In this column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate, Professor of English Rosemary Haskell draws from her own personal experiences in addressing the complexity of friendship with someone who is homeless. The column was published by the Burlington Times-News and the Greenville Daily Reflector.
By Rosemary Haskell
In a recent editorial, the News and Observer of Raleigh, N.C., commented that “Homelessness is not just about being without a home. It’s about being without a friend, without a family member, without someone who can be your first resort, or your last.”
But what might it actually mean to be a “friend” to a homeless person? How do the abstract phrases “first and last resort” translate into practice?
Years ago, for several months, I knew a homeless person whose own friendship began to teach me what that “friend” mentioned in the editorial might be, and do. I learned that it is not easy to be a friend to a homeless person. It’s a challenge to work out how to be and to do the things that person needs and wants. Even more important can be figuring out how to understand what the person is able to accept.
Homeless people are often peripatetic. Their moving lives full of departures, arrivals, re-appearances, and changes of town and county can mean you may lose touch, and periodically be reunited.
This movement, coupled with the risk of stolen or lost identification documents, also makes it difficult to navigate bureaucracies that are otherwise helpful, and even friendly. “Government” money such as disability payments, social security and unemployment benefits may be sitting in the pipeline, but the logistics of homelessness and its contingent disruptions gum up the works. Can you help that money start flowing again?
You, the friend, may try to find transportation, to help with paperwork navigation and office negotiations, and to provide funds for getting IDs replaced or renewed. Where, however, will all that mail be received? What address will be attached to the new or re-established bank account? You, the friend, may be both the new postal address, and the mail carrier.
Here’s another question: are you, the friend, going to say, “Come and stay with me”? It’s tempting. How can you drop off a friend on the dark, rainy street on a chilly February night? Out he gets, to go home to his cardboard box? What kind of a human being are you? Or, parting on a horribly hot day, you go home to your air-conditioning while your homeless friend toughs out the humid, 90-degree weather.
Perhaps you’d feel less awful if you had also offered a ride to a local homeless shelter and been turned down. If you can afford it, a night or two in a hotel could be an occasional offer. But, generally, that “come and stay with me” route may not look at all inviting. And even if you made the offer, it might be rejected.
That’s because, in part, homelessness is a many-sided condition. It can involve not only lack of money, but also mental illness, physical frailty, and a puzzling, even scarily alien, life story. These things will probably give you pause and may also help explain why some people just don’t want to dwell in homeless shelters.
Most puzzling, however, could be the fact that even if you help someone find a permanent place to stay, they may not stay there, even if it’s affordable. That’s a difficult lesson for the rest of us to learn — why, oh why, would you give up this nice warm apartment, a place where you’re safe, can take showers and put your food in a fridge, to go back to life on the streets?
Though mysterious to the housed, this is a choice that makes sense to those used to another life, to those who just cannot live in close proximity to roommates, or who simply prefer to be outside and apart.
Solutions? Alleviations? Google “homelessness” and “solutions” and you’ll find many who are trying to help. You’ll learn about city and county initiatives, even nationwide pilots, designed to address some of the needs of those without permanent shelter. More power to all of them.
But I wonder if the best thing the friend of the homeless person can do is to show that you care. Friends don’t always have to be advising, giving, providing, or urging.
In our “normal” friendships, what do we usually do? Talk, exchange news, share photos, sympathize with each other, trade advice and help on a fairly equal basis. We arrange to meet next week for coffee. We visit each other in the hospital.
If you can do all that — with anyone — you have done something valuable. And you have received something valuable. If every homeless person had that kind of friendship, along with the opportunity to be that kind of friend as well, the quantity of human happiness would rise dramatically.
Views expressed in this column are the author's own and not necessarily those of Elon University.