Oh crap, he’s approaching me. What do I do? Walk faster, walk faster!!
Phew. I managed to walk in the other direction just in time.
Now there’s a woman without legs! I can’t just walk away from her. Ugh… I’m already late to work. Never mind.
This is a scenario that’s been played out thousands of times in my life. Walking the streets on my way somewhere, I was just too “busy” to notice or care.
In fact, I used to discriminate against 7 different types of people just so I could go about my business.
But thanks to some friends and truth, my views began to radically shift. I decided to engage the homeless more often.
Sherlock Holmes. Who doesn’t like him? When we were children, we all wanted to become detectives at some point. Sure Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jr. Have brought this legendary character to our attention.
Constantly running into these people has taught me how to become a bit like Sherlock Holmes. I can analyze situations pretty quickly to judge whether or not I should stay or go away.
Since then, I’ve come away with many experiences but also some basic rules to keep you safe for when you engage those less fortunate than you are.
Here are your Do’s and Don’ts to engage the homeless and come away safe.
Rule No. 1 Do ask and listen to their story…
Everyone has a story to share. The problem is more often than not they have no one who is willing to listen.
My first homeless friend John was a former computer scientist who got laid off and simply was never able to get back into the industry.
I met him while giving out PB & J’s with my friends at South Station in Boston. Since then I made it a point to come a bit early before whatever bus I was taking to get home to spend a few minutes talking. He was lonely and like all humans, needed human interaction. All he got was being yelled at by the cops and his friend Wayne who could barely walk let alone talk. He did keep himself busy with newspapers and was always reading.
He told me stories about the hierarchy of the homeless community. Stuff I never thought I would ever hear. There was always this lady named Mary that really pushed his buttons. He pointed to her while looking at me and said, “You see that? She’s a vulture. Always going around begging from others and has no decency. She’s crazy. But me, no, I’m not crazy!”
Stories like this made me smile and opened my mind to the fact that even within the “margins” of society we’re still human. I even gave him my number three times so he could get in touch.
*Big disclaimer. I heavily advocate the buddy system when going out and doing this sort of stuff. I personally am always alone, and I have never gotten attacked, but the more the merrier.
Don’t Believe Everything They Say
My parents raised me in a strict “honesty is the best policy” type of environment. Lying is a cover up, and eventually you’ll have to cover up your lies.
In a weird way, this has made me too honest and believing of people in general. But eventually after dealing with dozens of people I learned to discern stories and listen with a grain of salt.
You might think it’s common sense but the truth is, some of the stories they tell are SO painful to listen to, it makes you want to give them the keys to your house then and there.
Something I’ve learned is that these guys are storytellers, and they have mastered their craft. Considering they are usually on the sidewalk all day, they get plenty of practice reciting their story and making it more convincing. Sure not all the details may always line up, but it’s just so devastating our brains freak out.
All they need is your sympathy and then follow the few coins in their bucket and they’re able to find the next victim.
Rule No. 2 Do Give Them Food.
Without proper nutrition, humans cannot properly function. Without oil, cars can’t run. You get the picture.
Air, Water, Food, Shelter, Sleep are the five basic most necessary needs to human survival. Unfortunately, the only one we all have access to readily is air. The homeless have to scavenge for food, fight for shelter and struggle to sleep.
A final point is that EVERY human being no matter what race, gender, religion, must eat and drink. It’s also worth saying that not only are these things necessary, but they are satisfying.
This is why giving food is so important! We don’t live in forests anymore where we can pick berries and hunt deer for dinner. Having sustenance will ensure survival for at least another day.
Of course, there’s also Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Time to play Sherlock.
Okay, so you meet a homeless person and he doesn’t want food. What do you do?
It happens often and this is when things get really fun. What people want can tell you a lot about them and their motives.
Remember that one of the principles of loving out loud is to ask questions with listening ears but also to make time. Instead of just walking past someone in need, let them tell you what they want. The problem is what people want isn’t always what they necessarily need.
On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in order from least to most important we have the following needs: physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, self-actualization. Food is physiological, but we can also take the time to love them through conversation and speak with them.
One of the nicest things a homeless person said to me was, “thanks for taking the time to treat me like a real human.”
But even then, always take what they say with a grain of salt. When I give you the context in which he said that, you’ll know he was quite the actor.
Don’t give them money (at least not all the time.)
In general, my personal policy is to not give them money. It’s not because I’m cheap and Asian (although I am both) but because I prefer them enjoying a meal. Like I said above, physiological needs are higher up on the hierarchy of needs.
