It’s funny, isn’t it? To say someone is “homeless” means more than they don’t have a home.
In the present age, to use the label homeless is also to ascribe a less-than-dignified status upon someone. Matted hair, yellow teeth, dirty clothes, under-the-breath mutters, and an unpleasant odoriferous trail mark these members of society more vividly than neon signs.
Living in a big city, I pass several resident homeless men and women who sit on their benches, in front of their stores, and on the bus stops day after day. It seems a contradiction to allow this permanence to a seemingly “homeless” person and yet it’s a seen reality. The adequate diagnosis of these people seems easy: lazy. If you have enough time to sit and do nothing, you have time to work. And yet often the desertion of family and friends compiled with employment disappointments keeps the men and women in a productive-less spiral.
Countless psychological and sociological statistics will claim that a person will start to lose rationality after three days on the street. Three days. Think back to where you were three days ago and imagine yourself waiting out three nights in the cold, contemplating nine uncertain meals, trying to stay clean in public restrooms as nature fights against you.
How then, as a Catholic Christian, can I merge generous charity with a well formed conscience? Here are a few mental and practical ways to genuinely help the homeless in your area without contributing to the epidemic.
1) Dispel stereotypes. Every situation of homelessness is unique. Sometimes, your local free paper will feature a homeless person’s biography and you would be surprised to realize their life story isn’t so different from your aunt or uncle’s.
2) Respect the individual. This homeless person isn’t less human because she smells, because he mutters, because they beg. Respect the facts: the only thing you know about this person is that they have a need. That alone is cause enough for you to reach out.
3) Don’t dismiss. Personal safety is a priority in every situation, but that acknowledged, there are a myriad of opportunities for you to send a smile, make eye contact, and lend an ear.
4) Offer food, not cash. This is perhaps the most important tip I can give. As I said, each situation is unique, and yet it is widely known that a typical case of homelessness is perpetuated with the purchase of drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, and other non-necessities…all bought on your dollar. Feed the body, not the habit. If you are near a grocery store or food establishment, offer to purchase a meal. In my experience, most persons will very gratefully accept. If you’re at a restaurant, order something to-go as you leave and give it to the loiterer on your way back to the office. Or pack a little something extra of your lunch.
5) Utilize your car. The glove compartment and extra cup holders are perfect places to store granola bars, water bottles, and other non perishable supplies to hand out to the street corner.
6) Make a parcel. If you have the funds, or are motivated to do some pillaging at thrift stores, consider making a small bundle to hand out to the unsuspecting beggar. Throw in a clean towel, a toothbrush with toothpaste, a bar of soap, some clean undershirts and socks, and perhaps a jacket.