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What Not To Say to a Homeless Person

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A silhouette of a man experiencing homelessness.

Every day, we encounter individuals from diverse demographics, including those without a home, which presents numerous physical and emotional hardships often stemming from complex socio-economic issues. The instability of homelessness can lead to difficulties in meeting basic needs and feelings of being unsafe or judged.

Interacting with people in such situations calls for kindness and empathy, as our words can significantly impact them—either positively or negatively. It’s crucial to treat everyone with empathy and respect, which involves connecting with their emotions and treating them kindly, irrespective of their circumstances.

Well-meaning comments can sometimes come across as pitying or judgmental, potentially causing harm or isolation. Instead of giving unsolicited advice or pretending to understand their situation fully, it’s better to offer support and understanding, aiming to connect and provide reassurance without judgment.

“Why Don’t You Just Get a Job?”

The notion that simply obtaining a job can solve homelessness is a gross oversimplification of a deeply complex issue. This perspective fails to acknowledge the myriad of factors that contribute to someone’s housing instability. 

For many, mental health challenges present significant obstacles, not only in securing employment but also in maintaining it over time. Physical disabilities can similarly limit job opportunities, as workplaces may not be accessible or accommodating, further narrowing the already limited options available.

Beyond individual circumstances, the broader societal issue of affordable housing plays a role. In many areas, the cost of living far outpaces the wages from available jobs, making it nearly impossible for some individuals to afford stable housing on their income alone. 

This situation is exacerbated by systemic barriers to employment, such as discrimination based on background, gaps in employment history, or a lack of access to education and training opportunities. These systemic issues are not easily navigated and certainly not quickly resolved by simply “getting a job.”

What To Do Instead

Given these complexities, suggesting employment as an easy solution can come across as dismissive and uninformed. A more helpful and compassionate approach is to offer an open ear. 

By inviting someone to share their story, without presumption or judgment, we acknowledge the individual’s dignity and the complexity of their situation. Listening provides valuable insight into the nature of their situation and allows for a connection that recognizes the person’s humanity beyond their current circumstances.

“Here’s What You Should Do…”

Offering unsolicited advice to someone experiencing homelessness, particularly to individuals who may not fully understand the depth and complexity of the situation, can come off as patronizing rather than helpful. 

It’s important to recognize that homelessness is not a monolithic experience; it varies greatly from one individual to another, influenced by a wide array of factors such as personal history, mental and physical health, and the availability of support systems. Therefore, what works as a solution for one person may not be applicable or effective for another. 

What To Do Instead

A more constructive and compassionate approach involves engaging in a respectful dialogue where the primary goal is to understand rather than to prescribe. Asking someone how you can assist them allows the individual to express their immediate needs and preferences, which you might be able to meet directly or through connecting them with local resources and services. 

Providing information about local shelters, food banks, healthcare services, and employment assistance programs, for example, should be done sensitively and only when it seems appropriate and welcomed. 

This method respects the autonomy and dignity of the person facing homelessness, acknowledging their right to make decisions about their own life and the type of support they wish to receive. 

“I Know Exactly How You Feel”

Making statements that imply you fully understand the struggles of someone experiencing homelessness can often feel hollow or disingenuous, especially if you have never faced such circumstances yourself. 

While empathy is a crucial element of support and compassion, overstepping by claiming understanding can inadvertently belittle the challenges that come with this individual’s current circumstances. 

What To Do Instead

A more thoughtful and effective way to offer support is by showing sincere concern and an openness to listen. This involves acknowledging the limits of your understanding while demonstrating a genuine interest in hearing about their experiences. 

By doing so, you’re not offering empty platitudes or quick fixes but rather extending a compassionate invitation for them to share their story on their terms. This approach does not presume to have all the answers. Instead, it signals respect for the individual’s autonomy and recognition of the complexity of their situation.

“It Must Be Nice Not Having to Pay Rent”

Comments that seem to downplay or romanticize the experience of living without stable housing do a disservice to the harsh realities faced by individuals in these situations. The security, safety, and comfort provided by a consistent place to call home are not just luxuries; they are essential foundations of well-being that most people rely on for their mental and emotional stability. To be without such stability is far from an enviable situation; it’s one fraught with challenges, uncertainties, and often, a relentless struggle for basic needs.

What To Do Instead

A more empathetic approach involves recognizing the adversity faced by those without stable housing and offering support in a manner that respects their resilience. Acknowledging the reality of their situation rather than diminishing it can foster a greater understanding and encourage actions that contribute positively to their circumstances.

It’s valuable to acknowledge the incredible resilience and resourcefulness required for someone to manage their day-to-day life under such precarious circumstances. Individuals experiencing homelessness often have to navigate a labyrinth of services for assistance, confront societal stigma, and deal with the physical and psychological toll of their uncertainty, all while trying to find a semblance of normalcy and dignity.

“You Look Too Young/Healthy/Smart to Be in This Situation”

Remarks that suggest homelessness is limited to specific demographics not only perpetuate damaging stereotypes but also starkly disregard the diverse and complex realities of those affected by housing instability. 

Homelessness does not discriminate. It can impact people of any age, from the very young to the elderly; it can affect individuals who are in poor health as well as those in good physical condition; and it encompasses people of all intellectual capabilities. 

These stereotypes can lead to oversimplified views of homelessness, often attributing it to personal failings or choices, rather than acknowledging the external factors that can lead anyone into such circumstances. By fostering such misconceptions, society risks reinforcing a cycle of stigma and misunderstanding that further isolates and marginalizes individuals experiencing homelessness.

What To Do Instead

Adopting a more constructive perspective means recognizing each person experiencing homelessness as an individual with their own story, challenges, and strengths, rather than viewing them through the distorting lens of stereotypes. 

This individual-centric approach encourages empathy and understanding, paving the way for meaningful support and assistance. It reminds us that behind the statistics and the stereotypes lie real people with hopes, needs, and the potential to thrive under different circumstances. 

By focusing on the individuality of each person, we can begin to dismantle harmful prejudices and work towards more compassionate and effective solutions to homelessness.

A child's legs and feet wearing worn out shoes

Understanding & Compassion in Our Conversations

Creating a compassionate community involves recognizing the complexities of homelessness and approaching those experiencing it with empathy and respect. By avoiding these common pitfalls in conversation, we can foster a more understanding and supportive environment for all members of our community.

Regeneration in Brampton, Ontario, has evolved from a modest 4-day breakfast initiative into a comprehensive support hub operating daily, addressing the practical and spiritual needs of those experiencing homelessness and vulnerability. 

Offering a wide range of services including essential care, health programs, and a Marketplace, Regeneration served nearly 40,000 meals, rescued 1 million pounds of food, and supported over 1,000 households each week in 2023. This growth, rooted in community support and Christian love, strives to restore hope and dignity. 

Despite Regeneration’s success, more help is needed to expand reach. By volunteering, donating, or raising awareness, you can contribute to this vital cause. Join us in making a difference for the most vulnerable in our community. Learn more and get involved–get in touch with us today

Written by Dan Gibson

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