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.  

Housing Bond Passes, Now What?

It’s now time for heavy lifting (and listening) to make our community’s ideas become closer to a reality.

The vote is in. The Affordable Housing Bond has passed in Durham. Which only means one thing . . .

It’s officially time to roll up our sleeves.

It’s the public’s job to help make sure that the bond the community voted for lands on its feet. That includes making sure that when policy becomes a process with intended outcomes, that we remember the human face behind those efforts.

And of course, as you saw in our last post, the bond will have an impact, but there are still thousands in Durham in need of affordable housing above what can be provided in the next 5 years from the bond.

Here are some things you can do to help:

  • Watch (and listen) for right of return. A big concern is that those who currently have affordable housing and need to move temporarily while their home is being renovated or rebuilt, do not lose their housing.
  • Look for the City Council to establish a committee to help with transparency. According to Mayor Steve Schewel, “It is imperative and non-negotiable that there be a City Council-appointed accountability and advisory committee that works closely with DHA and the City’s staff during the entire five-year implementation period for the housing bond.”[1]
  • Offer someone else affordable housing. If you are a landlord, consider joining in the city’s efforts to make your properties affordable. If you aren’t, consider making the case to people you know about why affordable housing is important for everyone in the city. Or get inspired by one of your neighbors, Blake Townsend, who has invested in affordable housing for UMD clients.
  • Be mindful of those who are living the process of making the housing bond a reality. Not everyone is going to experience immediate joy on passage of the bond. While it can mean a long-term advantage for some, many of those in need of affordable housing have to live life in a short-term world. For them the bond means having to move (at least twice!) over the next 5 years, in addition to feeling mistrust and fear. It will be important to listen and hear different perspectives from our own, especially from those being directly affected.
  • Don’t stop giving. If you are currently giving to a public homeless service provider, please continue to do so. For the bond to have its best chance at injecting change into our system, current giving needs to stay constant. That means extra dollars leveraged by the bond can help enhance our current system rather than just maintain it.

And of course, stay tuned to the blog for updates on issues impacting those experiencing poverty and homelessness in our community.


[1] Steve Schewel, Interview, Durham For All, https://durhamforall.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Schewel-2019-D4A-mayor-questionnaire.pdf, pg. 2.

Affordable Housing: Living on the Edge in Durham

Thank you joining us again. This post is Part 2 in our series on the Durham Affordable Housing Bond. If you didn’t catch Part 1: The Facts, click here.

So what is affordable housing anyway?

There are two standards to measure affordable housing. 1) percentage of income below AMI (Annual Median Income) qualifies a household for assistance for affording a home 2) percentage of income going toward housing should be no more than 30% for housing to be considered affordable.

What is the annual median income in Durham?

The annual median income for an entire household (pre-tax) for the Durham-Chapel Hill Metropolitan Statistical Area is $80,600.[1] Income is best understood by considering the number of individuals within one household. Below you can see what the percentage AMI is for a variety of households and income levels and what type of assistance they are usually capable of receiving.

How many households need affordable housing according to the AMI criteria?

Income Level 1 person household 2 person household 3 person household 4 person household Assistance Eligibility (approx..)
30% AMI $17,850 $20,400 $22,950 $25,450 Public Housing
60% AMI $35,640 $40,740 $45,840 $50,880 Low End of Affordable Home Ownership Programs
80% AMI $47,500 $54,300 $61,110 $67,850 High End of Affordable Home Ownership Programs
2019 Area Median Income for Durham-Chapel Hill MSA*[2] $59,425 $67,925   $76,430 $84,815 Affordable Housing is Market Rate

“According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, nearly half of Durham households—53,525 to be exact—earn 80 percent of the AMI or less. (In 2018, that was about $72,000 for a family of three.) Eighteen thousand families earn less than 30 percent of the AMI, about $21,700.”[3]

How many households in Durham are in need of affordable housing using criteria 2?

Spending more than 30% of total income on housing is considered being cost-burdened by housing. According to the NC Housing Coalition, 31% of Durham County residents (39,582 households) are cost-burdened; 49% of renters (28,917 households) and 16% of homeowners (10,665 households) are cost-burdened.

How many new units will be provided through the bond/5-year plan?

