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funkdaddy's avatar

How can I help this woman? Should I?

Asked by funkdaddy (13389 points ) April 15th, 2011

There’s a small park near my house where I go a couple of nights a week to shoot baskets until the lights go out (between 10 and 11 ). There’s usually very few people in the park at that time.

Last year a woman started showing up most nights and was there until at least after I left. Sometimes she had bags with her, sometimes she talked on a cell phone, I figured she lived nearby and came to the park to unwind, same as me. The first time I saw her she was staring at her phone after the park shut down, pacing around, and I asked if she needed a ride or anything. She said she was fine, thanked me, suddenly got a call and walked off.

Over the course of last summer I probably saw her a couple dozen times and caught pieces of her routine. It turns out she walks to the park sometime after dark, stashes her bags on the far side of a building, and then hangs out until the lights go off or the park at least clears out a bit. Then she grabs her stuff and goes into the women’s restroom, where she stays. I’m assuming she sleeps there.

She’s pretty careful so if I didn’t see her so often, and the basketball court wasn’t within 50 feet of the restroom, I don’t know that I ever would have noticed. I don’t know if anyone else is aware she’s there. We seem to be the only “regulars”. I don’t think the cell phone works, the screen doesn’t light up in the dark and she answers it when people walk by, but it never rings audibly that I’ve heard. I think it’s just a great prop to not have to interact, but who knows.

I haven’t approached her again and I really don’t want to bust up what is probably a pretty good spot for her under the circumstances. The neighborhood is safe, the bathroom is enclosed, and has a lock on the door so she should be safe there.

I wondered about her all last year, and tonight saw her again for the second time this year. I was really hoping she had found something better, like a house of her own. She’s tanner, but otherwise seems the same.

I’d like to do something to help her, but have no idea what it would be. I thought about just leaving some food outside the restroom, but it feels like feeding an animal rather than a fellow human being. Also, for all I know she may have all the food she needs. For all I know this may be the life she’s chosen. But it bothers me that an obviously able and intelligent person has to sleep in a bathroom when they’re surrounded by people who have so much more.

The last thing I want to do is make her situation worse by calling attention to her or her spot, so I’ve just stayed away, but it doesn’t feel “right”.

Does anyone have experience with the homeless? Any ideas how I could help without being intrusive and still treating her with dignity? Or is the best thing to do just to stay out of it? It feels so apathetic.

Sorry for the length, thanks for the help.

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29 Answers

mazingerz88's avatar

Help her anyway you can. Don’t hesitate to ask politely as to how you may do that exactly.

JustJessica's avatar

I’d leave her some food with a note that said something along the lines of “though you might be hungry” or I had some of this earlier and decided to share some more with someone else I hope you enjoy” or if you’re a religious person maybe “God bless you”

Just a thought though, I’ve actually done it before and the woman figured it was me and told me thank you the next time I saw her, this continued every so often until she moved on to somewhere else.

KateTheGreat's avatar

You should just stop her and ask her about her real situation. Just tell her what you’ve seen and tell her that you’d like to help her. Some people are hesitant to accept help until you really force them to accept it.

Response moderated (Off-Topic)
Response moderated (Off-Topic)
augustlan's avatar

What a good guy you are, @funkdaddy. I admire your empathy and desire to handle it the right way. The extent of my experience with helping the homeless has been giving them money (and in one case, cigarettes), so I’m not really sure what the best thing to do is. Maybe you could call a homeless advocacy agency in your area and ask them for advice (being careful to give them no specifics if you don’t want to “out” her).

weeveeship's avatar

Like @augustlan I admire your empathy. However, the situation is puzzling.

Are you sure she is homeless? You are assuming she lives in the bathroom, but perhaps she is in the bathroom every night at a certain time for some other reason. (I will not speculate here.) You mentioned that you saw her for the second time this year recently. This means that for all the other days in which you did not see her this year, she might be somewhere else. I think it would be more prudent to figure out what is actually going on before doing anything.

If you are certain from the evidence you have gathered that she lives in the bathroom, then I would concur with @augustlan‘s suggestion to ask a homeless advocacy agency for advice before proceeding.

I would, however, caution against leaving food. (1) It is kind of like feeding an animal. (2) If she does not live in the bathroom, but is rather engaging in other activities there, leaving food might not really help her. (3) If she travels from place to place, it might very well be that she might not get the food you so graciously left her until it is too late (i.e. When she returns, the food might have already spoiled.)

I write from a pragmatic POV.

Jeruba's avatar

. . . and leaving food (especially with a note) will alert other parties to the fact that something is going on there.

augustlan's avatar

And possibly attract rodents, which might make her abandon the place.

seazen_'s avatar

Homelessness has to be one of the saddest situations there is, and I completely identify with your wanting to help. The quesion is what would be the best way.

I agree with much of what has been written here: leaving food isn’t such a good idea – the reasons have been listed. Approaching this person directly might be the way to go – if you can deliver. That is, do you want to go all the way and help this individual personally?

