Dealing With Certain Unruly Homeless People

The following is an article that a reader asked me to post.....

I have volunteered with homeless ministries and service providers in
many different contexts. I have served homeless guests in established
shelters and on the street and almost always find the experience
uplifting and powerful. That is not to say the work is easy.
Difficulties arise for a number of reasons, some obvious and others
not. As volunteer homeless service providers, each of these reasons
should be studied closely to successfully accommodate all of our
guests and fellow volunteers.

For me, one particular situation that causes more difficulty than most
-- the case of a frustrated, angry guest. This does not happen often,
but when it does there is a significant impact on the mission's
volunteers and guests. Suppose you serve in a mission that promotes
community and hope. Just one angry guest can sully the positive mood
and discourage guests from returning and new volunteers from ongoing
participation. In other words, when one person is unhappy everyone
loses.

There are many reasons why an upset guest may cause frustration among
volunteers. First, volunteers are almost always driven by their desire
to help those in need. Personally, if a guest leaves unsatisfied, for
any reason, I feel a sense of failure. Second, volunteers attempt to
transmit hope and energy in an otherwise gloomy situation. When my
energy is not reflected in some way, it is hard to stay positive.
After the volunteers lose their hope, the situation can quickly
deteriorate. Finally, most volunteers work only for a thank you. I
know there is nothing more gratifying than hearing someone say, "thank
you". On the other hand, there is nothing as disheartening and seeing
a frustrated, angry guest storm off.

There are many reasons why a guest may arrive at a ministry with a,
shall we say, less than happy demeanor. Obviously, living in difficult
conditions every day is wearisome. Beyond that, I think service
organizations often times unknowingly contribute to the frustration of
their guests. I have seen ministries where tension builds until
everyone is served. When the guests know that there may not be enough
for everyone, there is a sense of anxiety. This is not an anxiety that
I have ever experienced. I do not know what it feels like to worry
that you may not receive a share large enough to keep you alive
through the day.

Because of this anxiety, it is difficult to promote sharing and even
more difficult to enforce the organization's rules. This is something
that I struggle with. I have a difficult time saying "no" when a guest
asks for seconds or a larger portion and looks particularly hungry or
needy, even though it may be against the policy that seconds are not
served until everyone is fed. I hope that's human nature and I hope
that everyone would feel the same way. Unfortunately, people that
disobey the policy (like me!), imply that the rules are inconsistent,
or arbitrary. More importantly, actions by volunteers like me imply to
our guests that the policies are unfair. When the small parts of the
policy are disobeyed, guests begin to wonder if they must follow the
larger rules like first-come-first-serve or one-per-person.

What can be done to eliminate frustration caused by the service
organization? One simple way to eliminate a majority of the
frustration is to ensure that there is always plenty for everyone.
Easier said than done, right? Absent that, I think it is very
important for all volunteers to follow the policies of the group.
Unfortunately bending the rules or giving a "little something extra"
can quickly backfire. It seems harsh and it is very difficult to say,
“no.” But in the end, I believe this benefits the larger group.
Equally applying the rules to all guests demonstrates that the
organization values fairness. In the spirit of fairness, it is also
worthwhile to promote sharing and community. When guests see each
other as peer members of the community, anxiety may lessen and the
general mood may increase.

What happens when an angry guest does interrupt a meal? I have found
that other guests quickly come to the rescue. In some cases, the angry
guest will be consoled and comforted by others. In other cases, if the
guest is inconsolable, the group will ask them to leave. The former is
a satisfying outcome, but I cannot say the same about the latter. As a
volunteer, this is a difficult situation. If breaking the rules is the
only way to assuage the angry guest, what is the right way to proceed?
Unfortunately I don't know the answer to this!

When the guest's anger is directed toward a volunteer, it is important
that we care for each other. Allowing a volunteer to go home without
being debriefed on such a situation is the worst thing that can
happen. A friend and I were once told by a frustrated guest to "eat __
and die". Neither of us talked about it, but it affected us
tremendously. I was so shaken that I didn't want to return. Once we
talked about it, I began to feel better. Simply discussing the event
and understanding the guest's perspective and the context of the
situation, healing begins.

As one of the myriad reasons why serving the homeless is not easy,
this is one that is particularly difficult for me to deal with. I look
forward to hearing your comments on the situation and hope to learn
from the discussion.

