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May 6, 2021

6 Reasons You Should Treat Homeless People as Your Neighbors & First Steps to Take

Since when did the Golden Rule absolve us from sharing with people who don't look like us?

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I met Michael in a Boston subway station. I told him I liked his sign. “What matters is what it means to you,” he told me.

I asked what it meant to him. “Doing a deed or expressing kindness to another person without expecting anything in return,” Michael said.

I love approaching strangers wherever I go. Listening and talking to them teaches you about people and how similar we all are to one another. Just like Michael, we’re all seeking human kindness.
Photo Credit: Matt Collamer | Unsplash

1. You don't know their story, so allow yourself to learn.

"If they're going to die, they'd better do it! And decrease the surplus population!" This is a famous quote from Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," the story of a ghastly man that we all learn to despise because of how he despises the poor. What changed his heart? The ghost of Christmas present took him into the lives of those closest to him to see their stories, and he began to understand. What followed naturally was compassion. Suddenly, he didn't want Tiny Tim to die, and ultimately became not only his hero, but a second father to the boy- in other words, his advocate. 

This story holds a timeless lesson for those of us who feel compassion on the poor in this movie, but not in real life. There are risks in befriending a stranger, but we do it every day when we engage in conversation with perfect strangers in uniforms, suits, and name brand clothing. They are no less risky than the unkempt neighbor on the corner. A study done at NYU showed that violence involving homeless people was either done in self-defense, or they were the actual victims. Watch your compassion grow as you engage with the neighbors who clearly have less than you.

2. Community breeds accountability

I have heard and seen documented, stories about people who are making a doctor's wage by sitting on a corner, taking people's money under the guise of homelessness. This reality has justified our attitude of ignorance and negligence for too long. At this point, we are assuming that every homeless person is a crook and we can wash our hands of their problems. 

But when you alienate someone from a community that truly needs your help, their life is at stake and the onus is on us, not them. Taking the time to draw near to someone who you perceive is on drugs, or running a scandal, and reaching out to offer community in an effort to build a relationship, means that you are creating a space that naturally breeds accountability. 

Is it easier to lie to the face of a stranger or someone who is a trusted confidante and has invested time and energy to help you get back on your feet? This idea is not without risks, and requires more mental and emotional energy than some of us have the capacity for. However, if you are unable to be the neighbor the person on the corner needs, the least you could do is flash them a smile and invite them into conversation. Nothing else is required, but the reward for them may make a life or death difference in their day.

3. Humans need community

We were not created to walk the road of life, or any of its problems, alone. 

The same study done by NYU mentioned in point 1, showed that, "70 to 80 percent of homeless persons are from the local area or lived there for a year or longer before becoming unhoused." Read more about how NYU debunked myths regarding the unhomed here.

This means these are our neighbors, family of neighbors within our community, and people that share the same kind of needs we share. Meditate on this for a moment- these people are our neighbors. Maybe we should start questioning our sense of community and what it should look like. 

4. Maslow's hierarchy of needs take precedence

I used to work as a family advocate for families in crisis. As part of our training, we had to understand a little bit about what happens after homelessness in order to be able to help our clients facing this type of crisis. We were told that within 24 hours of becoming homeless, the human IQ drops significantly. Why? One guess is Maslow's hierarchy of needs. If you've never taken a psychology class, let me explain.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is an idea developed by the pyramid model's namesake, Abraham Maslow in the 1940's. In his pyramid model of human behavior, he classifies human behavior into four categories, explaining that the most basic human needs must be met in order for humans to to be capable of growing into loving relationships and self-actualization. 

Our training explained that within 24 hours of being panic-stricken over where you will sleep, how you will stay safe, and where your next meal is coming from, this fight or flight part of the brain takes precedence and the even most intelligent person is not thinking clearly. It becomes increasingly difficult for someone to excavate themselves from a proverbial pit of crisis when their brain is preoccupied with survival. 

5. Maybe you can help

As self-sufficient as our American culture is, we must admit how good it feels to know someone cares enough to notice our struggle. The book, "Faithful Presence" by David Fitch, talks about being present in all your circumstances so that you will be ready to act when someone in your midst might need help. His examples were lifechanging.

He tells the story of a gentleman who faithfully worked from his laptop inside of a McDonald's. He eventually befriended a homeless man who he not only encouraged to reconcile with his family, but he was able to assist with dental work for this man who was in extreme pain (toothaches are the worst, am I right?). The best part is, his dentist was so impressed that this man was willing to pay the bill that he didn't even charge the homeless man for the work. 

Reconciliation? Dentist bills and paying it forward? Is this real life? It isn't enough to simply hear these stories and feel good about the things happening in the world, and it isn't enough to simply hand the cash to the person on the corner. We need to be present, ready to share our table, and invite them into our community, because they deserve to be a part of it. This natural introvert is scared, too, but we have a human responsibility. Let's let our compassion outweigh our fears.

6. The Golden Rule

Why are humans so bad at the Golden Rule? Every religion has their version of it, "Do to others what you would have them do to you." Yet even as this conviction is built into the DNA of every living soul, we fail daily to implement it. It begins with believing that every person truly has value. There are some fundamental beliefs perpetuating ideas that if you're poor, then you somehow deserve it because you have made bad choices or you're lazy. 

However upon further reflection and interview, I have found that there is never an easy answer as to why someone is homeless. Have you been a mother that escaped domestic violence, worked 3 jobs to support her kids, tried to return to school, and then got cancer? This is a real story of someone who was a semester away from a Bachelor's degree and fighting for her life. 

The moral here is that we are all one life event away from an avalanche that leads to homelessness. Choose love and community in the form of eye contact and a conversation. The love you offer won't just improve the life of the one you're helping.

If you aren't ready to make a commitment to your homeless neighbors, consider seeking out nonprofits in your area where you can donate either time or money. But being in the presence of real humans and hearing their hopes, fears, and dreams cannot be substituted by donating $1 to a local charity- it's priceless.