Diana Perez, 29, grew up in Paterson, N.J., with a single mother. She began using drugs as a teen, and upon moving to New York at age 21, she partied and used cocaine heavily.
After losing her Starbucks
job and falling short on rent, Perez found herself sporadically homeless between 2014 and 2016 — sleeping on the 6 subway train, at friends’ homes and, when it got cold, at her mother’s place in New Jersey.
“I just bounced around from place to place, and the train station is where I would go the days when no one would answer me,” Perez told MarketWatch.
During a 2017 rehab stint, Perez learned about Project Renewal, a New York nonprofit that provides health services, housing and employment services to people in need. Through the organization’s Next Step internship program, Perez landed a paid internship at Marsha’s House, a Project Renewal shelter for LGBTQ young adults.
She worked her way up to a residential-aide job at the shelter, and now works full-time as a shift supervisor while studying human services full-time at Monroe College in the Bronx. She has her own apartment close to work and school, and credits Next Step with helping her land stable employment and housing.
About 552,830 people in the U.S. experienced homelessness on a single night in January 2018, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s most recent point-in-time estimate of homelessness, a 0.3% increase over the previous year. Nearly two-thirds were in sheltered locations like transitional housing or emergency shelters, while just over a third were in unsheltered locations like the street.
California and New York had the greatest numbers of people experiencing homelessness that night, according to the HUD report, with 129,972 people in California and 91,897 in New York. They also had relatively high rates of people experiencing homelessness — 33 and 46 in every 10,000 people, respectively — as did Hawaii (46 per 10,000) and Oregon (35 per 10,000).
Meanwhile, the cost of living continues to outpace wages in many places. For example, someone earning the $7.25-an-hour federal minimum wage would need to work almost 127 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom rental, or 103 hours a week to afford a one-bedroom rental, according to a report published this year by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
“Low wages, wage inequality, racial inequities and a severe shortage of affordable rental homes leave too many vulnerable people unable to afford their housing,” the report said.
‘It hits you when you get back home’
A global 52-city event last Saturday sought to drive home some empathy. The World’s Big Sleep Out, featuring a constellation of stars including Will Smith and Helen Mirren, had an estimated 50,000 people sleeping outside in spaces like New York’s Times Square and London’s Trafalgar Square to urge action and raise money to help people experiencing homelessness. Funds raised would go 50-50 to local charities and global charities.
The sprawling event was by no means meant to be “an actual replication of the actual reality of homelessness,” campaign founder Josh Littlejohn, co-founder of the Scottish charity Social Bite, told MarketWatch last week. But he did hope it would foster a sense of global unity on eliminating homelessness, and offer people some perspective.
“It’s one night. You’re freezing cold and you get through it, and it’s not too bad,” Littlejohn said. “It hits you when you get back home to your own place and you get showered and changed. … You can’t really imagine doing that again for a second night, or a third.”
Meanwhile, a viral Instagram video posted by street artist Banksy on Monday showed a man named Ryan lying down on a Birmingham, England bench being hauled by a pair of painted reindeer on the wall behind him.
“God bless Birmingham,” Banksy wrote. “In the 20 minutes we filmed Ryan on this bench passers-by gave him a hot drink, two chocolate bars and a lighter — without him ever asking for anything.”
What you can do
If you’d like to help people experiencing homelessness, here are seven pieces of advice from Perez, Littlejohn, and other activists and academics on where to start:
At a bare minimum, make eye contact and treat people experiencing homelessness like people, said Elizabeth Bowen, a homelessness expert at the University of Buffalo.
Try a simple “Hello,” “How are you doing?,” “Do you need anything today?” or “How can I help you?” Perez said. “A lot of homeless people are open about their stories — it just doesn’t hurt to ask,” she added. “You never know who you could help out if you just take the time to actually find out how they got to where they are and how you can help.”
Get to know the people you see regularly, said Giselle Routhier, the policy director for the New York-based Coalition for the Homeless. “It actually makes a difference in their day, and will help you to understand how people become homeless,” she said.
Get informed. Follow national advocacy organizations’ efforts on issues like homelessness, affordable housing and wages, Bowen said, so that you can take action when a policy window opens. And pay attention to how your own local community approaches homelessness, she said: Does it try to move or cover up the issue (such as through sweeps, arrests or free one-way bus tickets) or try to solve it at its roots?
Hold your legislators accountable. Know who your elected officials are at the city, municipality, state and federal level, Routhier said, and email or call to say that homelessness is an important issue to you. Ask what they’re doing about it. Research causes and solutions for homelessness to help educate your elected officials, she added.
Writing a letter to your mayor, editor of your local paper may have a bigger impact than you realize, especially if you encourage friends and family to do the same, said Steve Berg, the vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH). “Those kinds of things really do have an impact for elected officials when they’re setting priorities,” he said.
Better yet, think of the five most influential people you know in your community — like the owner of your company, your pastor or your police-officer friend — and convince them to write to the mayor as well, Berg added.
To truly address homelessness, charitable efforts are not enough, Bowen said. “We have to look at these bigger-picture factors,” she said, including a lack of affordable housing and the fact that employment hasn’t kept pace with the cost of housing.
Donate money to trusted organizations. Consult friends, neighbors and resources like Charity Navigator to find a group in your community that’s reputable and does good work, said Routhier. Littlejohn, for instance, suggested donating to two New York nonprofit partners of the Sleep Out: Breaking Ground, whose services include street outreach and permanent supportive and affordable housing, and the Ali Forney Center, which provides emergency and transitional housing for homeless LGBTQ youth.
At the national policy-advocacy level, Bowen recommended donating to the NAEH and the National Network for Youth. Berg suggested also donating to causes that cross over with homelessness, including the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
To truly address homelessness, charitable efforts are not enough, Bowen said.
Tanya Tull, a leading homelessness and housing activist and president of the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Partnering for Change, advised donating to an organization that will use your money to get people into housing and/or help pay their rent. “I would request that the funding go towards that, not towards the agency’s operations,” she said.
Before donating resources or time, gauge an organization’s actual needs. “You could say, ‘I’m going to go out and buy a bunch of blankets,’” Bowen said. “Maybe they already have blankets … but they really need volunteer time, or they really need hygiene products.” By the same token, she said, don’t assume you know what any given person experiencing homelessness needs or wants at one moment in time — instead, try to provide help or services driven by their stated needs.
Know your local resources so you can connect someone with help. Many organizations provide lists of local food, crisis-intervention, shelter and legal resources. You can ask a person if they need help, but if you don’t feel comfortable approaching the person directly, you can call your non-emergency city-services number (311 in New York) to have an outreach team dispatched, says the Coalition for the Homeless. (Keep in mind, too, that some individuals may have had negative experiences with the shelter system.) If the person appears to need medical assistance, call 911.
Do your part to reduce stigma around homelessness. Once you’ve educated yourself about the issue, talk with friends and family, Bowen said. If you hear negative stereotypes about people experiencing homelessness, challenge them with facts. “We won’t really be able to have the policy that we need to make a difference on homelessness without having a broader understanding in society about what homelessness really is,” she said, “and what causes it.”
“The stigma is that you choose to be homeless, or it’s your fault — but sometimes you’re just going through a downfall, a low point in your life, whether it be substance-use disorder or just financial issues or family issues,” said Perez, the Project Renewal worker who has experienced homelessness. “It’s a bigger picture than what people can see when you’re a homeless person out there.”
This story was originally published Dec. 6, 2019, and has been updated.