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How to support unhoused neighbors in street encounters

October 11, 2022

As temperatures drop and the leaves begin to change, we anticipate another new turn of the season. For some, this time of year is exciting, filled with holiday celebrations and wintry family traditions. For others, like our unhoused neighbors, new challenges abound for maintaining safety and wellness.

What do we mean by people who are “unhoused,” and why do we use this term? Homelessness is a complex and nuanced human experience – which is exactly why we must consider the human at its center. In referring to these communities as “people experiencing homelessness” or our “unhoused neighbors” – rather than “homeless people” – we attempt to more accurately portray their situations while also using person-first and person-centered language. For example, some of the individuals our Street Outreach team works with may only be temporarily unhoused, not permanently homeless. There may also be a variety of personal reasons why some individuals choose not to seek out shelter, sometimes because of trauma or other personal experiences. Though we rarely think about it, language and word choice are incredibly important, and they shape how we view the world around us. In using this language, we choose to focus on our human clients rather than focusing on the condition of “others” in our society.

So, what can you do when you encounter someone who is experiencing homelessness? There are a variety of ways you can show support depending on your comfort level.

Sometimes, support can look like something very simple – even just saying “hello” can validate an individual’s personhood and impact their life.

“There’s power in treating people with the dignity they deserve,” said Street Outreach Program Supervisor David Katzenmeyer. “Just an acknowledgment can make a difference, like saying hi.”

Instead of “othering” our unhoused neighbors, we can view them as members of our community with their own lives, personalities, and struggles. Consider the ways you can humanize these neighbors as the winter months approach and living outdoors becomes more and more dangerous.

It is always a personal choice to extend money, food, or other supplies to a person living unhoused. Some particularly helpful materials items during this season are water, cold-weather gear, and socks – because people’s feet are more likely to get wet during these months, they are more likely to get sick. People Incorporated hosts a Socktober sock drive each year to address this need, and you can get involved by contacting Jeff DeSutter at jeff.desutter@peopleincorporated.org.

One important thing to note, said Katzenmeyer, is that you may not really know whether a person on the street is without shelter or not. You can always ask a person if there is anything in particular that they need or could use support with, giving them a chance to voice their needs for themselves. However, you shouldn’t ask this question if you aren’t prepared to respond to their voiced needs. If this is the case, it’s the perfect opportunity to direct your support instead to our team of professionals.

“While homelessness in cold months is a crisis, the system doesn’t have the resources to treat it that way,” said Katzenmeyer.

People Incorporated’s Street Outreach team do all they can to offer proactive support to those living unsheltered during the fall and winter seasons. If there’s a forecast of a blizzard or an extended period of below-freezing temperatures, they make sure to talk to individuals living outdoors, so they are at least aware of what’s coming – then, they feel empowered to make the best choice for themselves. There isn’t always shelter space for the individuals who want it, but our team tries their best to make connections to any available resources, especially with those neighbors experiencing more intense mental illness or substance abuse.

Apart from individual efforts, one of the most tangible ways to support our unhoused neighbors is through a gift to our Street Outreach team. Your contribution to this program can enable professionals to reach more individuals through direct, targeted, and personal methods.