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The best ways to help homeless people

And not just at the holidays.

A person stands speaking to people sitting wrapped in blankets on a city sidewalk.
A Red Cross volunteer brings hot food and blankets to people during the night service to assist the homeless on November 13, 2022, in Catania, Italy. 
Fabrizio Villa/Getty Images
Rachel M. Cohen is a senior reporter for Vox covering social policy. She focuses on housing, schools, homelessness, child care, and abortion rights, and has been reporting on these issues for more than a decade.

I’ve been covering America’s homeless crisis at Vox all year. Last month, a reader reached out to ask what practical step they could take to help the people they see sleeping on the streets, besides giving time to food drives and occasionally handing out a drink on their walk from the store. “I often feel helpless to enact change,” the reader said.

I had some ideas but decided this was an important question to answer thoroughly, including challenging my initial assumptions about what would be most helpful. So I reached out to leading national and local experts on homelessness to get their thoughts. Their ideas represent a range of approaches, including helping individuals while working to change the system. Crucially, they encouraged doing both: Individual actions reinforce system-level change, and vice versa. A world where nobody donates blankets and socks to people experiencing homelessness is also one where political advocacy will struggle to make change.

This is a time of year when people might be especially focused on helping others and when freezing temperatures in much of the country make it particularly unsafe for people to sleep outside. But it’s not the only time of year that it’s important. Scorching temperatures can be dangerous in their own right, and the lack of affordable housing is a year-round issue.

Here are some of the best ways to help the unhoused, and not just during the holiday season:

1. Show kindness to those living on the street

While not possible or advised in all circumstances, generally speaking, do not overlook simple and basic acts of kindness for those living without stable housing. “Look them in the eye when you walk by,” suggests Natalie Hogg, a board member and volunteer for StandUp for Kids, a youth homelessness nonprofit. “Stopping to ask how they are — being ‘seen’ and feeling like they matter means everything.”

Some national experts, like Jesse Rabinowitz with the National Homelessness Law Center, say the best thing someone could do on an individual level is to give people cash. “That enables folks to make their own choices, without red tape,” he told Vox. “People are the best experts in what they need.”

If you aren’t carrying cash, consider cash gift-card equivalents, like a Visa gift card or a gift card that allows someone to buy food and spend time inside somewhere, like a Starbucks, McDonald’s, or Subway, so they can get warm.

Beyond giving people cash or gift cards, certain items can be particularly helpful to carry around and distribute. Donald Whitehead, the executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, told me he aims to do one “random act of kindness” each week and carries blankets and socks around with him to hand out. Rabinowitz, with the National Homelessness Law Center, adds that hand-warmers and hats are particularly helpful to distribute during the winter, while water and frozen water bottles are go-to needed items in the summer.

2. Donate to local shelters and nonprofits

Donating your resources to local shelters and nonprofits working to help those without housing is another great option. (You can use this tool from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to find shelters in your community.) Homeless shelters often need clothing, sleeping bags, tech equipment, backpacks, and other items. Calling them to see what they might need is a smart first step.

Or consider making in-kind donations to local homeless advocacy and support groups. Hogg, with StandUp for Kids, said their chapters often need items like travel-size hygiene products, first aid items, bus passes, new and gently used clothing, office supplies, storage space, and non-perishable food.

Donating money — especially on a recurring basis — can also make a big difference. “Most don’t know that individual giving can be very important to nonprofits big and small because these gifts are unrestricted, meaning we can allocate the money wherever we see fit,” said James C. Durrah II, with Miriam’s Kitchen, a group working to end homelessness in Washington, DC. An “unrestricted” donation means that groups can use the money for all sorts of expenses they may have, including overhead, programming, events, and supplies.

If recurring donations are not possible for your budget right now, advocates suggest considering one-time donations or donating through your workplace, where your employer might be able to match your contribution. Cassidy O’Lear, a staffer with Family Promise, an organization focused on family homelessness, suggests launching your own fundraising campaign online, through Facebook or GoFundMe. “When you hear the word ‘fundraiser,’ images of formal dinners may come to mind,” she told Vox. “But with a virtual peer-to-peer campaign, you can bring people together to support those in need without tickets or tuxedos.”

Whitehead, with the National Coalition of the Homeless, stressed the value of donations, especially as of late. “We’re seeing flat funding for a lot of programs at the federal level,” he said. “Donations are down, but supporting nonprofits that can help guide people through homelessness is extremely important.”

3. Volunteer

While there exist a host of opportunities to volunteer around major holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, many local nonprofits have programs and recurring events that rely on volunteers year-round. At Miriam’s Kitchen in DC, for example, they manage a meal program five days a week, twice a day, that is largely run by volunteers. Finding ways to fit volunteering into hectic schedules can be tough, but there are practical ways to do it.

The staff who work at homeless nonprofits and shelters are typically very adept at finding ways to leverage the unique skill sets and interests of their volunteers. Maybe you’re tech-minded and can help an advocacy group improve its website. Maybe you have marketing skills or event-planning expertise. Or maybe you are interested in mentorship and the staff can connect you with homeless youth looking for guidance, support, or even academic tutoring. Getting in touch and starting a conversation is a great place to start.

4. Advocate politically

Nearly all the experts I contacted stressed the importance of using your voice to engage politically, on both the national and local levels, to help end the crisis of homelessness. That could take the form of writing to elected officials asking them to create more housing, or showing up to your local city council meeting where they’re discussing zoning to make this ask directly. Louis Chicoine, the CEO of Abode, a supportive housing organization in California, said people could also travel to the offices of their elected officials to ask why they have not done more to end homelessness, and prioritize voting for those with policy ideas dedicated to creating enough affordable housing for all Americans.

If you contact a local elected official, don’t feel like you need to call with a specific policy recommendation. Making a call just to express concern about the homeless crisis and the shortage of affordable housing goes a long way, said Rabinowitz, of the National Homelessness Law Center. “Small minorities of very vocal constituents can have an outsized impact on local government,” he said. “People should be vocal on sites like Nextdoor when their neighbor is saying something terrible about people experiencing homelessness. They should email their representative, comment on their Facebook page.”

Beyond engaging with public officials, remember that you can make a difference by educating your circle of family, friends, and coworkers. “Most people aren’t aware that every year, 2.5 million children experience homelessness in the US,” said O’Lear, with Family Promise. “You can take to social media to raise awareness.”

This crisis won’t be solved overnight. But there’s a lot each of us can do that would make a difference, both in the long run and right now.

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