When I See Homeless Families in Crisis, I Can’t Just Walk on By

Little Girl Alone and Cold

A few nights ago I left a local event and walked a few blocks to where I was going to meet a friend. It was one of those nights in Philadelphia where the wind made the already freezing air feel like glass scratching exposed skin. I pushed my hands down deep into my pockets and put my head down against the chill, but then I heard the baby crying.

I looked up and just ahead I saw people at the steps of a church at the corner. A man was pushing a stroller back and forth, the way one does to try and calm or settle a crying baby, while he was also searching for something in the basket below. A woman sat on the steps next to them. She didn’t have shoes on and she was rubbing her feet.

I spoke to them in a lull between an argument I had heard the end of as I approached.

“Are you guys doing OK tonight?”

Simple question. From a human to other humans. It was cold, it was late, and I had observed visual and auditory signs that led me to believe the family was in crisis.

The man responded quickly with, “Why?”

There was a lot of energy behind that word. Energy I wasn’t expecting. I explained, “I wasn’t sure if you needed any help. I thought I would check. It’s what I would want someone to do for me.”

He told me they were tourists and that they had been sitting on those steps for over an hour and not one other person who had walked by had said one word to them. He said it to me to convey that they were OK — or perhaps to mock me for talking to them. I wished them a good night and continued on.

Last week The National Center on Family Homelessness released a report on homelessness in America. One in 30 children in America do not have a home. Think about the number of kids in your child’s school and start doing the math. It’s heartbreaking and it’s not OK.

“Many homeless children struggle in school, missing days, repeating grades, and drop out entirely. Up to 25 percent of homeless preschool children have mental health problems requiring clinical evaluation; this increases to 40 percent among homeless school-age children.”

The week before Thanksgiving is Homelessness Awareness Week. In a beautiful editorial, “Open Your Eyes: Homelessness and Hunger Are All Around Us,” the paper shares, “The timing of National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week is not to make you feel guilty for those blessings but even more intensely grateful for them — and perhaps moved to act on behalf of the invisible, nameless hungry and homeless people in our midst.”

When it comes to seeing a family in potential crisis I will always stop. I will always see if everything is OK. I will not walk by a family at 10 PM sitting outside in freezing weather. I just won’t. We are all in this together and one day it might be my family on those steps — and indeed it almost was.

A few years ago the bottom fell out for my family. I wrote about the experience and shared, “We were inches away from conversations about sleeping in the car and finding family shelters. We were almost homeless. And then we were homeless. We thought we had time to get back on our feet.” If it wasn’t for the overwhelming kindness and generosity of a woman who read my blog, my family would have been on the streets. Thankfully she reached out. She didn’t “walk on by.”

I’m guessing many of you don’t walk on by either, and if you do, it’s because you don’t know what to do if you stop. Or maybe you think there is nothing you could do to help homeless families, so why bother?

I spoke with Bruce Gimbel, a Pastor who runs a homeless shelter in Florida, and also Chief Thomas Nestel III, the senior law enforcement officer of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA) Police, responsible for what he terms “the safety of a city of a million people in transit.” They both take a lot of initiative in helping those who are in need.

According to both men, one of the first and most useful things we can do is to be prepared with information. Pastor Gimbel says, “Anyone wanting to help should first know the contact information of the local police, Domestic Violence Shelter, Family Shelter, Family Services and/or Fire/Rescue.” Chief Nestel suggests we store this information in our smart phones so it is always easily accessible.

Helping a family in crisis begins with conversation. Engage with the family. Ask if they need help. Chief Nestel shares, “You can advise a family in crisis where to go for immediate assistance and provide worthwhile guidance.”

Don’t ever assume you know better if a family tells you they don’t need help. There is no way for you to know what a family is going through. All you can do is ask if they are OK, if they need help, and then you need to be OK with the answer that is given.

When it comes to seeing families in crisis with children, it does make it especially hard to know what to do. If you feel like the children are in immediate danger, the best thing to do, according to Chief Nestel, is to call the local authorities.

“I recommend contacting 911 and asking for the police to assess the family’s well being. The police would then confirm that the children were in good condition and ask the parents if they would be willing to accept help. The agencies that provide assistance for the homeless in Philadelphia are always looking for volunteers. If you wish to be more active in reducing homelessness in Philadelphia, call and volunteer!”

Pastor Gimbel is also a big advocate of volunteering at local agencies. He says, “These agencies are staffed to provide immediate and long-term help. It is also a good way to learn more about the people we find homeless each day. These agencies are a safe place for children to help and be secure in providing the basics for those in need.”

If you feel you are ready to help, look at the resources below and start to make a list of who and where to call if you see the need. Keep copies of your list to share with any family you speak with who indicate they need help.

Most importantly, open your eyes and acknowledge the people you see. Smile, say hello and good morning. The Coalition for the Homeless reminds us:

“The question of how to help a homeless person on the streets is not always an easy one … the best place to start is by remembering the humanity of each man or woman you see in a public place. Treat each and every person with dignity – but also follow your own instincts. And remember that small acts of kindness can have tremendously positive repercussions in the lives of others.”

I am forever grateful to the woman who helped my family in crisis. When you are the recipient of such benevolence, you never see the world the same again. You realize every person you meet is a possibility to connect and a possibility to help. I will always strive to pay forward the kindness that was once shown to us.

Helpful Resources for Families in Crisis:

Find a Women’s Shelter Near You
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233
Find Shelters specifically for families and families with pets through the National Coalition for the Homeless

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

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