How can I help the homeless?
December 14, 2006 10:05 PM   Subscribe

How can I help the homeless?

I find myself interacting with homeless people every now and then, and would like to be of some help when I do so---perhaps let them know about shelters, job programs, drug recovery programs, etc.

I realize helping the homeless (or helping people in general...) is a rather tricky issue. I think respecting the dignity of people is very important, and I would hate to send somebody to some careless organization that would do more harm than good. I live in Atlanta, and did some search for homeless shelters here. I'd like to know a few "good" ones, but it is hard to tell from the websites. Do you know about any good (nationwide or Atlanta-based) organizations?

Sometimes I do things like getting one guy some coffee in a cold morning, giving another some extra food I have, etc. (I try to avoid giving money). Do you you have any (positive/negative) comments about such things? Any other suggestions?

If you have worked with the homeless, or have read or thought about these issues, any philosophical/practical thoughts/advice, or pointers to good reading material would be greatly appreciated.
posted by palet to Society & Culture (30 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Support a food rescue centre that diverts food from landfills and sends it to those in need. Ideally, they don't buy food, but instead take overstock and warehouse, process and deliver it. Choose a food rescue organization that offers training, internships, volunteer opportunities, outreach and other programs for homeless people. I've done some work with Quest Outreach Society here in Vancouver, but I think Second Harvest is perhaps the counterpart in the US.
posted by acoutu at 10:26 PM on December 14, 2006

Give money when you have it. Food, coffee, cigarettes are also good (make life a little more livable). Talk to them. I imagine most homeless people know about local shelters and services (well, depending on where you live) and suggesting they go to one is probably going to be more paternalistic than helpful. (Your suggestion that you might "send somebody" to a shelter raises some questions along this line.) And, as acoutu gestured toward, support organizations that do things you like. That is, give them money or volunteer your time.

It wouldn't be a bad idea to think some about prevention, too. Maybe support community organizations that support low-income folks. I like what I've seen from ACORN.
posted by wemayfreeze at 10:48 PM on December 14, 2006

One idea for non-money items to give is passes/tickets/tokens/etc. for transportation.

I agree with wemayfreeze about homeless people having knowledge about the local shelters and services--you could ask the coffee guy or others you know which ones they like and why, if you are seeking some input on which ones to support or volunteer at.
posted by PY at 11:43 PM on December 14, 2006

Response by poster: acoutu: Thanks for the pointer to Second Harvest, I didn't know about such organizations.

wemayfreeze: Thanks for the warning about coming off as paternalistic. This is not my intention. I would like to know about reliable places so that e.g. when I see somebody shivering at night, there is at least some place I can suggest (or take them there myself, if they want to but can't go).

I have met a couple of well-read homeless people who seemed to be well aware of their choices, but I imagine there are also people who can use some information about where they can go for help, e.g. people who have just landed on the street after a catastrophe.

Thanks for the pointer to ACORN.
posted by palet at 11:52 PM on December 14, 2006

Response by poster: Having read what I wrote, I realize I may be coming off as ignorant, but this is the reason I am posting here. (I am a non-American living in the US, and homeless shelters are extremely rare in my home country.)

PY: It indeed sounds like a good idea to ask them about the shelters they like.

wemayfreeze & PY: On second thought, I would expect people who have just landed on the street to be kind of rare, and most of the homeless people I see are most likely aware of the local shelters. Of course it won't hurt knowing about them myself.
posted by palet at 12:15 AM on December 15, 2006

When I was in high school, a friend of mine would often make bagged lunches to take downtown to distribute to homeless people. It allows numerous other people to get involved too.
posted by perpetualstroll at 12:21 AM on December 15, 2006

I usually will give out cigarettes. Not exactly helping, but it can make a persons bad day better and they're something I already have.

There are probably some really neat organizations in the community near your home. Places that serve meals to the homeless, provide medical service and tons of other services to the homeless that would probably love to have another volunteer to help their missions to improve the quality of homeless peoples lives. Volunteering at one of these places would not only give you the opportunity to know that their service is like but it also has the opportunity to put you in a place where you might actually help homeless people and expose you mroe directly to their experiences, lifestyles and needs.
posted by Matt Oneiros at 1:02 AM on December 15, 2006

Giving any form of aid to the homeless perpetuates the system of state neglect. In normal countries there are very few homeless, because the state takes responsibility for providing a basic social net.

