Helping rough sleepers!?

So you want to help rough sleepers then? I don’t want to put myself about as a great expert or a paragon of virtue on the matter of rough sleeping (other than in my younger backpacking days when I did so by choice, I have not had to sleep on the streets). But I have been working in this area for the past few years and involved in a number of projects that help the homeless. As a result there have been lessons learned that I would like to pass on, especially given I am always coming across people who want to help and, now I have a better handle on what is going on, people who need to be helped.

  1. We can all do something: there was a time I might have ignored most rough sleepers I came across and, while I still do sometimes deliberately avoid engaging, I usually find a small act of kindness, even a smile, a gentle word of encouragement or a cup of coffee, can make a good deal of difference and realise too that there is a lot more that can be done besides that. Treating people with dignity and kindness and being a listening ear and a friendly face are all things we can all do.
  2. Be in it for the long haul: many who do help do so with good intentions but soon give up. The best helpers take a view they are in a marathon rather than a sprint and stick with it. Sometimes there are quick remedies but that is not usually the case and often one needs to plug away amidst set backs. Yet, random acts of kindness are always a good thing and will never go amiss.
  3. Be realistic: often in order to help significantly individuals takes patient persistence over many years, given the complex issues that many rough sleepers have to face, and progress can be painfully slow. There will be times when you listen to people’s stories of woe and realise not only can you do little to help but you can’t think who can. Don’t beat yourself up about it; you have at least listened empathetically. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver. Better not to say anything than raise false hopes.
  4. Don’t judge: so easy to do so – we can easily judge those on the streets because their problems are of their own making and those who are meant to help that don’t – but that isn’t our job. Our job is to do what we can do that needs doing, as best we can. Treat rough sleepers as individuals. They have one major thing in common, i.e. no home. All are different and all are human, and should be treated as such, with dignity, humility, compassion etc.
  5. Don’t be manipulated: vulnerable people tend to manipulate, including playing one person off against another and adding to guilt, and that includes rough sleepers. It is wise to have a healthy scepticism, recognising that often things are not what they seem. Realise that a good many have life issues, starting with mental health and addictions, especially alcohol, as well as vulnerability.
  6. Take what you hear with a pinch of salt: it is not that you ignore gossip or chinese whispers (which from experience is occurs regularly) altogether or don’t want to believe folk when they tell you their stories. Besides those who spin a yarn, there are a number who tell you what they think you want to hear or miss out important bits of information one needs in order to help. I tend to find that with even with the most benign of rough sleepers,  there is more to their situation than meets the eye and I know that because I speak with others who are trying to help etc.
  7. Leave it to others!?: sadly, we can all take a view there are agencies out there that are just what is needed but often they are limited in what they can do and the help isn’t there. Sometimes it is a matter if not you then who … but even so you can’t solve the problems of the world and, sad as it is, some maybe many you won’t be able to help. You often have no choice but to signpost folk needing help to those places where help is most likely to be found, but do try to encourage folk to help themselves.
  8. Maintain boundaries: sometimes we need to walk that extra mile to give the best help we can but there are dangers and we need to take precautions given that while most of the people you meet on the street are nice, not all are, especially if under the influence of alcohol or such like, and sometimes they attract those who aren’t nice. You may have to say no in order to survive.
  9. Join with others: for some there will be a calling to start something new and gather one’s own band of helpers, but often there are things happening on the ground that need volunteers and they will be only too pleased with your offer of help, and remember that joined up working among groups does mean that in the main the royal we can do much more to help those in need. Sometimes you can help by merely by being informed, raising awareness, making those in a position to help accountable and supporting those working at the coal face.
  10. Be wised up: realise how little you know and that others know more. Learn from them and from the mistakes you will make. Remember too that while there are good guys out there, there are also fools and villains, and we need to respond accordingly. Know what’s what regarding available help. You might be able to help empower the person you want to help to help themselves.
  11. You need your own safety valve: the world we live in is full of casualties who have gone full out to help folk in need and have burnt out in the process. Learn to pace yourself, off load on to others (trying to cultivate your own support networks) and find the rest you need – and don’t use your doing of good works as an excuse not to face up to your other responsibilities.
  12. You are doing a good thing: it will be tempting to think you aren’t, especially when the disappointments come as they surely will – but loving your neighbour is the great command and being able to do that through helping rough sleepers is a good thing.
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