Our community has a very large homeless population, and it is very troubling to think about how uncomfortable and unsafe these individuals may be out in the elements.
I was very eager last night to learn from a representative from Breaking Ground NYC how I can be a better neighbor to our homeless community in these cold and wet months, when they may find themselves in harm's way.
Breaking Ground provides a variety of services to the homeless population in New York. They are an especially interesting organization because they utilize a variety of tactics to help vulnerable individuals.
This includes providing assessments on the street in the moment that they interact with a homeless individual. Breaking Ground's street team will speak with the individual in their native language and provide psychiatric assessment right there on the street.
Many of us who have not experienced homeless will have difficulty understanding the variety of reasons a person may end up without a home.
They could be survivors of abuse or of war, they could suffer from addiction, they may experience discrimination because of their identity, they may have a health condition that has such a high cost of treatment that they are unable to afford their medication and their rent, they may have aged out of foster care and be unprepared to take on the many challenges of adulthood, or they may be working but unable to afford rent, especially in our community where rent is skyrocketing at an unprecedented pace.
The potential reasons are really endless.
So, as a bystander, it may be most useful not to worry about why a person is homeless, the more efficient strategy would be to think about how you can help. It is best to get professionals involved if you are trying to intervene in a homeless person's situation.
I would say the first and most important way to help a homeless person is by not judging them.
Many individuals who do not have housing and live on the street are also experiencing different psychiatric issues that may cause them to be "unhouseable." Many other individuals have become homeless because of financial circumstances, but lack reliable social safety nets.
Breaking Ground in particular focuses on individuals who were previously thought of as a lost cause. These are people who have not had housing for many years, and who have circumstances that make finding housing almost impossible.
When thinking about helping a homeless individual, it's important to remember that the homeless have agency and autonomy in our city. This is really important, because regardless of whether or not someone has a house, everyone deserves respect and self-determination.
The police and Breaking Ground can only intervene if the person is a danger to themselves or to another or if they are interested in receiving the help. If you offer help and it is not taken, it's important to accept that you don't know this person's circumstances or why they are rejecting the help.
If you see a person living on the street and want to try to help them, calling 311 and asking for "homeless assistance" will connect you with Breaking Ground. With a good description of the person and the location, an associate will travel there to help them.
If it is a night below 32 degrees or severe weather, it will be deemed "code blue," meaning being outdoors is particularly dangerous for them.
In this case, you would call 911 as it is considered an emergency. Also, with the 311 app, you can put a pin where you saw the homeless individual and they can get help.
What will Breaking Ground do when they get there? On cold nights, they will help the person go to either a hospital, shelter, or another facility that will keep them out of the elements.
They will help people access a shower and a hot meal, and they will establish a relationship with the person. Over time, they can help people find supportive housing options, sign up for public benefits and assistance, and work collaboratively with other non-profits that serve the person's specific population.
Breaking Ground has had success moving people from homelessness into housing, and having housing vastly improves a person's health and well-being.
In our own neighborhood we have many inspiring and homegrown organizations that help our homeless or at risk population, including North Brooklyn Angels, which provides a roving food truck to serve hot nutritious meals.
Learn more at northbrooklynangels.com.