By giving material aid to the homeless you are dulling their revolutionary spirit, and blinding the masses to the real structural problem in American society.

If you really want to help the homeless, don't do that.
posted by Meatbomb at 3:00 AM on December 15, 2006

My anecdotal feeling is that trying to help individuals at the street level is not only pointless but also counterproductive. Also, (again anecdotally) these people know their options better than you so telling them to go here or do this is also pointless. (I live in Chicago and I get hassled by the same five or ten bums - sorry, homeless people - every day... so I'm a little jaded, sorry.)

If you want to make a difference either with your time or money then start at the top-down organizational level by getting involved with charities, churches, civic organizations, even soup kitchens. These organizations are a force multiplier for the individual. Also, don't be shy about writing your city leaders regularly about this problem.

Meatbomb comes across as a bit of an asshat in his comment, but the sad reality is that homelessness in America is one of those low level background radiation things... it's there, but it's not like they are dying by the thousands every winter. It's probably one of those problems that has to get a lot worse before it gets a lot better.
posted by wfrgms at 3:36 AM on December 15, 2006

I used to work here as a case manager for homeless people, and I'm nthing the idea above that those out on the streets know the services available better than you. A lot of the folks you see shivering outside at night would rather sleep on the street than in shelters (though shelters being full in the winter is definitely a problem for some).

It looks like this organization serves the Atlanta area.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 4:29 AM on December 15, 2006

I would counsel against giving unqualified charity to homeless people; doing so is actually the surest way to perpetuate their current state.

Like most animals, homo sapiens sapiens will strive to survive in whatever situation they find themselves in, whether it be hovel or Hilton. This much is generally automatic. Actually changing the situation in which they live, however, requires special motivation.

Hunger is one of the most effective universal motivators. Giving food to vagrants and bums simply delays (sometimes indefinitely) the self-reckoning wherein the indigent person realizes that his current situation is in fact unsurvivable and must be changed.
posted by The Confessor at 5:09 AM on December 15, 2006

You want to give but you want to make sure it is going to the right people and not to the wrong people. Or, rather, you want to make sure it is going to the people most in need. Hungry mothers and children before thirsty drunks, perhaps.

Do not assume that any or all beggars are homeless or that any or all of the homeless are beggars. Begging is what some people do. Homelessness is a state in which some people find themselves. The guy asking for your pocket money may sleep quite comfortably in a warm family home at night. The destitute family you want to help might be sleeping in a shelter, never begging, and you may never see them unless you go to the shelter. (Or they may be sleeping somewhere else, scattered among friends and relatives, because the shelters are full and horrible.)

As regards to whether and how to hand stuff to beggars, just decide whether you want to satisfy the beggars' immediate desires (cash for whatever good or bad thing they might buy) or give them things that provide for specific basic human needs (for example, sandwiches or gloves or some sort of food token scheme) rather than handing them cash for anything they want to buy. Don't believe every story you hear on the street. I have handed over money for stories that, looking back, I'm sure were scams, but I felt sorry for the guy at the time. The again, I have passed people by and later felt bad about it (as if I needed the beer more than he did). Give if it looks necessary, but remember that the best stories may not be the truest stories.

As regards to how to help people in shelters: donate to or work in a local shelter. Go to the nearest shelter, ask what you can do, and then do it. Give what they need and what you have to spare. Maybe you have plenty of time but little money, maybe you have plenty of money but little time, or maybe you can give a little of both. Maybe they need cash. Maybe they need volunteers. If you improve the local shelter, you are also encouraging its use by people who might not otherwise use it because of its lacks.

And don't forget the standard charities such as the Red Cross. They'll put your money to good use.

If you help the local shelter, when the guy on your street asks you for money, you'll be able to tell him where and how you already help to feed and shelter a number homeless people in the neighborhood you both share. Offer to accompany him there if he doesn't know how to get there and what to do there. If that's not good enough for him, let him explain why he needs your money deposited directly into his pocket. Then you're back to the beggar scenario and how you decide to react to it. You will make mistakes, but it's better to err on the side of generosity than tightfistedness. Don't rationalize people away.
"At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge," said the gentleman, taking up a pen, "it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir."

