What's the best way to help homeless people in a camp near me
June 18, 2016 6:20 PM   Subscribe

I live near a large homeless camp which I pass a few times a week out running or in my car. I live in a nice apartment and have everything I need, they live in tents, shacks and broken down cars. I would like to help them in some way but don't know what the best way would be.

I work and commute long hours, so volunteering somewhere is not realistic, and while I already donate to various homeless and housing causes, I would like to help these specific people directly.

The camp is on the side of a street next to fenced-off, unused land near a freeway. It's isolated and there is no sidewalk, it's not a dense urban area. Sometimes people are walking around outside, but often not.

I've been thinking along the lines of giving out grocery store gift cards -- I'm not moralistic about giving homeless people cash, it just seems dangerous to carry a bunch of money around with me in that area. The crime rate in my neighborhood is high, and as with all homeless populations I assume theres a higher-than-average percentage of people who are mentally ill or abusing substances. I'm 5'2 and female.

It seems invasive, disrespectful, and possibly not safe to approach individual dwellings, but I don't know that anybody would see a stack of gift cards if I left them anywhere. Would it be better to leave bags of shelf-stable food somewhere prominent? Would it be better to do something else entirely?
posted by pocketfullofrye to Human Relations (23 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I know you want to help these folks directly, but is there a food kitchen nearby or another homeless organization that work with these folks that you can ask for suggestions? Once a year I contact my local shelter to see what the folks they work with need and it is almost always something super simple like socks - plain white socks - or sweatpants. They have a lot of food donations, but they often need things like tampons. I realize this is once removed, but going tent to tent might be more than what you are able to do for the reasons you stated. I think rather than guessing what folks need, seeking out groups that work with your local tent city might be a good way to go.
posted by Toddles at 6:38 PM on June 18, 2016 [19 favorites]

One thing you can do is join Nextdoor.com and speak up if your other neighbors get all grumbly.

Another thing you can do is ask them what would be most helpful when they're out on the sidewalk.
posted by aniola at 6:45 PM on June 18, 2016

You could bring a friend with you if it would help you feel more safe.
posted by aniola at 6:47 PM on June 18, 2016

Hand out clean and dry socks.
posted by salvia at 6:50 PM on June 18, 2016 [6 favorites]

If you leave out a stack if gift cards, it's pretty well guaranteed that one person will take all of them --- no, they wouldn't be shared equally.

It'd be better to donate directly to a local kitchen or shelter: donate money directly to the kitchen, they can more bang for the buck than gift cards would do. Or like Toddles suggests, socks or toiletries or whatever else your local shelter is most in need of. Also, consider the clientele at a shelter: men, battered women (many are with their kids), or entire homeless families --- kids and families have different needs (like diapers and baby wipes) than adults.
posted by easily confused at 6:52 PM on June 18, 2016 [11 favorites]

Maybe this?
posted by WCityMike at 6:53 PM on June 18, 2016

I'm in a similar situation. My sub-optimal answer is to have befriended one guy (Paul!) and help with his specific needs (we've given him cash, a GED book, food if we run in to him on the way to the bagel place, and a Starbucks gift card).
posted by samthemander at 7:02 PM on June 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

I understand that giving to a shelter doesn't have the same effect--you're concerned about a population which, for whatever reason, is avoiding the shelter system. If it's been there a while, there are probably outreach workers of some kind who go into that camp. See if you can figure out who they are (googling "your city homeless outreach" will probably yield some results, and some of them should know who visits that area specifically) and consult them about the best and safest way to distribute your offerings. At worst, you could give some money directly to whatever organization that is, knowing that they will be helping that specific group of people.
posted by praemunire at 7:21 PM on June 18, 2016 [5 favorites]

Oh, and--if your city starts making noises about homelessness-criminalization laws like ordinances forbidding sleeping in public, come out in opposition. Such laws will directly affect the lives of those people.
posted by praemunire at 7:27 PM on June 18, 2016 [17 favorites]

We had a similar situation near our house and I just asked several of the residents-ended uo bring back bottled water, paper plates, tampons, and toilet paper at their request. They also had a table set up and neighbors would drop extra produce there from their gardens. I'd ask, if you feel safe doing that.
posted by purenitrous at 7:54 PM on June 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

