When you encounter people living or begging on the street, what should you do?
I have historically been very nervous around homeless people. I would avoid eye contact with men and women on street corners, and if I ever helped serve food at a homeless shelter, I had no idea how to strike up a conversation. After hearing a few talks and meeting some people who shared their experience working with the homeless, my heart and attitude started to change. And then actually talking and interacting with people I’d see on the street, like Bill, Kevin, and Lenora, changed me even more.
Here are a few tips I learned about how to connect with people who may be homeless or begging on the street.
Make eye contact
You can do this from now on with anyone you see holding a sign while you’re driving or walking down the street. Meet their gaze, smile, and wave. It’s a simple way to acknowledge someone else’s humanity in any situation, but it is especially important to acknowledge people who get ignored regularly. Bill is a disabled veteran who has a regular spot at a big intersection near our house, and he always has agentle smile for us when we wave or say hi in passing.
Ask their names
It was drizzling, and I was walking down a street in Denver after picking up some paint from a specialty store for a project my husband was working on. I was carrying my 2-year-old son so that we could move quickly through the rainy weather. There was a guy standing outside holding a sign and we had passed him on the way in. Because of the rain, I didn’t want to take the time to stop. His back was to me now as I crossed the street away from him, but I just knew I should turn around. I did, and I tapped him on the shoulder. “Hi!” I said. “My name’s Cecilia, what’s yours?” He responded with the biggest smile I think I’ve ever seen and said, “Kevin.” We shook hands, and said something about the weather before I left and walked back to my car. That moment of connection was so moving it stood out as a bright spot through the rest of my day. I thought I was doing something nice by saying hello, but instead I felt loved and accepted by this stranger begging on a street corner.
Asking someone’s name is a super simple way to say “Hey, you matter” and also serves as an easy way to start a conversation.
Give them money
Or don’t. If you don’t have anything to give someone, don’t let that stop you from saying hello. We all need human connection. And most of us need that more than anything else. But if you do want to give something, and need some ideas, consider asking people what they need.
Diane was sitting on a corner in the direct sun this summer, and we grabbed her some cold water bottles and an umbrella for shade. We also keep some cash in our car to give to people we meet on the street. And I know people who have gift cards or little packages with granola bars, socks and water bottles that they give out. Socks are especially helpful in colder weather. One winter, we could see people living under a bridge near our home by looking out our window. We were able to help them more regularly with sleeping bags, tarps, and food.
Offer to pray for them
And then actually do it. Lenora was sitting on the corner of the street by a Chick-fil-A on a very cold and windy day, so we grabbed her a coffee. As my son and I drove away, I repeated her name to help me remember and then we prayed for her out loud together. Since then, I’ve tried to do that every time I meet someone on the street. Then later on during family prayers, it’s easier to remember names of people we’ve met as we’ve already prayed for them earlier that day.
It doesn’t take many interactions with people to open your heart a little bit more. Say hi and ask someone’s name the next time you’re out and about.
St. Martin of Tours, patron saint of people begging on the streets, pray for us!