"Are there no prisons?" asked Scrooge.

"Plenty of prisons," said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

"And the Union workhouses?" demanded Scrooge. "Are they still in operation?"

"They are. Still," returned the gentleman, "I wish I could say they were not."

"The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?" said Scrooge.

"Both very busy, sir."

"Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course," said Scrooge. "I'm very glad to hear it."

"Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude," returned the gentleman, "a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?"

posted by pracowity at 5:37 AM on December 15, 2006

I work with the homeless, though more recently my work has been concentrated on families at risk of homelessness. My organization runs outreach operations in Philadelphia three nights a week and volunteering with an agency that does outreach is a great way to get involved and do something substantial.

Doing something substantial means donating your time. Most people would rather just buy someone a cup of coffee, which is fine if it makes you feel better about yourself and the fact that crushing poverty exists in the wealthiest nation on earth. However, it's not a particularly effective action towards creating any kind of meaningful change in the lives of individual homeless men and women.

Outreach is great because you get to interact with the same people week after week and build relationships with them. You learn the story behind the face shaking the cup. It's fascinating, sometimes emotionally overwhelming, always rewarding. Generally, the homeless are more easily convinced to engage in other social services they might need by people they trust. Engaging the homeless in a way that results in their utilizing services they need and aren't receiving is meaningful and substantial in a way that handing out spare change is not.

You've got to understand that the average chronically homeless man or woman who lives on the streets is extremely wary of anyone who approaches them. If they tell you their personal story on your first encounter with them there's a good chance it's false, part of a hustle, a piece of mental illness induced delusion. When you see them again and again and really engage in a dialog you get start to see what's real and what's not, how the stories change a shift and mutate over time. As they trust you more they tell you more. Consistency over time is crucial to a meaningful outreach experience. They need to see your face at least once a week.

Some of my experiences run towards the totally hilarious. Many homeless people make themselves up right on the spot, and quite wildly at that. They can do this because nobody really knows them, so who's to tell them they're not who they say they are? I could rattle off anecdotes but this response is overlong, already.

Redux: if you live in a metropolis find out who does homeless outreach in your city and ask them if you can volunteer one night a week. I promise this will change your life.
posted by The Straightener at 6:07 AM on December 15, 2006

I live in Atlanta as well. I have worked for nonprofits for years. I have my MA in Nonprofits jointly from the school of social work and public administration. With that being said, so many nonprofits have huge overhead and with what I can afford to donate, I feel my personal cash is better served by giving to the individual. I donate to charities when I can do a lot of research and figure out how much of their mission they are accomplishing each year.

I don't actually care what they spend it on. I just know that I gave them the opportunity to feed themselves or whatever right then, because right then is when some of them need it. I drive them places that are close, like the diner that they know will let them stay all night long as long as they buy a coffee or one of the decent shelters.

I paid a guy 10/hr to paint my house. He made a grand. That can really help someone make the jump.

The problem with Atlanta shelters (or I've been told by both the homeless and the staffers) is that the decent ones employ a tracking system, where the homeless are logged upon leaving and entering. A lot of people think this is very police state and do not approve. The one shelter that does not use the tracking system is very very rough. They take all the bat shit insane and violent men that the other shelters won't take.
posted by stormygrey at 6:11 AM on December 15, 2006

Get involved with a local homeless shelter either by donating or volunteering. Steer homeless people you meet on the street there. Your money can be used more effectively to help homeless people in shelters rather than giving it to them directly. If you give a homeless guy $5, that is one meal at McDonald's whereas $5 to a shelter will more likely provide 3 meals.

By all means investigate which shelter or program best matches your ideals. There are many of them out there to choose from.

