A couple of notes on engaging with our neighbors on the streets....
Saying hello can be just as valuable as giving someone something. It all depends where someone is in the moment, but saying hello is never a bad thing. One thing to let go of is needing validation for your hello. In this situation, I'd say you're not saying hello to get a hello or smile back (although that may seem counter intuitive) but to lay a brick of foundation for that individual to be seen. On the street when walking by, I try to smile and maybe give a small wave. It takes no time at all. Sometimes people will smile back. Sometimes they won't. If not, don't take it personally. You may have caught them off guard. Likely, they're having a worse day than you on possibly no sleep in the cold and wet. It's hard to be cheerful.
When people ask for money and I don't have any or don't want to give any, I always respond instead of ignoring them, "I'm sorry, not today". My personal anxiety is around not sounding TOO chipper with this message but also not being hurried or sounding frustrated. What works for me is simply giving a smile while I deliver the message. Israel Bayer who was the ED of Street Roots for many years used to say he'd give a dollar to the first person he saw each morning then that's it. He knew he couldn't give cash to everyone and that's ok. But acknowledging someone is important even if it might feel mean. And they may be grumpy about it. That's ok, they are probably having a worse day than you. It's not personal. And more often and not I hear, "Thank you, have a blessed day." You've probably heard the phrase, "If at all possible, be kind" (or something like it). This aligns well with that concept.... you can choose to ignore or be annoyed, but if you can be kind, may as well do so as it doesn't cost a dime.
Moving beyond a smile or wave might be engaging in a conversation. For those who are tentative or shy about this I'd recommend starting in your own neighborhood or community. Is there someone you see regularly at the grocery store? On a street corner? Are they camping in a park?
There's a fellow named Dennis who some of you might know/know of who was homeless in Arbor Lodge for many, many years. I met him one bitterly cold morning after I'd done a mobile run the night before so my car still had tons of gear. I saw he and his friend Li digging in the trash in front of the Old Gold so I rolled down my window - this is also in broad daylight on Killingsworth. I asked them if they needed blankets, "Hey, do you think you guys could use some blankets? I have a few in my car...". They were somewhat shocked but said yes. I pulled over and got out. Then I asked if they needed flashlights? Yes. Boots? Yes. I geared them up and asked where they were staying so I could check on them. Turns out they were living nearby behind some dumpsters - it was truly awful, stinky, rat infested. They lived there for a few months more until that area was fenced off and apartments were built (corner of Killingsworth & Greeley). But I developed a friendship with Dennis and (very) long story short, he's now in VA housing in Vancouver. That relationship was based on that one effort that morning when I offered him something he needed and showed him that I saw him. It took time to build trust. That very first day I visited them at the dumpster Dennis told me all he wanted was to get his son's phone number and could I help? He'd lost his wallet that had the paper in it. I tracked down his daughter in law on Facebook and heard back from her a few weeks later. One of my happiest moments was handing him the piece of paper with his son's phone # on it. He was over joyed. But that simple act that didn't take me very long solidified that I was someone that was truly looking out for him. That I wasn't going to abandon him.
This is a photo of Dennis and I out on the street together and then at his apartment in Vancouver.
So for those in your neighborhood you may carry some items in your car... warm socks, small flashlights (they sell these for $1 at Walmart), a warm blanket (goodwill bins is a great place for these, just be sure to wash them before distributing). Then when you see your neighbor at the local grocery or in the park you can say, "Hey, I've seen you here before. My name's Abby, I live just up the street. I have some socks and blankets in my car, do you think you could use those?"
As mentioned during our conversation, often we're less concerned about that initial ask or offer and more concerned about what happens after. What if you ask 'How are you?' and they say 'I'm terrible. I'm freezing at night. I'm sick. The cops swept all my stuff.' I think of this similarly to how you'd treat a friend. When your friend has a terrible run of luck, what do you do? You listen. You say you're sorry they're going through all of that. You say you wish there was more you could do. This is no different. If there IS something you can do (ie finding out if there's a local shelter where they can stay, running home and grabbing them a blanket or some throat lozenges, etc), all the better, do that! But it's important to remember that you can't solve everyone's problems. No, we don't ask just to ask. If we can help, let's help! But what I want to avoid is being afraid of asking because we're afraid we might not be able to help. Sometimes people just need to talk and tell their story so if you're a great listener, this is a perfect job for you!
Here's another quick story that captures short opportunities to be there for someone, even when we don't know if it's impactful. I was in Dallas for work last year and had gone out for dinner with colleagues. We left the restaurant to catch a Lyft back to the hotel and a man approached us tentatively and asked if we had any extra food. I didn't have any but I offered him a few dollars. He broke down crying. I pulled him aside away from my work friends and we leaned against a building for a few minutes. He told me he was sick (AIDS), that his family was all dead, that he was alone. I put my hand on his back and it was all bone. He had wet tears streaming down his face. I had 3 minutes until the Lyft driver picked him up. Does part of me wish I had told the Lyft driver to go away, that we had to find a way to help this man? Of course. But I was in a city where I knew no one and had no resources. So I looked him in the eye when he told me he thought about killing himself - James was his name - and I said, "James, I can't keep you from doing what you feel you need to do but all I can do is tell you that you're valuable. That you matter. You matter to me. You being here on this earth is important to me." And we hugged. And I got in the Lyft and drove off. And of course since I'm writing this I still think about James and wonder how he faired. Did I make a difference? I don't know. Maybe not long term but I hope for that night I was able to give him a deep breath knowing that another human was thinking of him, and for someone else, praying for him. (Side note ... when we got into the Lyft one of my colleagues said, "I want to understand more about what you did back there." And I had to have grace because I wanted to say "I was just human!!!" but I also need to remember that one night I was booted out of my friend Wendy's car to talk to people in the wet and cold with no idea how to do so. It's ok to feel like you need more context before trying, but we're all figuring it out as we go).
