Homelessness is one of the most widely recognized faces of poverty. Wherever you live and whatever your socioeconomic status, chances are you’ve encountered homeless people. Maybe you avoid them out of fear that someone desperate enough to ask a stranger for help might also be desperate enough to take advantage of you.
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But if you want to do more than say “God bless” or “good luck” (James 2:14–17), here are some practical ways you can make an impact on the life of a homeless person:
1. Feed them
Matthew 25:35, Isaiah 58:10
Buying food for someone who needs it is great, it’s easy, and it’s not as risky as giving someone a handful of cash—you know your money is putting food in someone’s stomach. When you’re busy, it’s easy to feel like you don’t have time to help someone. But setting aside as little as 15 minutes to eat with someone does so much more than handing out a sandwich. If you’re spending all day holding a sign to ask complete strangers for help while most of them try not to make eye contact, you aren’t just missing the things on the sign: you’re equally depraved of human contact.
When you’re lonely, a meal with a stranger is still better than yet another meal alone. Kind words mean more with a meal, and a meal means more with kind words.
2. Clothe them
Luke 3:11, Matthew 25:36
Imagine how hard it would be to apply for a job or housing when you’ve been living on the streets with a single set of clothes. You’re so filthy that no one wants to shake your hand, let alone live or work alongside you. And even if they’re willing, it takes a very strong person to overcome the social shame that our materialistic, appearance-oriented culture makes these people experience. In a small way, taking someone to pick clothes that not only fit them, but that they can comfortably present themselves in, humanizes them. You could also treat them to a haircut, or something else that reminds them how good it feels to be able to take care of your body. By helping someone look their best, you give them a fighting chance to present themselves in a professional setting.
3. Find work
1 Thessalonians 4:11–12, Proverbs 14:23
There are a lot of resources available to the homeless through public goods, charities, and ministries. But without access to information—who, what, where, when, how—many homeless people remain detached from the opportunities available to them. You could point them to some of these services. Or, you could play a more personal role in helping someone get back on their feet. Set aside some time to help them find nearby places that are hiring. Again, this is more helpful if you are willing to spend time with the person. You could come up with a generic list of positions and places close by using a service like Craigslist, but if you dedicate some time to getting to know the person and talking to them about their skills and experience, you can help them find the jobs they have the best chance at landing. By teaching someone how they could be valuable to a potential employer, you help them feel valued as a person. And God values them, so we should, too (John 13:35, 1 John 4:8, John 3:16).
4. Speak up for them
There are lots of ways that we can speak up for the impoverished. On a purely practical level, writing is a powerful way that we can help empower the homeless. One of the greatest deterrents from employment is poor résumés and cover letters. Even among those who aren’t homeless, sloppy résumés and cover letters, or canned applications that aren’t relevant are some of the biggest problems people have when they apply for work. Even if you aren’t the best writer or you haven’t perfected your own résumé, chances are you can still help someone who needs it. And the more time you spend getting to know them, the better you’ll be at helping them present themselves and eventually provide for themselves.
5. Help them stay busy
Proverbs 19:15, 1 Thessalonians 5:14, Ephesians 5:15–16
Imagine that you are completely dependent on others, and that you have an infinite supply of time to stand by yourself, waiting for help. A homeless man named Tucker once told me, “The worst part is being alone with your thoughts. You fight with yourself and your head tells you that you suck. You’re nothing. Worthless.” As a stream of happy, busy people drive by without so much as a second glance, that internal battle is constantly fueled by external circumstances. How do you pass the time when you have too much of it? What are some healthy ways to kill time that you could share with someone? For me, it’s books. And I’m a firm believer that people who “don’t like books” just haven’t found the right one yet. But there are so many blessings we take for granted every day that we can share with our homeless neighbors: music, conversations, Scripture, board games, and more.
Rules of engagement
Before you mentally commit to helping someone, there are a few things you should keep in mind.
However you plan to help someone, be flexible. Remember that the people you are talking to have lives. They have things they care about and priorities. You don’t know how you can help someone the most until you know what they need the most help with. Have a plan, but be prepared to improvise and adapt.
And if you want to learn more about how to engage poverty in the world around you, check out some of these great resources: