What can one person do?
Washington, DC was one of ten cities to sign on to a ten year plan to end homelessness. The issue has only grown worse in the ensuing decade and a half.
One problem with this, according to Gunther Stern, is that a city is not a person. Experts converge to speak out on homelessness. Mental health centers say the solution is more and better mental health care.
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What can one person do about homelessness?
“Make eye contact and smile. That’s all,” Stern said. Homeless people are alienated and have low self esteem. It helps for most. There are the occasionally very mentally ill people who might start ranting. Usually, almost always not a problem. Once I listened to a guy yelling and screaming at me for five minutes, nodding occasionally to show empathy. At the end of the time his face relaxed and he smiled and thanked me for listening. He told me not many people would have done so.”
Gunther Stern is a superhero with a hidden cape. He combs the streets of Georgetown at night to hand out food and blankets to people on the streets of the wealthy section of the U.S. capital. During the day he keeps his sharp eyes open for people in need. Stern makes nightly rounds on the street like a doctor rotating through patients. He and his partners look around bridges, alleys, and the well-traveled Dupont Circle, to seek out their regulars.
Stern has been executive director of Georgetown Ministry Center since 1990. In his testimony before Congress, he highlighted the reason we have not conquered homelessness: “what I have concluded after 30 years of working with people who are homeless is that all I can do is provide some comfort and harm reduction. Until we are given tools for more assertive interventions, we will not resolve homelessness.”
Loneliness and isolation, according to Stern, aggravates the cycle of depression, other mental illness symptoms, substance abuse, hopelessness, and risk to people who are hopeless. The most helpful thing one person can do in the moment is to alleviate the loneliness, if only for a moment.
There is good news. Around the nation people open hearts and homes to help lift the loneliness for people who are homeless, even for a moment.
This couple invited a man to Thanksgiving dinner in their home in November, 2014. Others have danced with the homeless on Christmas Day, making friends among the homeless, and in private, unshared and uncelebrated ways, shared a conversation.