What It Really Takes to Help a Chronically Homeless Person
Do you want to see the Seattle homeless crisis solved?
Do you want to help solve it?
Our 10-Step Process to Friendship with the Homeless
More taxes won’t fix our homeless crisis. More food, more health care, more job opportunities, more affordable housing – these are all good, but they won’t solve the homeless crisis either. Not for people who are chronically homeless, which is most of them.
For the ‘suddenly’ homeless it’s a different story. For them, those programs can be the difference, because some people find themselves unexpectedly without a home, often due to circumstances outside their control.
But for others, like the 35% of homeless people who admit to be hard-drug addicts (in a recent survey of actual homeless people), a new job or a meal won’t do anything.
If you want to see real progress in the fight against homelessness, you have to dig deeper. The only answer to long term escape from the streets is friendship. ‘Leading’ friendship. Discipleship. People who are willing to sacrifice their own comfort, go out there and build committed relationships with homeless people.
Friendship leads to trust. Trust leads to confidence. And confidence leads to action – from the homeless person’s own desires, not because we think they should want to change.
So how do you build a friendship with a homeless person? Here’s a 10-step path to helping a homeless person change their life.
Note – this is not an EASY 10-step path. But it’s the path that works. Taxes are easy, which is why they don’t work. Want evidence? The homeless count increases every year. There are more camps, more trash, more debris, and more people on the streets than ever before in Seattle. What the city is doing isn’t working. And it won’t work. But this will.
10 Steps to a Disciple-Like Friendship with the Homeless
1. Say Hi
How simple is this? And yet, how hard it is – how rare – that homeless people experience a simple greeting from people passing by. In fact, most people try very hard to do the opposite. They look away, look down, bury their faces in their phones – they do everything they can to not even notice the homeless man standing right there.
The movie Time Out of Mind showed this reality in dramatic fashion, when a famous, Oscar-nominated actor named Richard Gere stood out in Times Square in New York City, playing his role as a homeless man. Dozens of people walk right by him and don’t even notice who he is.
A famous actor. A face almost everyone would recognize. But because he was dressed as a homeless man and holding a cup asking for change, no one even saw him. Incredible image. To them, he’s invisible.
The first step to make an impression on a homeless person is really simple, but very powerful. Say ‘hi.’
2. Ask Questions – Show Interest
How do you start the first conversation? You don’t have to be clever. Just ask questions.
There are surface level introduction questions. How are you doing? How’s your day going? Are you from Seattle?
And there are relationship-building questions. Do you have family in the area? Where do you usually stay at night? Do you have any spiritual background?
But the best questions are ones that arise naturally in conversation. If they say something and you think of a question, ask it. This shows that you care, that you’re listening. It communicates that they matter to you, and that you’re interested in what they have to say.
3. Don’t Look Down On Them
The next three steps are what not to do. And this is important, because once you get a conversation going, you will feel all three of these urges. These thoughts will come to your mind, or the homeless person will outright ask you about them. But you have to resist, because the failure to resist these three urges is why connecting with homeless people is so hard and often goes nowhere.
First, don’t look down on them. And we mean this literally and socially.
Literally, don’t stand on ground that’s higher than them. They are used to being ignored, avoided, and treated as less than human. If you stand taller than them, you are reinforcing the relational dynamic they’re accustomed to, and they will feel like you’re talking down to them.
Socially, how you perceive them matters just as much. If your perception of the homeless person you’re talking to is that they are somehow less than you, that they’re a failure, or that their mistakes, problems, struggles, and weaknesses make them something ‘other’ than you as a human, they will detect this, and you will fail to connect.
This is a book-worthy concept, hard to understand and hard to master. But it’s the key to getting to step 7, which is where we need to get if we’re going to make a difference in their lives.
4. Don’t Try to Solve Their Problems
Just listen, understand, and empathize.
As a homeless person talks, you’ll see all kinds of ways you could help them. You know someone who might hire them for a job. You are an expert in some psychological struggle they’re having and want to counsel them. You can see they need to forgive an old friend or estranged family member. You can tell they need to stop drinking, get a bank account, go get medical help – the possibilities are endless.
You will see their needs, and the “solutions” will come to you as you’re talking. But don’t say any of these things to them!
Why not? Because you don’t know them yet. You’re just another person they’re talking to on the street. They get advice all the time. And insults. And their own self-talk saying the same stuff.
If they choose to trust you enough to open up about their struggles, just listen. Try to understand their side of it. Ask more questions. People need to feel understood – all people, not just homeless ones – before they’re interested in your solutions to their problems.
5. Don’t Meet Their Immediate Needs If They Ask
We have to be careful here, because this one can have some exceptions. But here’s a common scenario:
You get in a nice conversation with a homeless person. You have some rapport going. They’ve told you some of their story. But then, they make a request.
“I need some cash for the bus.”
“My tent got stolen.”