Depending if there are women living in the camp, tampons and pads. I read an article about 10 minutes ago about how menstrual products are rarely donated to food banks or shelters, so it's a pressing need for homeless women.
posted by Sara C. at 8:02 PM on June 18, 2016 [12 favorites]

There might already be an organization handing out supplies if it's a large and persistent camp. Often this involved nuns or other religious types. You might contact those kinds of organisations and see if they are and if so what can you supply. My understanding is socks and small hygeine products, at least that's what I've given before.
posted by fshgrl at 8:22 PM on June 18, 2016

If soap; laundry or otherwise; please make sure it is environmentally safe / biodegradeable. I've seen too many spilt bottles of Tide etc, or spilt baggies of the powder variety. These products are horrible for waterways, and it seems like many people are simply unaware that street drains tend to go to waterways.
posted by buzzman at 8:35 PM on June 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

Drop off a few 25 lbs bags of decent quality dog kibble. Many homeless campers are there because shelters don't allow pets.
posted by halogen at 9:04 PM on June 18, 2016 [8 favorites]

I work at a homeless shelter, and the items we usually need most are underwear, socks, hygiene products (oral, skin, and feminine products), and medical supplies like first aide kits, pain relief meds, and cold and flu meds. Ear plugs, q-tips, and vaseline are a few examples of little things that never get donated to shelters but can really make a difference for someone that spends the majority of their day on the streets.

Yes, there is a high prevalence of various mental illnesses in homeless populations, but from my experiences, it is rarely violent. With the exception of my shelter residents suffering from alcoholism, all the mental illnesses I see are internally destructive such as depression/anxiety, PTSD, and schizophrenia. Many people experiencing homelessness do carry weapons like razors and knives, but it is for their own protection. Most attacks on the homeless are hate crimes carried out by people that are not homeless.

Finally, to answer your question above I highly suggest finding your local homeless outreach program and see what they need. Most outreach teams are trained to approach the most vulnerable homeless populations. They should tell you what they are in need of at the moment. One thing that the program might not say is that it would be easier for them if you donated money. Most nonprofits can buy the items they need tax free and in bulk for a cheaper price, but donating money does not give donators the same satisfaction as handing out a blanket or coat when it is cold. Donating money or items helps shelters either way, but nonprofits are aware that community members need instant, tangible results.
posted by Become A Silhouette at 9:51 PM on June 18, 2016 [13 favorites]

I would say bring them food, but the medical supplies, hygiene supplies and tampons and pads seem more popular. Groups that do homeless outreach rather than shelters or other organizations are going to reach the tent-city citizens. Personally I'm not afraid of homeless people but keep your boundaries tight whatever you do.
posted by bendy at 11:34 PM on June 18, 2016

I would find out whether anybody is already coming around and looking in on them, and give them the underwear and socks.
posted by rhizome at 12:29 AM on June 19, 2016

Homeless people are no more likely to attack or rob you than strangers who have more stable shelter, but please keep in mind that they're also not any more likely to want to be your friend or feel indebted to you. Receiving charity often means eating shit from the person or organization offering it, which can be soul-crushing in itself, and the fact that they live in a tent city rather than shelters may indicate that they prioritize their dignity over assistance. Be sure that you're not going into their homes and recreating a dynamic they seem to be trying to avoid.

Your best bet may be, if you see someone there as you pass by, to call out, "Hi! I'm on my way to the grocery store. Can I get you something to eat?" Say it lightly and kindly, as you would to a coworker. Don't try to strike up a conversation (again, they probably don't want to chat with you, either), don't expect effusive gratitude, just go buy what they want without judgement, hand it over, say "take care," and leave. I do this pretty often and I've never felt in any way endangered by it. (The very suggestion seems ridiculously prejudiced to me.)
posted by milk white peacock at 5:13 AM on June 19, 2016 [5 favorites]

Books and magazines! Just leave them in boxes by the entrance to the place. Paperbacks are good because they weigh less and homeless people carry their worldly belongings around a lot. I used to supply a couple of homeless encampments with books and know how much they are appreciated.

Toiletries in travel or hotel room size. Those bags full of teeth cleaning supplies your dentist gives out.

