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Talking to Someone Who is Homeless: What to Say and What Not to Say

Cardinal Innovations Healthcare — December 8, 2020 — 2 min read
Words matter. Words can hurt. That’s why knowing what to say to someone experiencing homelessness is so important. Choosing the right words can be the difference between brightening someone’s day or unintentionally hurting them.

We have developed a “Say This, Not That” card that can be used to help you choose the right words. Cardinal Innovations Member Engagement Specialist Ron Clark and Community Engagement Specialist Chary Caballaro helped select the wording. Clark has been homeless in the past and now uses his experience to help others. Caballaro works with people in our communities who may be experiencing homelessness.

An estimated 567,715 people were homeless nationally as of January 2019, according to the Continuums of Care of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Each year HUD picks one night in January to take a national snap-shot of homelessness. The count is taken in 3,000 cities and counties across the nation with help from thousands of volunteers.

An estimated 9,314 North Carolinians were homeless in that count. That total included 767 family households, 907 veterans and 417 unaccompanied young adults (aged 18-24). About 1,271 of those counted were experiencing chronic homelessness. About 26.1% of people who are homeless in the United States have a serious mental illness and about 34.7% have a chronic substance use disorder (SUD), according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).  

Clark said it’s important to treat a person who is homeless with the same dignity you would offer to someone who has a home. Ask about their hopes and dreams instead of asking how they ended up like this, he said. Find more suggestions in our Say This, Not That card.

Say This (to the person)

Not That

What do you need? Why are you in this position?
I don’t have money, but can I help you in another way? Get a job.
How can I help? Why don’t you get help?
How are you doing?
Would you like to talk?
You don’t seem homeless.
I know someone who can help you find what you need. Here’s some money. Don’t use it on alcohol.
I will keep you in my thoughts. I feel sorry for you.
If they don’t want or appreciate your help, try giving the person space and say: “I didn’t mean to offend you.” You’re mad they didn’t respond the way you wanted when you helped. Don’t say: “A ‘thank you’ would be nice.”
Did you see the game last night? (Treat people with respect. Make normal conversation.) I couldn’t live without a TV. How do you live without anything?
Friend, neighbor, member, individuals Those people, or the homeless
What are your hopes and dreams? What is wrong with you?

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Need Mental Health Help Fast?

Call **ASK (star-star-2-7-5) from your cell phone or 1-800-939-5911.

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