“I’d really like to stay in a hotel for a night.”
Again, the possibilities are endless. And they may be telling the truth. Some do lie though, and the point here isn’t to get into all that. The point is – you have motives for why you’re talking to them, but they have motives too.
Sometimes, their motives are to get something from you. And this is not a bad thing. To them, this can feel like survival. But friendship isn’t based on what you can do for me. And we’re looking for something more than just giving out a bunch of free stuff. We want to share the love of God with them, really get to know them for the long term, and the walk alongside them as they regain the confidence to change their lives.
Giving five bucks for the bus just doesn’t do anything. You’re free to do what you want, but at Babysteps we discourage this kind of action. It doesn’t build friendships. Instead, it positions you as the one who gives stuff away, and them as the one who can try to get something new each time they see you.
We give meals away as a means to start these conversations, so we already know we’ve met their most pressing need – a healthy meal.
6. Be Genuine
You don’t have to pretend to understand them, or to “get” street life. Just be yourself. You have a story too. You’ve had ups and downs. More than likely, you have a few things in common with them. But remember – just by talking to you, they’re getting something more valuable than what they experience for most of the day.
Be yourself, be real, and don’t be afraid of saying the wrong thing.
7. Follow Up – Ask to Meet Later
The next four steps are advanced–and require a lot more involvement than most people are used to. But if they sound interesting or exciting to you, contact us about receiving training. The types of relationships we build with our homeless friends can be much more intense and difficult to navigate than your typical relationship, which is why we require those who want to partner with us in this way to attend our advanced training.
One conversation is a nice experience for a homeless person. A change of pace. A brief escape from what they face on a daily basis. But it’s just one conversation.
The goal of what we call ‘relational discipleship’ is to take it beyond one conversation, and start building something. To do this, you need to follow up with them, outside a Relational Meal Event or other homeless ministry situation.
We’re talking one on one, just you and them. Casual. Take them out for coffee. Buy them lunch. Maybe invite them to something interesting, like the zoo or the Seattle Art Museum (we can help with this kind of stuff – just ask!).
Get their contact information, if possible. Set a date, a time, and a place. Confirm with them before the day arrives – ideally by speaking with them on the phone, but text is okay too. And they might cancel, because you are now treading on ground they don’t walk on very often:
Someone wants to hang out with me?
That’s unusual, so they may be a little nervous or fearful, and this might get the best of them so they cancel or stop responding. Don’t take it personally if this happens. But keep trying, and perhaps eventually they’ll respond again.
But whatever happens, if they’ve agreed to meet, this is a major breakthrough. You do not cancel your meeting with them. If you cancel, you have ended the relationship that could have formed, because it’s yet another letdown for them. So if something else comes up, you push it aside. This meeting is your #1 top priority for the time you’ve agreed to, and you cannot change it, or it won’t happen again with that person.
8. Build a Friendship
Step 7 is the key step in this whole process. If you are able to meet with the homeless person one on one, then you’ve now got the foundation for a real friendship. Keep meeting, keep hanging out, and get to know each other. Pretty soon, they’re not a homeless person anymore. They’re a friend, someone you just know. Someone you invite to stuff.
9. Share God’s Love
Self-worth and value are so important. To really help a homeless person change their lives, they need to know God’s love for them. They need to know how much they matter, their inherent value as people made in God’s image. They need to know he can change them, inside and out.
When you have a friendship with a homeless person, you can talk about this, and minister to them. And they’ll be interested because they’ll know you’re for real. Now, this step might happen back in step 2, or in your first one on one meeting, and that’s fine. If God is part of your life, it is only natural to talk about him. But this is the source of any lasting transformation.
10. Walk With Them as They Take the Hard Steps to Change
Finally, as your relationship deepens, they will feel a new sense of confidence and hope for their lives, something they may not have known for many years (again – this 10 step approach is for the chronically homeless, who have very different perspectives on life than people who just lost housing last week).
But this new hope and confidence will motivate them to want a different kind of life. Now, they’ll want to take risks again, like gaining job skills, or getting counseling, or restoring a broken relationship from the past, or accessing services that can help them.
Now, they will want to take these steps (baby steps!) because they want a better life. Not because you, or the city, or the annoyed neighbors and business owners, or anyone else thinks they should want them.
Ending Homelessness Takes Commitment and Love
And that’s how you get permanent freedom from the streets. That’s our process for ending homelessness. It is not fast. It is not easy. It is not a program.
But for people who’ve been on the streets many years, this is the only way we’ve seen that works. And it has worked.
If you visit the Our Homeless Friends page, you can read stories of real homeless people who have escaped the streets and been impacted by our ministry.
If you like what you’ve read, and want to minister to homeless people in Seattle, come out to a Relational Meal Event. Fill out the form and we’ll give you details.
But your best first step is to come to a volunteer training event, where you’ll learn a lot more about how to do what you’ve read about here.