I wish I could think of a better, more pithy, title for this post. Ah, well.
I want to add, that I had a very similar experience to Vaipac years ago. My husband and I befriended a homeless man, Theodore. I won't tell that story here at the moment -- but my experiences with Theo also inform what I write here now:
Innovate on existing platforms and What you have matters more than what you lack
To help a specific individual in a specific situation, you must take inventory -- with that person -- of their current condition. What are their current skills, strengths, resources at the moment? Every person, no matter how impoverished, has skills. They cannot survive if they don't. The simple fact that they have survived indicates a core level of competency that one can start from.
Innovate on existing platforms and If somebody already invented it, you don’t have to
Don't reinvent the wheel. Take inventory of what services already exist in your community to help people. Almost every community with any resources at all has some mechanism for helping the most in need. Look to places of worship, community elders, government offices, clinics. Knock on doors and ask, ask, ask. Just getting information to a person in need -- like a homeless person -- is a huge help. They are so busy surviving, they might not have the energy or courage to knock on those doors and seek out that information. And then once you find what already exists to help them: take them there yourself.
Problems are not always obvious from afar and Talk to the people who have the problem – and LISTEN to what they have to say
Don't assume you understand the person's problem. Don't even try to define it for them. First you must listen, observe, earn trust. After getting to know Theo, I understood that being homeless was not his core problem. He was an alcoholic and needed some support getting to meetings that could help him. So I took him. And stayed at the meeting with him.
Provide skills, not just finished technologies
Yes, we know, "teach a man to fish..." In the case of a homeless individual, I think it is important to remember that you can provide them with a meal, even with a place to stay, but unless the core issues that lead to the homelessness are addressed, these solutions are not sustainable. They must have access to the underlying services and supports: mental health services, medical services, job training. I could not provide these things for Theo myself, but as a friend I could research what was available and take him to the places that offer those services.
I wish I could say my personal story with Theo had a happy ending. In the end, Theo chose not to continue going to meetings. The last I heard from Theo, he was planning to take a bus to Florida and live where it was warm, year round. But I do not regret a moment I spent in his company, or a dollar I spent on a shared lunch, or the time I spent trying to get him access to resources.
If anything, the experience taught me that we can NOT solve other people's problems for them. We can only be their partner, their support, their friend, their advocate. We can only offer our skills, our compassion, our respect in a collaborative effort with them to spur change and develop solutions. Sometimes it will work. Sometimes it won't. But I know that I want to be the kind of person that tries. And I am proud to be meeting people here, like Vaipac, who are that kind people as well.