What can I do for a homeless stranger?
July 17, 2012 11:30 PM   Subscribe

What can I do, if anything, for a homeless stranger who hasn't asked for help?

Recently, a homeless woman (maybe in her thirties or forties) moved under an overpass near my apartment complex. All her belongings seem to be there with her: just a couple of bags and a sleeping bag. Over the past two weeks, I've seen her clothes get progressively dirtier and dirtier. She never asks for money or tries to talk to anyone. Usually I see her writing on a small notepad, or more recently, she's been ranting in an angry voice to herself, or perhaps some figure that I can't see. I'm usually rushing to work, but last time I heard something about not wanting to join a church society.

Is there anything I can do for this lady? I'm a bit worried because the temperature has been upwards of 90 degrees recently. At first I figured that if I ever passed by and she wasn't there that I'd leave some cash in an envelope on top of her stuff, but that's never happened. Also, is it safe to assume that she could get to a homeless shelter if she wished? I really have no idea what the right course of action here is.
posted by strangepapernote to Human Relations (14 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
If you are concerned for her immediate wellbeing, leave a grocery bag full of nutritious food that doesn't require cooking (canned soups and canned beans can be eaten cold; granola bars and dried fruit would be good as well), bottles of water, and basic personal supplies (hand sanitizer, personal cleansing wipes, toothbrush and toothpaste, vitamins, tampons or pads, etc) a few steps away from her enampment. If you include canned food, include a can opener.

I would not recommend engaging her in conversation or eye contact -- sounds like there might be a mental illness issue there that you are probably not equipped to handle unless she initiates contact. I would also not recommend giving her cash -- you have no guarantee that she'll use it in her best interest or that it won't get stolen from her.

You don't say where you are; there are usually local resources to call that can reach out to people in her situation. If you post a location, people will probably be able to suggest the appropriate resources.

I commend you for thinking about this. Most people simply walk past.
posted by erst at 11:47 PM on July 17, 2012 [8 favorites]

FWIW, I don't normally go around giving out cash (I rarely carry more than change anyway), but occasionally I've given random food and beverage items to homeless people. And I remember one guy (who hadn't asked for anything either) was really REALLY grateful for bottled water. Apparently that's not something a lot of people think to offer but it can be much appreciated, especially in hot weather. You could get a 6-pack of water and just leave it under the bridge near where the woman has set up camp. Whatever is going on in her life, it's unlikely to be helped by dehydration.

And regarding the shelter thing: no, I would not say it's safe to assume she could just go to a homeless shelter if she wanted to. Even if there was one in your community with open beds, the environment inside the shelter might be less comfortable / more oppressive than sleeping in the street, especially if (as you say) it's 90 degrees out. And again, FWIW, one homeless guy I talked to a few years back informed me in no uncertain terms that he preferred to sleep outside because the local shelters were "too full of drug addicts".
posted by aecorwin at 11:52 PM on July 17, 2012

I like erst's idea of nutritious food that doesn't require cooking; the thing to remember is the *packaging* --- for example, if you get her cans of soup or whatever, make sure it's either pull-top or you include a can opener!
posted by easily confused at 1:38 AM on July 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

I don't think there is anything wrong with handing her an envelope with money in it. Whatever amount is comfortable for you. Let her decide what she needs to do with it. You see her often, so you will know if she put it to best use or not. Then you can decide whether you want to help further or just let your involvement drop there. In any case, bravo to you for caring enough to consider helping a stranger.
posted by melangell at 1:55 AM on July 18, 2012

If you give her food and stuff, she doesn't need to interact with other people to benefit from that. With cash, she has to go somewhere to spend it. This could be an obstacle, if she is reclusive. Sounds like she may be getting that way. It happens when down-and-out.
posted by Goofyy at 4:59 AM on July 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