THE ANSWER:

There are some unruly homeless people. Some are mentally ill. Some have had behavioral problems all throughout their lives, possibly due to poor parenting. Some have been hardened by life on the streets. Knowing the reasons for people's bad behavior doesn't excuse it or eliminate the need to address it. However, it DOES give you a starting point for addressing it.

As a rule, when a group serves the homeless on a regular basis, the homeless learn what to expect from that group. If that group has never run out of food (or at least not for a long time), the homeless learn that they need not worry about there not being enough to go around. The worry about there possibly not being enough will take care of itself. Feeding the same homeless people on a regular basis without running out of food is the solution to the worry and the pushing and shoving that can occur.

The converse is also true. If the homeless see that there is very little or they have seen a particular group run out of food, they will become restless in their attempt to get a piece of the pie. It is wise for those who only have enough food or other goodies for a few people to take it to a small shelter or a location where only a few homeless people are gathered, not a large park with dozens of homeless people. I've seen do-gooders bring 10 left-over platters from a church dinner to a shelter with hundreds of people -- and the confusion that ensued. Those who want to help a few homeless people should inquire with shelter employees, other homeless service providers and the homeless themselves as to where the smaller shelters and gathering places of the homeless are and take their goods there.

When a homeless person exhibits unruly behavior, it is good to take note of their mental state. Are they mentally ill, drunk, high or just plain unruly/gangster-like????? You'd be surprised to see just how many people can't figure out when someone is mentally ill.

I'm reminded of a homeless woman who got upset because someone rubbed against her as they passed in a tight space. When she got upset, he responded by letting her know that he didn't mean any harm. She continued until he got upset. Knowing her, i called her by name and asked how she was doing. She immediately came over to me and forgot about that situation. her mental illness was obvious to me, even though I've not studied psychology or psychiatry; but, it wasn't obvious to the other man. As soon as someone says something irrational or responds to something other than what i actually said, I begin to watch for signs of mental illness.

TIP: When calming a mentally ill person, don't ask them about the situation that they were upset about. That will only upset them more. Change the topic.

As for dealing with the discouraged volunteers, it is good to discuss what type of people they will be dealing with prior to having them serve the homeless. Let them know that only about one in ten million situations leads to actual violence, making that a minimal worry. besides, most of the homeless are decent people who would defend a volunteer, were they threatened by one whom they came to serve. The rational homeless people and those with mild mental illness know this and would never cross that proverbial line.

With safety having been adequately addressed, we can now look at people's degree of commitment. It only makes sense to know what you're getting into beforehand. Potential volunteers should be briefed on what they might encounter. Hopefully, they won't be discouraged and walk away. They should make addressing people's frustrations part of their mission, in addition to feeding the homeless. If a person volunteers to help the underprivileged and is taken by surprise when that person expresses frustration, I wonder about their level of preparedness and commitment.

They should come up with ways to proactively deal with people's frustration. Assure people before feeding them that there will be enough. (If you're wrong, they won't believe you for many months to come.) Also, make sure that you don't have just barely enough volunteers to feed people and give out clothes. There should also be those whose only duty is to talk to the homeless. We get offended if all you do is give out food and clothes and then leave. It makes us feel like pigeons having bread thrown at them. The homeless like to tell their stories. (For this reason, it is also a good idea to befriend a homeless individual and do one-on-one lunches with them from time to time. You may find out something that enables you to help them out of homelessness.) The homeless tend to develop relationships with those who serve them on a regular basis. Build on that truth.

As for bending the rules for an individual, it is OK at times. Try first to reason with them and to have them keep the rules. If they were dealing with an exceptionally difficult situation or they were mentally ill, explain that to anyone who gets upset about you having made an exception to the rule. If you explain that the person was mentally ill, most people won't want to be labeled as such and this will be enough to assuage them.

It is fine to be firm with people. They won't lose respect for you. they'll actually respect you all the more. Many are they who've been scared by the bad behavior of a few unruly homeless people and failed to return. This results in ALL of the homeless whom they used to feed going hungry. Being firm and letting the homeless know that you'll physically ward off any attack doesn't come across to them as a threat. It tells them that you don't give up. They know that you won't be scared away or stop feeding them. If your group returns after an altercation/situation, that actually guarantees your respect amongst the homeless. They need people who won't give up on them. and, by golly, don't let it be said that you gave up on the many because of the misdeeds of the few. after all, some of them are homeless because someone gave up on them -- and they might be the trouble-makers that you speak of.

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