Initial homeless outreach efforts were simple and straightforward for us. When you see someone on the street who looks like they need help, approach them safely and without aggression, call out to them in greeting, shake their hand, ask if they’d like a snack, reach into your “goodie bag” and pull out a bottle of water and breakfast bar, enjoy a few more pleasantries, shake hands again and move on. Actually if that describes what you do, that’s pretty awesome! If, however, you would like to expand on that, there are always tips to be learned from others. If you listen or follow the activities of others on one of the social networks, you’ll find many things to add to your outreach arsenal if you’re so inclined.
For instance, water is great. The body needs water more than anything else and lack thereof is going to adversely affect anyone. Water is very, very important. Blue and I finally got a cooler on wheels we could take on outreaches to save our backs because we didn’t want to shorten the water supply nor did we want to walk hunched over for the following week. We still use breakfast bars with a higher nutritional value, and make sure plenty are peanut butter flavored as that’s the top pick amongst most people, and vitamin-rich fruit snacks. Boiled eggs provided in simple snack bags is great for added protein, and powdered milk or dry creamer in a small marked package is also handy, since it can be mixed with the water, and the breakfast bar softened by that mixture helps for chewing. I’m told that’s pretty tasty!
Canned foods are okay too if they have a pull top lid and can be eaten cold. Packs of crackers and cheese, peanut butter, or non-perishable meats are also great choices.
Some things that are also very popular are the rain ponchos you can get for less than $1.50 each at most stores. They won’t keep a person warm necessarily, but they will keep them dry. Hand warmers are never turned away, especially in Minnesota! In the summer, mosquito repellent is also a good idea. Socks, gloves, hats and scarves are good to have on hand for winter. Hand sanitizer is good any time of year.
Toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant and other hygiene products are very welcomed by most. Some hygiene products can be on the expensive side, especially when you’re on a tight budget yourself, but if you go out and buy a large quantity at a wholesale store when you have a little extra cash, it will be nice to add as a special give-away not every time you go out, but maybe every other month or so.
Other special outreaches may include winter coats, sleeping bags, sheets and blankets, pillows and even boots. These are all hard to carry, but as the weather cools, more people will gravitate to the shelters and if you have the means, please donate large items to a few shelters in your area.
Food shelves rarely turn away any food items you bring in. Don’t forget about them! And they usually have an affiliation with a place that provides small appliances, dishes, and other household items to those who may need items to start out living in a new apartment, either free of charge or at a greatly reduced cost. Umbrellas, alarm clocks and diapers are also great items to give.
Something we also started doing was to print out maps with locations of shelters, and lists of places providing referrals or other services. If we find a veteran who is homeless, we can ask if he gets any benefits, and if not, we can refer him to the proper place to meet with someone in Veteran Affairs. If we meet a pregnant woman on the street who needs medical care, we can advise her on the best place to go for a check-up, referral and proper food and shelter referrals. If someone is disabled, we can also give them a resource to find out of Social Security benefits could help them out. If someone is under the age of 18, we can refer them to a child-focused center. We know where/when a person can get a haircut, shower, do laundry, get a locker to rent ($5/month), shelter to sleep at night, free breakfasts, lunches and dinners at different places, food care, dental care, medical care, and treatment options for anyone with mental health or substance abuse issues.
The point is, if you learn whatever you can ahead of time, and write it down or make a map of it, print it out and list addresses, phone numbers and names, you can be that person that connects them with the professional that can help to change their life–Just with a little information on a piece of paper.
We also try to emphasize safety and ask people that if they have been threatened or harassed, we hope they will report it: to the police, to a shelter worker, or to us. There’s much violence focused on the vulnerable homeless community.
We humans are all in this together, and any of us could be one freak accident or crisis away from the streets ourselves. Most of you do all these things already, but even if you already know all of this and are nodding, maybe there’s someone new that has a question you could answer for them, or ask them if they have your local information if they are new to homeless outreach.
And remember, a human touch, smile, mention of their given name, affirmation that they are valuable… that emotional offer of help and healing can be as nourishing for the soul as water and food to the body.