memories of homeless outreach

I swore I would keep this blog upbeat, but something has been eating away at me.  When I was running to the grocery store the other day to grab the fixins for dinner I could not help but notice there was a new addition to my neighborhood strip mall.  It was a man, holding a cardboard sign stating he was a homeless, hungry and a veteran.  My grinch-like heart grew a few sizes when I saw a man come out of the grocery store and give the fellow a couple bottles of water and some money.

Those who know me personally, know that I have worked in human services working with homeless individuals and survivors of abuse.  These are issues I feel particularly passionate about.  When I worked in a homeless shelter, I was asked about panhandling a lot.  No one ever asked me how they could help someone who was homeless, but they all seemed to want my stamp of approval to not give someone panhandling any money.  Seeing that man in the parking lot near the grocery store brought me back to that place.

It brought me back to a place where as an outreach worker I would get calls about “a bum outside a store” and them needing me to go “pick it up”.


As though we were talking about garbage and not a human being.

Brought me back to a place where a battered and bruised homeless man was dropped off at my office because he needed emergency medical care…problem was I did not work in an emergency room.

It brought me back to my office and how it felt the day I got a call from the corners office asking about a body they had located.  My business card was in with the individual’s belongings.  It was summer…and hot…and extreme heat can be deadly, especially when you are homeless and have no means of escaping it.

It brought me back to a place of intense sorrow and frustration because if it were just a matter of housing we could solve this problem in no time.  But the issue of homelessness is far from simple.  It exists at the intersection of so many complex issues, the economy, abuse, health, mental health, addiction…just to name a few.

As I watched the interaction and was filled with the warmth of having witnessed a small kindness, I was also left wondering how soon until the neighborhood gets up in arms about the now visible “homeless problem”.  How soon until giving this fellow water or a dollar will be met with criticism “if you keep giving to him, he will just keep coming back”.  How soon until the neighbors start to complain that if we allow this one person to panhandle more will show up.  That our neighborhood will be come unsafe.  Will the same cycle I witnessed for years at work now play itself out close to home?  I guess only time will tell.  We have to go back to the grocery store today, I wonder if he will still be there.

12 thoughts on “memories of homeless outreach

  1. Thank you for this. It is sobering to think there are so many that need help. One night my husband and I were out with some friends when a man approached us in the restaurant parking lot. He seemed to have an urgent need. He told us that he and his family were driving through town and ran out of gas as he pointed to his car across the street at a gas station. The four of us all chipped in to buy the man some gas. As we stood in the parking lot talking, we noticed as he came up to his car…..but kept walking. Then he took off running. We felt like idiots.

    So now, I wonder what do they do with the money. To me that is like painting everyone on earth the same color. Everyone has different needs and yes some are not trustworthy. But who am I to judge. My God knows my heart and if I attempt to help someone the deed does not go unnoticed. However I am more inclined to offer food or material necessities instead of money in most cases.

    Thank you for what you do. It takes a special person to work in this field.

    • Susie, thanks for the thoughtful comment! I have also been approached at the gas station and it was really uncomfortable, I got lucky in that I saw the people in question approach several others at the station before they came to be and my spidey senses told me it was a scam. I did offer to advocate for them with the gas station manager to help them make phone calls to family to help…not surprisingly, they turned down my offer. I think when it comes to giving you just have to go with your gut.

  2. It’s so sad that society can be reduced to the level of trying to ignore or brush away the problems that they themselves create. The world is such a “me, me, me” place these days that others get left behind.

    • Yes, and if we don’t have to look at it we don’t have to consider that it could be us or someone we love in that very situation. Thank you for your feedback.

  3. I grew up in NYC and I have to admit I sometimes have a hard heart – not because I don’t care about my fellow man, but because I read too many stories of people who begged on the subway and it was like a full time job to them – they lived better than the poor but caring people they ripped money off from. Or, the people who took the money and headed to the nearest bar or drug dealer. On the other hand I grew up with a mentally ill aunt who lived about a mile from us – when I see obviously mentally ill people on the street I know our society has failed them entirely. My Dad was a disabled vet of WW II and I feel the same about homeless vets. I know people whose children came home from service in Afghanistan with PTSD and too many people think it is a made up condition – no, it is all too real. So, life is complex and I think “how do we help the people who need it and weed out the people who rip off?” I don’t have any answer for that, and I admire you, who has tried to help.

  4. Jennifer, your thoughts are so familiar. In Phoenix, we have a large homeless population, and we have done many things to try to help. As you say, it is a complex situation. When I see someone panhandling, I pray for how to respond. Occasionally, the guidance I receive is “this one isn’t for you”; the person is there for someone else to learn from. Often I hear, “give them (what, how much)”. So often, speaking to a person as though they are a regular person is the extraordinary healing experience.

    • Kebba, thank you for your response. Your comment about speaking to homeless folks as you would anyone else is a good reminder. I think that gets lost sometimes.

  5. Thanks so much for this. It’s important. As a society, we do treat homeless folks like a bother instead of as our great opportunity to serve. Why do we do that? Every so often I get a few lunches (hot sandwiches, soda and chips) and take them around to the places I know they might be. It’s something I can do, so I do it. I am here to report that it’s me who gets the gift when I give. I have one guy I give a lunch to that is always sitting right across from a huge busy church. They see him sitting there all the time, yet they don’t reach out. There are no words. Joy

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