How Do I Talk with a Homeless Person?

We hold conversations all the time yet rarely think about it. Yet talking with others offers a gateway to understanding others who live in our community. Key choices, sometimes unconscious, come into play when we talk with anyone, including strangers. What if the stranger appears to be homeless? Winston Ross, a journalist, interviewed the homeless and those who work with them about this question.[1] He suggests five conversation starters:

“I don’t have money, but is there another way I can help you?” This works especially well if you are uncomfortable giving cash or do not have any to offer. Often there is one specific thing that can help a person in need. A homeless advocate in San Francisco often hands out pairs of socks or granola bars, along with her agency’s business card.

“Did you catch the game?” Athletic events can often be seen on televisions at shelters. Talking about sports can be interesting, and it equalizes the conversation in the sense that anyone of whatever class can participate on the same footing.

“Good morning.” Acknowledging someone by making eye contact and offering a greeting seems so basic, and yet it can be make a difference. As a homeless advocate in San Antonio, Texas, puts it, “The non-homeless person almost never looks the homeless in the eye. If you just look a person in the eye and sort of nod, it’s the most respectful thing you can ever do.”

“How are you doing? Would you like to talk?” The good thing about these questions is that they are open-ended, offering the person a choice of whether to go deeper. Joe, a homeless person in Portland, Oregon, says not to be surprised if someone is not interested in chatting. “You’re getting into people’s personal lives. Maybe they don’t want to discuss that with a stranger.” If the conversation continues, it can serve a real need—reducing social isolation that can be especially acute for those who live on the streets.

“I will keep you in my thoughts.” This phrase, or something like it, conveys respect and caring. If you are comfortable with this, offer to pray with someone. Sean Gasson, a thirty two year old homeless man in Portland, says, “When someone prays with you, it just make you feel a little better.”

While talking with others may seem natural, it is learned behavior. It never hurts to review the basics of something so important and potentially life giving. Sherry Turkle, in Reclaiming Conversation, asserts that conversation is where we develop the capacity for empathy.”[2] If that’s true, then we simply cannot have too many of them, even if it’s only to pass the time of day with a stranger.

 

[1] Winston Ross, “Ever Wonder What to Say to a Homeless Person? Here are 5 Things to Say and 5 Things not to Say,” September 10, 2014, Nation Swell, http://nationswell.com/homeless-america-5-things-to-say/ (accessed July 6, 2018).

[2] Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (New York: Penguin Press, 2015), 3.

Photo: CarolinaJG. Morguefile license.

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