Yesterday at 4:59 pm my phone in the office rang. When I answered the lady on the other end said, “Someone told me that you are in charge of all the homeless people who live in Tent City down on the river, is that true?”
Now the first thing that would jump out at you if you work with the homeless is that no one is ever really “in charge” of them. Just like you and I, they are independent people. Most of them are pretty fiercely independent, which is often one of the many reasons they become homeless.
I explained that no, I was not in charge of Tent City, but that I did have two case managers who regularly go down there and interact with the people. We also have an Outreach Group that meets regularly to assess the needs of people living on the street and coordinate so that we avoid duplicating efforts. Many local agencies do outreach work of different kinds to help those without housing.
I always tell people, “Don’t just decide you are going down to the homeless camp on your own. That is not a good idea.” You never know what you might encounter, because homelessness runs a wide gamut of issues. Most homeless people are going to be polite and grateful for help. But mental illness is also very prevalent in the homeless population, and with it comes substance abuse and medication issues that cause instability. You don’t want to stroll up to someone that might be very unstable and potentially violent.
There is also the issue of working within the system of care in a community. In our community we have several agencies that work together to address the needs of homelessness. Those agencies are ALWAYS stretched very thin; our shelters are packed, our housing programs full, our budgets strained. Those agencies need your support and have a pretty good idea about how to funnel resources in ways that will have the greatest impact.
As the weather gets colder some people will move on to a place where there is more shelter space or will be able to make temporary housing arrangements. But the sad fact is that there will be people on the streets when it’s cold. If you want to make a difference, look at how you can team up with others in your community to help. Local agencies will be glad to get assistance from people that really want to make a difference!