BE KINDPeople who are experiencing homelessness are people. How would you normally treat someone you pass on the street? Instead of avoiding eye contact, acknowledge one another. Smile. Say hello. Wave. Treat people with respect. One of the goals of this magazine is to give people who might not normally interact, a positive opportunity to do so. Simple acts of kindness can go a long way in helping a person feel valued and welcome in the community.
ADVOCATEHomelessness is a symptom of many problems. There are big societal issues that need to be addressed to end it. That takes the public getting involved. Speaking to city council, state and U.S. representatives about issues like affordable housing, mental healthcare, education and criminal justice reform are an important piece of the puzzle. And advocacy doesn’t stop with elected officials. Help advocate and educate people in your circles of influence, too.
EDUCATE YOURSELFThis is a good place to start. Monthly, Curbside Chronicle shares personal stories from people who have experienced homelessness. We believe that by getting to know people — their backgrounds, their experiences, their likes and dislikes — you can start to see them as your neighbor rather than an issue. People become homeless for a variety of reasons. One of the initial steps you can take is trying to understand how they got there in the first place.
CHANGE YOUR POLICIESIf you’re a landlord or in a position to hire people, examine your policies and personal biases. Sometimes a mistake someone made decades ago still prevents them from getting a job or stops a landlord from selecting their application. Business owners have to protect themselves and balance risk, but sometimes their policies can prevent people from getting ahead in life. We work with people who committed a crime at age 20 and are still being denied jobs at age 40, despite a clean record since. Not many of us want to be judged by our past, but some people can’t get away from it.
KNOW YOUR BOUNDARIESSometimes people can unintentionally do harm or put themselves at risk. Offering to help people and not being able to follow through can make it more challenging for professionals to establish relationships and build trust with a person. While we are strong advocates for being kind and welcoming to everyone, some things are better left to the professionals. We do not advise bringing strangers into your home or venturing into people’s camps. Organizations have trained social workers and counselors, and some things are better left to the experts to handle.
DONATE STUFFHomeless-serving organizations need all kinds of donations — from the obvious food and hygiene items to bus passes for transportation. Think about some of the common things you need — socks and underwear are biggies that people don’t always think to donate. In the summer, it might be sunscreen, bug spray and allergy medicine. In the winter, it could be blankets, coats and gloves. Consider picking up an extra pack of toilet paper, cleaning supplies or bandages next time you’re at the store. Individuals can make a difference by spending just a few dollars or looking through their cabinets for things they no longer need.
While we strongly encourage people to donate items nonprofits need and ask for, we would be remiss if we didn’t warn of donating unusable items. That dirty, holey t-shirt or empty sour cream container is going to waste time, space and resources that many nonprofits can’t spare.
DONATE MONEYYou probably get tired of hearing this, but in order to help people, nonprofits need your financial support. Initiatives like Housing First work, but they are limited by an organization’s capacity to pay for housing and case management. Every dollar counts no matter if you have $5 or $5,000 to give. It costs a community less to house someone than to leave them on the street.
VOLUNTEERThere are literally thousands of nonprofits in Oklahoma that need assistance. Offer your specific skills and talents or be willing to roll up your sleeves and get dirty.
COLLABORATEInstead of going out trying to reinvent the wheel or do something that isn’t really helpful, ask your favorite nonprofit what they really need. It’s also important to be understanding. Many local nonprofits are stretched thin. A slow response time or limitations on how many volunteers they can manage doesn’t mean the organization doesn’t want or need your assistance. Oftentimes, their administrative capacity is limited.
If your church or organization is doing outreach or offering services to people experiencing homelessness, contact homeless-serving nonprofits like the Homeless Alliance to get looped into the coordinated system and work together.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a collaborative project about homelessness in Oklahoma City by The Curbside Chronicle, Oklahoma Gazette and Big If True. This project is funded through a grant by Inasmuch Foundation and Ethics & Excellence in Journalism Foundation facilitated by Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University. For other content in this series, visit thecurbsidechronicle.org, okgazette.com and bigiftrue.org.