How you can help the homeless and my experience

As I have been exposed more and more to the homeless (or domestically challenged as some like to call themselves), and the more interviews I have done with successful entrepreneurs who were once homeless, the more I can see how much we could all help if we just opened our eyes.

We are all so blessed. I say ALL of us, because if you are reading this, you have internet access, so chances are you have a home too!

As I write this, it is going to be -5°C in Canberra overnight, where people I know are doing the CEO Sleepout for St Vincent De Paul, raising funds for the homeless. Tonight my heater broke. The only heater left in the house, so while they are actually out sleeping in the cold, I am inside, freezing as well. But I am INSIDE! I have my house. My daughters and I are safe.

I am going to be 100% honest here. In February/March of this year, I nearly ended up in a refuge/shelter with my daughters. I had a house I was renting, but because of domestic violence and my ex husband stalking us, it was unsafe for us to be there. I slept at a friends a bit and we looked at the shelters for me to go to, but there was only 1 that would take me because of my situation. I am grateful my friends partner and her were happy to take my daughters and I in for a while.

We lived, all 9 of us (3 adults and 6 kids), in their tiny 3 bedroom house. My townhouse is actually bigger than their house. It was squished, kids shared beds, but we were safe. I did go between my house and theirs a bit until finally the situation was resolved and I was able to move back to my house.

I felt trapped and scared. The shelter looked like my only option. I would have been classed as homeless and the situation that was happening was out of my control. That is how easy it is to become homeless. Without my friends house, I would have been in a shelter. I know technically living in a friends house is classed as homeless, but I wasn’t on the streets or in a refuge and I did still have a house I was renting, I just couldn’t live in it.

The homeless are not all old, drunk men, junkies or prostitutes. Many of them are under 25. Many are mothers with their children.  The friend who took me in was homeless not long ago herself, with 3 children and one on the way. She applied for over 400 rental properties and continually got knocked back. She lived in her car, moved from motel to motel, lived in a refuge and thankfully they were able to help her, allowed her to stay longer than they are supposed to and got her a house. Her homelessness was not her fault, and she was doing everything she possibly could to change the situation, but no one would rent to her.

I mentioned living in a garage before. I tried to be fairly positive about it, but honestly, that was a very, very low point in my life. I felt I was failing my daughters. We were living in a garage! Yes, there was an insulated room in that garage, and I had a key to go inside the house to use the bathroom, but it was still pretty demeaning. I felt pretty worthless. I was grateful we had somewhere to live though and that we knew every night where we were sleeping. It was dry, it was out of the elements and we were safe.

We can do something about homelessness.

Everyone of us can do something. There are so many ways to help, it is simply a matter of making the decision to and then taking action.

We can donate to charities such as St Vincent De Paul (many of the formerly homeless have told me how much Vinnies helped them. They are the charity that seems to stand out the most to help homeless.)

We can talk to the homeless when we see them on the street. Many of them feel invisible. Like no one cares and they do not exist anymore. They feel worthless and sometimes a simple conversation is all that is needed to make them feel human again.

Buy The Big Issue as the people selling it earn an income from it and it is designed to help the homeless.

Buy a suspended coffee or meal. More places are doing this, where you go in and can pay for a suspended meal or coffee then later a homeless person can ask if there are any suspended ones available.

Do the CEO Sleepout if you are a CEO, director or manager.

Volunteer to help at your local charity, foodbank, soup kitchen or for places like Oz Harvest.

Homeless care packs are great. I know a few people who keep small packs in their handbag or car to give out when they see people. There are lots of ideas on what to put in them, think toiletries, socks, snack bars etc.

Window washers – you know the guys at the traffic lights who want to wash your windscreen, let them and pay them.

Buy a meal or invite them to eat with you. If you are going to a café, buy double and give them the second or ask them to come eat with you (if you feel safe enough to do so. Yes, some homeless are junkies and drunks, so always play it safe). The conversation and meal will mean a lot to them.

Give money. This is a little controversial. Some won’t because they are worried the homeless person will use it to buy drugs or alcohol. Some people have been known to get aggressive if only coins are given etc. It is up to you what you choose to do.

Attend events. Recently there was a fashion show called Help From The Underground run by one of the CEO’s in the CEO Sleepout – Clinton from Zoo Advertising. His aim was $36,000 and I know with the first intermission he was already at $10,000. There was soup and mulled wine for $5, the venue was fantastic and the atmosphere amazing. They had designers select outfits from Vinnies for the fashion show which sold for $100 each and there was a pop up op shop where my sister snagged a pair of Louboutins for $5!!! With the box and everything. I got the cutest little retro bag to match many an outfit, some items for a photography session I am doing soon, 2 jackets and a few other bits and pieces.

We had fun and helped raise money as well as scored items we love. Check out Jac’s post on the event here.

Offer a place to stay. I honestly would never let anyone I know ever become homeless. I have a few in my life right now who are facing it. It is a very real possibility for them. I would let any one of them live with me. I probably wouldn’t pick someone up off the streets, but I would let friends and family stay rather than be homeless. I do understand this is not possible and the circumstances surrounding the relationship and the reason for the homelessness can change things and I am not judging anyone who couldn’t/wouldn’t. I just know where I stand, as do the friends who may very soon need my help.

Offer any assistance. I have sat down with a few of theses friends to create action plans. I know finances inside and out, I have helped some get assistance that is available and shown some where to go to do what they need to avoid losing their home.

I remember as a kid my dad bringing home a hitch hiker. He had been robbed, was from Germany, hadn’t showered for ages, hadn’t been able to contact his family or anything. He stayed with us for I don’t know how long. I do remember little things about him though. His name was Hans and I remember him climbing over a rail on the edge of a cliff to get us (my sisters and I) some abalone shells we saw there. I was raised in a home that was open to anyone and I have the same attitude. I wouldn’t pick up a hitch hiker (I will point out, when dad did it, it was in Tasmania about 1989/1990), but friends, family, friends of friends or relatives are all welcome.

Teach a skill. If you can sew, cook, budget or anything like that, offer to teach it at a refuge. They have various classes and due to how many end up homeless, (violence, abuse, escaping those sort of homes from a young age) many do not have basic life skills. Teaching these skills helps them in their life long term.

I didn’t mean for this post to be epically long. I didn’t think much about homelessness to be honest until this year. I was aware of it, helped here and there, donated etc. But after my life experiences and some of the people who have come into my life recently, my attitude to homelessness has changed forever.

How do you help the homeless? Do you or do you just ignore it? Would you do the CEO Sleepout? (I will, next year. I was unable to this year.)

As a little side note, if approaching homeless people on the street, please be careful. Use your judgement wisely. Some are affected by drugs and alcohol, not all, but some. Please be aware and keep yourself safe.

Also, with my situation this year, I was 3 hours away from my family and legally unable to leave the area I was living in at the time. They supported me as much as they could and did everything they could. I know at any time I can turn to any of my family members for help. Just wanted to add that, because I don’t want anyone thinking my family didn’t help or should’ve done more.