man experiencing homelessness

How Can You Help Someone Experiencing Homelessness? 

On any given night in Massachusetts, 20,068 people are experiencing homelessness: 

  • 4,149 are in families with children
  • 900 are veterans 
  • 465 are under 24 

On a typical night, the state’s approximate 3,000 shelter beds are full, supplemented by cots and sleeping bags. The reality is, there are a lot of reasons both individuals and families may not be able — or willing — to stay in a shelter. That leaves many to make their own way. It’s a question we hear regularly from people of good intention. What do I do when I see someone on the street? What’s truly helpful to someone experiencing homelessness? A quick Google search will turn up a long list of ways to get involved – from serving in a soup kitchen to donating clothes and basic necessities. But many still wonder what they can do that will really land. 

What will really make a difference in someone’s day?

If we want to know how to help people experiencing homelessness — one obvious answer is, “don’t be afraid to ask!” One recent commenter on United Way’s Facebook page said, “I’ve always thought someone ought to conduct an actual survey of the homeless. To determine what they feel they need to improve their lives. Why not?” This is a great suggestion — in fact, tonight (Wednesday, January 29), volunteers will fan out and walk every street in cities like Boston. The annual Homeless Census is one way cities not only count the number of people sleeping outside but ask them questions to understand where to allocate resources and how to best support people experiencing homelessness. 

Our staff hit the streets of Downtown Crossing to hear first hand from those willing to share the best way people can help those they encounter outside. 

The same answer came up again and again: “Ask them.” “Talk to them first. Find out what they need. It’s different for everybody” said Joe, sitting cross-legged near a busy intersection.

Everyone is an individual with a different story and different circumstances. If you want to help someone, “ask them what they need,” said Armand, a white-haired man with twinkling blue eyes. “Before you give me all this food, ask me what I need, you know? I need shoes, people don’t ask me ‘well what do you need?’ – they just throw things at me.”  To his point, during our conversation, someone came over and gave him a pizza from Dominos. Armand thanked him but later told me “I can eat it, don’t get me wrong, but it’s really greasy, I’m trying to eat healthy…I have a real bad digestive system, I just got out of the hospital because of it.”  

“Before you go buy somebody something to eat, make sure that they’re not allergic to it, make sure they really will eat it…give them that consideration.” And he noted, “ask them what they need, not what they want, what they need.”

Laurie lost her husband and her home two years ago. Sitting on a sunny corner in her wheelchair, her answer to the question was: “Definitely more shelters” From her perspective, she had her name on nearly 100 lists for housing, but while she waited, a temporary place seemed out of reach. For Laurie, to take the first couple steps feels daunting without a computer or guidance for what steps to take next. Emergency and transitional shelters are a key resource for people taking their first steps out of homelessness. If you want to volunteer, find a local shelter area in your area and call to ask how your availability and resources match their needs.

Another common answer was access to hygiene products. “The main thing about being homeless is staying presentable… grooming, hair, nails” said Michelle, who’s been living on the street since August.

Finally, something simple that everyone can do is the act of honoring humanity. “Just talk to people, acknowledge people. Even if you look at them and don’t say anything, just acknowledge them” said Joe. It makes sense — the experience of being walked past eventually takes a toll. Eye contact, a simple greeting is not unwelcome. “They treat us like we’re not human” Laurie responded. 

Many people prefer to give to nonprofits who provide services or who take a systemic approach to address the issue of housing instability at scale. Donors to United Way contribute to the issue from multiple angles, including:

  • Partnering with two-dozen nonprofit organizations that stabilize families in safe, affordable housing and providing long-term support. 
  • Investing in innovative approaches that show promise to reduce homelessness at the population level. For example, United Way has championed a housing-first approach for decades and recently celebrated a milestone of achieving the goals of its Social Innovation or Pay for Success Contract by placing more than 900 chronically homeless individuals in permanent supportive housing with an 87% rate of long-term effectiveness.
  • Leveraging schools as an access point to identify families and provide them with the kind of holistic support they need to end homelessness, succeed in school, and develop financial well-being. 

Most recently, United Way is taking a leadership role in Boston’s plan to end youth homelessness, called Rising to the Challenge. The plan is informed by the Boston Youth Action Board, a group of young people who have experienced homelessness and are working with Mayor Marty Walsh, the City of Boston, United Way, and the city’s nonprofits to create more effective solutions to end youth and young adult homelessness. 

When asked for a message she’d like to share, Laurie struck a hopeful tone, “Boston is one of the best places I’ve found yet. They can help you. And they’ve helped me.” 

As with anything, please use courtesy and common sense if you would like to engage with strangers.