On Helping the Homeless
Of all the people involved in helping the homeless: professionals, family, friends, the homeless themselves, on a peer basis, none is more important than the homeless person him or herself. While other play a key role, in this helping task, self-motivation is by far the most important ingredient leading the homeless individual back to residential and occupational independence.
Outside helpers must realize this. Their best efforts may prove counterproductive if they are engaged in making authoritarian pronouncements, if they inadvertently do the work involved in recovery for the homeless person-substituting their motivation for the helpee’s. I am talking about things the homeless person is perfectly capable of doing for him or herself.
Well-timed suggestions and key information CAN BE very helpful. But it must be remembered that when the homeless person chooses to take a positive step on his or her own, a legitimate sense of pride may be engendered.
There is nothing wrong with the homeless person saying: I am proud of myself for taking this or that step forward. Also, when the homeless individual can say, “I chose to move in a positive direction,” or “I CAME UP WITH THE IDEA TO” engage in a certain action, with positive consequences.
I am talking about decisions regarding:
*Who to associate with in the community
*How to deal with money issues
*The seeking of volunteer or paid work.
*How to relate to family
*Saving money for an independent living space, beyond a shelter or a tent set out in the woods, on a park bench, crashing with friends, etc.
Whether to drink excessively or use illegal substances
Of course, shelters and rehabs have many rules set up that touch on the factors in recovery listed about. But ultimately, the homeless person must decide the course he or she takes.
Sometimes the homeless person is so debilitated physically or emotionally that outside institutions or the helping community must take the bull by the horns to pry the individual l out of a self-destructive path. Even the maintenance of life itself may be consequence if the outside network of helpers does not take immediate action.
But in most instances, imminent death is not the issue.
It must be remembered that the task of helping the homeless has become something of a “sexy” task to engage in—drawing a lot of support from the wider community, which may even ascribe to the helper hero status. This may simply feed the helper’s ego.
Ego is not the place where we should be coming from when we engage in helping a homeless individual.
Now, in this regard, I am talking about both paid and volunteer helpers.
Helping a person in need should be regarded as an admirable, but expected consequence of living in the society as a responsible and caring person.
Sadly, many people in our society do not care to lend a hand, perhaps feeling that the homeless person deserves his or her feet. Some say he made his bed, now let him lie in it. Or the homeless are simply a drag on society. Or they are simply irresponsible and deserve their fate
Of course, we know that a multitude of factors lead an individual into a homeless predicament. Mental illness, addiction, family breakdown, loss of job through layoffs or plants closing, abuse, are just some of the ket factors—often intertwined—that result in the state of homelessness.
There are, among the homeless population, a sociopathic, exploitative minority who are simply running from the consequences of their actions, or simply have in mind ripping off the system in various ways.
But my primary message to helpers don’t steal motivation or initiative away from a homeless person by substituting your own rehab plan for his or hers.
Don’t get lost in ego by encouraging others to place you in a hero role.
To the greatewst extent possible, get out of the way and allow the homeless person to develop legitimate pride in his or her own self-chosen path of recovery.
In my next essay I will discuss the phenomenon of homeless helping one another—the positives and negatives of peer helping seen in the homeless polulation.