• “The main thing is to be kind." (EyeEm/Getty Images)
Do you often want to help homeless people doing it tough but don't know what to do or give? We ask the experts the best ways you can assist those without a permanent place to call home.
Shannon McKeogh

16 Jun 2017 - 11:33 AM  UPDATED 28 Jun 2017 - 10:53 AM

The morning is so cold it hurts my bones. The fog is thick and my breath visible when I see a man. He is cocooned in a coarse blanket on the street, his feet and toes poke out of the ends, around him in black rubbish bags are all the belongings he owns.

I think about buying him a hot meal. A better blanket? Anything. Instead, I do what so many of us do when confronted with a person who is homeless: nothing.

It seems there’s a common idea holding us back: what difference can I make?

According to charitable bodies Mission Australia and Homelessness Australia, your loose change, kind words and understanding that goes beyond pity may have more impact than you know.

“It’s not ‘the other people’, it really could be us.”

See the person, not the stereotype and make a human connection

Each night 105,237 people are homeless in Australia. Yet only six per cent of the homeless we see are ‘rough sleepers’ – those who sleep in the streets, tents, in the shop fronts or park benches. But the majority of the homeless are couch-surfing, sleeping in cars, staying in shelters or staying at friends or families.

Jenny Smith, CEO of Homelessness Australia believes the most important thing is to be kind and to see the person without pity.

“So many of us are only a loss of a job, or an unexpected health issue away from being in financial trouble and at risk of being homeless,” says Smith. “It’s not ‘the other people’, it really could be us.”

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James Toomey, executive of operations and fundraising at Mission Australia says that homeless people often feel excluded from their communities.

“They are human like the rest of us and they deserve that human respect no matter what their circumstances are,” explains Toomey. “It can be very lonely living on the street and in my experience, if you take the time to talk to someone … they are usually very happy to have the company.

“There’s nothing that can reinforce you feeling marginalised like people just ignoring you.”

Time and money – donate it, if you can

While some organisations and services that support homelessness receive government funding, many rely on donations or volunteers to helping those who need it most. Giving directly, or volunteering at an op shop or other homelessness service a few hours a week does help.

Even small change can add up says Toomey. “If everyone who felt like they couldn’t make a difference gave $5, we would have a lot of money to address homelessness.”

And should we give directly?

When it comes to food and blankets, it is best to donate to charity says Smith “with no cover these things become spoilt and wet after a very short period of time.”

Giving money to a homeless person is a personal choice, she says.

“There’s nothing that can reinforce you feeling marginalised like people just ignoring you.”

“The main thing is to be kind. If you feel like you can give them some money, which might allow them to get a night in a motel, or a hot meal that’s always a good idea.

“Anything you can do to make them feel like a part of the community, and not isolated, and on the outer.”

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Speak out and vote for what matters to you

Addressing homelessness may seem like a political issue, but ensuring everyone feels safe in our society is a basic human right.

So when it comes to helping homeless people, Smith urges all Australians to vote for change on homelessness issues at government elections and make sure the voice of the vulnerable is heard. “The biggest thing we can do is to make sure that when are going to an election, whether federal, state or local, is that those representing us have a sensible housing and homelessness policy as part of their platform,” says Smith.

“It doesn’t matter what your leaning is, or your political philosophy … this is something all sides and leaders need to be grappling with.

 “We’ve got to get involved in campaigns and write to our MPs and call into talk-back radio, and let people know that this is an important issue for us and we just can’t keep ignoring it.”

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @shannylm Facebook @shannonmckeoghfreelance

SBS have partnered with foodora to bring you Meal For A Meal, an initiative that invites you to make a difference in the lives of homeless Australians. By simply adding a donation to your next foodora order, you'll be sending a meal directly to those in need. 

All proceeds go to OzHarvest: Australia's leading food rescue operation, providing healthy meals to disadvantaged Australians. Click here to find out more.

To explore the issue of homelessness in Australia further, tune in to SBS's new three night special event Filthy Rich & Homeless, 27-29 June, 8.30pm. 

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