written by Coralie Oddy a.k.a ElSkief
I find homelessness a difficult issue. What should you do if someone asks you for change on the street? What could lead to a more lasting change for that person?
Living in London, homelessness is a problem I observe on a daily basis, and an issue I’ve struggled with. I feel intensely that homeless people require help and should not be ignored, but acknowledge that my small change is unlikely to make a long term difference in that person’s life.
But that doesn’t stop me passing a person begging on the street in the rain without a sense of guilt and regret.
Whatever you do, do give.
Whether you give money to homeless people or not is a personal matter but don’t use concerns about effectiveness as an excuse not to give at all.
While I find giving very small amounts of money away to individuals problematic I have reached a personal compromise. Every time I am asked for money by a person on the street I politely decline; but once I get home, I put the loose change I could have given into a homelessness jar.
Over time, I’m hoping to build a reasonable donation to give to a street outreach project. Hopefully, my ultimate contribution to alleviating homelessness will become greater than the sum of its parts.
If you’re asking if this is the right thing to do or the most effective thing to do – I don’t know. But it is a method that works for me, and I would encourage anyone to give the way they approach an issue like homelessness some serious consideration, rather than just brushing that consideration away.
You can’t always know what the most effective or ethical choice is, but making an effort to think about it will ensure you do good at some level, rather than just shrugging and doing nothing.
We are all human beings
There are also important and impactful ways you can support homeless people using no money and almost no time.
The most basic of these is by remembering that homeless people are, in fact, people. This may seem like an obvious statement, but it is astonishing how unlike other people we treat the homeless population.
When I first moved to London, I was shocked when a homeless man got on the tube, politely addressed the carriage, and was completely ignored by everyone present. People not only didn’t respond to him, but endeavoured to give the impression he was completely invisible. Eyes were averted, and the silence was deafening. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t say anything either, and found myself looking away too. Being in a group tends to absolve people of personal responsibility. This supports society to treat homeless people with a comfortable detachment, and leaves them to suffer isolation and abandonment by society at large.
Working against this kind of social behaviour will be appreciated on an individual level and encourage others to question their own response to homelessness. If someone asks you for money, give it or don’t – but make eye contact and answer politely, like you would anyone else asking a question.
Streetlink: You can help
Every homeless person has their own particular circumstances, and they do not require your judgement about those circumstances.
They are simply people who are in need.
If you see someone regularly sleeping rough, ask them if they are okay. Ask them if they need anything. If you live in England, you can also ask if they would like you to refer them to Streetlink (rough sleepers can also refer themselves via public internet access). This online service allows you to refer someone in a few clicks. It ensures someone will actively seek out that individual for a chat and a check-up, and make sure they are aware of (and can access) their local outreach services.
Homelessness remains a difficult and complex issue, especially in terms of funding. But I do believe lasting change can be brought about by our simplest actions, as well as our biggest financial gestures.
It doesn’t cost anything to treat a person like a person – and the change can be immeasurable.