How to help a homeless relative or loved one

It’s a common misconception that homeless people are on the streets because they’re lazy or addicted. People become homeless for many reasons, and its almost never a choice. Many lose their homes due to foreclosure, poverty, unemployment, mental illness, and physical injury. In all cases, they feel the only option is to hit the streets.

It can be frustrating helping a homeless person without enabling them. It is even more heartbreaking when the homeless person is a relative or loved one. While your homeless loved one needs the same help and services as anyone else, they need something more from you: Your unconditional love, support, and advocacy. You can be a rock of consistency for your loved one. When everyone else gives up on them, you  can tell them how much you care by still being there. By never giving up, you offer the best hope to lift your loved one out of homelessness for good.

A relative or loved one is homeless or at-risk of becoming homeless. What should I do?

  1. If your loved one recently lost a home due to foreclosure, unemployment, or other factors, you can offer your home as temporary shelter. Be sure to set a timeline for moving out, and have clear rules for living in your house. Keep your loved one accountable while he/she searches for work or housing, and offer what assistance you can during a job and housing search. If your loved one is struggling with addiction, severe mental health issues, or is potentially dangerous, it might not be a good idea to offer your home for temporary shelter.
  2. If you are unable to provide shelter due to financial or other reasons, contact a family member or friend who may be able to provide shelter. Ideally, the person providing shelter should be knowledgeable of the loved one you’re helping, and should feel safe providing shelter. Some ideas for temporary shelter include:
    1. A spare room
    2. A safe outbuilding with multiple entryways and electricity
    3. A camper or RV
    4. A tent
  3. Contact a crisis assistance program. These programs may be able to provide emergency funds such as a security deposit or first month’s rent. Check your state or municipal programs for a list of crisis assistance services near you.
  4. If you or a loved one are unable to offer your homes for temporary housing, book a hotel room or space at a hostel. Hotels can be expensive, so be sure to find alternative housing ASAP or ask relatives and friends to chip in to help cover the rate, or ask local religious organizations for assistance. Hostels aren’t available in every city, but they’re cheap. They don’t offer much privacy, and if your loved one is struggling with mental health issues or addiction, a hostel may not be the best choice. Click here to find hostels near you.
  5. Transitional housing. Transitional housing is designed as a bridge between a shelter and long-term housing. To find a program for your loved one, contact area shelters which provide social workers and other social services. These services often provide your loved one with housing, vocation training, rehabilitation services, counseling, and temporary financial assistance. There’s often a waiting list for such services, and the intake process can be daunting, so be sure to provide what advocacy you can for your loved one, who will likely be overwhelmed.
  6. Vocational training. Unemployment is one of the biggest barriers to finding housing. You can help your loved one by researching vocational training, GED courses, scholarships, and classes. If you can, help your loved one pay for classes, offer rides, and help him/her study.
  7. Transportation. You could help your loved one get to appointments, interviews, work, and other destinations unreachable by walking. You could:
    1. Drive your loved one with your personal vehicle
    2. Book an Uber or Lyft
    3. Buy tokens for public transportation
    4. Purchase or gift a bicycle for short-distance trips
  8. Assistance with acquiring services and benefits. Plenty of government services exist for the homeless:
    1. Help your loved one file for SNAP and other assistance from state and federal human service agencies.
    2. Most offices where you apply for food assistance can also help you fill out housing applications and find jobs. Just ask them.
    3. Help your loved one apply for Medicaid.
    4. If your loved one has a disability, he/she may qualify for disability payments and housing assistance. Click here to check eligibility and apply online.
    5. If your loved one is 65 or older, he/she is entitled to receive Social Security payments. Click here for more information.
  9. Provide food for your loved one. It’s usually a bad idea to give anyone a handout of money, but everyone needs food. If your loved one is struggling to find enough to eat, provide them with gift cards to nearby restaurants, buy them delivery, provide them with groceries, or fix a sack lunch. Besides providing basic nutrition, this will let your loved one know he/she is not alone and that you care for them. Eating with your loved one is also a great opportunity to stay connected and learn how you can help them better.
  10. Provide a basic cell phone. If your loved one doesn’t have a cell phone, you might consider providing a simple phone for texting and calling. A phone with rechargeable minutes is an affordable and convenient option, and is available at most large grocery stores.
  11. Provide clothes. Homeless folks often lack facilities to wash and store their clothing. Providing seasonal clothes to your loved one will help protect them from the elements and maintain dignity. Ask them what they need, and do what you can to provide new or gently used clothing. The homeless often need:
    1. Plenty of socks
    2. Undergarments
    3. Hats
    4. Winter gloves
    5. Season-appropriate jackets
    6. Raincoats
    7. Good athletic shoes
    8. Dress clothes for interviews and appointments
    9. Backpacks
  12. Offer your home for amenities. If your loved one can’t stay with you temporarily, you can still open your home to them for important services like:
    1. Laundry
    2. Showers
    3. Internet
    4. Storage of personal belongings

Remember, anytime you open your home to someone you’re risking your own comfort. Only offer your house if you feel safe and it won’t make your loved one too dependent on you.

