I’m breaking out of routine a bit this morning, because I’ve received a lot of questions about how to approach, talk to, and help people experiencing homelessness. Every day is a new challenge, but when you work with people experiencing homelessness, poverty, and addiction, the challenges are worth facing. They are people. They have names and faces and stories. They’ve been used, abused, manipulated and mistreated. They are not court jesters or dancing monkeys existing for our entertainment or benefit.
I approach every single interaction with my people with the same mindset:
1. Assess the situation. Beginning with my senses (what can I see, hear, smell, etc.?), I make an assessment. When I have ensured the safety of the people present (including myself), I ask the individual for their story.
I find out what they feel their immediate needs are, because so long as they are in a condition to provide consent, they are in the driver’s seat. If I feel as though they may be experiencing unmet mental health needs, or if they may be mentally altered by substance use, I might ask leading questions such as “Okay, I hear that you need a cigarette. I see that you don’t have any shoes on. Do you need some help with some shoes today?”
2. Repeat and ask permission. When I have assessed what the needs are, I will verbally repeat them to the individual to make sure I have it right. I explain in detail what I would like to do and I ask permission to proceed.
3. Do the work. If permission is granted, I do what we discussed. If permission is denied, I offer information about relevant resources and move on.
At no point do I dictate what an individual must do, nor do I attach conditions to anything. I provide support and assistance without judgement. I offer suggestions when applicable, and when the individual is receptive to them.
Never forget that I love you, and that excludes no one.