Encountering Homeless People: Holiday Edition

Holidays on the StreetWe recently published a post on Encountering Homeless People, but we want to provide a special holiday edition. The holiday season is a popular time for interest in offering assistance to people experiencing homelessness. It is also a season that is meaningful for many, but we don’t always share the same meaning, assumptions, and experiences. Keeping that in the forefront of our minds this holiday season is critical to how we approach anyone, but particularly how we approach those who are homeless.

Holidays can be a Triggering Time

We often try to push the feeling away, but the holidays can be a challenging time for many of us. And even if that is not your experience, perhaps you had a time when you faced a financial hardship, or you or a loved one received a diagnosis, or something just broke your heart, or you were sick and you didn’t feel like yourself. Now imagine if while you were experiencing that feeling that everyone around you was celebratory, and you felt pressured to mirror those feelings. The holidays are wonderful because they encourage us to experience love, hope, peace, joy, and a festive spirit. But sometimes that ideal can feel inauthentic. The incongruence of our actual experience versus that holiday ideal can produce feelings and reactions in all of us that can affect how we relate and behave.

Many of us feel that pressure, but it is particularly difficult for someone experiencing homelessness. While many of us can boil down our list of blessings to friends, family, good health, food, shelter and clothing—these are the very essentials that homeless people often lack. Holidays are also a time of memories, and for many homeless people those memories are not always positive. And for some, all of the baggage that is part of their experience can trigger behaviors that don’t reflect who they want to be or who they are during the rest of the year. Being mindful of all of these things is key to helping a person maintain their dignity and honoring their real, lived experience.

Unfortunately, we can’t offer a hard and fast rule that fits every situation, but taking a moment to pause to enter into another person’s experience will help any interaction be more welcome for everyone.

Keep Interactions Person-Centered

The pressure mentioned above can be used in ways that are either harmful or life-giving. We all hope that our interactions with others are in the latter category. But the hard part is just how difficult it is to determine whether we’re doing something hurtful or helpful. Best practice is to keep interactions person-centered. In addition to reflecting on what someone else could be experiencing, it also means asking key questions of yourself. Am I trying to focus on me or my needs or the person I want to help? Am I letting the other person define their needs or am I telling them what I think they need? Is trying to push for a holiday ideal getting in the way of having an equal, authentic experience with another person or do I see them as an opportunity to fill a void that I am experiencing? It’s so easy this time of year to fall into the trap of making someone your charity project, even when your intentions are good.

Putting focus on other people often means letting some of your power go. It’s hard to relinquish power because it insulates us from feeling pain. And certainly pain is not something we want to feel during a festive season! If you’re not sure what to do with that pit in your stomach, remember that all that pressure we feel is also a powerful force—a force we can use for good! Keep spending time listening to folks who are struggling and look for ways you can advocate for their needs and hopes.

Gift giving can have Unintended Consequences

While you may want to give a well-intentioned gift to a homeless person as part of your holiday celebration, be aware that it could have unintended consequences. For example, the recipient may not share your traditions, including religious background or gift-giving. But it can go well beyond that. Not only does stranger danger go both ways, but there is always a real possibility that your gift can make a person more rather than less vulnerable. Find out more by reading our Holiday FAQs.

‘Tis the Season to Be Scammed

We all deal with the holiday pressure differently, and for some it can present a ripe opportunity for scamming well-intentioned people. Don’t ever give up on being a force for good in the world—but do be mindful of scams during the holiday season.

If someone is collecting money on behalf of UMD or any other charity, it’s good practice to make sure you know the person or check out whether the collection is officially approved.

Also, if you live close to the downtown area, some individuals may claim that they need money for a hotel room because they don’t have money to stay at UMD or they can’t get a bed at our shelter. First, UMD is a public shelter and there is never a charge for access. And second, since October 1st, all referrals for shelter must go through DSS for Coordinated Entry or Entry Point Durham. Those are really just fancy terms to describe the process of designating one entry point for all people facing homelessness in a community entering through one official “door” agency to be triaged according to need, while ensuring them access to a range of services. So for scam cases like the one above, knowledge is power. If you have questions and need some more information, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

However you enter this holiday season, those of us at UMD are so thankful for you! The truth is we can’t do this work without the help and care of our community. When we all put in the work to deeply listen to one another and problem-solve together, we can make a powerful force for good in our community and our world!