Canned food that can be eaten cold: tuna fish, baked beans, fruit.
posted by mareli at 5:52 AM on June 19, 2016

I have a very difficult time endorsing giving to shelters. While I imagine there must be a few that treat people with dignity I'm not aware of any.

In any case, these people aren't in a shelter so if you want to help them directly then giving to a shelter isn't the solution.

I also do not buy the idea that other local charities know what these folks need. Again, I have yet to meet anyone on the outside who has a clue. The most clueful people I've met are the ones who just give, treat everyone as an equal human being, and don't judge/ask questions.

It's almost like you should do whatever you want and let the ones who need your help come to you.

Ok, specifics. Helping all of these folks is probably too much. I mean if you can afford the grocery gift cards or Starbucks cards then great. Be prepared for the fact that much of the grocery card stuff will be spent on alcohol and/or cigarettes. Personally I would have no problem with that as it's just part of the reality but some people don't want to "enable" (god, that word) this kind of behavior.

And then not every Starbucks welcomes the homeless especially the ones who look homeless and/or have hygiene issues.

Another point to consider. If you expect that your help will result in these people "turning their lives around" and getting cleaned up, getting jobs, going to school, getting apartments, and becoming doctors then you will be disappointed. If you are going to give do so with the realization that you should not expect anything at all from them (including gratitude -- that's an interesting one which would require its own wall of text). You give, they take, they use your gift (whatever it is), repeat.

But don't underestimate the importance of these gifts! Yes, they are temporary relief (some nicer food, alcohol, a day spent in Starbucks (coincidentally that's where I am right now using money donated to me)), but they are so damned nice. I mean it. You're not solving any problems but you are giving these people a break from a life that is beating them down pretty hard. Many of us remain cheerful and put on a happy face but the reality is that we are getting beat down. We often "joke" about the PTSD that must result from homelessness but it's not really a joke. The point is that these bits of relief are really nice.

I don't know what the food situation is like where you are (soup kitchens, food stamps, and food banks) but food might not be as much of a problem as one might assume. Good, healthy, sanitary, food probably is a problem but these folk might be more interested in cigarettes than a nice meal. Though pizza is generally always appreciated.

Befriending one or a few specific folk is not a bad way to go at all. It's still the same situation as above where you should not expect anything at all from them -- it's just you giving. But there might be something you can do to actually help a person get a better life.

One person bought me a tent. It's made my life 10x better. Another guy I know has some temper problems (he has incredibly high moral standards and when he sees people violating them he gets irrationally angry) but he was hooked up with a retiree and does work for him (manual labor), stuff which keeps him out of trouble and gets him pot money. Keeping him out of trouble is not just an off-hand comment. This guy would be in prison if not for this job.

I agree with others that you are probably not in any more danger than many other situations in public. Homeless people are not inherently violent (just like homed people are not inherently violent). Some of the ones with mental issues can turn quickly on the slightest inference of provocation but if you just play everything straight and respectful (like you would do with anyone else) it is far less likely that there will be any problems. Having a like-minded friend isn't a bad idea and would not be seen as insulting.

You know, it's like there needs to be classes for how to deal with the homeless. It shouldn't be this hard but our society is so fucked up that, well, here we are.

And definitely feel free to pm me with specific questions/concerns.

Also, the feminine products are a really good idea. I mean a really good idea. Also deodorant. That last one is the one hygiene product I have to scramble the hardest to acquire. Weird.

Oh, another thought, many homeless people are severely overweight. This might seem odd but it's true. They often have an insanely difficult time finding clothing. Many shelters and charities have clothes available but never/rarely for the very large folk. If you see someone in particular who is really big you might think about helping them out directly with some clothes.

Receiving charity often means eating shit from the person or organization offering it, which can be soul-crushing in itself, and the fact that they live in a tent city rather than shelters may indicate that they prioritize their dignity over assistance. Be sure that you're not going into their homes and recreating a dynamic they seem to be trying to avoid.

Perfect. We experience a lot of patronizing and condescending shit from people all the damn time. It's almost like you just want to be matter-of-fact about this. Friendly and kind but do not talk down or use that soft "understanding" voice that so many people adopt for some reason. We're humans. We're not children nor mentally children. But don't be afraid either. Just be normal. You're talking to a fellow human being.

