The One Question You Should Be Asking The Homeless

Stop feeling powerless. You have more agency than you think.

We all know the guilty feeling of walking past someone in need.

The clenching of the stomach. The determined look away. The scrabbling around for change that may or may not be there, and the feeling of sickly relief as we make it past.

There's a lot of fear involved in helping the people living on the street. Uncertainty, not knowing if you're actually helping or simply putting your foot in it.

You want to be kind and buy them a meal or a cup of coffee, but you don't want to get it wrong.

The simple solution? Just ask.

According to Melbourne Period Project founder Donna Stolzenberg ask them what they need, don't assume.

"We give based on our own reference points," said Melbourne Period Project founder Donna Stolzenberg.

"We give what we think that person might need."

As well as leading a number of homelessness organisations and employing vulnerable women, Stolzenberg does about two 'streetwalks' a week, distributing sleeping bags here and buying a pair of socks there.

Donna Stolzenberg ducks in to a McDonald's to buy a person a meal. Photo: Alex Bruce-Smith

She told ten daily that even when people have the best intentions in mind -- for example, by buying a person a coffee, or food -- it might be the very last thing they need.

"First of all, they may not like coffee," she said.

"Or they might love coffee but have poor dental health and have a tooth ache so they can't drink it. Or they might need to go to the bathroom and they can't leave their stuff behind because or it'll get swept up. Or they might be starving and all they've had is ten offers of coffee."

"Food is often the go-to, and we don't even ask the person if they're hungry. We don't acknowledge that they don't have a fridge, or might be Muslim and can't eat pork, might be lactose intolerant, or dairy intolerant, or vegetarian."

The reality is that for a person on the street, their reality changes from moment to moment. Burgers and coffee tend to be the most common things given, according to Stolzenberg, but a person might have a greater need for a fresh pair of socks, or -- in the summer -- insect repellent, sunscreen or sunglasses.

"Know that you cannot, will not and should not go there with the intent to 'save' anybody," she said.

"It's really important to acknowledge that a person's experience on the street is usually quite harrowing and quite horrific, and we can't expect people to be in a good welcoming mood all of the time."

Protesters at a homeless camp outside Flinders Street station in 2017.  Photo: AAP.

CEO of the Council to Homeless Persons Jenny Smith agrees, stressing that the most important thing it to treat people with the same kindness you'd extend to a friend or work colleague.

"It's about treating people with respect," she said.

"If someone's asking you for money, and you don't feel like giving them money, you can still smile and say hello, and be very nice to them as you keep going."

She also suggested donating volunteer time, good quality items or money to your local homelessness organisation.

"The rule is that if you wouldn't give the goods to a friend or family member, then don't give it to the op shop," she said.

"It's not a place to offload your garbage or things that are broken, it's an opportunity to donate good quality goods, even if they've been used."

She also warns that under current federal government policy, the homelessness population -- which is already at 116,000 people in Australia, a nearly 14 percent increase over five years -- will continue to grow.

Photo: Launch Housing.

"It's really important that we all do what we can to let our political representative know that we think this is a problem we should be tackling with a national homelessness and housing plan," she said.

Calling or writing to your local MP, speaking to talk-back radio, and signing petitions were all good ways to get the ear of your political representative, she said.

"Right now, there isn't a plan, and it's really important that we have one, because we don't tend to do anything about problems that we haven't actually identified as requiring a policy and an action plan."

Stolzenberg -- who also stressed the need to push for legislative change -- summed it up best:

"If everybody who could help someone in need did, then everyone would get help."