How to Help the Homeless

The homeless receive food from a saint in an illustration.

Becoming homeless is one of the worst things a person can go through in their life. Majority of people will never experience what it’s like to be without a home, because most people have others in their lives to help them out and keep them from hitting that low of a level.

But for others, they may not have any family or even friends to help them out, and in this case they may depend on the system and even strangers in order to get back on their feet. There’s lots of people who are living on the streets who once worked jobs and paid taxes into the same system that they are now dependent on. There’s even many veterans who once served their country who must now apply for welfare benefits in order to get by. The homeless may need food, shelter, medical services, or other forms of assistance that most people take for granted every day.

Unfortunately, there’s also lots of people on the streets who take advantage of others and use their situation and image to make compassionate people feel sorry for them.

I was homeless myself, but before this, I often gave money to the ones I saw on the street, and sometimes this was large amounts. I’m even more understanding of their situation now, but I get really angry sometimes when I see homeless people asking strangers for money and panhandling sometimes. I learned what ways legitimately help them and in what ways they take advantage of others or may be asking for help that won’t really help them in the end.

So wanting to help homeless people to get back on their feet, or at least to help them make it through the day is a noble act. You’re a good person if you’re already thinking this way and want to help them. But you shouldn’t be naive either and give away money or items to anybody who asks.

Remember, you don’t have to be completely selfless in order to not be selfish. Looking out for others is always good, but at the same time, you should care enough about yourself to not let others take advantage of you.

So here are some basic guidelines and advice on how you can really help them, and also how you can avoid being taken advantage of.

Giving Money
I was homeless once in California for an extended amount of time and I didn’t have any drug or alcohol addictions.

But with that said, many homeless people do have addictions and many of those that don’t still have poor money management skills.This is why I still don’t think it’s a good idea to give a homeless person any large amount of money. That is, not unless you really don’t care what it’s spent on or unless you personally know them and just really want them to have it.

A few years before I was homeless, I had actually given $100 to a homeless on my way home from work because it was Thanksgiving Day and I had felt sorry for him. It wasn’t until I myself became homeless years later that I realized that this was a bad idea and that same man was still out on that same corner years later.

He most likely had made no attempt to try to actually get on his feet, even after receiving money from many people on that very same corner.

I say this because he seemed competent enough to do so with all those years to figure things out, and he was still out there panhandling for money and I saw people still giving him money as he approached their cars in traffic with a sign asking for donations.

I try not to be a cynic or to look at everybody as scammers, but at the same time, becoming homeless myself showed me the other side of the coin and I realized that there really are a lot of programs and help in my area for people to get on their feet.

I’m sure you’ve heard people say this before, but in countries like the USA where there’s many social services available, the chances of a homeless person being unable to get a meal are slim to none, at least for those who live in or near large cities.

Anybody who is homeless in the United States in an urban area can normally find a meal at any of the nearby shelters and churches that provide for needy people.

Even if they aren’t near a shelter, then they can normally qualify for emergency food stamps (EBT) and other food services if they truly need the help. Many counties and states have General Assistance (aka General Relief) programs to offer cash assistance as well, for those who may need help with other things that can’t be purchased with EBT.

In most cases, the money you give to homeless people is not spent on food because they already have food at the shelters or in the form of food stamps. So if you really think it’s worth it, then it’s up to you as to whether you should give money or not, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Shelters That Charge
When it comes to staying in a homeless shelter, that’s a different story and the money you give them may help them get into a shelter. So it’s up to you if you see someone homeless and want to give them money for something like this. Most shelters in large cities are free for 7 days or up to 1 month (depending on the shelter). After that, the majority of them charge people to stay there.

This charge is normally much cheaper than what it would cost to rent a room in the local area, and shelters usually have resources to assist homeless people with other things they may need, but not everything.

What many homeless people do is they travel from shelter to shelter so they don’t have to pay any money. They’ll stay at one for a week to a month, and then move on to the next one.This may not be possible if they aren’t mobile and if the shelters in the area are too spread out to walk to, or if there just aren’t enough shelters in the area to take advantage of the free stays more than once.

