It’s a natural human instinct to help those in need. When a mother needs to get her pram up the stairs, we grab the front wheel. When someone drops their bag of groceries, we bend down and help retrieve it all. But for those experiencing homelessness, it’s a difficult task. Do you give them some coins and hope they won’t spend it on alcohol or drugs? Do you buy them food and hope they eat it? How can we truly help the homeless?

To answer these questions, we spoke with Digby Hughes, a senior policy and research officer at Homelessness NSW. He gave us six things we can do.

Homeless Man walks through a crowd of birds. Image: Daniel Van Den Berg

Don’t Harm

It may seem blatantly obvious, but Digby was adamant on this. While a good many of us are nurturing people with kind hearts, there are a few who can get a little aggressive against the homeless, especially after a few hours of drinking. Digby said to find restraint and move on, especially when confronted with a homeless person begging for money. Nothing good ever comes from violence, especially not the remedy for homelessness.

Acknowledge Them

While it’s nice to throw those loose coins resting in your coat pocket into their coin cup and continue on your merry way, you could do one better and look at them. Or even wish them a lovely day. Acknowledging them as a human being is a powerful thing to do, and gives them confidence. Most homeless people do not stay that way for long and a simple greeting could give them the motivation to better themselves quicker. And it’s free!

Have A Chat

“Only if you’re comfortable with chatting,” Digby said. “Even a simple hello can make a homeless person’s day.” Many people experiencing homelessness are lonely. Their worst day-to-day experience is watching people walk past them without even looking at them. Many of those passing by may even try hard to not look at them. Saying hello and starting a conversation doesn’t cost a cent, and it can mean so much to a homeless person. Maybe even life or death.

Find Out If They’re Receiving Support

While saying hello and refraining from harming them are great for their personal happiness and confidence, a more tangible way to help is by asking them if they are receiving support. You may find that many are already receiving some support, but you may also find they aren’t or that they could receive more. With a few extra phone numbers up your sleeve, you could point them in the direction of an organisation that could help them. And not just shelters, food halls and social groups, but even work. Think of The Big Issue, a national magazine working as an independent, not-for-profit organisation dedicated to supporting and creating work opportunities for homeless, marginalised and disadvantaged people. A bit of research can go a long way.

Understand Their Situation

In the last census, it was found that 43,500 of all those experiencing homelessness are under the age of 25. In saying that, there are various organisations that may be able to help house homeless youth, and the first point of call would be the Department of Social Services. They may be able to point you towards an organisation in your locale that can help. Perhaps they are a victim of domestic violence, their husband or wife has kicked them out and they have nowhere to live. Or their parents have kicked them out because they are gay. Or maybe they are fleeing sexual abuse. You could help give them phone numbers to specific organisations that can help, from LGBTQI to Aboriginal and Torres-Strait Islander and even gender-specific. This isn’t for everyone, and many of you reading this may not be comfortable doing this, and that’s fine. But it may be worthwhile for them if you can.

Find Out If They Need Anything

Money is nice, but it could create more problems than solve it. There’s the possibility that the homeless person begging for money may want it to get another bottle of JD or another zip-lock bag of ice. In any case, sometimes the best thing to do is ask them if they need anything. A blanket or pillow? Some water? Maybe even a pack of cards? It’s way better than the indifferent act of tossing loose coins into their coin cup.

Message A Politician

Did you know that homeless shelters in Finland may soon be a thing of the past? Their homelessness is dropping at a record scale, and it’s ingenious how they do it. The traditional method used by many countries around the world (including Australia) is by first getting the homeless person into a night shelter, then they move into a hostel, later they move into transitional housing, and then they can work themselves back to their feet and find a rental property, or save for a house. In Finland, however, they just give them a house. But that’s not all. The Finnish government also provide ongoing, individually tailored support, making sure they succeed. While this initiative sounds quite far-fetched for a government like ours, it does show what can be done. Message your local politician, tell them what you see, give them guidance. That’s why we vote them in. They don’t earn taxpayers money by kicking sticks.