BY LAUREN SAY
Staff from Blanchet House of Hospitality in Portland offer tips on the best ways for you to help someone experiencing homelessness or struggling to stay housed.
1. Educate yourself to better understand
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, you need to 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.”
Everyone has their own story and struggles that come with it. For example:
- Cost of Housing. The cost of living is incredibly high, making it hard for people with small incomes to keep their housing long-term. In addition, there are not enough affordable or subsidized housing units. Someone waiting on a list for affordable housing must bide their time in a shelter or outdoors.
- Employment. Long term employment 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. Studies show that the longer you are unemployed the more difficult it is to find employment. An employer has to be willing to take “a risk” on you if your work history isn’t great.
- Addiction and Mental Health. In 2019, 1,544 people living unsheltered in Multnomah County reported experiencing mental health issues; 1,495 reported substance abuse struggles. A long-term adequate support system is necessary to overcome the obstacle of substance abuse addiction.
“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. Instead of turning away and avoiding their gaze, try saying “hi” or offer a smile or nod to show that you care. Read someone’s body language to determine if they are in mental health or other crisis. Of course, you want to stay safe.
If you want to engage further:
- Listen. Make sure to listen and respond with kindness.
- Offer. REMEMBER to always offer help first, instead of just assuming someone needs it. If someone turns down your offer of help do not become angry with them. You don’t know what they are dealing with at that moment. Keep fast food or grocery store gift cards on hand to offer. Snacks like granola bars, gum, or bottled water can be offered too.
3. Connect with a local nonprofit
Your local charity kitchen, shelter, or homeless services organization will have many organized ways for you to volunteer or help. 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 meeting the needs of others at the same time. Get in contact with your local organization for more information on how to get involved. You can also put care kits together with toothbrushes, soap, bottled water, snacks, PB&J sandwiches, and donate them to your local food bank or shelter.
“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 Clothes and 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 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 hold such high expectations and judgments about people when we know nothing about them. In order to seriously make a difference in the lives of people suffering without housing in our communities, we must work together. 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.