Kierkegaard said, “Once you label me, you negate me.” And, so it goes for the many labels we unwittingly assign people in our health care interactions. Those affected by homelessness, who are often labeled as “the homeless,” are no different. People are not their circumstances and as nurses we want to support a forward momentum out of unhealthy situations. Here are 10 ways you can help.

1. Change the language.

Anchoring someone down under a label creates the risk of someone officially taking on that label and identity permanently. It’s time to change the language so that those affected by a circumstance or condition are upheld in the energy of transitioning into a better outcome.

2. Offer frost bite checks in the streets and the shelters.

When I was a city hospital war horse, I took care of more post-operative amputations than seemed reasonable. Many were individuals who experienced one bad night out there on the streets. Frost bite is a killer of digits, ear lobes, and limbs. As we know, prevention is best and early treatment is second best. It can be a slower row to hoe toward amputation from peripheral vascular disease, diabetes, and wound infection.

3. Offer foot gear.

Start a boot and shoe brigade. Foot gear needs to be protective. The average person affected by homelessness walks five miles per day. Even those who stay overnight in shelters cannot stay there during the day. It’s out into the elements in the morning. Try doing that in lousy shoes or boots and paper thin socks. Offer shoes and boots at the shelters and neighborhoods that have been identified as areas of need. Enroll some shoe outlets and podiatrists to set up a “give away” table in neighborhoods of high need, announce a foot gear day at the local church or community center. Shoes don’t have to be new; however, be kind and do not donate anything you would not wear yourself. Dignity needs to be a part of the equation.

4. Offer foot care clinics at shelters or request to use space at a church or community center.

This can be a great monthly event among nurse friends. You can check for peripheral vascular symptoms, diabetic ulcers, the need for nail trimmings, wash feet, moisturize, offer clean socks, and recommend appropriate medical follow-up. Folks are having it hard enough without adding a missing limb to the mix. I became a WOCN board Certified Foot Care Nurse (CFCN) and travel with my nail trimming tools as part of my amputation prevention initiative.

5. Provide socks.

In the winter, wool cotton socks go a long way at preventing frost bite. The wool cotton hikers found in multi-packs at Sam’s Club or BJ’s have been a great resource for my work. While you’re at it, throw in some winter hats, gloves, and scarves. In the summer, give them cotton blend, moisture-wicking socks with comfort cushion. Remember, there is a lot of walking within this population. Throw in some fabric band-aids for blisters.

6. Give them coffee shop cards.

This will get someone out of the elements and into a place where they are a paying customer. Whether it’s the heat of the summer or cold of the winter, imagine being outside and just wanting to sit somewhere out of the extremes. In New England, we use Dunkin Donuts. Five dollar increments prevent folks from mugging each other for a higher value item. Bear in mind, it can be like Mad Max and the Thunderdome on the streets.

7. Donate feminine hygiene products. 

Women affected by homelessness get menstrual cycles. It’s tough going enough without dealing with the need for pads, tampons, and wipes. Donate feminine hygiene products to shelters, offer feminine hygiene products in “benevolent baggies” (see #9). Offer neighborhood pharmacy cards so a woman can choose her own products.

8. No judgement, just help.

Do conscious inner work to extinguish the urge to judge what brings a person to be without a permanent residence. There are married couples who both work full time but still cannot afford to pay rent; there are those who served to protect your freedoms in the military who are now affected by PTSD and cannot support themselves; there are children born into extenuating situations; and there are those who find it safer to be on the streets instead of shelters, and if you knew more, you would understand why. There are those with mental health and addiction issues. While I was offering foot care at a shelter, I learned of a fellow nurse staying there. He was in a terrible car accident, had spinal fractures, could not work, and lost his apartment due to an inability to keep up with the rent. The circumstances are as individual as the person. Take time to listen; everyone wants to be known. When we care for others within compassion, we care for ourselves.

9. Offer “benevolent baggies.”

If you see someone panhandling and you don’t want to offer cash, benevolent baggies (as I call them) are a way to go. You can include whatever you personally would appreciate if you were humbled to having to stand on the street and ask for immediate help. Use a small or large freezer weight Ziploc bag, which works better for those on the street. You can include a coffee shop card, neighborhood pharmacy card, snack bar, water, socks, underwear, feminine hygiene products, a quote you find inspiring that may encourage someone else. I keep a small stack of $5 Dunkin Donuts coffee shop cards in the center console of my car.  I know many feel uneasy about giving to panhandlers. I hope this will put it in perspective for you: A woman once said, “I would rather panhandle than sell my body or steal.” Let’s all work toward a healthy society where people do not have to make these types of decisions.

10. Work for social change.

Pick any piece of this huge puzzle and go for it. Ask yourself the bigger questions about this issue. Jump on an initiative with some integrity or start your own. You are smart, caring, and a creative problem solver. You’re a nurse who can facilitate healing far reaching into the community. You don’t need any formal permission to bring that to the world.

Mary Magdalene Jarowski, RN, BS, CHPN, CFCN
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