To Meatbomb; I'm not quite sure of the gist of your argument but here in America, the people are the government. State neglect is public neglect. For an individual to give directly to the homeless or to a charity or to the government to aid the homeless is effectively the same thing. For some things the government is best suited to administer, for this I think it is best that the government allows charity organizations to provide aid.
posted by JJ86 at 6:29 AM on December 15, 2006

Since you're in Atlanta, you might want to look into the Mad Housers.
posted by Jeanne at 6:57 AM on December 15, 2006

I forgot to mention: socks and drawers. If you want to buy something for the guy on the corner shaking a cup, ask him for his size and buy him some underwear or some socks. These are the two most sought after items by the homeless as they are often not included in used clothing donations and are difficult for social service agencies to keep in supply. If you give a homeless guy some clean drawers you will make a friend for life.
posted by The Straightener at 7:01 AM on December 15, 2006

I would counsel against giving unqualified charity to homeless people; doing so is actually the surest way to perpetuate their current state.

This is not my experience. I regularly helped one local homeless guy, who, upon release from prison and sporting numereous severe chronic health problems, had become not much more than a puddle on the sidewalk, and he came back a year later and waited all morning for me to show me his new clothes and tell me about his new job.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:10 AM on December 15, 2006 [2 favorites]

Since you asked, this is my take: I don't give money to homeless people, because I don't feel comfortable with the concept that the money might go towards a habit that might worsen that person's life even further, namely, drugs or alcohol. There are some people who might be indignant at that attitude, but, *shrug*, that's the way I feel about this. An interesting point-counterpoint on the question.

What I do instead is donate a certain fixed amount each month to the Greater Chicago Food Depository (my local foodbank). They advertise that for every dollar donated, they're able to provide four meals. I multiply that by the amount I give (x) and think to myself that providing 4x meals per month is a pretty good way of trying to help the situation without being concerned about where the funds are going. If you want to see how effective a charity is, you can look at CharityNavigator — for example, here is their entry on the Greater Chicago Food Depository. As you can see, they're pretty tight with a buck.

Additionally, if it's extremely hot out, I will occasionally buy a huge water and give it to a homeless person who's just sitting there and looking pretty charbroiled, or, if the snow's pretty bad, I'll stop at Potbelly and get the works (sandwich, coffee, soup or chili) and drop it off with someone. I can't do those often, but I do those occasionally.
posted by WCityMike at 7:56 AM on December 15, 2006 [1 favorite]

last winter I went through the closets and collected a pile of coats, raingear and a few old sleeping bags and drove them down to a shelter. I think this may be just making them comfortable in their present state rather than helping them but I am sure they liked it.
There are a few orgs that really try and get folks like this on their feet and on with life, if you give them money and time it would be great.
posted by Iron Rat at 7:58 AM on December 15, 2006

OK, coffee refilled, here are my suggestions of how to help:

Select someone local and regular, and see what you can do for that one person.

Initially offer comraderie only. "I've seen you around here before. You're becoming a regular, huh? I've been here for some time, too."

Give them something tailored to them. A pair of cargo pants with lots of zipper pockets, a strong carrying bag. Then, wait a week or two and see if they still have that thing. If not, maybe you can't help them. If so, a good candidate.

Let them know you can't help them too much regularly, but to rely on you only if they really are desparate for food or such. I've had the guy later panhandle me and then say "oh, sorry I didn't see it was you."

Ask if they would like you to contact anyone by phone and leave a message, or inform anyone of their whereabouts. Offer to recieve a letter for them.

Practical supplies they may need: fabreze, tea tree oil for in their shoes, anti fungal cremes.

If you can, offer to keep an eye on or tempoarily hold their stuff while they go to an appointment with a service worker, or some other errand.

Encourage and inform them regarding social services they may be elligable for such as medicaid.

Introduce them to your companions in passing.

Sharing food, such as splitting your sandwich, is better than just handing them something.

If you can see these efforts are really helping, you can consider doing more such as the occaisonal load of laundry at holiday time so they can go to a charity meal with some self respect.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:02 AM on December 15, 2006 [2 favorites]

Supporting shelters is great, but if you want to get involved in a long term solution, give to a good supportive housing organization. A lot of homeless people have mental illnesses, substance abuse problems, or other disabilities that keep them on the street. Supportive housing gives them a place to live and the support necessary to keep them housed and bring some stability into their lives. Supportive housing providers either directly provide or contract to provide psychiatric and medical care, substance abuse counseling, case management, social work, etc.