I was in the Bay Area when I was homeless and if people ran out of shelters to go to in San Jose, they could travel to other nearby cities such as Oakland or San Francisco and visit many different shelters there as well.

The average price many shelters charge per night is usually $3-$5 but this can greatly vary. So the money you give them may help them stay in a shelter for a night or two, but just keep in mind that you don’t know for sure if that’s where the money is going and majority of homeless people would be able to at least get some type of aid such as General Assistance to help pay for their stay.

So if you want to ensure that the money you’re giving them is going to help them get into a shelter, you can offer to go with them to the shelter and to pay the shelter directly on behalf of them. Just keep in mind that you will most likely have to wait in a line with them outside the shelter when people are lining up to stay the night.

The person you’re trying to help may even reject your help out of fear of being embarrassed, because they may not want the other people in line see that you’re paying for them. Sometimes lining up at homeless shelters can feel like lining up to eat inside a prison, and there are a lot of people trying to maintain a “tough guy” image among their peers for whatever reason.

Giving Money – From a Homeless Person’s Perspective
Of course, there may be extremely rare situations where a person lives in a desolate area miles away from civilization and can’t apply for food stamps or General Assistance, so can’t get food or shelter. So use your own judgment as to whether you should give an individual money, but 99.9% of the time you probably shouldn’t.

This may sound selfish and unsympathetic, but remember, this is “me” after becoming homeless. The “me” before being homeless would have encouraged you to give money. I saw how things really work and I felt like a fool for giving money to so many homeless people over the years, who didn’t really need it and took advantage of my compassionate side.

When people say that your money will probably go towards drugs or alcohol, this true in a lot of cases, if not the majority of them. It’s obviously not true for every case, but it’s probably the most common thing that the money from others is often spent on. Drugs and alcohol can help them cope with the situation they’re in temporarily, but it doesn’t help them out in the long-run and doesn’t help them get on their feet.

Sober Living
Another option you have to help a homeless person get a roof over their head is to offer to pay for them to get into a sober living house if there’s any in the area. I once stayed in a sober living house in Los Angeles, and there was about 15 or more men in that house at any given time spread out in about 7 rooms and sleeping in bunk beds.

I slept in a top bunk and the man who slept in the bottom bunk below me was a man named John and he had just gotten off the streets thanks to the help of a stranger. He told me that another man who worked for a group which helps the homeless drove up to where he was sleeping on a bench one night, stopped his car on the corner and rolled down his window to talk to him. He offered to take John to a sober living house and to pay for one month’s worth of rent there.

This was a very kind act that this man did and John was able to effectively get on his feet as a result of this. But this can definitely be much more expensive than a regular shelter, and may or may not be best for people who are suffering with substance addictions. These houses will typically accept rent payments of one week or more.

So if you’re really trying to help somebody to get a roof over their head, you could start out by paying for one week of their payments if you can’t afford a full month like this stranger did.

For someone who does have addictions, this may be a good option because sober living houses obviously stress the importance of refraining from drugs and alcohol and will normally drug test people who are living there as part of the rules of staying there.

However, I have lived in many different sober living houses in the past and I can say that some of them are legitimate and have managers that genuinely care about the tenants and their welfare, while other places are simply houses set up to make money and the managers themselves will sometimes even have drug or alcohol problems still.

So you’ll want to be careful and do your research on the house you want a homeless person to live in before paying for their stay, to ensure that it really will be in their best interest to stay there.

Giving Food
As mentioned before, most homeless people can get food in a number of different places. So giving them food is not always necessary either, but people did randomly buy me food a few times when they saw that I was homeless and those kind acts greatly improved my overall morale when I was on the streets and made me feel like people cared about me still.

Also, shelters don’t always serve the best food. Some places would surprise you though, as I’ve had some really decent meals at many homeless shelters in the past. It’s not uncommon for them to have food donated by restaurants or grocery stores.

