BY LAUREN SAY
Staff from Blanchet House of Hospitality in Portland offer tips on the best ways for you to help someone experiencing homelessness.
1. Learn More About Homelessness
First, remember that we are talking about fellow human beings who have the same needs and feelings as you. In order to avoid stereotyping or stigmatizing unhoused people, try to understand the reasons that led them to homelessness. Common misconceptions about people experiencing homelessness are that they are lazy, dangerous, or take advantage of what is given to them. However, this is not true.
“It takes time to get to know what the homeless community is about,” says Kristi Katzke, Case Manager at Blanchet House. “Many people are coming from some traumatic background or difficult history to overcome.”
Our neighbors experiencing homelessness share our essential humanity. Knowing their individual stories and struggles is essential to serving with compassion and dignity.
Their paths to homelessness are unique, but they often share similar experiences such as:
- Abuse or abandonment. Many people experiencing homelessness have suffered abuse or domestic violence that forced them to flee to the streets for safety or led to mental illness, trauma, and/or addiction.
- Addiction and Mental Health. A life-long support system is necessary to overcome the obstacles of addiction or mental illness.
- Cost of Housing. Affordable housing is limited and someone on a waitlist must bide their time in a shelter or on the street.
- Employment. A job can be difficult to find and keep if you have unaddressed mental or physical health issues, a criminal record, no driver’s license, and no address.
“When you put mental illness and addiction together you have a mess on your hands,” says Sean Lalley, who once experienced homelessness in Portland. “I couldn’t recognize my bipolar disorder at the time. It took a lot of help to get me to where I am today.”
2. Simply Acknowledge Them
Homeless people are PEOPLE. People experiencing homelessness often feel invisible. Saying “hi” or offering a smile or nod to show that you “see” and acknowledge them can be very meaningful. If you want to offer assistance, avoid actions that can make that person feel embarrassed or judged.
For example, it is kinder to say, “Would you like a blanket?” than “Your blanket is worn and dirty. Here’s a new one.”
Many people keep items on hand in their cars to give out, such as bottled water, snacks, or even grocery store gift cards.
“Look at what you can provide,” says Debra Fresh, Case Manager at Blanchet Farm. “Listen to people. We are going to have to get uncomfortable to help.”
3. Connect With a Local Nonprofit
Your local charity kitchen, shelter, or homeless services organization will have many organized ways for you to volunteer, help, or donate. Check out their websites or give them a call.
“There is a large population of homeless working people, many living paycheck to paycheck,” says Fresh. “It’s best to donate to agencies rather than give to panhandlers.”
An estimated 4,015 people are homeless in Portland, according to Multnomah County’s 2019 Point-in-Time Count of Homelessness. A concerted effort by social service agencies is necessary to end homelessness and help people avoid it.
Portland social service nonprofits include:
- Blanchet House of Hospitality
- Food and clothing services
- Long-term transitional shelter for men
- Transition Projects Resource Center (503) 280-4700
- Emergency shelter, clothes, mailboxes, showers, and laundry
- Long-term transitional shelter for men and women
- Portland Rescue Mission (503) 906-7690
- Food, 24/7 bathrooms, showers, and clothing
- Long-term transitional shelter for men and women
- Rose Haven
- Day Center for Women and Children
- Call 211 the City of Portland’s information line
Volunteering your time can literally change someone’s life; it is important because it is the best way to learn about homelessness while helping someone who needs it. Get in contact with your local organization for more information on how to volunteer or get involved. You can also put together Care Kits with toothbrushes, soap, bottled water, snacks, PB&J sandwiches, and donate them to your local food bank or shelter.
Direct service can be the best way to better understand people experiencing homelessness while providing support for those who need it.
“There’s a lot of waiting when you’re homeless. And while an unhoused person is waiting months on an affordable housing list, waiting on paperwork, waiting for disability income, or a job to come through they need their basic needs met,” says Julie Showers, Communications Manager at Blanchet House. “Nonprofit and mutual aid meal providers are helping to sustain people while they tackle enormous obstacles to long-term housing. It’s the least we can do for our fellow humans.”
5. Donate Clothing or Money
Many people experiencing homelessness are in need of clothes, shoes, and sleeping supplies. You can go through your closet to find clothes and items you are no longer using, and then donate them to a local social services organization.
The most needed cold weather adult-sized items in the Pacific Northwest are:
- Waterproof jackets
- Jeans and sweatpants
- Warm thermal long-sleeve shirts
- Hats and beanies
Finally, it’s important to ask ourselves why we sometimes judge people so harshly when we don’t know their story. We must work together if we want to support our unhoused friends and neighbors. We can support each other rather than placing people dealing with adversity in a world that continuously denies them any help.
Thank you for caring.