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Tips for Helping New Yorkers Experiencing Homelessness

So many of us want to connect with our neighbors on the streets or subways, but feel lost and unsure about what to do. How do you know what is helpful and what is hurtful? While there are no easy answers, these tips can provide a framework for meaningful, respectful engagement.

 


 

Tip #1: Acknowledge & Engage

Homelessness brings a sense of loneliness that can erode a person’s self-worth. Unfortunately, many people living on the streets or in the subways have grown accustomed to being ignored, looked down on or treated with disrespect.

Begin by simply acknowledging the people you encounter in the street or subway. Smile, say hello, introduce yourself, ask their name (“What do your friends call you?”) and begin a simple conversation. If the person signals they aren’t interested in talking, respect their wishes. Sometimes we all need some privacy and it’s possible the person just wants some space.

If the person is open to conversation, ask unintrusive questions, show interest, listen and learn something new. Many of our neighbors crave conversation, and something as simple as a friendly exchange can make a big difference.

Top Tip: If a person is sleeping, don’t wake them up. Sleep is a precious commodity for anyone living on the streets or in the subway. The kindest thing you can do is leave the person uninterrupted.

 


 

Tip #2: Respect Personal Boundaries

This includes both your boundaries and theirs.

*Show respect by keeping physical space. Don’t touch the other person or ask overly personal questions. Don’t make them feel trapped by approaching them with a group, or hovering over them where they’re sitting on the ground or sidewalk. Always ask for permission before kneeling or sitting down next to someone.

Show yourself the same respect by upholding the same standards. It's probably not a good idea to give out your personal information, like your address or phone number, to anyone unless you already have an established relationship. If the person asks you a question you don’t want to answer, or asks you for something you don’t want to give, don’t be afraid to be honest about your boundaries. It’s perfectly fine to say “no” or “I can’t/won’t do that.”

Both parties should feel free to disengage anytime someone feels uncomfortable or threatened. Just kindly explain that you need to go and say goodbye.

*Keeping physical distance is particularly important given the COVID-19 pandemic. Join us in caring for the health and safety of our New York neighbors by wearing a mask and maintaining six feet of distance at all times.

 


 

Tip #3: Offer Critical Items

Sometimes, a person just needs tangible support to get through the day. If someone approaches you for help, be prepared to respond with something useful. Consider asking them if they would like one of the following items:

  • toiletries or practical care items, like a hygiene kit or travel size items
  • new socks
  • packaged food items, like granola bars or bottled water
  • gift card to fast food or grocery store chain
  • Metrocard
  • clean T-shirt (in summer)
  • gloves, scarf, knit hat, coat or blanket (in winter)

Be respectful: always ask if the items would be helpful, rather than giving someone something they may not actually want or need. If the person welcomes your gift, you can combine it with The Bowery Mission’s resource card, which has information on how to get to the Mission and what type of help they can find there.

What about cash? It’s complicated, but cash is rarely the best thing you can offer someone. Giving money away can create an awkward power dynamic that can start your relationship off on the wrong foot. If you don’t feel comfortable giving out cash, it’s OK to be honest and say so: “I’m sorry, but I don’t give money to strangers.” Another great option is to purchase something small and specific the person has requested at the closest drugstore or restaurant.

Top Tip: Pick up some resources cards from our Bowery or Tribeca locations, or print out several of our resource cards to have on hand next time you meet someone in need. Many people have found hope and healing at The Bowery Mission because a friendly stranger directed them to our doors.

 


 

Tip #4: Give Without Expectation

Sometimes, good intentions may not be reciprocated. If you receive a negative response, keep in mind that New Yorkers experiencing homelessness are dealing with one crisis after another. They likely aren’t sleeping well and may even be chronically hungry. They may be sick or feeling anxious, threatened or depressed. In all likelihood, life has brought them obstacles that make it a great deal harder to match your own good will.

If you choose to talk to someone or offer them something, enter into the conversation without expectations. A person may not mirror your own feelings, experiences or beliefs — that’s OK. They may not respond on your own terms — that’s also OK. Usually, the most meaningful generosity is that which comes with no strings attached.

 


 

Tip #5: Educate Yourself on Crisis Response

If someone is visibly unwell, agitated or acting erratically, do not extend the conversation. Politely excuse yourself, recognizing there is limited opportunity for meaningful engagement in that moment.

On rare occasions, a person may appear completely out of control or volatile. To prepare for these one-off incidents, educate yourself on crisis response. Depending on the severity of the situation, it may be appropriate to call 311 or 911. But always use good judgement. Calling is only appropriate when a person presents a clear and present danger to themselves or others. If someone is simply talking to himself or rummaging through a trash can, it is possible that calling for help unnecessarily could make things worse and not better.

If you think a person may not be breathing or their lips are blue, loudly say “excuse me!” Call 911 immediately if they appear to be unresponsive.

 


 

Tip #6: Pray

Sometimes, there is only so much you can do to make a positive impact in a one-off encounter. But in these moments, you can always pray.

Ask the person you're speaking with if you can say a brief prayer for them before parting ways. If they say, "yes," pray with your eyes open and keep it short. If they say, "no" just thank them for their honesty and pray by yourself or with your friends as you walk away.

Pray for your neighbors. Pray that their physical needs are met. But also pray for their emotional and spiritual needs. Pray they find the hope and encouragement they need to get through the day. Pray, too, that they find the long-term resources and connections they need to make progress toward health, wellness, stability and long-term housing.

Remember, too, that you’re not alone. So many organizations, like The Bowery Mission, are working to make a difference for our neighbors experiencing homelessness — and we’re stronger when we work together. Read on to learn how you can join our community in bringing about change.

 

Special thanks to Josiah Haken, Chief Program Officer at our partner New York City Relief, for sharing his expertise and insights on this topic.

 

Other Ways to Help

 

  • Give Financially

    Your gift today, whether large or small, can open new doors for New Yorkers in crisis — whether that’s through immediate hospitality like meals and shelter or long-term services like clinical counseling and career support. Just $1.59 provides a complete, nourishing meal for a New York neighbor in need. A $25 gift provides safe overnight shelter, shower, clean clothing, and meals.

    Thank you for caring about helping our neighbors experiencing homelessness!

  • Donate Items

    The Bowery Mission is also honored to have become a place where people experiencing homelessness know they can go for needed items like food, clothing, and toiletries. If you donate our most needed items, we can guarantee they will be redistributed to people who need them the most. You can read more about our current donation needs.

    Thank you for caring about helping our neighbors experiencing homelessness!

  • Volunteer

    The Bowery Mission is a place where people experiencing homelessness know they can come to for support. Every day, we serve hundreds of people who come to us seeking food, overnight shelter, and other services. But to keep operations running, we are always in need of faithful volunteers to help us do what we do. Learn more about volunteering today.

    Thank you for caring about helping our neighbors experiencing homelessness!

  • Advocate

    Often, one of the biggest barriers to bringing about change is misunderstanding. Stereotypes and stigmatization make it hard for people to work together. Learn about the different paths that lead to homelessness. Every person living on the streets has his or her own story. If you’re able, share what you learn with your friends, family and colleagues. You can even start by reposting information from @bowerymission.

    Thank you for caring about helping our neighbors experiencing homelessness!

 

How we help

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