What Should I Do If…

It is not easy seeing someone trying to survive on the streets of the city, and our reactions can range from pity, to anger, to choosing not to see the person at all. As hard as it is to witness the suffering of others, we encourage all New Yorkers to exercise empathy – to imagine what it’s like to have no home and no support network, to be cold or hungry or sick, to have hundreds of people walk by you each day and pretend you don’t exist.

The question of how to help a homeless person on the streets is not always an easy one, and while some general answers are outlined below, the best place to start is by remembering the humanity of each man or woman you see in a public place. Treat each and every person with dignity – but also follow your own instincts. And remember that small acts of kindness can have tremendously positive repercussions in the lives of others.

I want to help a homeless person I pass on the streets every day, or who is sleeping in front of my home?

Unless you feel that the situation is unsafe, ask the person if he or she needs assistance and has visited the Coalition or any other organization that helps homeless people. You can print out and offer the person one of the Coalition’s downloadable Crisis Cards, order a box of our pocket-sized resource guides (Z-cards) by emailing us, or simply use our Online Resource Guide to find the closest service.

If you are not comfortable engaging the person, then call 311 to let the City know that there is a homeless person who appears to need services, and they will send an outreach team. You should be able to let them know where the person is, what he or she is wearing, what condition he or she seems to be in, and whether it is an emergency. You can request that someone from the City get back to you to let you know what happened.

I see a homeless person who looks like he or she might be suffering from the cold, heat or other extreme weather?

Unless you feel unsafe doing so, ask if the person is ok, has someplace to go and needs help. Give the person the list of heating/cooling centers from the Office of Emergency Management, listed here. The NYC Department of Homeless Services has Code Blue and Code Red procedures in place to ensure that homeless people have access to emergency shelter in extreme weather. You can call 311 to let the City know that there is a person in need of such emergency shelter. If the person seems to require medical attention, dial 911.

I see someone who appears to need assistance due to an illness or injury, or might be unconscious?

If the person seems to require medical attention, dial 911 immediately.

I’ve called 311 about a homeless person, or told that person about the Coalition, but I still see the same person on the street every day?

Some homeless people have had bad experiences in the shelter system and are afraid, or prefer not, to return. Others have been wrongly denied shelter, even though they have a legal right to shelter. You can refer that person to the Coalition’s Crisis Intervention Program, which specializes in such cases. He or she should come to 129 Fulton Street no later than 8am on Mon-Fri. If you can, offer the person subway fare to get to the Coalition.

I see a homeless parent and child who seem to need help?

Parents with children should never have to sleep on the streets or in public places. If you see a parent with kids who seem to need help, you can approach and ask if they have a place to stay or need the address of a shelter intake facility. You can also dial 311, or tell them to visit the Coalition’s Crisis Intervention Program – especially if they say that they have been denied shelter.

I think one of my child’s classmates is homeless, and I want to help without offending or embarrassing her?

It is extremely important to treat such issues with extreme confidentiality, given the stigma attached to homelessness among children. The best thing to do would be to contact the teacher or other appropriate person at the school and let him or her know of your concerns. You can let the school know about the Coalition’s website as a resource.

Someone on the train or on the street asks me for money or food?

Each of us must make our own decisions about whom to help and how, and just because someone is asking for food or money doesn’t necessarily mean he or she is homeless. But it’s safe to assume that person would not be asking for help if help was not needed. If you do not feel comfortable handing someone money or food, you can download the Coalition’s Crisis Cards or email us to order a box of our pocket-sized resource guides (Z-cards) – although giving someone subway fare with those materials will go a long way as well.

I see a homeless person on the street who is severely inebriated or acting erratically and talking to himself or herself?

Call 311, unless the person clearly seems to be in need of emergency medical care, in which case call 911.

I see a homeless person who the police seem to be harassing or wrongly engaging?

Without becoming intrusive, try to get a badge number while taking notes on what is transpiring. Your mere presence as a witness may be helpful. Contact the Coalition with a description of what you have seen.

I see a homeless person who is being harassed or attacked by strangers?

Dial 911 immediately.

I see a homeless person being denied service or being asked to leave a store or restaurant by police or others?

Politely ask the store or restaurant manager what the reason is for denying service or ejecting the homeless person, and let him or her know that even those without homes have the same rights as everyone else. If you are comfortable, offer to buy some coffee or food for the person being ejected.

I see a homeless person being told to leave a subway, park or other public place by police or others?

Without becoming intrusive, try to get a badge number while taking notes on what is transpiring. Your mere presence as a witness may be helpful. Contact the Coalition with a description of what you have seen.

I see a homeless person collecting bottles from the trash?

Many people rely on the income from bringing recyclables to redemption centers for their survival. Bringing in recyclables is good for the city, and it allows the homeless person to earn some money. You can offer them your own recyclables to help.

I would like to be able to give homeless people useful information about where to get help?

You can either download the Coalition’s Crisis Cards, email us to order a box of our pocket-sized resource guides (Z-cards) to hand out, or utilize the Coalition’s online Resource Guide. Offering the person some spare change, a MetroCard or a gift card to a fast food restaurant along with the resource information is always appreciated.

I want to get more regularly involved in helping homeless people?

Read about the Coalition’s Volunteer opportunities.