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How to talk to a person who is homeless

Speaking to the homeless

Helping hand: “Treating patrons as equals also means not talking down to people. It hurts my heart when I hear people, some who identify as Catholic, refer to people who are homeless as: ferals, druggies, and losers.”

RECENTLY I’ve been asked for advice on “talking with homeless people”.

As a volunteer and friend to people who are homeless for over 23 years I knew the best person to provide such advice was a homeless person. 

On a recent outreach I put the question of “talking with people who are homeless” to a man I will call James – a middle-aged Brisbane gent; this is what he said:

• Number one – treat people the way you want to be treated

• Don’t assume homeless people are dumb, I knew a guy who had a PhD; he fell into depression after breaking up with his girlfriend and lost his job.

• Find something to connect on whether its where you grew up, family, or even religion

• Some people have a mental illness or are on drugs so don’t expect to hit it off with everyone, and

• Sometimes I find it easier to talk to a woman.”

Much of James’ advice rings true to my experiences of connecting with homeless people – although I’m not quite sure if the talking to a woman is an absolute fact, I think it may have been James’ preference.

Young people often have a special gift here. When I’ve lead school groups on outreach I’ve been surprised at how apt they are at connecting – even though some share they are scared in the pre-brief. 

Therefore it is a real delight after a night out on the street when teenagers excited debrief how they connected over music, sport, study, movies or food. 

In some ways the teenagers open spirit inspires more senior volunteers. 

In saying this due caution is needed when being out on the street. 

While it may seem a little bureaucratic to do pre-briefs it is important to cover things such as working in pairs, not giving away explicit details such as your address, and the importance of treating patrons as equals. 

This can mean not tolerating abuse – you wouldn’t expect abuse in the workplace, nor should you accept it volunteering. 

Treating patrons as equals also means not talking down to people.

It hurts my heart when I hear people, some who identify as Catholic, refer to people who are homeless as: “ferals, druggies, and losers”.

It’s a pretty logical conclusion that people with negative preconceived ideas of homelessness are going to find it difficult to connect. 

Hopefully these attitudes can change. It’s worth remembering Jesus was often homeless (Mt 8:20).

A few helpful facts about homelessness:

• Most often they are not roofless. Only a small per-centage sleep ‘rough’; some couch-surf, are placed in emergency accommodation, stay in boarding houses or at caravan parks.

• Domestic violence and housing affordability is cited as the number one reason for people being without a long term place to call home

• Other reasons include marriage breakdown, job loss, mental illness, addiction, workplace injury, or they are just out of prison with no support.

• Staring at, pointing, and stigmatising people who are homeless is not helpful – they feel it deeply, just as your or I would.

• For every person who is homeless there is a story.

It is a privilege for someone to trust me with their story. 

It surprises me how many are almost aching to share about their life – while others may be feeling shame and want to escape their current reality. 

Admittedly sometimes, some stories could do with a little reality check – but 100 per cent factual reporting is not my job. 

Nor is it my role to be a counsellor or police officer. I am there to be a friend to listen and remember the words of Mother Teresa: “If you judge people you have no time to love them.”

If you would like to be part of helping people who are homeless both the Capuchin Friars and Rosies Friends on the Street are looking for people and donations such as coffee, tea, sugar, cordial as well as blankets for winter. 

To become involved with the Friars contact Father Fernanto or Rosies:

You can also hold a cuppa4rosies awareness and fundraising event see the website or call 07 3396 4267.

By Clare Burns

Clare Burns is a Brisbane Catholic businesswoman writing relationship and spirituality columns for The Catholic Leader.Clare Burns

Written by: Guest Contributor
Catholic Church Insurance

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