Homelessness has become background noise

What a student can do to help those in need.

Why This Matters | Becky Gardner | January 25, 2016

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“Change for the homeless?”

The irony of this question resonates with me. The woman who sits on a crate outside of Whole Foods doesn’t ask for cash. She needs more than cash; she needs change. Real, substantial change. We as students have normalized her presence. Homelessness has become background noise.

This article is not a guilt trip. This school is full of good people. We want to help, but we’re not always sure how. In past experiences, when confronted by a person experiencing homelessness, I have found myself overwhelmed with feelings: confusion, misplaced fear, false assumptions, wrongful judgements, but, more than anything, a desire to help that is juxtaposed by my own uncertainty. It’s easier for us to ignore the person asking for change. But what if we didn’t? The purpose of this article is to offer a few suggestions for what a student can do on a daily basis to help those in need.

1. Treat every person with dignity.

All people are entitled to life with dignity simply because they are human. To live with dignity means that life is valued and respected. How do you show anyone– homeless or not, friend or stranger– that you value and respect their life? Acknowledge them. One of the most powerful ways to strip someone of their right to dignity is to ignore them. If you are approached, listen to what they have to say. Respond with sincerity. Communication is a basic need.

2. Keep people safe from extreme weather.

With two feet of snow on the ground, it’s important for people to get out of the cold. Washington D.C. has a legal obligation to find temporary housing for the homeless when the weather is below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Most people are unaware of this law, especially those in need of temporary housing. If you see someone who is sleeping in the cold, ask his or her name and if he or she has a place to stay. Explain the law, and ask if you can call a local shelter. If you call the number below, someone from a shelter will drive to the person in need to safety. Every student should have this number in his or her phone.



3. Be prepared to give.

Most shelters recommend that you offer ready-to-eat food when someone asks for your help. If you’re on your way to Whole Foods, ask if you can bring a meal on your way out. The depths of your backpack also hold items that make a difference: A granola bar. A tampon. An umbrella. I’m afraid I can’t offer a formula for “how to address homelessness” because that would assume all people experiencing homelessness have the same needs. This is why listening and connecting is important.  You can better understand what you can do.

Ending homelessness in its entirety requires social and political change greater than simple human kindness. The problem has been institutionalized into American society. That being said, there are things individuals can do to help someone make it through the day. Talking to a stranger in need can be nerve-racking. Find courage in the fact that you can help.


Have you ever bought a copy of Street Sense? Are you a part of a volunteer organization that addresses homelessness? Keep the conversation going. Share your thoughts. Share your advice. That, in itself, keeps homelessness out of the background.