You find out an acquaintance or friend is homeless. You want to help but don’t know how.
And, admit it, you don’t really want to get involved. People’s strong emotions make you uncomfortable. You do not want to get mixed up with someone who might have problems that are bigger than you can fix.
I know. While not admirable reactions, they are understandable. I had them, too, when I was more fortunate.
So here are low-involvement ways of helping with basic needs while also preserving the homeless person’s dignity.
Getting food is not the only problem for the homeless. Storing it, cooling it, and cooking it can be more difficult. Solutions:
1. Loan them a cooler. But first ask if they have one and how much space they have for it, if any. Bigger is not always better when living in a car. Be sure to buy one with a valve to drain water. An attached lid might be difficult to fully open in a cramped space behind seats.
2. Purchase a gift certificate to a camping store. Water-proof and economically sized food storage containers, folding skillets, propane tanks and burners are basics for car living. With the proper equipment a car occupant can cut back on the expense of eating out.
3. Ask: Can they get to a grocery store? As a rural resident, I live 45 minutes from the closest major grocery store. Usually I cannot spare the gas to get there. Gas gift cards can translate into eating better. For a city resident, a bus pass might help.
4. Send them restaurant gift certificates, or open an account for them at a local restaurant. When it is hot or raining, I am sick, I have no money for food or it is too windy to cook with propane, a meal out is a welcome life-sustaining and mood-improving treat.
Please remember: As important as food banks and soup kitchens are, for people with extensive food sensitivities and those who are not setup to cook, they are not the full solution.
5. Permit use of an outdoor spigot. I lost water service months before becoming homeless. A friend let me fill up water jugs with a hose attached to an outdoor spigot at her house. She gave me her schedule so I could come and go when she was not there. Now that I live in my car, two other sources provide water. I would not survive without their generosity and trust.
6. Provide access to a sink for washing dishes. And, if you are comfortable, invite them to also brush teeth, wash face, and do quick wet-towel rubdowns. I am allergic to scents and bring my own unscented dish wash liquid; specify what supplies they can use.
7. Open your business’ restroom. If you have a key to an outdoor business toilet, consider giving them a copy. Specify your limits, e.g. no bathing or splashing of sink water, and the only user is the person you authorize. A person usually cannot predict when they need a toilet, so round-the-clock access is ideal, but any time frame helps. Be sure to inform security personnel of your permission.
8. If you have showers outside the main house, consider opening it to the car occupant. Homeowners in warm states sometimes have outdoor showers, perhaps in a pool area or a barn. Again, respectfully but clearly set rules for its use. Alternatively, you might offer to pay for a membership or seasons pass to a nearby Y, gym, pool or campground.
9. Notice if their clothes do not fit. Ask their size and check if you or friends have any clothes to give away. When I packed to leave my house, not knowing where or if I would settle, it did not occur to me that hunger would change my clothing size within a matter of weeks. My skirts and pants are falling off my hips. A trip to a thrift store for clothes is the last thing I want to spend gas, time and money on.
10. Donate change-of-season or children’s necessities. Even SUVs have only so much space, limiting what shoes and clothing a person can carry at any given time. If they have a storage unit they might have other items accessible. If not, a warm winter coat, a cool summer dress, a rain poncho or boots for their child might be welcome.
11. Help them stay presentable by offering laundry access. Laundromats are a good option for the homeless IF a) they have the money and can get change, b) they can buy detergent and other necessary supplies, and c) they can get not just themselves but all their laundry to a laundromat. Ask them how they are managing to keep their clothes clean, and assess how you can make it easier. Respect special preferences. If their personal hygiene is sliding, be tolerant.
12. Let them park overnight and/or during the day on your property. Santa Barbara has a program in which businesses sign up with a nonprofit organization to provide parking spots to people living in cars. People’s needs will depend on your climate. Where I am, shade is at a premium in hot weather. Soon the summer rains will hit. Then, I will need a sheltering roof and preferably also screened or canvas walls to keep out rain and bugs while letting in air.
