in this blog series):

 Some books are meant to be written, but not necessarily to be published. Catching Homelessness is such a book. I’ve moved on to writing my next book, Soul Stories: Health and Healing Through Homelessness. I thank Hedgebrook for the opportunity (starting this next week) for the ‘radical hospitality’ of protected time, space (my own hobbit-house/ ‘Owl’ cottage), food!, and nurturing community of women writers necessary to forge ahead with writing Soul Stories.



2 thoughts on “Simple (and Not So Simple) Ways to Help the Homeless

  1. These are really practical and useful tips to help us all. I wonder if you have had much occasion to be around homeless people with animals and could suggest ways to help in those occasions? Through a series of associations here in New Hampshire, I’ve recently started to learn more about this challenging situation. There is also a national organization called Pets of the Homeless who can offer support for these cases. One of the biggest challenges is when a person first becomes homeless, most shelters will not accept the animal, often the only lifeline this person has. This is a specific case that I’m aware of with a woman who is working to reunite with her cat, because of the shelter issue. If you feel it is appropriate to post this link, I know she would be grateful.


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