But it can still feel great when you haven’t had a tasty snack or meal in a long time and somebody gives you one out of the kindness of their heart. So while some people on the streets may prefer to get money, most of them would appreciate any food you give them.

Sealed Food
However, many people on the streets have been treated badly by others or may have some form of distrust of others. I know I did because I felt like majority of my friends and family didn’t care about me and didn’t offer to help me when they knew I was sleeping on the streets.

Homeless people also deal with a lot of people around them who have mental issues and constantly have to watch their backs to stay safe. So for all these reasons, they may be hesitant to accept food from a stranger that isn’t in it’s original sealed packaging due to the fear of being poisoned by a stranger.

While this would be extremely rare, the possibility is still there or it may just be a fear that’s in the back of someone’s mind. If a stranger had given me money, I would have returned it because I had a little bit of income from other sources and would be too proud to accept it.

But when they offered me food the few times they did, I did eat the food with a little bit of precaution and examined it and used my best judgment at the time based on what type of person I thought was giving me the food.

The few people who did offer me food were at their places of business or with other people in a charity group handing out food, so I was lucky or I otherwise may have had to politely reject the food that I was being offered.

I personally wouldn’t trust a warm meal such as a hamburger from a stranger on the street. So while many would prefer a hot meal, especially one from a restaurant, some may throw it away after you leave if you do give them one.

My mother used to give homeless people hamburgers from McDonald’s all the time when I was a child. We’d be in the car going to Mcdonald’s so she could get me a happy meal, and she’d see a homeless person down the street and would always make sure to get them a meal as well.

But after seeing the other side of things as homeless person myself, it opened my eyes to other factors involved and made me look at the world from a different perspective.

Laws and Policies Regarding Food Donations
Some cities have banned the giving of food to homeless people in certain areas, such as in parks. This could either be because they’re worried about the chances of them getting poisoned by strangers, or it could be because they think that handing out food in certain areas attracts a bad element.

It seems the latter is the more probable reason for these types of ordinances. For that reason, I would recommend you to donate the food to a local shelter or food drive organization if you think you live in a city with policies such as this.

However, many shelters won’t accept food donations either unless you’re coming from a reputable and traceable company. They also can’t accept food from strangers because then they might be held liable if someone at their shelter becomes sick from food they served.

One thing that you could give a homeless person that they would really be able to use is necessary items and supplies to survive the streets, such as blankets, jackets, backpacks, and tents.

These four things are something just about any homeless person who’s sleeping on the streets could use. They’re survival gear essentials for anyone in an urban camping setting.

For those who stay in shelters, they probably won’t need most of these things. But when I was on the streets, two women gave me a brand new blanket, still in it’s package, and it was definitely one of the nicest things anybody has ever done for me. It’s something that I will never forget and it’s things like this that really make a person’s day when they’re down and out.

I saw these women do the same thing for others, and these others had been on the streets so long that some of them had become used to these types of acts and even a bit spoiled. I heard one guy complain about the color of the blanket he received to someone else and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

But most of the time, these types of things will really make a difference in a person’s life and that blanket stayed with me for the entire time that I was on the streets. I would put it in a plastic bag and tuck it away in some bushes during the day so others wouldn’t find it and steal it.

It really helped me out at night, mainly because the sleeping bag I was sleeping on was ripped and not in the best shape when those two women arrived.

In places where it gets cold, jackets are always a needed necessity. Even places that are hot during the day can get extremely cold at night and the concrete many homeless people sleep on can make the situation unbearably cold.

Many shelters and the Salvation Army usually have free jackets and sweaters available. However, if you see someone on the street who looks like they’re struggling and they don’t have one, then this could mean that they were unable to find one or may not be able to get to any any of these places that offer them.

Giving them a jacket when they’re out in the cold is one of the best things you could do for anyone who doesn’t already have one.

Backpacks are also important because they can not only be used to carry things during the day, but also can be used as pillows at night. My backpack was an absolute necessity and probably my single most important possession while on the streets, because it helped me carry all my other possessions.

