Monday Mitzvahs: Helping the Homeless

I have soft spot for homeless people.  I don’t know why, but I always have.  For years I tried to figure out how and why people become homeless.  I’ll spare you all my past guesses and theories, and just tell you my current ones.

Mental Illness-You hear this one a lot, in my opinion, because it is true.  In my previous job, I worked with abused kids.  We had one young man who  was medicated for a mental illness.  When he was on his meds, he did pretty well,  But he didn’t like to take his meds, and so he would refuse which was usually followed by him running away for a few days.  Then he would come back with no explanation.  Maybe he was hungry or cold?  He was a very sweet young man until something made him angry and (like the other young people we worked with) you could never be sure what might trigger him.  We had an understanding among the staff that if he got really angry, we would get all the other kids and staff a safe distance away and call the police because he could be violent (and he was a big kid.)  He “aged out” of the system (meaning he turned 18 while in foster care).  The last time I saw him, he had a job, and a place to live.  But knowing his history, I wondered how long that could last.  I have always been afraid that he would be one of those who end up homeless.  I blame his illness,

Abuse–Years ago I had a short term job working in a homeless shelter for families.  Until that time, I had no idea that families could be homeless too.  I was naïve back then and thought only scruffy looking older men became homeless.  I understand better now that some of those families were women with abusive husbands fleeing with their children.  Sometimes teenagers run away from home and end up homeless because of abuse as well.

Job Loss/Unemployment–I have heard stories of people who ended up on the street because of the loss of a job.  Many of us could have ended up in that situation if we didn’t have family to fall back on, I suspect.

Poor life choices–I think it is true that some people end up on the street because of drugs or alcohol.  Still my heart goes out to them.  You may have heard that when you pick up one end of a stick you also pick up the other end.  I think that when people start to drink or use drugs, they don’t fully understand the other end of that stick.  The consequences can be pretty terrible, even if you don’t end up homeless, why would anyone make that choice if they truly understood it?

There are likely many more reasons, but those are my top theories.

If you are even a little curious about homeless people and what it is like to live on the street, I recommend the book, Under the Overpass by Mike Yankowski.  I love this book.  Mike was a college student when he decided to live on the streets for five months.  Why?  He wanted to know if his faith in God would be as strong if  his life were not so easy.  Under the Overpass is about those five months. Because he is religious, he filtered the language for readers.  No F-bombs in this book.  I felt he bordered on being a bit preachy at times, but nothing that would keep me from giving him a 5-star book review.

aaaviennaMy daughter, Vienna, also has a soft spot for homeless people.  And she came to it on her own, not from me.  For her it started when her youth group from church did a service project with Mamma’s Hands an organization that helps the homeless.   It only took one time of going to a park and giving food to the homeless people and she was hooked.  She wrote a blog post about her experience called, A Homeless Man, A Gangster and Me (or something like that).   I’ll see if she will let me post it as a guest post later.

It is Vienna that inspired this mitzvah.  Lately she has been nagging   bugging asking politely, but repeatedly for me to take her to Seattle so she can hand out some “homeless kits”.  Yes, she wants me to drive her around Seattle so she can find homeless people and give them her kits.

Her kits are things she puts together with her own money–a can of soup, a bottle of vitamin water, a tooth-brush, tooth paste and deodorant.  Or things of that nature.  Usually she makes them up and I give them away when I am in Seattle for therapy or other appointments.  But this time she wants to make an afternoon of it!

Like many of you, I shy away from giving homeless people money.  But it is a really great feeling when I can grab one of Vienna’s kits and hand it to someone.  If you don’t want to drive around with a bag of goodies in your car-just waiting- another option could be to buy a couple of gift cards to fast food places.  Those would be easy to keep in the car and hand out when you see someone on the street corner.  Or if you prefer, you could donate money or time to an organization like Mamma’s Hands.  Whatever you do, like any mitzvah you will be left feeling like you were the one most blessed.


  1. A compelling article, Leslie. I would include predators. I suppose the why is important as is knowing that the problem will not be solved in anyone’s lifetime. When I lived in Seattle I had a weekly budget for helping. I would go beyond the budget if a clear need emerged.

  2. Leslie: Before I retired I worked at the Downtown Emergency Services Center for three years. It was also an eye opener even though I worked in Oregon’s Children’s Services Division for five years, and an outpatient drug and alcohol treatment facility of 9 years. I think you covered most of the “reasons” quite well. The only thing I would add is that while some people think people need to “bottom out”, or loose everything as it were, the fact is that bottoming out is not always the “cure” people think it will be.

