Homeless men and women are part of an expanding, often faceless community. When we come in contact with a homeless person, we may feel repulsed, annoyed, even angered as we avert our eyes and think, "Why don't they do something to help themselves?" or "If I look them in the eye, that'll just encourage them to ask me for money" or "They choose to be homeless."

Frequently, it is our lack of understanding about the complexities of homelessness that fuels our prejudices and fears about homeless people. Somehow, that gives us "permission" to act less compassionately towards a homeless person — who is, after all, a human being just like us.

Homelessness goes hand in hand with poverty. In fact, "a growing shortage of affordable rental housing and a simultaneous increase in poverty" are the primary causes for the rise in homelessness, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. Unfortunately, the working poor, those men and women who are earning the minimum wage, are often one hardship away from living on the street. A missed paycheck due to illness, an increase in rent, or loss of a job is all it can take to join the ranks of the homeless.

In his book 54 Ways You Can Help The Homeless, Rabbi Charles A. Kroloff offers additional insights about homeless men, women and children:

* Most homeless people are not drunks or drug abusers or former mental patients. Most are able or willing to work. One out of four homeless people are employed full or part-time, according to the United States Conference of Mayors.
* One child in five lives below the poverty line, making children the poorest age group in the United States, which accounts for the growing percentage of children who are homeless.
* Many homeless people have completed high school; some have attended college and even graduate school.
* The homeless are found not only in cities, but in small towns, rural areas, and affluent suburbs.
* Millions are among the hidden homeless — people who are one crisis away from losing their homes. They may be doubled or tripled up in housing or 48 hours from eviction or about to leave a hospital with nowhere to go.

And with the loss of an actual home, comes the loss of a person's sense of safety, belonging and self-esteem. Fortunately, you can make a difference in the life of a homeless man, woman or child.

When you encounter a homeless person in a safe environment, respond with kindness. Make eye contact and give the same respect as you would to any other person that you come across during your day.

If asked for money and you don't feel comfortable, a simple, "I'm sorry, I can't help. Take care" or "God bless" goes a long way.

Or, if you don't want to give money, carry fast-food certificates. This will alleviate any fears about the way your money could be spent.

For more suggestions on how to treat homeless people with respect, refer to 54 Ways You Can Help The Homeless.


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