Although we know homelessness can happen to anyone, it’s easy to assume it’s always happening to someone else, somewhere else. It’s a sad, painful reality we try to distance ourselves from, if only mentally. But if we face enough hardship and bad luck, it’s important to keep this in mind: it can happen to ourselves and our loved ones.
The kind of poverty that leads to homelessness doesn’t typically happen all at once. There’s usually a process. Even if all it seems to take is one big event, that person was probably already at risk for homelessness somehow. This means there are warning signs for homelessness. It also means that if we pay close attention, we might be able to help.
The tricky part is, many people don’t want others to know they’re homeless or at-risk. Shame and embarrassment often prevent people from telling others they’re struggling and asking for help. Even though homelessness is so common, and many of us are closer to it than we realize, that urge to distance ourselves—and let others be distanced from us when we’re struggling—can get in the way of us coming together.
For this reason, it’s crucial to be able to recognize the warning signs of homelessness. Stigma and shame will probably try to get in the way of you being there for your loved ones, so you need to be ahead of it. You also need to know how to respond. Talking about homelessness shouldn’t be as hard as it is. However, helping a loved one who is facing it, and having those conversations even when it’s hard, goes a long way toward normalizing it.
What Are the Warning Signs of Homelessness?
People who are at-risk for becoming homeless, or already are, may have any of the following behaviors, habits, or characteristics.
People who are homeless may go several days without showering because they simply don’t have access to a shower. Their hair may be dirty, or they may wear the same clothes several days in a row. Men may be unshaven. Other grooming habits may not be a high priority, like getting haircuts.
Homelessness is a highly stressful situation. People facing it behave differently than those with a secure roof over their heads. Examples of stress-induced behaviors include:
- Being easily distracted or seem to have a short attention span;
- Withdrawal from loved ones;
- Anxious behaviors, such as pacing or fidgeting;
- Relying too much on unhealthy ways of dealing with stress
Difficulty Keeping a Schedule
Homeless people are likely to run into problems with schedules and deadlines. This may be because they don’t have a reliable car or reliable technology. People who are homeless may have many absences from school or work or show up late more often than not.
Defensiveness When Asked Questions
They might become defensive when asked direct questions about where they live. Again, the shame runs deep in homelessness; people in the trenches of it may avoid or seem embarrassed when asked questions about their housing status. This is why it’s imperative to avoid making assumptions.
Lack of Organization
Homelessness, by definition, comes with disorganization. It’s normal for a person who is homeless to have their belongings in three separate places. This especially causes problems for children in school. They may arrive without a backpack or with a backpack but missing essentials like a notebook.
Missing important records is another sign of homelessness. It’s hard to keep easy access to documents, so immunization records or birth certificates may get lost or stuck somewhere else.
Homeless people are more likely to be sick due to exposure to the elements or crowding of people in a shelter. Poor hygiene can also contribute to health problems, such as skin rashes. Lack of insurance can contribute to poor dental health or the inability to see a doctor. Lack of sleep due to not having a safe and comfortable environment to sleep in can also cause health problems.
What Can I Do to Help?
It can seem difficult to approach someone with concerns about homelessness simply because it’s a sensitive topic. Regardless of whether or not it should be sensitive, it is, and we need to respect others’ space. Being aware of the shame that often comes with topics of homelessness helps us to be more sensitive.
That’s why it’s never a good idea to directly ask someone if they are homeless based on one or two warning signs. If you point out that they’ve worn the same shirt three days in a row and ask if that means they’re homeless, you probably won’t get the kind of response you’re hoping for. Behavioral observations are good clues, but if you want to offer help, it’s important to have an honest conversation, free of assumptions and judgment.
So, how do you do that? Here are a few ideas:
- State your concerns based on observations, and offer help specific to them. For example, “I notice you’ve worn that shirt a lot lately. Do you need help with laundry?” This communicates your concern and leaves the door open for the other person to explain. If they aren’t ready to tell you everything, they might at least let you help with the problem at hand—in this example, laundry.
- Ask open-ended questions about their living situation. An open-ended question is one the other person can’t answer with a simple yes or no. Instead of asking if they have somewhere to sleep, ask what their living situation is like, if they are doing all right, etc.
- Just ask if you can help with anything. If they’ve given you any hints at all that they’re in need, don’t hesitate to offer help. It doesn’t need to be specific—just say you’re there for them and will help in any way you can. Be genuine, and follow through with what you say you will do.
You don’t have to be rich yourself, or a landlord, or have a spare room in your house to help someone facing homelessness. Helping might look like referring them to an agency in your area that offers housing services. It could be as simple as giving them a hotline number to call in the event of a crisis. Or maybe that person just needs someone to listen and offer empathy—it isn’t always about fixing, even if we want to fix it. Care and compassion go a long way toward helping, even if we can’t immediately see it.