Living in California for the last 20+ years, I see people who are homeless more than I ever have in my life. As the weather gets bitter, I shudder when I think about men and women sleeping on cardboard in San Francisco. I’m also haunted by the growing number of homeless teens I see hanging out at a local gas station. And I know there are so many more….
It is not my imagination that there are more homeless people in the Golden State. Latest statistics show five states—California, New York, Florida, Texas, and Massachusetts—accounted for more than half of the homeless population in the United States. This past year, according to US Department of Housing and Urban Development, California experienced the second-largest increase in the number of homeless people among 50 states.
The Face(s) of Homelessness
On any given night, the National Alliance to End Homelessness says nearly 579,000 Americans are homeless. Of that number, more than 362,000 are individuals, and over 216,000 are people in families.
While homeless young people are more transient and challenging to count, it’s currently estimated that about 50,000 youth in the United States sleep on the street for six months or more.
It’s hard not to look away from the homeless—in person, and in my heart. Whenever I’m asked for money or read a sign someone is holding at a light or freeway ramp, I get skeptical and wonder how they’d use any money I give. So I pause.
The most recent data shows, in general, that the number of people sleeping in shelters and transitional housing is increasing. This suggests communities and nonprofits are doing a better job getting people off the streets and under a roof. To me, that seems like a good place to start helping.
Three Ways to Make a Difference for Homeless People
Donate food and items.
The next time you’re in an area where you expect to see a homeless person, bring along an extra cup of coffee, sandwich, or a meal package with protein-rich foods like trail mix and beef jerky (the most sought-after food). If you have the time, take the homeless person to a nearby fast food restaurant to order the meal they want.
Contact your local shelters and ask what they need. (You can find one in your city here.) Are there specific food items they’re short on? Or are blankets, clothing, socks, band aids, lip balm, lotion, children’s toys or something else more in demand? Share the season’s spirit of giving; get your family involved in buying and dropping off a holiday care package.
It’s easy to help prepare or serve a holiday meal at a local shelter or church this time of year. But volunteers are needed year round. What skills can you contribute? Consider volunteering on a regular basis, and offer to clean or help rehab buildings, design a website, provide accounting support, play with or tutor children, write resumes or help prepare a homeless person to interview for a job—depending on your talents. Access this directory to find an agency near you.
One of the most direct ways to help the homeless is to give money. Donations to nonprofit organizations can go a long way:
- At Front Steps, $25 takes care of basic hygiene needs. Donate now
- With $60, the Covenant House gives a homeless child clean clothes and cozy bedding. Donate now
- For $100, Big Sunday supplies 25 bags of everyday essentials for homeless people. Donate Now
For more charities helping the homeless, check out the JustGive Guide.
These are a few ways to help the homeless—here’s a list of many more.
If you’re not in a position to do any of these things, remember that a smile, kind word and respect go a long way. People who are homeless deserve our empathy.
As for me, I’m re-training myself not to ignore homelessness, and in any way I can, to help. Just as there are many reasons why people become homeless, I know there are just as many ways to start making things better.
– Candy Culver