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Conversations on Homeless: How We Engage with People that are Homeless (cont'd from Newsletter)

Renaissance’s Executive Director, Michael Banghart, had the honor of being joined by Richard Rowe, Chairperson of the Lived Experience Commission and Senior Program Manager at CSH (The Corporation for Supportive Housing) and Connie, who works with the Chicago Continuum of Care and served on the Lived Experience Commission. Richard and Connie have both experienced homelessness and are now working to create solutions towards ensuring every person has a place to call home.

In the early stages of Richard’s experience with homelessness he was working as a bank teller during the day, working night shift at a factory, and had his own apartment. He began recreationally using drugs, which quickly turned into a drug dependency. Within months he lost his job at the bank and his apartment as a result of not being able to pay rent. For a period of time he was able to couch surf with family or friends, but eventually he was living in the homeless community on Lower Wacker Drive. People at his night job began to notice the changes like body odor or wearing the same clothes for multiple days, and most would judge him and treat him much differently than they had before. However, Richard does recall those co-workers that offered help, they sometimes gave him a place to shower, wash his clothes, or have a warm meal. “Most people didn’t want to be bothered or just didn’t know what to do”, Richard comments in reference to people’s response to his homelessness.

Connie was an adjunct professor for 12 years and an Art Director at a church when she became homeless in 2010. She continued for a period of time to maintain her 3 jobs until it became impossible. “As a homeless woman you just want to be invisible. Without protection you feel like a prey item, emotionally and physically”, Connie recalls when describing that time in her life. She mentions wanting to limit contact with most people simply out of fear.

During this time, they both witnessed and were victims to crimes against homeless people. It wasn’t uncommon to hear verbal abuse shouted towards them from teenagers or people leaving bars late at night. Richard recalls a young homeless woman who had her tent lit on fire and burnt her foot before the rest of the community helped put the fire out. Another degrading action by passers-by was the “homeless tourism”. People would take pictures of them, with no consent and openly discuss how people can live like this, with disgust.

When discussing their interactions with others while being homeless, Richard and Connie had plenty of do’s and don’ts to share. Let’s share a few:

Do bring supplies that could make their lives easier (food, water, blankets in the winter etc.)

Don’t ignore homeless people. It is painful when they do verbally ask for help and they are ignored. They appreciate an acknowledgment even if it is, “I’m sorry, no”.

Do treat the person with kindness. These people are often at their lowest point, tired and broken.

Don’t expect anything in return. When you give something to a homeless person, it is a gift. You cannot get upset with what they do with that gift.

Do ask their name when interacting with a homeless person. So if by chance you see them again you can address them by their name, they are a part of your community.

While we acknowledge that a sandwich or kind gesture are not the solutions to ending homelessness, they are something and they help make a difference.

When asked what the best way to help a homeless person on the street is, it was agreed that there simply isn’t one. We need to remember that this individual did not wake up in this situation. Something happened to them. If you don’t know that story, try not to judge them and do whatever you’re able to do to make their day a little better. This can be cash, food, stopping to have a conversation, keeping informational cards on you with help lines or homeless organizations information.

There are a few things an individual can do on a larger scale to support their homeless neighbors. You can donate to, or volunteer with organizations that support preventative and outreach programs for homeless people and families. Renaissance is proud to now have programs to help people through the whole spectrum of homelessness and housing instability. And lastly, you can support officials and legislation that fight for affordable housing, mental health services, equal pay, proper funding for schools, and putting an end to homelessness.

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