To note, a great way to practice is to strike up a conversation with a Street Roots sales person. Not all Street Roots salespeople are houseless, some are just on very limited incomes. But by and large those vendors are so awesome! They'd love to chit chat with you whether you buy a paper or not. And it's just a buck, so pick one up!
Specific language you can use:
"Hi, I see you here all the time, I live just up the street. My name is Abby."
"Hi, I've got some warm socks and blankets in my car, do you need any?"
"I'm headed into the grocery store, can I grab you a cup of coffee or soup?"
There are endless opportunities for this type of engagement. It's not always that of course. I've had a thousand encounters with people on the streets and most have been somewhat unmemorable only in that we often are moving quickly to get to as many people as we can. But I remember a lot of faces and a lot of quick interactions that were impactful for me - sliding gloves on red, cracked hands; giving a wool blanket to a couple who had all their things stolen and were about to walk across a bridge at 8pm at night to try to find... 'something'; many, many elderly people (that absolutely wreck me) sleeping on the streets; giving a young guy a pretty sweet donated rain jacket, "Really? I can have this? It's mine?" (many stories like this for everything... a tent, a pair of boots, etc.); finding a woman sleeping on an overpass bridge on MLK with nothing and physically slipping her into a sleeping bag and wrapping her body with a tarp to keep her warm enough until morning; a woman downtown during the snow storms who was so hungry but was allergic to everything we had. She was very upset but I slipped her $5 another volunteer had given me. She had limited mental capacity and was so nervous that there wouldn't be anything open but she was then overjoyed when we talked about the 7-11 and the hot dogs and nachos and cheese she could get; the woman in an RV who said she didn't need anything but came out and through tears told us she just needed to tell us how much she appreciated us being there and giving us all hugs... so many hugs!
And let's be honest, I've also seen people who are angry because their things have been swept for the 100th time by the city, who are dope sick or having a mental health crisis, who are in an argument with their partner or campmates, who are just generally not in the mood to deal. It's difficult out there. Drug addiction is no joke. Being evicted is traumatizing. On the city's point in time count questionnaire there is a question "Do you have PTSD?" and I can say fully that there is not a person living on the streets who does not have PTSD, that has no trauma. Living on the streets is trauma.
Overall, use your judgement. If it's dark and you're in what feels like a sketchy location, that's not the time to make friends with folks outside unless you're with a group of people who are well practiced at doing so. But at your grocery store, in your local park, on your streets... people are going about their day just like you. Say hello! Might you end up in uncomfortable conversations? Yes, you might. Might someone tell you that they want or need something that you can't give them? Yes, they might. Might you go home feeling sad and incredibly thankful for your warm bed and supportive family? Yes, you certainly will. But any of those are temporary and you might surprise yourself with how quickly you're able to turn all of those feelings and situations into purposeful impact.
Some Words About Guilt & Shame
I had a lot of this when I first started doing this work. I told my partner and friends that I thought I may have ruined my life (literally, I thought I was ruined). I have distinct memories of snow shoeing somewhere beautiful in eastern Oregon and struggling with enjoying it knowing how many people were freezing under wet blankets back in Portland. Over time I've had to let this go because I know it's not helpful. Is it ever really gone? Of course not. Like my friend Gary says, "once you see this you cannot unsee it." Yet, my guilt or shame doesn't serve anyone. DOING something does so I focus my energy there. There are people out there that do WAY more work than I do. They're out serving meals multiple days a week and will leave their house at the drop of a hat to help someone. These are incredible people. But in the words of the person who started Free Hot Soup (Benji), "Do what you can do". Instead of feeling "I should do more", I do what I can that keeps me sane. Some weeks I have more energy to do more, others less. Some times the need is higher or my particular skills are what's needed so I step up and do more. In summer I only go out a few times, especially on super hot days to give out water. It's not because there isn't a need, I just need to save my energy so I can continue doing the work and that's how I've found the balance for myself. When winter comes, I feel ready. And mostly - as with many kinds of work that can lead to guilt and shame such as anti racism work - if you feel you have privilege because of any number of things and that makes you feel guilt, transform that into elevating others. Use your voice (as a housed person, as a home owner, as a trusted community member, etc.) to lift up those who don't have a voice. Whenever possible try to give those people opportunities to speak for themselves (they have very strong opinions about what they need and what they don't need!). Use your financial resources to contribute to organizations and elected officials who are serving the needs of the most vulnerable among us. Advocate for things that may make you unpopular but that you know will make people's lives better (like bottle drops or tiny home villages). That's how you reduce guilt and shame, by using the privilege you have to not feel bad, but to educate others and to stand up for people who don't have those privileges.