The best supportive housing model is "housing first," which puts people in a home, then tries to deal with their problems and allows them to mess up. A lot of providers bundle housing with strict treatment requirements that can be difficult for a seriously ill or addicted person to comply with and can lead to eviction. Housing First assumes that even the crazy and the drug addicted should have homes, and that they are more likely to get treatment if they have the stability and security of a roof over their head.

I don't know if Atlanta has such a program, but the leader in the field is Pathways to Housing in NYC.
posted by Mavri at 8:06 AM on December 15, 2006

Housing programs and such are great, but remember there's sometimes a reason these people are homeless and that makes those things difficult for them.

For instance: "They won't accept my application unless I give them my mother's maiden name and I made an oath not to let my problems disturb her spirit's rest so I can never do that."

For many the entry point only comes when they need emergency hospitalization. If you contact the emergency room/ hospital and inquire about their treatment this can have a tremendous impact on how they are treated compared to those assumed to have no one watching.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:23 AM on December 15, 2006

And Meatbomb, after reading your comments I'm going to have to ask for that sandwich and $5 back.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:33 AM on December 15, 2006

I will see your Pathways to Housing and raise you a Beyond Shelter. I just saw both groups present at the national housing first conference in DC a little more than a month ago and this is where it's at. I work for a new housing first for families initiative in Philadelphia, it's a very exciting space to work in right now.

I would love to do a housing first FPP but I'm new. Maybe next week.
posted by The Straightener at 8:37 AM on December 15, 2006

Everybody likes to do drugs. It's not just "thirsty drunks" or other undesirables. If you go out to bars and spend $20, $30, $100 in an evening on beer for yourself and hot members of your preferred sex, and then have the temerity to tell street-drunks or drug users that they can't get high either, is the height of irony to me. I always give out a few bucks on my way to and from bars. Everybody likes to get high, so the idea that you might be able to deduce which homeless person "deserves" your charity is misguided.

Just give a few bucks. This isn't a fix to the problem or anything like one. To do that you need to volunteer or otherwise support organizations. But I sure hate the people who don't do either. And then go about drinking, smoking, and snorting their own fun.
posted by zpousman at 10:02 AM on December 15, 2006 [2 favorites]

Straightener, which program? (York Street?)
I do a lot of work with special needs and homeless housing agencies in Philly.

As to the question, I'll second everyone saying that you shouldn't give money directly to folks on the street. Their best hope for recovery is to get off the street and into some program and anything that helps them stay on the street lets them postpone making that step.

As for housing first, I think the idea makes sense, but the two examples I have seen up close (I worked on grants for both and the programs are located in the building where I work) have not done too well. They target dually-diagnosed individuals and they have not been able to keep folks in the partments. However, that is a particularly difficult-to-serve population. I think (and hope) that Staightener will have better luck with families.
posted by qldaddy at 10:46 AM on December 15, 2006

posted by qldaddy at 10:59 AM on December 15, 2006

food not bombs is a good organization. they provide free (vegan) meals in cities all over the US. here's a list of local branches:
and the main web site:
posted by ethel at 11:23 AM on December 15, 2006

It's called SafeHome Philadelphia and like I said it's new and relatively small at the moment (40 families, and we have closed the program to referrals pending further funding). We're having great sucess with families but we don't take d & a cases, which even Beyond Shelter -- a behemoth and extraordinarily well funded agency that's been doing this for almost two decades -- only just started doing very recently. We work with private market landlords who are willing to let us broker lease agreements for our clients and then provide follow up supportive services after they are housed.

If you work with private market housing and are going to do d & a you need to approach things a little differently. Namely, your organization will need to be the lease holder or in some cases the actual landlord, which is how Beyond Shelter is doing it. Our clients have leases in their own names. Like any other housing first program, participation in services is voluntary and their housing is not contingent on it.

I know that Horizon House has had some substantial success in Philly targeting the Pathways demographic (chronically homeless, dual diagnosed) with housing first. I'm not well enough acquainted with their programs to really make comment on them, though.
posted by The Straightener at 12:08 PM on December 15, 2006

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