    Abusers, users, etc. have usually gone through their family resources (worn them out, as it were), friends, churches, etc. Their companions, their hangouts, etc. become progressively worse in terms of accommodations, cleanliness, order, etc. So when the time comes that they can no longer find any type of accommodation with people they know, and perhaps their reputation precludes them from others they end up (if lucky) in a shelter. Their lives have become so disorganized that they have lost the ability to plan coherently, and follow through. Many of these people have mental issues ranging from Attention Deficit Disorder, Dyslexia, other learning disabilities, to outright mental health issues, which you described so well. Studies have shown that with social workers to help advocate for them they do better, more so if they have mental health issues.

    Once in a shelter, however good a shelter it may be it becomes “home” to them. The people there have similar stories and may be friends, so they have little incentive to find something else.

    A couple of stories. I had one client, a very intelligent man who had a cocaine addiction for a number of years. He had suicidal tendencies and felt that he didn’t belong in a shelter. Really wanted out. One time during a overdose situation he was found by paramedics, he had been passed out with one of his hands underneath him and it was badly burned. Yes, that happens, when it healed his middle finger was still and it appeared he was giving the you know what to people. He had the finger amputated so he was acceptable in public. Even with that kind of reminder I couldn’t find the ability to stay clean and sober.

    Another client, one whom I was very fond of, had done most of the things women do on the street to get money for their habits. She had several children and her family had absorbed them into their home. In some trouble she was mandated to us for treatment. She was so badly damaged from ADHD, learning disabilities and the remnants of her use that it was impossible for her keep appointments, if she had calendars (and she had a lot) she couldn’t remember to use them. I had her make stickies and put them on the back of her front door so she would see them when she exited, that helped, a little. Later when I was working at the shelter I saw her name in the local paper. She had been out at 2 am with her sister and someone got out of a truck walked up to her and executed her.

    The thing that we sometimes forget with homeless people is that for alcohol addiction withdrawal can be and often is lethal. One of my clients drowned in her bathtub during withdrawals. People go into seizures and die. Sometimes money to a street person can save their lives. None of they really want to be homeless. But they become adjusted to it, as I alluded above.

    Too much help and their “ability to help themselves” is so compromised that their sense of powerlessness is nearly impossible to overcome. I had one client who lived in a Sober House, which was forgiving as long as the residents didn’t engage in fights, dealing on the premises, etc. One of my clients lived there and she was very good for about three to six months, would relapse, and get herself back on track.

    We also do not seek solutions from homeless people in general, but often consider that since we aren’t using and abusing, we know what they need and provide them with things that really aren’t meaningful. Things that can’t be used on the streets. Power Bars, granola bars might be more useful than a can of soup they may not be able to open or heat.

    I’ve probably worn, or discouraged anyone from reading this, but I’m hope you can see that I care.

    • Judith, I LOVED your comment. Thanks so much for taking the time to share those things. I have thought that if I were ever to go back to school I would become a Social Worker and perhaps work with the homeless. So I was really interested in the stories you shared and the enlightenment you provided.

      I didn’t realize that about “bottoming out”, though it makes sense now that you mention it. And I really hadn’t thought about alcohol withdrawal, of course, that makes sense now as well.

      About the soup…we thought about granola or even beef jerky, but I have seen many homeless people that are missing teeth and so we worried that eating the granola might be difficult. We always buy the soup cans that have the pop top (no can opener needed). And you can eat soup could, right out of the can in a pinch. That was our thinking anyway.

      What you said about people trying to help and not understanding what they really need is so true. I remember last Christmas there was a picture that went viral on Facebook about a police officer buying a barefoot homeless man in New York a nice pair of boots. A journalist found the man again about a week later and he was shoe-less again. The reporter asked him about that and the homeless man said it wasn’t safe to wear them. Someone would kill him and steal the boots. I always remember that when I am trying to think of what I could do to help.

  3. Another reason some folks end up on the street is because, out there, they don’t have to answer to anyone. They like the independence of being ‘outside’ of society and all of its demands. We have attempted to help homeless people and been spat on and sworn at and told they didn’t want our charity when all we wanted to offer them was a warm coat. There are those who prefer a solitary life and they feel as if that’s the only way they can have it. I don’t understand their reasoning and perhaps mental illness, prior abuse or trauma is what begins the whole thing but we’ve spoken to some pretty contented homeless people who seem quite happy with their lifestyle.

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