New properties will add 863 affordable units, 405 market rate units will be added.[4] The number of spaces for public assistance cannot be decreased. The city estimates that 1,600 affordable units will be created and that 800 units will be preserved.

As you can see, the need for affordable housing is high in Durham. The bond and 5-year plan will have an impact, but we will still need to work hard as a community to make an affordable Durham a reality for all of us.


[1] NC Housing Coalition infographic. https://nchousing.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/NCH-CountyProfile-Durham.pdf

[2] Calculated by UMD using COD provided AMI levels of 30/60/80

[3] Sarah Willets, “What You Need to Know About the Largest Proposed Housing Bond Referendum in North Carolina History,” Indy Week, 2/26.

[4] Campaign website. https://www.durhamaffordablehousingbond.com/en/the-plan

Durham Affordable Housing Bond: The Facts

At UMD, we talk a lot about affordable housing. So, with a bond referendum on the ballot for November 5th, we realize we need to do our part by making sure that our donors, volunteers, and Durham neighbors can utilize us as a thought partner in that conversation. The purpose of this post is to round up and research information as we have it, and put it in your hands.

So, what are we voting on?

A 1.6 cent tax increase per $100 of assessed property value to fund a $95 million dollar affordable housing bond. Passage of the bond will leverage an additional $65 million of local and federal funds to create a $160 million 5-year plan (2020-2024) to combat Durham’s lack of affordable housing.

Who is paying?

The tax is directly aimed at property owners. Indirectly, it is possible that this fee or part of this fee may be passed on to renters when their landlords’ tax bill rises.

How much will the tax end up costing homeowners?

The average tax value of a home in Durham is $229,246 with a current property tax of $1,219. A 1.6 cent increase in property tax would add $37 to that tax bill.[1]

What will the bond pay for?

The city is presenting a wide-range of funding to address Durham’s affordable housing need. Take a look at this graphic we created using the line-item budgets and project descriptions from both the City of Durham’s website and the official Durham Affordable Housing Bond campaign site.

Homeless Programs will receive $10.5 million over 5 years. How does that affect UMD?

As you can see, much of this money is allocated to specific issues pertaining to homelessness, not all of which UMD will likely qualify for. When UMD applies for government grants, we usually qualify for “Emergency Shelter” and “Rapid Rehousing,” a line item which is set to receive $3.46 million. These terms often have specific funding designations for how and where funds can be used by an organization. Consider that it costs $3.8 million per year, including in-kind support, to operate UMD, and that multiple homeless service providers in Durham are likely to be eligible to receive portions of this funding. Activities listed under Homeless System Investments are important parts of the Durham Continuum of Care for the city’s homeless population, but they are not direct activities of UMD that would bring funding to our agency. UMD and others will need to apply for this funding in a competitive RFP (Request for Proposal) process.

The biggest chunk, $58.9 million, is for redeveloping Durham Housing Authority Projects, including the DHA Office. What are the four communities being redeveloped?

J.J. Henderson:  807 S. Duke Street (across from Durham Freeway and American Tobacco)

Forest Hills Heights: 700 S. Mangum Street (across from Durham Freeway and Durham Bulls Athletic Park)

Oldham Towers: 519 East Main Street (on block of E. Main and N. Dillard Street across from UMD)

Liberty Street: 131 Commerce Street (on block of Liberty Street and N. Dillard Street across from UMD and WTVD)

Durham has 14 DHA properties, why were these chosen and what’s the plan for the others?

These properties were chosen because “the downtown location will attract the financing necessary for the redevelopments to succeed.”[2] The goal is to “deconcentrate poverty by making these properties mixed income developments.”[3] Four other DHA properties were recently updated and the remaining six properties will be considered after the 5-year plan concludes.[4]

Stay tuned tomorrow to find out more about the affordable housing need in Durham and the expected impact on that need as outlined by the City of Durham.


[1] “One Page Informational Handout,”City of Durham Website, <https://durhamnc.gov/DocumentCenter/View/27969/One-Page-Informational-Handout>; “Facts and Figures Sheet” Durham Affordable Housing Bond Campaign website, <https://www.durhamaffordablehousingbond.com/en/overview>.

[2] FAQs, Campaign Website.

[3] The Plan, Campaign Website.

[4] FAQs, Campaign Website.