It’s easy to donate to a holiday donation drive or to bake a pan of lasagna, but it’s uncomfortable to open yourself up to a stranger in need.
It was cold and wet the first time I visited the tent city. It was only a few weeks before Christmas and Seattle was experiencing one of the wettest Decembers on record. I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t an empty gravel field. The city had provided space for a tent city to form but little else. The work of creating a home from that barren field fell entirely on its future residents.
My kids and I joined one of the first community work parties, awkwardly wielding hammers as we helped build wooden platforms to keep the residents’ tents off the ground. As we worked side by side in our bulky winter garb, it was impossible to tell the future residents from the volunteers. When I struck up a conversation with a young mother next to me, I was surprised to find out that she and her son would be among the new residents. Another man showed me how to set up a tent in 30 seconds flat, explaining that he had been living on the streets for the last 15 years.
I went to the tent city with good intentions, and I was by no means the only one who wanted to help my neighbors. Donations poured in from the community, and I was cheered by the piles of winter clothing, socks, and blankets that arrived every day until the residents told me they had nowhere to put it all. They were overwhelmed by all of the goodwill, and soon I began to visit the encampment just to haul away soaking wet, ruined clothing, bedding, and even children’s toys. What couldn’t fit in my car had to be thrown away, quickly overfilling the dumpsters the city had provided for the tent city to use. Even the donations that were able to be kept clean and dry inside the encampment’s kitchen tent became a mountain that had to constantly be sorted and sent to other charitable sites nearby.
As Christmas approached, donations poured in at an even faster rate. I tried to organize the community donations and created an online sign-up sheet for hot meals, but there were too many individuals and groups that wanted to help—and most of them didn’t do any research or check in with camp management prior to showing up. Time and again, I arrived with hot food to discover that someone else had beat us to the punch. On Christmas Eve, three different groups arrived with hot meals for the residents.
Extra food might sound like a good problem to have but there wasn’t any power for refrigeration at the tent city. After two days, all of the leftovers had to be thrown away. As I scraped yet another home-cooked casserole into the garbage can, one of the residents laughed and shook his head. “If you’re going hungry in this neighborhood, there is something wrong with you,” he told me. “This town has hot meals every night of the week.” In all of our attempts to help, none of us had evaluated the help that was already out there. The camp didn’t need sporadic hot meals; they needed a constant supply of ready-to-eat meals like canned soups and protein bars to fill in the gaps.
I met Keith Ervin, a family support worker at a Seattle public school, a couple of weeks before Christmas. His office was filled to the brim with new bikes, toys, and bagged holiday meals, and he was rushing to get the gifts to his students before the break. Ervin works at one of the district’s poorest schools, with a large homeless population. When I asked him about the bikes lining his office walls, he laughed. “You have all these people wanting to give toys to kids, but they don’t have a place to live,” he said.
As we talked, Ervin pointed to the parking lot where one of his students had been living in their family’s car. He can help homeless families fill out paperwork to apply for benefits, but the biggest service he offers them is a listening ear and unwavering support. “I consider myself a mentor, a social worker, an advocate for parents, a liaison between teachers, administration, and families,” he told me. “I’m a jack of all trades.”
Ervin’s office serves as a food pantry and source of free hygiene items year-round, but most of the help pours in from Thanksgiving through Christmas. When the holidays are over, so are the majority of the donations. He has ideas about how to end that gap, and most of them center around large corporations spreading out their charitable giving more throughout the year. But individuals can find better ways to help, too. “It would help if people tried to get involved and understand,” he said. “When you have the knowledge, then you can better appreciate and help.”
As I listened to Ervin talk, I thought about my own experiences at the tent city. I never asked anyone what residents needed until I visited the encampment and saw the useless donations for myself; I didn’t try to coordinate hot meals until I threw away leftovers week after week. If I had shown up at the tent city without any assumptions and simply watched and learned, I would have avoided the mistakes I made and offered real, useful help instead. It was humbling to discover that I had more interest in being someone who helps others than getting to know the people I was supposed to be helping.
Getting to know the homeless as people is the most important part, according to Rex Holbein, the founder of Facing Homelessness. Holbein’s organization offers practical and financial assistance to homeless people, but its primary goal is to highlight their stories and encourage personal connections and empathy. Over the last six years, Holbein has been taking and displaying stunning black-and-white portraits of homeless individuals on his organization’s Facebook page. These have inspired donations from 32,000 people in 45 countries—and they’ve also forced viewers to look at homeless people in intimate detail, rather than from a distance.
Not everyone can volunteer, organize, or donate to help end homelessness, but Holbein doesn’t think they have to. He thinks the solution to homelessness will be found by people engaging in a spectrum of compassionate actions—which could mean as much as inviting a homeless person into your house or as little as just smiling and saying hello when you see someone living on the streets. “People who are homeless feel invisible. When we walk past them, we are a part of that,” Holbein said. “When you say hello on your way to work, in that moment, you begin to get a feel for what is going on. I know people will roll their eyes and say we need measurable accountable steps, but I think what’s really missing en masse is the love a community can provide people.”
It’s counterintuitive to think that smiling and saying hello can be more helpful than blankets and a home-cooked meal, but I’ve spent enough time at the tent city to know Holbein is right. It’s easy to donate to a holiday donation drive or to bake a pan of lasagna, but it’s uncomfortable to open yourself up to a stranger in need. It creates a connection, and that connection is hard to ignore once it’s been forged. That connection may not end homelessness today or tomorrow, but it turns us into people who are capable of providing real help—not just the illusion of it.