If your loved one is missing or in immediate danger

  1. Call law enforcement immediately. Provide them with as much information about your loved one as you can.
  2. If the person is missing for more than three days, ask the police to place your missing loved one on the FBI’s endangered adult list. The FBI will share this information with law enforcement across the country.
  3. People over 21 can’t be forced into treatment or to return home if they haven’t committed a crime. Keep that in mind as you try to care for your loved one.
  4. Create a missing person flyer with a photo of your loved one, as well as information such as height, name, weight, hair color, last known location, last known clothes, etc. Be sure to ask for permission to place your flyers.
  5. Reach out to local organizations that might be able to help you find your loved one. These can include:
    1. Churches and other religious institutions. These organizations often offer many outreach services to the homeless, and there’s a chance your loved one may have used them. Show your missing person flyer to church leaders and volunteers. Keep in mind missing persons often reach out to the churches of their youth for help.
    2. Community health centers. These facilities often treat people regardless of their ability to pay. If your missing loved one needs basic services or healthcare, there’s a good chance he/she will visit a local community health center. Be sure to leave your flyer with center officials so they know who to look for. Many community health centers have bulletin boards, an excellent place to put your flyer.
    3. Libraries. A library is a perfect spot to escape the heat or cold, use the bathroom, and access a computer. Give your flyer to library staff, and they’ll be able to quickly find your loved one if he/she uses library services.
    4. College campuses. College campuses offer a lot of places for homeless to rest, get out from the heat and cold, and find something to eat. Show a picture of your missing loved one to campus authorities so they can contact you if they see your loved one.
    5. Hospitals. If your loved one seeks medical attention, it will be through the emergency room. Emergency room staff often remember people who come in from the streets. Provide local ER personnel with your flyer. While they might not be able to legally tell you if they found your loved one, they will be able to let your loved one know you are looking for him or her.
    6. Red Cross, Salvation Army, or other outreach centers. These centers offer many services for the homeless, including food and shelter, clothing, and other assistance services. There’s a good chance that your loved one will use these services, so give them your flyer and let them know you’d like to contact your relative should they see him/her. Shelters often keep a record of who has stayed at the facility, and will likely share this list with you.

Helpful resources

  1. Continuum of Care (CoC): The “front door” for homeless services across the country. Find a local CoC to learn more about the local services available for your loved one.
  2. 2-1-1 hotline. Trained staff are available 24/7 to help people find shelter, food, medical help, and other social services. Find your community’s 2-1-1 hotline here.
  3. Human Resources and Services Administration health center search map provides a database of clinics offering free or reduced cost care to the homeless.
  4. The National Association of Free and Charitable Clinics provides a searchable map of health providers offering free care to the homeless and at-risk.
  5. Feeding America food bank locator.
  6. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides food assistance to low income individuals and families. Click here to learn more about SNAP eligibility or call their national hotline at 1-800-221-5689.
  7. Women, Infants and Children (WIC) offers food assistance, education, health screening, referrals, and counseling for children and mothers.
  8. The National Call Center for Homeless Veterans offers confidential counseling for at-risk veterans and their families. Visit their website or call 1-877-424-3838.
  9. The Veterans Crisis Line offers 24/7 mental health chat lines. Chat online, call 1-800-273-8255, or text 838255.
  10. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans provides a directory of local service providers and help navigating assistance options. Visit the website or call 1-800-VET-HELP.
  11. The National Domestic Violence Hotline maintains 24/7 phone and online chat to anyone experiencing violence in the home, seeking counseling and other resources, or looking to escape an unhealthy relationship. Hop on an online chat or call 1-800-799-7233. In an emergency, call 9-1-1.
  12. The National Runaway Safeline provides a 24/7 confidential hotline for youth at risk of homelessness. Visit the website or call 1-800-786-2929.

Homelessness affects more than the person on the streets. When a loved one becomes homeless, their family may feel powerless to help. With perseverance, dedication, and consistency, you will play a major role in restoring the dignity, hope, and safety of your loved one.

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