Also, this is a really nice thing you're doing.
posted by bfootdav at 7:50 AM on June 19, 2016 [23 favorites]

Homeless people are no more likely to attack or rob you than strangers who have more stable shelter, but please keep in mind that they're also not any more likely to want to be your friend or feel indebted to you.

I am a homeless woman and have had a class on homelessness and public policy (many years ago, long before I was ever homeless).

Yeah, so, on the one hand, we are human beings and not all of us are nuts, violent, etc and it is true that we may not want you talking to us like we are five year olds looking for a friend. Please don't ask invasive questions of anyone.

On the other hand, an incredibly high percentage of homeless people are male and they are socially cut off and a woman talking to them can go really weird places, really fast. As a homeless woman, I get targeted a lot by homeless men who think I am someone who might get busy with them. (The answer: NO.) Further, when I was in downtown San Diego, when we bought things like hot pizza or cold milk and could not finish it, we gave away our leftovers because we had no means to preserve it. It wasn't going to keep. And sometimes this went weird places where these people now thought that even though we were also homeless, we were obligated to take care of them in some way.

It sounds like you live quite close to this encampment, so one possibility is that someone will follow you home. And this could become a big problem. Are you going to move to resolve the issue?

That doesn't mean you shouldn't do anything for them. But do realize that as a woman, you doing anything for individual males will be problematic. They may latch onto you and they may feel you will understand and they may feel you are a good person to ask. Can you afford to provide on-going financial support to the entire camp?

Okay, having said that:

Gift cards are awesome. Grocery store gift cards are great. Try to make sure it someplace nearby.

I have fantasies of giving homeless people a tablet with a link to my website (San Diego Homeless Survival Guide) to try to help them figure it out for themselves.

Information is incredibly hard to come by on the street. If you can create a printed list of nearby services or, better yet, a map showing nearby items of interest (public bathrooms, cash for trash sites, parks, services, eateries, etc). I have a certificate in GIS. I often wish I could do something with making maps for homeless people that would show them relevant info. When you walk everywhere and have incredibly limited access to information (radio, newspaper, internet, casual conversation with coworkers, phone calls , etc -- these are all sources of info for people with normal lives that are in very limited supply for homeless people) it can be incredibly challenging to find things you know exist and there can be all kinds of things within a 10 minute walk of you that can take you ages to discover.

Bring hot food, like a stack of pizzas. Many homeless people have limited access to hot meals. If you have food stamps but no cash income, you are mostly eating cold foods.

Yes, hygiene items are a big deal for women.

Used clothing that is clean but inexpensive. It bothers me when people buy me new stuff. I can't wash it and when it gets too filthy, I am going to throw it out and replace it with something incredibly cheap off the clearance rack for cleanliness reasons. So, you spend big bucks on something new and a few weeks later I am putting it in a public trash can. And then I have to worry what you will think if you see me again and I no longer have the spendy jacket or whatever that you spent your hard earned money on. So far, no one has stopped and bitched at me about it, but I sometimes wonder if they saw me without it a few weeks later, decided I was irresponsible or an unappreciated asshole or an addict and it is my fault I am homeless and decided to never do a damn thing for me again.

If you have some means to provide free haircuts, like a battery operated device, hair cuts are incredibly hard to come by for most homeless people. I keep my hair very short for cleanliness reasons. The fact that my hair is not long, filthy and horrible looking is one of the things that helps me get mistaken for middle class and treated like a normal customer in stores.

Try to not be alone with anyone. Try to not engage any men in one-on-one personal conversations. Try to not indicate you live nearby. Try to not let clue them where you live at all.
posted by Michele in California at 4:14 PM on June 19, 2016 [13 favorites]

I will add that taking bags of used but clean clothing is probably more likely to be shared by the group, less likely to make someone there think you are rich enough to be worth robbing and less likely to be interpreted as an ongoing obligation. You can let them assume, or even outright say if asked, that you are just cleaning out your closets and/or the closets of friends/family.

I change my clothes more regularly than most homeless people. It is a hygiene issue in my eyes. It also helps me be accepted at stores and the library as a normal person who belongs as much as anyone. Helping them change clothes more often may improve the health of the entire camp and have other positive knock off effects.

People who want to be helpful often walk up to me and grill me. They ask my name and if I am homeless. If they did not believe I was homeless, it would be insanely rude to walk up to a stranger and ask their name, socioeconomic status and where they lived, which is essentially what they are asking me.

