Opinion: How to show compassion to those experiencing homelessness

By Gabriel Withol and Lindsay Roeder | September 27, 2016 2:36pm

It has happened to most of us when we go downtown: someone less fortunate walks up to you and asks for money.

You're nervous and stutter for a second as you make a few flash judgments based on their appearance and demeanor, and attempt to remember how many quarters are in your wallet or purse.

Most will quickly say something like "Sorry, I don’t have any cash," and continue walking. Many of us may feel ashamed, guilty or sad after we escape these situations, but things could be different.

"Panhandling" or "begging" is a complex and controversial issue. People who ask for help on the street are often at the end of their rope, lacking a support system. They are humans who need love and compassion just like you and me.

A very common, but not completely unfounded, opinion is that the person begging will use cash to purchase drugs, alcohol or cigarettes. We find ourselves bound by both a moral and societal duty to help those in need, and also by our instinct not to trust strangers and the claims they make.

Many people who experience need likely will happily accept help in forms other than money. This is where we can make a difference the next time we go for a walk downtown and someone asks for assistance.

While there are several ways to respond to someone asking for help, my favorite is to offer to buy them a meal or snack of their choice: "I don't have any spare change, but are you hungry/ would you like something to eat?"

Most times I have offered this, it has been met with a resounding "Yes!" Offer to purchase nutritious, wholesome food that they may not normally have access to like fresh fruits, veggies, hot and cold deli meals from supermarkets, etc. Don't forget to ask about food allergies.

In the rare case that they deny your offer to purchase food, ask them if they would like any items like clean socks, dental supplies, vitamins, soap, feminine hygiene products, batteries, etc.

If the above suggestions don't appeal to you, the following list offers low cost, easy and unique ways to give back to those who approach you for help.

* Give away gift cards or bus tickets.

* Purchase a prepaid meal card from Sistersoftheroad.org for two dollars and carry a few in your wallet to hand out.

* Purchase Street Roots, a newspaper local to Portland that is sold and operated by people working to overcome homelessness. Vendors purchase the paper for 25 cents and sell them for a dollar. They can be found outside local hotspots like the Saturday Market, Powell's, etc.

* Acknowledge their presence and give them the same basic respect and human dignity that you would give to your friends and family. Make eye contact with them and ask how they are doing. Sometimes all they need is someone to listen.

Gabriel Wihtol and Lindsay Roeder are senior nursing students and can be reached at withol17@up.edu and roeder17@up.edu