How to Actually Help the Homeless

Stop knitting scarves: Before anything else you do, before doling out one more can of non-perishable string beans to the soup kitchen, before donating one more scrappy cardigan that even Mother Theresa wouldn’t be caught dead in, before putting one more sympathetic smile in the proverbial collection plate—please, for the love of God, stop knitting scarves. And hats. And socks. And Mittens. And all other woven goods that you might find tucked deep within the pages of a Landsend catalog. “But what’s wrong with knitting scarves?” You might ask yourself. “They are warm and fuzzy and I can put little pom pom tassels on mine!” The problem does not lie in the scarf or even in the pom pom tassel, the problem lies in the why behind the scarf. Why are you knitting the scarf? To help the homeless of course is the bumper sticker answer behind your yarn infused frenzy. But the real reason, the reason lying behind the bumper sticker, deep within the car, inside the overstuffed glove box, sandwiched between your over due library book and last month’s parking ticket, is you. As much as you want to believe the scarves, mittens, hats, and all knitting paraphernalia of the like is a selfless act filling a much needed void, it’s actually about you and your own inner craving to feel warm and good inside. This is not necessarily a bad thing, that hunger is innately human and by all means feed it, but we must think more critically about how and what we are using to fill in that void.

 

Open your eyes to the truth: There is a false narrative that has been floating around the United States for decades. A narrative created to ease our conscious and make charity more graspable and bite sized for even the laziest of couch-philanthropists. That narrative is telling us that homelessness is caused by a lack of food, clothes and blankets. Politicians, preachers, every guest at your grandmother’s dinner party loves to spin this narrative, because it makes for an easy solution—just knit some shit and donate the expired soup cans that have been sitting in the back of your cupboard since you moved in. As a full time homeless advocate, I only wish that solving centuries of systemic oppression, racism, and the marginalization of minority communities could be done with a heap of yarn and a can of corn, but alas the issue goes so much deeper than this. To perpetuate this narrative is to further instill the belief that no real change needs to be done.

 

Do your homework and ask questions: Eradicating the crisis of homelessness, and it is in fact an urgent crisis, takes critical thinking and a much deeper look into the issue. It takes talking to local homeless service providers and asking what is most needed. It takes self-education and coming to an understanding of the cycle of poverty that continues to cause and perpetuate homelessness. But mostly, it takes an authentic look inside yourself and ultimately making the decision that “charity” is not always glamorous. Sometimes it’s a humble monetary donation to an agency that has extensive experience in knowing exactly where to invest every dollar given. Sometimes it’s a few hours volunteering to organize the facility or woman the donations table at a fundraiser. It all starts with asking the question, “how can I best serve the community in need?” instead of “I need to serve myself by deciding a convenient way to save the community.”

 

Use Your Resources: Agencies and organizations serving the homeless community can spend insurmountable chunks of their budget each year on vehicle breakdowns, electric shortages, construction projects, and just about every odd job in the books. If you’re a mechanic, donate a few hours of car maintenance. If you’re a lawyer, offer to consult a family in need for free. If you’re a musician, offer to donate old instruments and throw in a few music lessons. Not only will it fill much needed voids, but using your own passions and gifts will improve your overall experience and bring a greater sense of satisfaction and self worth.

 

Invest in One: Perhaps the most powerful form of service, if you really must call it that, is investing your time, energy, and resources wholly and completely in one individual. You alone cannot end homelessness for our entire nation, but you can truly end homelessness for one person. This takes hard work and relentless dedication. It takes hiring the kid with no job skills at your company and investing in his training so you can ultimately hire him on. It takes becoming a Host Home for a someone in need of immediate respite and support. It takes unconditional commitment so when the kid is late for work every other day, you don’t give up on him. When someone steals $5 from your wallet, you don’t give up on her. You answer the phone at 3AM. You show up for the hard conversations and the hard moments. You relentlessly advocate even when your own friends tell you to quiet down. You show up day after day after day with unwavering love and ferocious hope.