I remember a man once asking my friend for some money to buy a ticket. Straight away I told him, “Sure, where you going. I can buy the ticket for you right now.”
He froze and refused. The man wasn’t expecting someone would actually take him up on his offer. “No that’s too much. I just need a few bucks.”
I said, “No it’s ok!” But he began to walk away so my friend just pulled whatever change he had in his pocket.
Let’s analyze a bit. If you truly needed a ticket, what would have been the normal reaction? You probably would have accepted my offer and saved the money you already had for whatever else you needed.
But on top of that, don’t be afraid to give!!
There’s the common argument that says, “Well you don’t know what he’s going to use the money for! He could use it on drugs or…”
If you find it in your heart to give, don’t let that stop you, even if you know the money may not be going to something you see as useful.
When you give some one a present, is it yours? It may have been in your possession at one point, but now it’s in the hands of another. What the person does with that is their business. Same thing with money.
Rather than freaking out and wondering how they’ll spend it, sometimes it’s better to just give and not ask questions.
Here’s the kicker, I personally operate under the belief that nothing I own is my own. The money in my wallet isn’t mine, so when I give it, I shouldn’t worry whether or not I will get it back.
Took me awhile to begin thinking that way, but sit on that one.
Rule No. 3 Do Be Cautious With Your Belongings
Crime is real, but it doesn’t mean it has to happen to you.
Something I’ve noticed from the people that get robbed in my life, it’s often because they were walking with headphones or simply not paying attention.
To avoid getting jumped you must always look like the following things: you know what you’re doing, and you’re not lost.
Have a dumbfounded look on your face, or look like you’ve lost your way is like wearing a neon sign saying “rob me” to trained eyes.
Don’t refuse to touch them or shake their hand. (THAT’S THE CASTE SYSTEM)
Let’s face it. You and I BOTH know that beggars and the homeless aren’t usually the cleanness people around.
That blackened hand, and those smelly clothes though. I know…
But at the same time, if we truly believe people are equal, we should never be afraid to go in for a handshake or give them a hug. Even if it creeps us out because that’s the caste system!
How would you feel if someone wouldn’t touch you because of how they felt about you?
Yeah, not good is the right answer.
You won’t get sick from touching a beggar, and if your clothes get dirty, so what? At least you have clean water to wash it with.
If you told me to just go up to someone and give them a hug, I probably wouldn’t. As human beings, it’s true, this sort of crazy love takes practice.
Rule No. 4 Do Everything With Wise and Sound Judgment.
I truly believe in loving on people, but we should never forget that being a beggar, peddler, etc. is a real profession! Learning how to con people is an art.
One day a lady claimed she needed money for her baby and rent. BUT she lived with her aunt and sister (who was next to her). The lady telling me the story was blond white and her sister was hispanic. She said everything so quickly it was obviously rehearsed. It was a compelling story, but the deal breaker was I could smell the alcohol under her breath.
Another time a lady asked for money, I said let’s buy something to eat, instead she brought me to the grocery store. Bad idea. I didn’t have the heart to stop her, and she filled the cart. I’m embarrassed to say how much I actually ended up spending that day.
The lesson here is be wise… The disclaimer is, you will win some and lose some, but you’ll be ok when all’s said and done. As mentioned above, try to use the buddy system whenever possible. I realize gender may be a factor.
Be wise, but don’t be afraid.
This is probably number one! Of course, you can’t give to everyone. But don’t run the other way.
I have a list that I personally tend to avoid like the plague from security workers, janitors, and the homeless. It’s quite sad if you ask me.
In fact you can see read my personal list here.
So… Why are people on the streets anyway?
I don’t mean to play the blame game but…
It’s because of people like us. People that didn’t care about their neighbors when they had a roof over their head.
if you’re in a place of love and abundance why on earth would you leave?
It’s because their life on the streets is better than when they had a home.
Would you or anyone you know run to a worse situation? People don’t migrate away from opportunity.
They run towards it. And for them, opportunity meant living in public spaces, where at least they gained recognition and pity from passersby. There’s also a community of others JUST like them, with whom they can share all their problems and live with.
Isn’t that what everyone wants? Recognition and community.
There’s so much we can do, and so many ways we can love the world better.
Sometimes all we need to do is just start a conversation.
But after reading this, I’m sure you can engage the homeless. This is crazy, but be intentional and leave the house 10 minutes early.
You’re ready and prepared. Thoughts?
If you’re curious for more personal stories, that’s going to be the next post so be on the lookout.