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How to Help the Homeless


Our readers in California have asked how to help those who are homeless. Others who’ve experienced homelessness tell us what made a difference to them.

Jill Cowan


Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

[Our national editor, Marc Lacey, explains our new effort to involve readers directly in our coverage.]

So we reached out to the people who best know what’s helpful and what’s not: those who have experienced homelessness themselves.

We heard from dozens of Californians, and nearly everyone who shared advice echoed the same basic request: Treat people you come across with dignity and respect. Don’t avoid eye contact, but do avoid making assumptions.

“When I was young, I judged those drinking or using on the sidewalks late at night,” wrote Joh Rathbun, of Santa Cruz. “I now know that a tall boy or two is much cheaper than rent.”

No gesture of good will is too insignificant, she added: “A small nod to recognize someone’s humanity can be monumental.”

Some said that offering a hot shower or a safe place to camp or park overnight helped ease their burden for a little while.

But some also said it’s O.K. to set boundaries for yourself.

Many said that simply offering fresh food, clothing, blankets, water, batteries or hygiene products directly to people living outdoors was helpful.

Here’s more advice, in readers’ own words. (Some of the responses, which were compiled by my colleague Sona Patel, have been lightly edited.)


“Don’t be discouraged.”

What I wish for people to keep in mind is this: Always offer help first, rather than giving someone something they may not actually want or need. Many of your neighbors in need will be grateful for your offer. But you may also encounter someone who is having a really rough time and may be unable to appreciate your help. Please, don’t be discouraged. Just smile and keep on your way. You may find someone else to help.

— Melissa K. Cubangbang, Gilroy


Credit…Miranda Janis Mears

“Consider just giving them some clean water.”

If you see someone suffering from homelessness, consider just giving them some clean water to drink. I used to be so thirsty, and all anyone ever had was soda or alcohol.

— Miranda Janis Mears, La Habra

“If you know someone who owns rentals, ask them why they don’t take Section 8.”

If you own rentals, start accepting Housing Choice Vouchers (Section 8) and other third-party payers. If you know someone who owns rentals, ask them why they don’t take Section 8. I cannot thank enough every employee that broke their boss’s rules about “no public restrooms” to let my kids and me use a hygienic toilet.

— Jamie Niedecker, South Los Angeles

(A new law makes it illegal to discriminate against tenants with housing vouchers.)

“Know your area’s resources and pass them along.”

The most helpful thing by far that anyone gave me was knowledge. When I first became homeless in San Francisco, the resources most helpful to me were where to shower, where soup kitchens were, where to get medical care, and how to get food stamps. Finding out what emotional support groups are available, where to get financial and job assistance, how to get free college classes, how to secure a mailing address, and so much more, can help people.

— Isis Neumann, San Francisco


“Volunteering will give you an insight into your fellow humans who are suffering.”

Find your local food pantry (or homeless shelter) and volunteer. We constantly need extra people at ours, as we serve 350 to 400 families a week. Volunteering will give you an insight into your fellow humans who are suffering. You may be inspired to donate money to help or take a bigger role to end homelessness.

— Mary Ann Buggs, who was homeless 15 years ago and now runs a food pantry, Faith Food Fridays, in Vallejo, with her husband.

To that end, readers shared the names of organizations they said helped them:

In Los Angeles, Angela M. Sanchez wrote that Volunteer Match was a good place to start.

Volunteer LA, the United Way of Greater Los Angeles and the organizations listed on the website of the community activist coalition Services Not Sweeps can also connect you with volunteering opportunities, she said.

We’ll be off on Thursday and Friday for Thanksgiving. We hope you have a restful holiday, whether you’re staying in California — where, alas, the weather is set to be rainy and snowy — or you’re traveling.

On the off-chance you’re hosting but haven’t already planned to the hilt, here is the truly bonkers menu planner our Cooking team made. (There are sliders to adjust the menu based on how many you’re cooking for, your guests’ level of omnivorousness and how far ahead you’ll be starting your prep.)

And maybe consider turning off your phone.

California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: [email protected]. Were you forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here.

Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter, @jillcowan.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.

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