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!

How to Engage a Person Experiencing Homelessness

Engaging homeless***DISCLAIMER: The following tools for engagement are guidelines and suggestions based on the experiences of UMD employees interacting with the homeless population. By no means are these hard and fast rules; it is important to consider the context of each individual circumstance.

  1. In general, don’t engage someone by yourself.

This is the most important guideline. To ensure you are safe at all times, never engage with a homeless person by yourself. However, how you define “by yourself” can vary based on your comfort level. You might be comfortable engaging with someone as long as you are in a public place, or you might not feel comfortable unless you are with several people you know.

  1. Be informed.

Homelessness comes in all forms, shapes, and sizes. You may not realize that some people you encounter are homeless. Some people may work full time, have advanced degrees, and simply lack a home. Others may be scared, show distrust, exhibit symptoms of trauma, or they may be locked in a prolonged struggle with PTSD, substance abuse, or a mental health condition and may not be receiving the treatment they need. Read up on the different issues surrounding homelessness. Learn about resources you can direct people to in your area. Always be mindful and open to what someone else is experiencing.

  1. Be kind.

Acknowledge someone. Smile. Say good morning. Ask them how they’re doing.  However, do not expect or force someone to mirror your feelings, experience, or beliefs. Take your cues from them.

Speak respectfully. If you don’t feel comfortable engaging at the moment, whether that’s because you are alone or simply can’t be present, explain kindly that you can’t help at the moment or that you want to help but are running late for a meeting. Offering some context and kindness goes a long way.

  1. Gifts, not cash.

Cash is best when given directly to aid organizations. That said, there are ways you can engage with the homeless without giving cash. If panhandlers ask for cash, hand out water, hygiene kits (containing soap, deodorant, toothbrushes, toothpaste, etc.), granola bars, or $5 McDonald’s gift cards from your car window. Or if someone stops you on the street asking for money for something to eat, grab them something at the closest restaurant where you feel safe. If you are with others and feel comfortable, you can let someone join you inside a restaurant for something to eat. Additionally, you can also give them information about resources (such as food banks or shelters) nearby.

Homeless people are the ultimate survivors. And for many, surviving has come at a cost. Some have learned behavioral patterns of manipulation that they want to break away from and other may have an everyday fight against addiction. For these reasons, it’s best not to feed into someone else’s temptations.

  1. Respect boundaries.

Both yours and theirs.

Keep physical space between the two of you. You don’t know what kind of trauma a person may have faced or how they may react if you touch them. You also don’t want to give away too much personal information, especially about where you live. Finally, it’s always ok to say no or to disengage if someone tries to touch you or makes you feel uncomfortable or threatened.

Stranger danger goes both ways, so respect the other person’s space. Some homeless individuals may be leery of you due to fears about human trafficking or because of past trauma. Ask friendly questions and practice active listening skills, recognizing that the person you are interacting with is free to share their personal stories on their own terms and respond—or not respond—to you. If you are expecting gratitude for interacting with someone, you may want to think about why you wanted to engage with them in the first place.

  1. Stay safe. If need be, call for help.

If you feel unsafe or someone is at risk of hurting themselves or others, call for help.

If someone is agitated or having a mental health crisis, and you feel comfortable doing so, attempt to de-escalate the situation. Lower the volume of your voice. Fewer words are better. If you don’t feel comfortable, walk away and call for help. When calling the police, you can ask for a CIT (Crisis Intervention Team) officer, who is specially trained in de-escalating persons in crisis. Explain the situation carefully to avoid endangering yourself, the person, or others.

  1. Reflect.

Check your biases: Did someone act differently than you expected? Ask yourself what you were anticipating and why. Your expectations may be based on an assumption or belief that may be true to you but is not the experience of the other person. Did the person feel comfortable enough to share their story with you? What did you learn from them?

Think about the interaction: Is there something you could have done differently? Could you have given more of your time or shown more presence in the moments you spent with the person?

Engaging with people experiencing homelessness affirms the humanity of others and can teach us a great deal about who we are and the world we live in. We hope these practical suggestions will empower you to navigate such encounters with an open mind and heart.