If you’ve spent time walking around in any major city, you’ve probably noticed encampments beneath overpasses or clusters of makeshift cardboard shelters in city parks—and of course, the people in them. And if you thought to yourself, with sadness or concern, that their numbers seemed to be rising, you’d be correct. According to a US Department of Housing and Urban Development report, 2020 marked the fourth year in a row that homelessness increased across the nation.
Nowhere is this problem more pronounced or visible than in California, which has the largest overall population and the largest homeless population of any state in the country. In January of 2020, the homeless population of California was estimated at 161,548 individuals.
Of those, approximately 9,709 were recorded in Santa Clara County alone. Notably, this staggering number was reported before the COVID-19 pandemic caused widespread financial and employment crises for many people. Experts generally agree that things have only gotten worse since then—and will continue to do so if the problem isn’t addressed.
Homelessness is a complex issue. A person experiencing a homeless crisis is just that: a person. And, like all people, they each have different stories and an array of reasons why they are experiencing a homeless crisis. Addiction, mental illness, catastrophic events, family violence, and loss of employment are among the many causes of homelessness.
With local and state governments struggling to pass and implement policies to address these problems on a broad scale, many local nonprofits and private citizens have stepped up to support people in need. However, given the continued impact of the pandemic and the deep-rooted systemic causes of poverty and homelessness, these efforts are not enough.
The question of how to help a homeless person is not always easy to answer. While some general suggestions are outlined below, the best place to begin is by remembering the humanity of each homeless person you encounter.
Fortunately, we all have the power to make a difference in our communities. Below are a few ideas for ways you can help people in need:
- Donate gently used household goods. From clothing to kitchen utensils to cars, you’d be surprised at the number of items that can be useful to other people. Check with your local homeless shelter to see what they need or any items they can’t accept. You can also contact organizations that operate thrift stores that sell goods to finance services to help those in need and support rehabilitation and employment programs.
Some people have also taken to preparing kits for homeless people, including clean socks, snacks, or toiletries (among other things) and handing them out when they encounter someone in need on the street. If you’re comfortable doing so, consider asking the people you meet what they need most.
- Donate money or time. Most nonprofits rely heavily on funds from donors and welcome financial contributions of any size. If you’re unable to donate cash, volunteer a few hours of your time. Contact homeless shelters or food banks in your area to see if they need volunteers.
- Treat them like people. The Homeless are often shunned or experience discrimination—both of which can be incredibly dehumanizing. There’s also a dark history of violence against homeless people, which can cause them to resist assistance and interaction. Also, many people experiencing a homeless crisis suffer from mental health or substance abuse, both of which are highly stigmatized.
- Support policy changes. While providing resources to people in need is essential, it’s also crucial to understand that this is simply treating the symptoms rather than addressing the problem. Addressing various social issues, including poverty, racism, substance abuse, and mental health care are the root of the problem. Educate yourself on the legislation in your city or state that supports affordable housing initiatives, and make sure you show up to vote in local elections.
Since 1948, the mission of The Society of Saint Vincent de Paul of Santa Clara County is to help struggling families and individuals—whether their struggle is with homelessness, maintaining housing, food insecurity, healthcare, utilities or other issues. People in need can find local assistance and services depending on their location. In the spirit of its founder, SVdP treats all individuals with dignity, compassion, and love. To support their efforts at healing the Santa Clara County community, consider volunteering or donating.