I have thought about this and I think a best practice is introduce yourself with your first name only and if that prompts them to give a name, great. Otherwise, use Sir and Ma'am like you would when speaking to any middle class stranger. Do not outright ask their name, not even with "Hi, I am pocket. And you would be?"

The degree to which homeless people get treated in a fashion that would be socially unacceptable for any other class is a barrier to re-entry to normal society. People complain that homeless people don't know how to behave, then behave towards them in a way that would absolutely not be okay with any other group. It galls me that other people seem to not see the connection between those two facts.

Used phones, used electronics and so on can also be useful without necessarily making people feel you are too rich to talk with or rich enough to be worth robbing. I spend a lot of time online. I always have. I earn money online. I ask questions, do research, keep myself occupied so I do not go crazy, participate in forums to help reduce the degree to which I am socially isolated and on and on. Tablets are far cheaper than they used to be and my most recent electronics (tablet, super cheap smart phone) have better battery life than anything Ihave had before. This is a big deal as electricity is hard to come by on the street. My life seems to be a lot better than that of many homeless people. I think the amount of time I spend online is a large part of the explanation for that. I very much would like to spread that idea.

I am sorry if I sound like I am attacking you. I do see that you are aware that approaching individual dwellings could be invasive and not safe. There is no intent to accuse you of anything. It is a problem space I contemplate a lot and have few opportunities to really discuss with anyone. Thus, my presentation is no doubt unpolished.
posted by Michele in California at 11:24 AM on June 20, 2016 [3 favorites]

Another point to consider. If you expect that your help will result in these people "turning their lives around" and getting cleaned up, getting jobs, going to school, getting apartments, and becoming doctors then you will be disappointed. If you are going to give do so with the realization that you should not expect anything at all from them (including gratitude -- that's an interesting one which would require its own wall of text). You give, they take, they use your gift (whatever it is), repeat.

I am going to disagree slightly with this. I am turning my life around and the cash gifts and free clothes and grocery store gift cards that random strangers on the street have gifted me has helped further those efforts dramatically more than the free meal sites, shelter system, etc.

I am medically handicapped. Standing in line for an hour or more with a bunch of other homeless people exposes me to germs, cigarette smoke, pot residue, etc and it is extremely hard on my health. A very high percentage of homeless people have health issues and going to any kind of services involves enduring a horrifying concentration of poverty and health risks and I am literally better off going hungry for short periods than going to most meal sites. As bfootdav said, the food quality is pretty poor at such places. So, once it was no longer potential death, I chose to fast for a day here and there rather than go back to homeless services. Because exposure to so many health risks for low quality food is just not worth it to me now that starvation is not likely.

So, for me, every single little thing anyone has done for me along these lines was far more to me than temporary from a sucky situation. It was a far superior resource to anything I could get from any of the homeless services and it took one to five minutes of my time, not hours of it, and I count those as godsends. I literally feel like this is evidence that god does not hate me and has not abandoned me and it is one of the reasons I haven't committed suicide.

But, solving my problems is a long, drawn out process. So you likely won't see dramatic evidence like half of them getting into apartments by the end of the year. But you also likely won't know that someone was saved from an ER visit or an arrest because of something you did. When things come unraveled the street, it can get really bad, really fast.

Re: Cigarettes. Many homeless people smoke to self medicate for depression and to suppress their appetite when food is in short supply. Re: Alcohol: Some are self medicating for mental health issues because they either lack access to the prescription drugs they should be on or they prefer the side effects of alcohol to the side effects of powerful prescription drugs. So, I don't smoke or drink, but I went and bought someone a beer once when they gave me cash and asked to go because they weren't able bodied enough to make the walk and their girlfriend was in a psych ward. So, try not to judge stuff like that.

Anyway, you may be helping some of them get their act together, or at least not have to endure drama from which they might not ever really recover. But you may never learn of how much of a difference you made. To your eyes, it might look like nothing has changed.

Milk and real butter are hard to come by. You rarely see either one at a soup kitchen and they are spendy and do not keep. So, if you bring food, bread and real butter plus milk may be huge hits.
posted by Michele in California at 9:56 AM on June 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

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