Since I began blogging, coming up to five years ago, I have often returned to the theme of homelessness (see here for a compilation of my posts on the subject) such that it would be tempting to think there is nothing left new to say. While it is true that there are many who conveniently ignore the plight on their doorstep (like in the picture below) there is an important issue I have barely touched on and it is, while we want to show compassion and go out of our way to help, give the benefit of any doubt etc., there may be times when to NOT help the homeless, at least not in the way expected.
This question crops up in various guises. But firstly to recap: despite seeing new initiatives to help the homeless in my ten years plus of getting involved, the matter of homelessness appears to me as great as ever and maybe even more than when I started. Besides people being paid to help, I have come across an army of volunteers, who between them have played a monumental part in making the lot of many a homeless person better. While often they can’t address the biggies, like providing accommodation or support to address mental health, substance misuse issues etc., they do make a big difference.
If I have one pearl of wisdom to pass on to wannabe helpers of the homeless, it is to recognize your limitations and work accordingly and ideally collaborating with others, including those you may not like. Do what you can, according to your gifting, circumstances, needs etc., as little as that may seem, and don’t be afraid to say no and do not get too upset if your efforts are not much appreciated or misrepresented. Sadly, many start to help with enthusiasm, having seen the need and the opportunity, but later give up disillusioned, disappointed and burned out, so I go onto say that we are in a marathon and not a sprint and while there will be set backs do what needs doing if it is in your power to do so, and it is likely you will end up making a difference. One thing we can all do is to show kindness, like showing respect to any homeless person you meet.
I had an experience in the first week of this new season of the night shelter program I am involved with, which gladly is not a regular occurrence but does happen. One of the guests pushed his luck regarding keeping the rules and behaving respectfully. We went out of our way to humor the guest and make allowances for his misbehavior. Unfortunately, when he crossed the line by physically threatening a volunteer he had to be ejected. The volunteer made the point while he was ok with helping people who appreciated his efforts and showed respect by abiding by the rules etc., it was made a lot more difficult when this did not happen. It occurred to me this is one good reason why people don’t help the homeless and why while we may go out of our way to be helpful, a line needs to be drawn or else we end up helping no-one. I think also, it can be frustrating when the people we help don’t help themselves, engage in manipulative behaviour, do not show respect, gratitude etc.
I heard of another example today of NOT helping the homeless, or rather not giving the help the homeless person asked for, which is all too common. This involved someone begging in the streets. The kind hearted soul who was asked refused (rightly) to give money but kindly suggested where he might find help. That homeless man (I assume he was although some (many) who beg aren’t) excused himself from taking up that help, so there was little more our Good Samaritan could do. It raised the issue of how local authorities deal with homeless people presenting in public places. Sometimes they argue these are causing a nuisance and may even back this up by saying help had been offered but was turned down. I have often considered such scenarios in other articles and realize there often is no simple solution and the problem sometimes (often) comes down to a few making it harder for the many.
I have no doubt the homeless need in my town and most towns in the UK is considerable and there is room to do more to help. I take my hat off to all who do so. I also recognize that the situations faced are often complex and where there is not an obvious solution. We are where we are and we do what we do, within constraints etc. and hopefully for maximum effect given one’s limitations. But often there is a case to say NO as hard as that may be. My final example is two Christmases ago, when I had to eject a homeless person from my shelter for misbehavior. If I hadn’t it would have had a detrimental effect on other guests and volunteers. A few days later he died on the streets. I don’t believe my action was the cause but it brought home to me that we are dealing with life and death matters.
It seems to me that if we are able to make meaningful headway when it comes to helping the homeless we need to exercise both wisdom and tough love. While we may not be able to help everybody and those we do help it may be only to some small extent, we need to be impartial in our dealings and realistic in our expectations of gratitude and reciprocation, and in what we can deliver in terms of real help. Yet, notwithstanding, it is worth doing nevertheless.