Today’s guest post is from Dr. Norweeta Milburn, Professor at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the University of California, Los Angeles. Dr. Milburn chaired the American Psychological Association’s (APA) 2009 Presidential Task Force on Psychology’s Contribution to End Homelessness. The task force released a great report, and NCH is proud to partner with the APA’s Public Interest Directorate to raise awareness among psychologists of how we can all work together to end homelessness.
As I walk my daily early morning route up Westwood Avenue from the parking garage to my UCLA office in the old Neuropsychiatric Institute, it is impossible not to see what appears to be bundles of clothing in doorways are actually people sleeping. Homeless people have found a place to sleep that provides some security and shelter in the doorways of office buildings and store fronts in a relatively safe area.
In the mild Southern California October evenings, the doorways do not seem like such a bad spot to spend the night, but people will still be there, layered deeper in their worn clothing, when our weather turns wet and cold. In the late afternoon, homeless people are sitting on benches or walking on the sidewalks; some are seriously mentally and actively psychotic, but some are not. Other homeless people come to Westwood to panhandle but do not sleep on the streets.
There is a man that I exchange “hello, how are you and have a nice day” with every day who gets off a bus in the morning to walk to his “spot” to stand with a cup asking for donations. His cup says he is a homeless veteran. There are other homeless veterans on the street in wheelchairs. In the shadow of one of the world’s great universities, Westwood is no different from urban areas in many other cities where homeless people seem to be everywhere.
Before we accept this as the inevitable result of the new normal, what can be done to move public policy further in the direction of ending homelessness? The American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Psychology’s Contribution to End Homelessness, it ‘s report “Helping People without Homes: The Role of Psychologists and Recommendations to Advance Training, Research, Practice and Policy,” advocates for federal legislation to create supportive housing and safe low-income housing across geographic areas (e.g., urban, suburban and rural) and for legislation that provides for mental health and a range of other needed services for homeless people: low-income housing, supplemental income, food and benefits. Even in this era of limited funding, the needs of people who are homeless cannot be ignored.
What do I do personally? Sometimes I put money in their cups. I try to always acknowledge homeless people who approach me – say hello when greeted with a hello, and say sorry, no, when asked for spare change and don’t want to give it. I also carry granola bars in my car (as suggested by another psychologist).
I wasn’t sure about this tactic, but one day after I had parked my car on the street, a rather sullen homeless young person sitting in a doorway by the parking spot asked for spare change. I said no, sorry, but asked if he would like a few granola bars. He actually perked up, lost his adolescent attitude and said yes. His entire demeanor changed – I don’t think it was just the food, it was the fact that another person had taken a few minutes to stop and connect with him. Sometimes that is all we can do daily – continue to remember that homeless people are fellow human beings just like us and those brief social connections do matter.