It’s hard to see someone in that horrible situation over a period of time, but realistically there are so many homeless and she is but one.

I might think consider alerting the authorities and hope they can help her. If she is in need, and this hasn’t even been established yet, they would know how. If she isn’t, then it’s just a question from an authority figure, and saves you and her needless embarassment.

I would donate dry foods and money to any of a number of charities for the homeless, with her in mind.

auntydeb's avatar

Just in agreement with @Jeruba, @augustlan, @weeveeship and particularly with @KatetheGreat – a gentle enquiry might not go amiss. There are actually many possible scenarios for this woman’s behaviour, some more scary than others. But an agency may already have knowledge of her, the police or other authorities may have some record of her. The behaviour she exhibits sounds like avoidance, she may have a terrifying home situation, which could be made worse by overt attention. Your concern is deeply admirable @funkdaddy, the dilemma you face is born of your ability to empathise and to ask the awkward questions. Good to see this interesting scenario aired. :o)

choreplay's avatar

Haven’t read a lot of the post above, but if the scan I did do is correct there are two sides to the “should you do anything” question. You’re right, this is very tricky. If you do anything as sincere as you might be and as good as it might be, as soon as she knows somebody knows, she may go else where, and that other place may not be as safe as her current situation. She is obviously going to great lengths to keep this a secret and if her secret is out she may not trust anyone, as sincere as it may be.

But, I’m with you in wanting to do something. I would circumvent a little more. From a distance see if you can find out where else her time is spent, maybe figure who she is. If at all you were lucky enough to find family or friends of hers you could figure out her situation. You would have to tread lightly and veil what you know till you know what the friend or family knows. Wow, this is complicated.

Another approach would be to enlist people you know you can trust to help you watch out for her.

I will say this though, if you are going to get involved do it whole heartedly, don’t just do one good deed and than walk away if it gets complicated or messy. You need to be prepared to follow through and be around. There are too many times in life when people want to do good by correcting something in another’s life but they don’t think through or stick around for all the ramifications, changes, or problems the correction causes.

Ok, read all above and will add to my response a little. Maybe an inquiry that goes farther then before but still doesn’t let her know, how much you know about her. I wouldn’t call the authorities and turn her over; you might contact authorities and ask their advice without giving her away. She might be put into homeless shelters which are not always the best place for some one, as they have a lot of rough people in them.

You’re a good man for stepping up.

lucillelucillelucille's avatar

I would approach her and hand her a bag of food,not saying much of anything.She’ll know what’s up and can either take it or leave it.
I think it is nice that you are concerned for her. :)

BarnacleBill's avatar

I would put some money in an envelope, and after she walks away, chase after her and tell her she dropped an envelope. In my community, there are shelters that you can call who come by and pick people up and take them to a shelter. Perhaps she feel the situation is temporary for her, or perhaps there is abuse at home or mental illness as an issue.

john65pennington's avatar

Funkdaddy. You obviously are a good person and it shows in your question. I have dealt with many homeless people. Some are friendly, some are not. Some have psychological problems and some do not. I believe her talking on a cellphone is just a “pretend action”, maybe just to fool people around her for her own safety and showing her ability to be able to call the police, if necessary.

I suggest you call the police and let them check her out. She could be a missing person. She could be an escapee. She may need some type of medical or psychological attention. Most homeless people just ignore any medical problems they may have, simply because of being discovered as a wanted person.

Calling the police to check her out, is not a bad thing for you. You will feel much better about yourself, if you do so. If she checks out okay, this will bring some relief to you and to her.

At least, you will know you did what was right, in her behalf.

marinelife's avatar

Perhaps you could seek out an organization that helps the homeless in your area and talk to them (tell them exactly what you have described here) and ask how to approach her or if they would approach her.

Often, the homeless have mental issues (which I suspect here because of the cell phone ruse).

DrBill's avatar

I would wonder how a homeless person has a working cell phone?

bobbinhood's avatar

@DrBill The OP said, “I don’t think the cell phone works, the screen doesn’t light up in the dark and she answers it when people walk by, but it never rings audibly that I’ve heard. I think it’s just a great prop to not have to interact, but who knows.”

BarnacleBill's avatar

There are a lot of people who are homeless and have full time jobs. If you are trying to look for work, you need a cell phone, and can get one where you pay for prepaid minutes. It would be uncommon for a woman to have a cell phone; it would be uncommon to have a cell phone contract with a carrier.

I’ve been in situations of late that are at odds with my normal middle class state. If you are poor, it can be difficult to have clean clothes. Going to the laundromat can be expensive, and they are not always conveniently located. The act of taking clothes on a bus from an apartment to a laundromat can occupy the better part of a day.

