“A kind ear, a hot meal, and someone that’s caring.”
That was the response of Art Miles when asked, “What do the homeless need most?”
Miles works at Susquehanna Harbor Safe Haven (SHSH), a program of Christian Churches United, which houses homeless men with mental health challenges and operates a winter men’s shelter.
More important than his answer was the question. The first step in sustainable, impactful relief to those experiencing homelessness is asking questions.
Darrel Reinford, executive director of Christian Churches United of the Tri-County Area, said people should begin by “educating yourself about what’s being done and asking, ‘what’s missing,’ rather than assuming…what the needs are.”
Those who call the streets home generally need food, clothing and some type of temporary shelter such as a tent, and Harrisburg hosts many organizations that meet those needs.
If people are interested in giving or serving this way, contacting one of those agencies (G2:10 Outreach, Bethesda Mission, Downtown Daily Bread) is a great beginning. When donating to organizations, keep in mind that one man’s trash is not always another man’s treasure.
Angela Parker-Quarles, services director of Shalom House, said that those donating should “avoid bringing anything that they would not use for themselves.” Such goods include soiled or torn clothing or damaged items.
Also, donating through an agency, rather than dropping off bags of clothing or containers of food in places the homeless frequent, prevents a buildup of trash and rotting food.
“The best way to meet the need is in a coordinated way,” Reinford said.
Beyond the basic necessities, the homeless need a more permanent place to stay, support getting back on their feet, and meaningful experiences with people who care.
At the SHSH overnight men’s shelter, in a cafeteria-style room that sleeps about 23 men, Reinford explained that the organization needs volunteers.
“To take guys out to social things, the social things we take for granted,” he said. “They often don’t have either the funds or the positive people to do them with.”
Those things may include attending a baseball game, watching fireworks or dining out for pizza. He explained further that the greatest needs come from loneliness and feeling that no one cares.
Parker-Quarles agreed on both accounts.
“Exposure is powerful,” she said, adding that donations of tickets to the movies, Hershey Zoo or Whitaker Center can show the women and children at Shalom House that life can be different.
Other out-of-the box ways to help include bus and Uber passes to get to work or appointments, money for a shower at the YMCA, a bucket of cleaning supplies for those who move into an apartment, or mentoring time.
She added that, sometimes, we don’t need to offer the person on the corner anything other than a smile and a “hello” to make them feel valued enough to be spoken to. The homeless are often ignored.
According to the Capital Area Coalition on Homelessness (CACH) “Point in Time Report” for Harrisburg and Dauphin County, there were 418 homeless individuals in 2019. Of that number, 40 people were living and sleeping on the streets and 370 were in some type of emergency or long-term shelter.
Organizations that assist the homeless in shelter settings (Bethesda Mission, Interfaith Shelter for Homeless Families) or transitional housing (Brethren Housing Association, Family Promise of the Capital Region) have a variety of needs, with limited resources to run them.
To that point, Parker-Quarles’ office resides in the basement of Shalom House’s 15th Street building. The walls consist of floor-to-ceiling donations of shampoo, blankets and soap.
House repairs show up regularly on the wish list, as well as office supplies and office furniture. Much of what they have now is ancient, verified by the office chair sporting a shiny coat of black duct tape.
With as many as 10 women and 12 children living at Shalom House at one time, the common area furniture is heavily used—and it shows. The couch is pushed up against the bookshelf to keep the arm from falling off.
“We are great stewards of the resources we receive,” said Parker-Quarles.
Another obvious resource that nonprofits need—money.
Jennifer Wintermyer, board member of CACH, said that many 501(c)(3) organizations receive grant money that has stipulations. She said that unrestricted funds allow more flexibility to purchase items like pens and notebooks for street outreach volunteers or to fund shoes for someone in immediate need.
Aid agencies appreciate service through office administrative help because it frees up staff to work directly with those they serve. The gift of professional training shores up staff in professions with high burnout rates.
Training and office tasks may not be the first thing someone thinks of when talking about aiding the homeless, but Quarles said, “Ask [yourself] what do you feel you have to offer?”
Wintermyer said, “We probably have a committee where your, ‘I’m really good at,’ would be helpful.”
That help also could come in the form of a rental property. Wintermyer pointed out that folks who have subsidized housing vouchers are waiting in shelters due to lack of landlords willing to rent to them.
Many avenues to assist the homeless exist, some more direct and tangible than others. Those with boots on the ground advise that help given is best preceded by the question, “What do those experiencing homelessness need?”
According to Quarles, there’s an answer.
“Connection, to be trusted, to be heard,” she said. “To be understood, to learn to heal, to feel valued and have opportunities.”
To find out more about how to help the area’s homeless population, visit the websites of the groups mentioned in this story, including:
Bethesda Mission: www.bethesdamission.org
Capital Area Coalition on Homelessness: www.cachpa.org
Christian Churches United of the Tri-County Area: www.ccuhbg.org
Downtown Daily Bread: www.pinestreet.org/ministries/downtown-daily-bread
Shalom House: www.shalomhouse.net