United Way
of Massachusetts Bay
and Merrimack Valley

January 8, 2018

3 Ways to Respond to Homelessness

Families and individuals who experience homelessness undoubtedly face many challenges, but out of all the difficulties they endure, feeling less than human is one of the hardest to bear.

There are more than 3,500 homeless families and 1,400 chronically homeless individuals on any given night in the Commonwealth. If you’d like to help but aren’t sure where to begin, we have some suggestions.

One-on-one with Homeless Individuals

It’s important to remember that homeless people are still human beings, yet so often they are ignored by passers by. “People walking wouldn’t look at me. The’d pretend I wasn’t there – like I was invisible,” says Ryan Holland from Boston, who has experienced homelessness in the past. He says this is one of the many difficult things about being homeless. So the next time you see a homeless person, think about responding in a new way.  

  1. Be aware of your body language and be mindful of making eye contact. Homeless advocates stress the importance of making eye contact with a homeless person so they feel equal to you and not ashamed of their situation. Something as simple as this or even a smile can brighten their days – and yours.
  2. Say hello. A basic greeting can turn into a small exchange or conversation. Don’t be offended if they don’t want to talk. You are a stranger after all, and not everyone wants to open up about their personal lives. Just keep the conversation respectful.
  3. Give money only if you feel comfortable doing so; the catch, however, is to refrain from telling them how to spend it. If you’re not comfortable giving money, you can say, “I don’t have any cash on me but is there another way I can help?” Alternatively, ask them if they’re hungry and offer to buy a meal for them.
  4. Hand out “blessing bags,” which consist of small items such as socks, mittens, packages of peanut butter crackers or granola bars, water, or lip balm. You could also include a list of local shelters, warming stations, and other local resources. Let them know that you are keeping them in your thoughts.
  5. Be safe. Just as you would with any stranger, make safety your top priority. Instead of offering a ride or providing shelter in your own home, enlist the help of professionals from local organizations.

Families helping Homeless Families

Organizing or participating in a drive is a terrific way to help out homeless families in need of clothing, toiletries, diapers, and more. Plus, your entire family can join in. If you don’t have an existing drive near you, consider organizing one of your own – they’re easier to manage than you might think. Here are 6 easy steps outlining the basic process:

  1. Define your mission (this is what you will tell people when you spread the word for people to donate to your drive).
  2. Recruit a team, have an initial meeting, and assign tasks.
  3. Determine the best season to collect your drive items (e.g., launch a coat drive in winter), and set a start/end date.
  4. Pick a location for the drive and double check the location’s fundraising policies.
  5. Get your message out: email, social media, flyers/posters at local businesses, press release to local newspapers and TV stations, and word of mouth.
  6. Remember to thank all of the people who supported your drive when it’s over.

There are plenty of other volunteering opportunities as well. Be sure to visit United Way’s Volunteer/HQ for a complete and current listing.

The big picture

If you’re short on time – but not on passion – consider supporting the Housing Bond Bill. This is an excellent way to voice your stance about ending homelessness in the Commonwealth.

Nearly 230,000 Massachusetts renters pay more than 50% of their monthly income for housing. So it’s not surprising that one in four Bay State families are just one major set back away from homelessness. The Housing Bond Bill helps reverse these challenges by earmarking $1.7 billion to ensure affordable housing is available for low- and moderate-income residents over the next 5 years. 

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