Are There Limits To Helping The Homeless?

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Dear Miriam,

The same homeless man always sits in the same place outside my office building. As I see him nearly every day, we recognize each other, and I often give him some money or food, or even just stop to chat. He’s shared some details about losing touch with his family and more specifics about his circumstances. I see a person in need and I want to help, but also, what are the limits on what I can do for this person?


Helping the Homeless


Dear Helping,

Your impulse to help a person in need is, of course, a good one. Deuteronomy 15:7-8 says, “Do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.” Isaiah 58:7 says: “Share your bread with the hungry, and bring the poor that are cast out to your house.” Your thoughts are righteous and your goals show a responsibility both to this individual and to the greater good. Importantly, these quotes also show both that homelessness is a long-standing problem of humanity, and that helping people in need is an enduring value.

And yet, the limits are real, and you’re right to figure out your boundaries before entering further into a relationship with this person whose needs go beyond what you can provide. The fact that you are approaching this person with respect to his humanity means you’re already giving him more than the vast majority of people who also pass by him every day. That’s an embarrassingly low bar for society, but I’m sure both you and he realize that most of the other people walking into your office building aren’t offering him the same courtesy. In addition to offering him food and cash as you’ve been doing, you could ask him if there’s something else material you could provide: a blanket, or new socks, or toiletries perhaps. These goods won’t fix his problems, but they may provide some temporary comforts.

I also recommend contacting a local homeless advocacy organization. Explain the situation to them and ask what they would recommend. Maybe they can send an advocate to talk to him, or they can tell you hours for a shelter that you could pass along to him. They may have other suggestions that you would find useful, and you may simply find it cathartic to explain to someone who’s used to interacting with this population that you’ve connected this person and that you want to help. 

Above all, I think, you need to manage your expectations for how far your help will really go. I would caution you against giving him your contact information or sharing where you live. I don’t mean that to be paranoid, but, rather, that is a place where I would hold firm on boundaries. We have a tragic problem of homelessness in this country, but it’s society’s problem, and not yours to shoulder alone.

You can advocate with local politicians for affordable housing and safe shelters, you can give tzedekah both to individuals and to organizations, you can volunteer with groups that offer direct support to people on the street, and you can continue being a kind person who gives directly to this one man with whom you’ve made a connection. You cannot find him a home, or reunite him with his estranged family, or fix whatever circumstances led him to be on the street in the first place. As long as you continue to recognize that there are limits, you are setting an important example to everyone else around you that doing something is better than doing nothing.

Be well,