Recently, the local news has been abuzz with the story of a Santa Monica City Councilmember escalating a random encounter with a person experiencing homelessness and acting erratically on the Promenade. Rather than elevate this story, Next would prefer to write about the best ways to interact with people experiencing homelessness.
A note, advocates and professionals we talked to in the Santa Monica community preferred not to comment for this story because they didn’t want to be part of the discussion of this particular incident. Fortunately, the Internet is full of trusted sources who offer guides for people looking to help someone experiencing homelessness but aren’t certain the best way to approach.
The largest piece of advice is to stay safe, and if one feels the person is a danger to themself or others to call for professional help, not the police unless you feel that violence is imminent. The Coalition for the Homeless is very clear about this and simply advises, “Call 911 and request medical assistance.”
If you do decide to interact with the person because you believe both that it is safe to do so and you believe the intervention can help the person experiencing homelessness; the local advocacy group Invisible People has a list of five ways to start a conversation, which includes the icebreakers “saying hello,” “asking the person’s name,” or asking if there’s something you can do for the person.
“From a simple “hello” to a “what do you need today?”, there are many things you can say to try and connect with a homeless person you meet, however much or little you want to engage at that moment.,” writes Kayla Robinson at Invisible People to any good-hearted person who might find themselves tongue-tied in the moment.
But what’s most important is that you treat the person you are speaking to with respect, the same way you would any other person you might meet. Approaching them in a challenging or aggressive manner will likely provoke them, as it would anyone.
“The person you meet may be a battered woman, an addicted veteran, or someone who is lacking job skills . . . sadly, the possibilities are endless,” says Union Rescue Mission on their website.
URA is based in Los Angeles and has a resource guide for taking things further with ways one can help a person experiencing homelessness. Having a card with information on local resources that one can hand people after engaging in conversation can be a help. As can offering food, water or socks. This can be especially powerful if one is a city official, elected official or has a position of power or prestige in the community.
Remember, everyone experiencing homelessness has had different experiences and faces different challenges so there isn’t a magic way to introduce yourself to someone you are meeting on the street be they docile, active or are having a mental health episode at the moment. For example, some advocates urge people not to give someone experiencing homelessness cash as it could be used to purchase drugs or alcohol. Others argue that someone asking for cash is likely doing so because they need cash for essential purchases and if one chooses to provide cash that is their personal choice.
However, there is near-universal agreement that escalating the situation or engaging in behavior that makes someone feel threatened will both make things more difficult for the person experiencing homelessness and the person making the intervention.