What do the homeless want from us?

by Renee Crosby

CoverAre you getting a visual of a panhandler on a street corner with a cardboard sign inscribed with something close to “anything helps?” Have you ever thought to wonder what they really want? Most of us, me included, assume they want us to open the window and hand them a few bucks. Which most of us won’t do, because we assume they will just use it to go buy another “bottle.” In the city I used to live in, one mayor even put up signs on the corner where panhandlers often worked that said, “Don’t give to panhandlers, it only feeds their addiction.”
OK, I get that. But can we move beyond that image? Let’s just take money off the plate. What else could that sign mean? What could possibly help? What do they want from us?
In my book The Fringe—A Secret Society, one of the true stories shared is about a homeless man named Ralph. As a do-gooder, a woman engages in conversation to learn this man’s name—Ralph, and then he asks for help. He asks for her to run to the grocery and get a few items for him. The list did not include alcohol by the way.
But, she had grandiose ideas for Ralph. She wanted to shower him with a listening ear and share a meal with him at the restaurant that was right next door to where they were. She was sure he was probably lonely and would enjoy some company and some conversation, and some good grub!
Only Ralph refuses, stating that if he ate that good food, then when his next meal that came out of a can was eaten he would be real disappointed. It would only remind him of what he couldn’t have on a regular basis.
So what did Ralph want? Perhaps he only wanted food. He only wanted some basic needs met. But perhaps it was more. Perhaps he wanted someone to just ask and say his name. Perhaps someone saying his name validated his basic human need for acknowledging his existence. It’s what I describe in my book as intentional dignity giving (IDG).
Homeless people are not invisible, so quit acting like they are. You can give them dignity by asking their name, and saying hello. You can just roll down your window and say, hey man. What’s your name? Then say, well, “John” I want to wish you well today.
In answer to the question, what do the homeless want from us, many just want a friendly hello, or a smile. Don’t just fixate your eyes forward hoping to avoid eye contact with them. By George, acknowledge them. Uncomfortable—maybe?
But power through. If you feel like a dork, just open your window to “chat.” Then get beyond it and give it a purpose. Hi, what’s your name? Hi, “John.” I don’t have any extra money today, but I have a bottle of water. Or, I have a new toothbrush and toothpaste. Or, I have a book here I finished reading if you want it. You get the picture?
Does this take the heat off you? Can you maybe now look them in the eye and say hi? The homeless want you to acknowledge them and maybe even give them a bit of dignity by not judging them and ignoring them.


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