Bus routes in a lot of cities are not convenient to affordable areas to live. I rode the bus home from work last night with a very nice woman who told me that in order to get to work for 9 am she must leave her apartment at 6:30 to get there on time.

weeveeship's avatar

@Season_of_Fall “But, I’m with you in wanting to do something. I would circumvent a little more. From a distance see if you can find out where else her time is spent, maybe figure who she is. If at all you were lucky enough to find family or friends of hers you could figure out her situation. You would have to tread lightly and veil what you know till you know what the friend or family knows. Wow, this is complicated.”

I agree with this, with the exception that you probably should not try to seek out her family. If she is from an abusive family, drawing her behavior to their attention could lead to further abuse.

Still, I think gathering more information before doing anything will help make your efforts to help more effective.

JustJessica's avatar

@Jeruba I meant if he timed it right, he seems to know her routine.

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

Your empathy for this woman is commendable. Considering that you don’t have any facts, just speculation, what about sharing this story with a female friend/counselor, and ask her to hang out with you at the basketball court until the woman appears and the timing seems appropriate to approach the woman? (I’m assuming by your name that you are male.)

stardust's avatar

I admire your empathy and compassion. I agree with much of what is stated above in regards to finding out more about the situation and approaching her. I’d like to know what course of action you take so please let us know how you get on?

LostInParadise's avatar

If I were out at 10:00 at night and there was only one other person around (who I believed not to be a threat) I would be inclined to strike up a conversation. “Nice night. Haven’t seen you in a while. What brings you out here at this hour?” If she is unresponsive, make it clear that you mean no harm. You could ask her if she needs help. If she is still unresponsive then I would let it go.

AllAboutWaiting's avatar

Call the cops ? Why would someone introduce trouble to this human who seems to be trying to survive the best she can. She has avoided being detected for a reason – she is quite satisfied with that solution for that moment. The cops will first try to stick a crime to her, then try to help by dropping her somewhere. Keep them moving and there isn’t a problem, right ? Homeless people tend to know the options-more than cops-and she would be doing it if it worked for her. Leave her alone, the support is put in reach for people who are homeless already. If she wanted it, she would already be getting it, and she probably is but it isn’t enough to get a start. Only call the cops if someone is in immediate danger or harm – not when they don’t meet someones high standards. If you start to bug her and leave creepy notes and food, she might call the cops on you !

choreplay's avatar

@weeveeship, I did suggest a tentative approach to the family. Not turning her over. But finding family is not likely anyway.

laureth's avatar

@DrBill – the homeless guy I used to date had a cell phone, and a post office box as well as a job as a cook in a local restaurant.

Dutchess_III's avatar

So, did you ever get this resolved @funkdaddy?

funkdaddy's avatar

@Dutchess_III – not really resolved. She kind of turned into a starting place for me to think about the problem.

I’ve only seen her at the park once since last year when I wrote this, she didn’t stay.

Then I saw her once at an intersection near my house panhandling and gave her what I had on me at the time (~$20). It’s hard to be sure, but there wasn’t any recognition in the 15 second “here ya go” handoff out my car window. Not that I would expect it, it’s a different place and there are hundreds of faces driving by.

I’m not sure if this confirms she’s homeless, but I think it rules out the possibility that she’s just looking for a place that isn’t home to get away for a while.

I haven’t been out to the park this year at all so no other updates on her specifically. I don’t know that there’s a perfect solution really. I talked about it with my wife and part of the problem is ultimately all I have to offer right now is a little bit of money and possibly someone to talk to.

I can’t really invite her home, that would be unfair and possibly unsafe for my wife. The help that is available here in town is overwhelmed and underfunded but not hard to find. So I’d be surprised if a little information would dramatically improve her life.

So the plan for her specifically if I see her again is to approach her if it feels right and I’m not causing her stress, then go from there. Ask what she needs and believe her. If I can help, I will. Unfortunately there’s no way I can “sponsor” her or anyone else at this point in my life. Maybe later and probably for someone else at that point.

For the larger problem of homelessness I don’t know that there is a solution for a lot of folks and that’s hard to wrap my mind around. Ultimately I’d love to help some of those that need a fresh start, a place to stay, clean clothes, meals, possibly guidance, and then are capable of being self sufficient and creating whatever life they want for themselves.

From interacting with more homeless folks I don’t know if those are the majority though. Most seem to have larger issues that aren’t solved with anything I can provide.

So do you use resources to feed 100 people for a week, or help one person try to get back on their feet? I think those are the questions people and organizations who want to help have to wrestle with. People need to eat before they need jobs, and you have a 100% success rate with feeding people. I don’t think you can guarantee that when the goal is making a larger change in their life.

In the future I think I’d like to try and find the one person who just needs a fresh start and help them. Ultimately it’s going to take money and an individual approach.

It’s worth noting that I understand some folks choose to be homeless for freedom, I think that’s a valid choice and I’m not saying everyone who is homeless needs to be helped. I’m not saying they all need to be “saved” either. I do think most would make other choices if they were available though.

I’ll try to update here if anything changes. In the mean time, if you have ideas, experiences, or know of organization focused on helping people get back on their feet you’d like to share, I’d be thrilled to discuss that here or in PM. Thanks.

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