13. Consider providing protection from the elements for just part of the day. Perhaps you can permit the well-groomed homeless person to work in an extra office or conference room several hours a day. Perhaps your unused garage would provide necessary warmth and wind protection on the coldest nights of the year. Or invite the car occupant’s dogs to stay in your secure shaded yard or porch during the hottest or wettest parts of the day so the person can use the library or run errands.
Be creative. Imagine you have nowhere to go but your car. Imagine the worst weather your area gets. Now imagine what you would need for shelter in addition to your car, if that is all you had.
BEYOND THE BASICS
Pay a Monthly Bill
Another unobtrusive way to help is to put one or two of your friend’s monthly bills in your name. Cell phone, storage unit and car insurance are top candidates. Car living is stressful enough without also worrying that you will lose legally required insurance, all your remaining belongings and ability to communicate with friends.
For many people who make their living online, like me, or for whom social media is an important marketing method for their business, Internet access is not optional. I could work a lot more if I could “tether” my laptop to my cell phone so that I have Internet access wherever I have cell reception. But it costs anywhere from $50 to $150 more per month so it is not an option, yet.
I spend most days parked, with my dogs in the back seat, using wifi to work on my blog, access business accounts and communicate with clients. If I had the Internet anywhere, I could park in the cooler wooded locations where I camp, let the dogs run, and work anytime I am able.
The best way to discover how to help is to ask the person living in their car, “WHAT do you need the most?” That is an easier question for both you and them than asking, “HOW can I help?” The latter makes me try to assess what you are able to do. I don’t know what actions or gifts are possible for you any more than you know what I need.
If someone asked me right now “What do you most need?” my answer would be that I need private property on which to set up a shaded semi-permanent camp, well away from the house so the homeowner need not interact with me if we do not wish. Public lands have limits on how long you can stay. If I manage to acquire a large screened car enclosure, constructing it on private land is more feasible than on public lands.
Remember that the person living in their car no longer has a permanent physical address. If you get them an online gift certificate, inquire whether they have a place where they can take delivery of items they order. You might offer your home or office as the delivery address. If they generally stay in the same area, you could also pay for a private post office box for them.
Remember that people living in their car are unlikely to have easy access to a printer to print out online gift certificates. Libraries are an option but usually charge
Anonymous giving is the ultimate in hands-off help. You can implement many of the above ideas without revealing your name. If the restaurant or store is independently owned, ask the proprietor to inform the recipient of the gift.
Don’t Make Assumptions
I talked recently with a kind-hearted and easy-to-talk-to man who made me feel at ease and reacted with a comfortable mix of concern and sympathy to my situation. Yet, as he was getting ready to leave, he fell back on statements that were about easing his anxiety, not about asking me for information:
“Well, you’re eating,” he said. I looked away, hesitated, decided he did not really want to know how often I am hungry, and vaguely moved my head in a combination “no” and “yes.”
“And you know this will be over soon,” he continued. No, I don’t know that. I can not envision how I am going to get out of this mess I’m in. But I gave the same unspecific nonverbal reply, for his sake.
If the answer would be too painful for you to hear, do not ask. And don’t put words in their mouth.
The latest round of homeless people are middle class professionals who have lost a job and/or a home and spent all their liquid assets trying to get back on their feet. Many are educated, healthy, polite and embarrassed to ask for help. If you implemented just one of the ideas above, you would make a proud person’s life a little easier and permit them to focus more on rejoining middle class society.
It can be almost as difficult asking for help as giving it. These ideas make it easy on everyone.
The author: Deborah is a former white collar professional whose health has limited her ability to work. Turned down for disability and ineligible for other public benefits due to an IRA (that carries a 50% or 100% cash-out penalty), she lives in her car with two dogs whom she refuses to abandon. She works when she can providing psychic readings, website design and maintenance, writing editing and proofreading, and marketing and fundraising advice. Reach her through www.HomelessInMyCar.com.