When the homeless get involved in helping others, during the period of homeless, it simply takes them out of themselves. It’s hard to maintain the “poor-me attitude” when you are helping others—and not necessarily the fellow-homeless. It could be volunteering at the Salvation Army, food bank or at the shelter/rehab center itself. It could be helping a non-homeless person to deal with a personal problem.
When you are helping a person not in order to gain something but simply because you want to truly help the person, this can constitute, truly, a transcendent moment in one’s life.
When people see a homeless person involved in selfless giving, this observation can defeat many of the stereotypes attached the homeless in the wider culture, seeing the homeless simply as takers or too debilitated or disturbed to effectively reach out to the community or others.
It is understandable that the homeless might not be motivated to reach out to others—they might feel incapable or simply consumed with sorting out their own immediate, very practical problems. But helping others can energize a person and lead to enhanced self-esteem, both of which will contribute to the homeless person’s own recovery process.
Having a helping assignment also serves to fill up time during the day that might otherwise be spent wandering around the town or city in an aimless manner. Volunteer work, of course, also helps to develop a frame of mind that will prepare one for a paying job. If you are cleaning up a shelter, perhaps you will also gain clean-up skills that could serve you in performing in a job that involves cleaning a living space. Volunteer helping of another person—whether homeless or not—could also lead to a helping position of some kind, but not necessarily in a homeless setting.
It is important that in reaching out to others, that the homeless person be diligent in not crossing boundaries. Using the opportunity to simply merely to satisfy personal needs for companionship, romance, or sex, or to ultimately gain access to housing, a job or money, is self-defeating and defeats the purpose of the act.
If manipulation plays a role in the homeless volunteer’s motivation to help, then the more substantial benefit of helping for both helper and helpee goes out the window.