January 1, 2014.  My wife, Rachael, and I were heading home from a New Year’s Eve party when we drove past a man sitting at a bus stop. I’ll call him John. At first sight, it looked like he was sitting on the covered bench to protect himself from the wind, so after a short conversation, we decided to stop and give John the food we had left over from the party. As we approached him, he turned out to be sleeping, so we left the containers of food next to him on the bench and drove home.

For the next several months, I drove past that same bus stop at night on the way home from work to find John sitting there most of the time. Sadly, I never stopped. One night I brought this up to my wife, and we planned to bring him a pizza the next evening.

We decided that we didn’t want this pizza delivery to be a “drop some food off and go back to our comfortable home” kind of visit, so we chose to stay for awhile and visit with him. The only thing better than pizza is pizza shared with good conversation, right? I can’t remember all of the details involved with John’s story, but what I do remember is that he mentioned the idea of living in an apartment seemed scary to him. I didn’t understand—why would that be scary?  

As we continued talking, John was telling me about how he had lived on the streets of Atlanta for around 10 years, and honestly it was comfortable for him. He saw the stresses that came along with an apartment, like keeping up with all of the bills, being nervous that if he couldn’t make a rent payment one month then he’d be forced to move out. He had his routine set living on the streets so the niceties that we associate with living in a physical home seemed disrupting to him.

About six months after that first New Year’s Eve interaction with John, I found myself working full-time at a large church in Atlanta, GA. My role was to help with the financial education program, but also to meet with any individual looking for financial assistance or who was coming to the church looking for food or a place to stay. Over the past 4.5 years, I’ve interacted with many homeless families. I always thought they just needed someone to help them navigate a budget and find steady income.  We’ve all heard the people yell “Get a job!” at people leaving a ball game. It took me speaking face to face and hearing their stories to understand that not everything can be fixed with a financial solution. Don’t get me wrong; affordable housing, steady income and some guidance along the way are critical. I think the approach has been to focus on physical challenges (housing) or financial health first before focusing on the emotional health of the homeless community.

It sounds heavy when said like that, but all that could mean is getting to hear their story. Not everyone who is homeless has a diagnosable mental health challenge; although some do. I spoke with Tarin Russell, Director of Housing at Buckhead Christian Ministry in Atlanta who mentioned that some of the feelings that someone who finds themselves homeless include: “inadequacy as a parent, hopelessness and lack of support or feeling alone and uncared for.”

Imagine dealing with that on top of the physical challenges of not knowing where the next meal comes from, not having showered in a week or longer and getting looked at or yelled at every day.

So, how can we help as financial educators and counselors? We’re used to hearing client’s stories and having tough conversations with them. That’s no different with someone who is homeless.

  • Find a local organization (or local church) in your area that already serves the homeless or near a homeless population. An easy way to find them is to go on United Way’s website. Enter your zip code in and click on “Hunger and Homelessness” on the left-hand side of the page. If so, jump in and serve. It doesn’t have to be financial related at first, but, who knows what you can share when you start a conversation with someone and tell them what you do.
  • Check United Way’s website for organizations that provide financial assistance to clients. Ask those organizations if they’ve ever considered starting a financial education program.  Maybe they already have one that you can volunteer with? Many are open to this because donors like to fund programs that are focused on long-term education vs. short-term assistance.
  • Ask a local long-term shelter if you can hold a financial education class. Use your own curriculum or maybe you can order some free, basic worksheets and information from the Federal Trade Commission.  Remember, creating a curriculum can count towards CEUs!
  • Next time you see someone who appears to be in a homeless situation, ask them if you can hear their story. I promise, the person you are talking with won’t be the one who is impacted the most. It will be you. This may help provide a new perspective on how people view and interact with money. It certainly did for me after my interaction with John.

When I first met with John, I hadn’t yet started my career in financial counseling. Who knows where that conversation would have gone with the experience I’ve gained over the past five years. But what I do know is that he helped shape my attitude towards homelessness and opened my eyes to how someone else views money that I had never experienced before. It led to greater financial compassion, which continues to be crucial as I’m working with clients today.

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