I work with the homeless. Many prefer not to be in shelters because of the rules and fear of their possessions going missing. I would expect it won't be long before she is moved on by police.
Ideas to give: bus tickets, gift card for local eatery (I would stick to McDonalds type places), socks & footwear, coupons for laundrymat, electrolyte type drinks (ie: G2). I would stay away from too much fresh food -I've seen very few street homeless people eat fruits and vegetables. Many homeless are missing teeth or have severe problems with their teeth and cannot chew hard food. They also often have severe digestion problems. It's usually wieners, cheese and bread.
You could call a local homeless shelter and ask if there are Outreach workers in that area. Part of their job is to check up on street people and they may know her. If you live in a large municipality, call the agency closest to that area.
posted by what's her name at 7:37 AM on July 18, 2012 [6 favorites]

Most homeless people have either medical or mental illness. Mental illness is often rooted in physical illness. Physical illness frequently comes with dietary restrictions. So deciding for her what "nutritious" foods are best for her may mean she can't eat any of it. And fresh foods quickly spoil on the street. One panhandler I have spoken with has colon cancer. I tried to offer her muffins and granola bars. She turned them down. She can't eat them. She did accept a banana. She wanted money. I didn't have any to give her or I would have. She knows what she needs better than I do.

Either give cash and have faith that she knows what she needs better than you do or greet her, say hello, and engage her in conversation like a human being. Ask what she might need. You might also do some research and find out what resources are available and put together an information packet. Some folks on the street have little or no idea what is available to them. Especially look for programs that preserve her independence as much as possible: food stamps, soup kitchens, day centers. The remarks you heard about her not wanting to join a church society may have been her wrestling with whether or not to accept assistance from a program with a controlling, dictatorial set of policies which will require her to attend church in order to get services.

Fwiw, I know a few folks on the street who talk to themselves, even really crazy stuff. Asking if they wanted leftover fresh items, like milk, that I could not finish before it spoiled has never gotten me into a hostile social situation. Just remember this person is probably scared, is currently experiencing a lot of rejection and apparently has no one to talk to. That alone can make a person crazy. So don't be too pushy and high handed. Try to repect their space if they initially don't want to engage you.
posted by Michele in California at 8:15 AM on July 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've worked with the homeless. what's her name has excellent recommendations, especially when it comes to outreach programs and workers.

I'd also recommend small, easy-to-use, reusable and small stuff that she can use to take care of herself:
- filled, reusable water bottle
- Gold Bond powder
- Neosporin/antibacterial ointment
- Toothbrush and toothpaste
- Soap

All this put into a small, durable, bag.
The top three items people sought were consistently, in order: Gold Bond, mouthwash and soap. But as it's hot and she sounds like she's been in the same place, maybe a bunch of bottled water would be a better idea. You don't need to approach her directly, but you can drop stuff off 50 ft. away and within her sightline.
posted by herrdoktor at 8:19 AM on July 18, 2012

melangell: . You see her often, so you will know if she put it to best use or not.
I can't imagine why you'd think this is true.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:24 PM on July 18, 2012

I will add I am currently homeless, have volunteered in a homeless shelter previously, and have had a class on homelessness. Water, or gatorade, can be a very good thing on a hot day. Let me suggest you give a bottle or two at a time, not more than that. Liquid is heavy. It can be a burden to carry very much of it.

If you bought a case of water where it cost you very little per bottle and gave her a bottle or two every day, that might be a good means to say "hi" and get to know her and gain her trust. If you want to generally help the homeless, knowing what is popular is not a bad place to start. But if you want to help this specific individual, you should either try to determine what she could specifically use or give cash as that is always useful. It annoys me and wastes my time and energy when people try to give me things I can't or won't use.

Some homeless people are very desperate and will hang on to anything you give them out of fear of never having anything again. The end result is they are more burdened and weighed down with stuff they can't use and, in my opinion, it can cause net harm, making it that much harder to resolve their problems. It seems to me like women on the street are more prone to this than men. Men seem more inclined to have just a backpack, travel light and work on taking care of themselves. Women seem much more inclined to have one or more carts or multiple suitcases on wheels that they can't even move all at the same time.