Without it, I really would have been in trouble. Luckily, I already had a backpack before I ended up on the streets, but not everybody does.

Tents may not be needed by everyone, because you can’t pitch tents in certain areas, such as many city streets or public property. But if you live in an area where you do see a lot of homeless people in tents, you may want to drive past where you see them sleeping and try to see if anyone is laying on sleeping bags in the open.

These people may really appreciate it if you give them a tent. However, just be careful and use good judgment whenever giving things of value. Some people will try to sell these things for money or pawn them if they have a drug or alcohol addiction.

Offering a Place to Stay
Opening up your home to a homeless person or finding them somewhere safe and warm to sleep at night can definitely help them out. There’s all kinds of risks and dangers with doing this however, so it’s understandable that most people aren’t willing to do this.

If you have a kind heart (and a padlock on your door along with very few valuables in your home), then you may want to give it a try. Not only will you feel good as a person, but you may even make a lifelong friend in the process.

For those who are nervous about having a homeless person in their home, you could even offer to let one sleep in your vehicle at night or in a tent in your backyard. I would have paid to sleep in someone’s vehicle or yard the first few months that I became homeless.

At one point in Los Angeles a few years ago I actually did pay one person $70 per week to sleep in the backseat of his car, but he and I had lived in sober living together for a few weeks so he somewhat trusted me.

Also, offering your yard or the backseat of a car may be offensive or insulting to some people, but keep in mind that when a person is homeless, a situation like this could be ideal for many when you look at what what other options they have (or lack of options).

Running a background check on a person and getting to know them a little first is also probably a good idea, but it may be awkward to do a background check as this is highly unorthodox and it’s hard to gauge what type of a person they are in the beginning.

In this case, if you have money to help someone out, sober living homes may be a better option for them as I mentioned previously.

Bus Passes
Being homeless without a car can make life very difficult because it’s hard enough to get a good night’s sleep and walking everywhere the next day can end up being a tiring hell for some because of this. Many resources and places that homeless people need to go can be out of reach to them because they’re too far to walk or because they won’t have time to walk to multiple places and make it on time.

This is why bus passes or tickets can be very useful to someone on the streets. There’s a lot of charities and shelters that give out daily or monthly bus passes, but they can be hard to find and they aren’t in every city. So buying a homeless person a monthly buss pass, or even a daily one, can really help a lot of them out if even temporarily.

However, a lot of times they will stand at the bus stops where other passengers are waiting for the bus and try to sell their tickets in order to get cash back for them. So it is somewhat of a risk that you’ll end up wasting your money and funding someone’s drug or alcohol habit and you should at least be aware of this if you are thinking about doing it.

Donate Directly to Organizations
Lastly, in my opinion, the best way you can help those who are homeless is to donate money directly to the organizations that are dedicated to helping them. These types of organizations know how to best allocate the money so it reaches those who need it and in the most efficient way.

Most of these types of groups are non-profit, but they do need to use some of their donations to pay for certain things such as employee wages, property taxes and upkeep, and other miscellaneous services and costs. So because of this, some donors say they would rather cut the middle man out and donate directly to the homeless people so they know their money will them.

But the shelters and organizations can only stay in existence with funding, and without them, many homeless people would have nowhere to go when they need food and somewhere to sleep at night to get out of the rain or cold.
So while giving money directly to those on the streets may help them for those times when you’re there to help, it doesn’t help them on all the days you’re not there.

This is why it’s important to support the various organizations that can be there all the time, even on the days that you can’t. Organizations like this include Goodwill, the Salvation Army, and various churches and other religious or humanitarian groups.

If you don’t have money to donate, but still want to help out, you could always donate your time as well. Many homeless shelters, churches, and charity organizations allow people to volunteer the time to help out by serving food to the homeless, helping to cook the food, or by doing certain labor tasks, office help, or other chores on their property so that they won’t have to use some of their funding to hire workers.

Volunteering time can sometimes be just as good as donating money since you’re essentially helping these organizations by working for free in a job that they’d normally have to pay somebody else to do.