10 Ideas For Helping Homeless People

help the homelessIn addition to finding ways to build relationships with the poor, we are building relationships with the homeless and finding small ways in which we can help them.

We have over ten thousand homeless people in our city. We want to help, not make it attractive to live on the street, if sleeping on a cold sidewalk in a rainstorm might be considered attractive.

San Diego has agencies that work on permanent solutions for getting the homeless off the street. However, for every ten that get off the street at least ten take their place. Some never get off the street. We know some who have been living on the street for over twenty years.

My wife and I do not have the skills or resources to get people off the street. We try to help those who are waiting their turn to get into one of the shelters or programs that provide housing and services, and some who cannot get into shelters or programs because they are unable or unwilling to follow the rules (which usually have to do with drug and alcohol usage and behavior).

There is no template, one-size-fits-all plan that works for what we think of as “giving a cup of cold water” to our friends on the street. If we lived in Chicago or New York City, we would need to adjust some of what we do, especially in the winter.

Do You Need New Underwear?

  1. We go to where the homeless live on the streets. (We do not go to the homeless scattered in the canyons and backcountry.) We park our car, get out, walk the streets and meet them.
  2. We greet them and tell them that we have water and whatever else we have with us that day, and ask if they need some of those things. We usually keep our supplies in a garden wagon that we pull behind us.
  3. We ask their names, shake their hands when possible and hug them when they want hugged.
  4. We talk to those who want to talk to us. We meet brilliant, unemployed people who have PHDs, people who are mentally ill and make no sense, and lots of people somewhere between those extremes.
  5. We ask them what they need that they have difficulty finding. Tarps are the number one request in winter. New, clean underwear is also high on the list. Those who sleep in a shelter at night have fewer needs. Those who sleep outdoors have a greater need for warm clothing, sleeping bags, blankets and that sort of thing when the weather is cold.
  6. Since we buy almost everything we give away, we try to find sources for decent quality products at a good price. For example, we have sources for inexpensive, bulk supplies of soap, shampoo, lotion, razors. toothbrushes, toothpaste, Q-tips and so on. (Hotel supply companies and dollar stores)
  7. We work with a local food distribution group to acquire inexpensive supplies of fruit, crackers, cookies and similar products that are packed in small packages.
  8. We have an inexpensive source for 6 X 8 tarps with corner grommets for wet weather use (Harbor Freight – $1.99).
  9. We scour garage sales, thrift shops, and swap meets to find used clothing, backpacks, sleeping bags and similar items that are in good condition. We do not give away new clothing, except socks and underwear. (I’ll explain why in the “Do’s and Don’ts” in the following post). We wash the clothing, fold and label it with the size on a strip of masking tape and put a stack on our wagon.
  10. Our friend David, who goes with us each time, always brings a couple of dozen packages of baby wipes (great for cleaning dirty hands), and a few other people give us used clothing. Two other friends give us bags of new socks and occasionally tarps.

care package for the homelessWater, food, toiletries, clothes, and similar items are temporary help at best. Some people assume that hundreds of churches and individuals hand out these sorts of things to the homeless. That doesn’t happen. Christmas may be big, but the rest of the year is hit and miss.

We frequently hear comments such as “That’s the first water I’ve had since yesterday,” “I’m wearing the only pair of pants I’ve had for six months and they’re full of holes,” “I haven’t had any underwear for months,” “We’ve been under the bridge at night with the addicts and are afraid to go to sleep. With these tarps we can get away from them and sleep at night.”

From time to time we see efforts by Christians and churches to “evangelize” the homeless and tell them about Jesus. We assume something of the message must get through, but have observed that is not always the case.

Do we tell people about Jesus? We’ll look at that in the last post in this series, just after the following post on the “Ten Do’s and Ten Don’ts – Loving the Poor and Homeless”

Have you discovered ways to help your homeless friends? Please share your experiences in the Comments section below.


This post is part of a series on How to Help Homeless People by Sam Riviera. He and his wife have been loving, serving, and developing relationships with the homeless in their town for many years, and is writing this blog series to help all of us reach out to the homeless in our towns with the love of Jesus.

Here are more posts in this series:

Blog Series on Helping Homeless People

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