Truth to tell, most of the time I don’t walk up to homeless people and strike up a conversation. One of the ways that I recognized that I was called to do this work is that they walk up to me. Not to hit me up for money or anything, they just strike up a conversation about the weather, or point out something about the landscape or another passerby. They want to talk. A number of people have expressed to me that they have a desire to be more open to talking to the homeless, and to do more things to reach out and help them, so I’ve put together this primer.
Don’t Ask How They Got Here
If they want to tell their story, they will. Often, they don’t. They’re ashamed, or afraid, either of what happened or what you’ll think of them if you know. It’s also incredibly rude. They don’t want to be treated as homeless people, they just want to be treated as people.
Don’t Ask If They Need Help Unless You Can Offer It
Never ask if they’re hungry unless you are willing to provide food. Don’t ask if they’re warm enough unless you have a coat or blanket to give. Don’t ask if they have someplace to sleep unless you’re taking them home with you or driving them to the shelter. They’re well aware that they need food, clothing, and shelter, and you come off as either clueless or insensitive by asking a question with an obvious answer.
Don’t Take Cues from Clothing
It’s natural to see someone wearing a cap or jacket with a sports logo and inquire if they’re a fan of the team. Maybe they are. Or maybe you’re just pointing out that they don’t get to pick out their own clothing and rely on whatever gets donated to the shelter. They probably didn’t attend that school or run in that 10k event, either.
Be Careful When Asking About Family
If they were on good terms with a relative, they’d probably be living there and not on the street. If they have someone that they’ve lost or can’t get in touch with, they will tell you. If they mention someone, the door is open for you to ask, but be prepared for whatever might be behind that door. You may get anger, or you may get tears.
Current Events and Media May Be Bad Topics
I know a number of homeless people who read the newspaper every day, and hang out in the library to read magazines and use the internet. If you know that to be the case, fire away. Otherwise, they may not know about the the big political issue, or the sports scores. They’re too busy trying to survive here and now to worry about disasters far away or things that don’t immediately effect them in any case.
Touch Means Everything
Because I am prone to respiratory infections, I am a borderline germophobe. If I had my druthers, I would never shake hands again in my life with anyone. That said, it’s not about me, and I offer my hand to anyone I think will shake it. The homeless are frequently made to feel less than human, even by the institutions that help them. A handshake, a touch on the shoulder, even a hug can give them back a little bit of their human dignity.
In General, Let Them Lead
Allow them to talk. They want someone to listen. Any topic they bring up is a safe topic. Just be engaged, and willing to follow wherever the conversation leads. You will be amazed at what you will learn.