Just say hello. They may seem like three simple words but their impact can be life-changing for someone experiencing homelessness. When many of us encounter people living outside we are uncomfortable, we avert our gaze to avoid eye contact, and we hustle by to prevent any communication. That is exactly how I used to feel and behave. My lack of understanding led me to act in ways that built invisible barriers to separate myself from those in our community who were experiencing homelessness. It wasn’t that I didn’t empathize or I didn’t want to help, I simply didn’t know what to do or to say.
Several years back I stumbled across a Facebook page for Facing Homelessness, a nonprofit organization that serves those experiencing homelessness in Seattle. I quickly realized their mission was different. Rex Hohlbein, the founder of Facing Homelessness, is an amazing photographer and uses this gift to share the stories of those living outside. Each of its social media posts highlights the beauty of the person while never shying away from the stark realities that come with being homeless. His work is both beautiful and brutal at the same time. And it serves to bring the reader closer to what living homeless actually means. It strips away the labels, the stereotypes and the preconceived notions to show the true person.
I followed the page for a while, donating when I could and sharing its posts via social media. Their basic mission of “Just Say Hello” encourages each of us to kindly acknowledge our shared humanity instead of just dropping a dollar in a cup and quickly shuffling by, hoping not to engage. They are asking all of us to pull closer, say hello, ask someone’s name and to make a connection.
Our family has spent the last two years volunteering with the organization and building relationships with individuals experiencing homelessness. We have spent many afternoons working at Window of Kindness, a conduit for a connection between those living outside and those of us living inside. Yes, handing out the socks, coat or sleeping bag is vitally important to the person in need—but there is much more to deliver through the window. A smile, a personal connection and love are more important commodities.
Rather than being overwhelmed by the complex community crisis that homelessness presents, Facing Homelessness is committed to shining light on the beauty, resilience and individual story of each person. They believe that you don’t have to know all the answers to begin—you just need to find a way to show up for someone else.
I am constantly amazed by the transformation that our family has experienced by simply saying hello and making a concerted effort to connect with individuals experiencing homelessness. Our volunteering has helped us form deep bonds with neighbors living outside and has provided us experiences that have changed our family.
But homelessness isn’t something that only occurs in urban centers such as Seattle. We have neighbors on the Key Peninsula who are currently experiencing homelessness or lack reliable housing. If we take a hard look at homelessness in our area we’ll realize this is a community crisis and it affects all of us. To make a difference in solving this crisis we don’t need to wait for one ultimate answer; but commit to human-sized solutions that can better the lives of others in our community. Even the smallest acts will add up to helping end the community crisis of homelessness on the Key Peninsula.
My challenge to you is to try and look at others around you through a different lens. The person on the street you may want to rush past to avoid feeling uncomfortable? Try saying hello, asking his or her name and making a connection. That was the simple and beautiful beginning of our family’s transformation and it changed everything for us.
Meredith Browand is a mother and an activist who lives in Purdy.
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