Some things some folks on the street prize highly: bus passes, phone cards, a hot meal, an ice cold drink, laundry service, a shower, a place to charge a cell phone or other device.

Just tossing out ideas.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 1:30 PM on July 18, 2012

Invite her to have a conversation with you.

She probably could use a lot of things: a shower, a bus pass, clean clothes, gatorade, methadone, anti-depressants, a job, a safe place to sleep, a chance to tell a certain person she's sorry, cigarettes, cash, liquor, information on social services, a package of crayons, some tracks for an ipod, a bus ticket out of town, a lawyer, the phone number of her ex-husband... but until you talk to her you can only guess what she might want. You can only make assumptions and then act on them, and if you do that your are objectifying her. You are more trying to do the right thing for the sake of your own peace of mind than actually trying to help her.

People usually end up homeless because nobody who has the capacity to help them cares. They don't have the social connections so that they can move in with family or friends when they lose their shelter. Of course there can be reasons why they don't have these connections, such as if they have a mental illness that makes them difficult, dangerous or impossible to live with, or they can be so afraid and mistrustful that they are not willing to work with people who would help them. But it still boils down to having fallen out of the community network that links us together in getting money, paying rent, contributing and being given the change to earn what we need. She's is so adrift from her society that you can see it at a glance even though she is a total stranger.

So talk to her. Find out who she is, if she is willing to tell you. Tell her something about who you are, so that she knows you as somone, not just as one of the officious people who help and yet keep their distance. It doesn't have to be much. If she tells you that she has a son you can tell her that you too, have a son, or if not that you have a brother. Make a connection with her.

I'm sure you know that you will be taking a risk talking to her - she might be so needy she will pester you, or hostile, or so intent on getting the cash for a fix that she regards you as prey, so make sure you protect yourself from these things. But at the same time the biggest thing you can do for her is include her in your social network, in your community, in your extended family, and get to know her.

I'd start with chit chat: "Man, it's a scorcher today!"and see if she picks up your lead. Or else go straight to it up front, "Sorry to intrude like this, but I've been worrying about you." If she's willing to talk I'd invite her to a nearby restaurant (if there is one) to buy her a coffee, or something like that. She might not be willing to go if she doesn't want to leave her belongings, but you could offer to come back with coffee for both of you and sit down with her. If she is homeless and scruffy she is not welcome in public places like that, but she needs them because of their bathrooms and sinks and cubicles where she can change. If you are with her and she is your guest than you legitimize her being there.

"How are you managing in this heat?" is a good place to open the conversation if you find that she is willing to talk.

I don't know where it would go from there. You might end up despising her because she might not be a likeable person. You might end up heartbroken if you find out that she is just enormously unfairly unlucky. But even if you end up disliking her and needing to set up huge boundaries so that she doesn't fixate on you or try to exploit you, I think it is important to give her recognition as a person, and keep yourself aware that what she is going through matters, and her opinion of it matters.

Scary fact: In some American cities as many as half the homeless have a medical history of neurological trauma. In other words at some point in their lives they were much more functional but then they got a bang on the head, and that screwed things up, making them that much more prone to substance dependency, and/or bad at managing, and/or damaging their self control.
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:39 PM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

She must be so touch-starved. A wam touch on the arm or hand could make such a difference.
posted by serena15221 at 7:59 PM on July 18, 2012

She may be starved for touch, but it would be best to ask first before touching. A very high percentage of homeless women have a history of being physically or sexually abused.
posted by Michele in California at 9:01 PM on July 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

IAmBroom: What I meant by that is if strangepapernote went with the first instinct to give her money, then over the course of subsequent days, while going to work, strangepapernote might get a general impression if the money was put to good use. Perhaps the woman's appearance would improve, her clothes might be laundered, she might be more prone to smile, or seem happier. Or, on the other hand, she might, immediately following the donation, seem drunk or strung-out. I was talking about general perceptions and observations of another person's demeanor and appearance. No imagination required.
posted by melangell at 5:07 AM on July 19, 2012

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