What to ask if you encounter someone who is homeless

Sometimes we encounter people on the street, near public transportation, in a shopping mall, outside of a store or gas station and we want to help and don’t know w​hat to say or do. First remember that anyone can be a significant life event away from becoming homeless. Some people just fall on tough times or they are unable to maintain housing due to other barriers. The good news is that there is a support system available in Maryland to help people who want to receive support services​. The start to this support can begin with a few questions, if you feel comfortable asking them.

  • “How are you doing?”
    • Introduce yourself and ask them their name.
  • “Do you have anywhere to go?”
    • If the answer is yes, ask them if you can make a phone call to assist them in returning there. If no see next question.
  • “Are you interested in going to shelter?”
    • If so refer them to 211 or you can use our website to find the information for a local homeless services provider to find out where the nearest shelter is. Or you can give the person the address for the local Department of Social Services or Community Action Network (where applicable).
    • If they say no, don’t feel the need to push, it is the person’s choice to go to shelter. Some people do not want this option and they cannot be forced. If you see the same person often and ask them every time you see them, they may answer no, but when someone is ready to go to shelter, they will go.
  • “Have you been in shelter recently?”
    • Sometimes people go to shelter and leave or they can no longer stay if they are not compliant with the program requirements or they successfully moved out of shelter into housing and things happen that result in their homelessness. If someone was recently in shelter, ask if they remember the name of the place or the name of the person they were working with. If they remember it ask if you can help them make a phone call back to that place to see if help can be provided.
  • “Do you feel safe?”
    • If the person responds that they don’t feel safe, get to a place where you can make a non-emergency phone call to the local police department. Let the dispatcher know your location and that it is not an emergency but that you’re speaking with a homeless person and they are in an unsafe/compromising position and they need help. Tell them you need their help and didn’t know who else to call. They may be able to send an officer out or they might be able to get you in touch with a service provider that has an outreach team to come and meet with the person you’re trying to assist.
  • “Does anyone know you’re out here?” (family, friend, outreach worker, case worker?)
    • If they say yes, again ask if you can help them make a phone call. If they refuse, it may be because they are not interested or feel they cannot re-connect with the person they know.
    • Also note: Outreach teams are case workers that will go out and speak with people on the streets to assess them for safety and need. Outreach teams do a good job of keeping tabs on people until they are ready for shelter and can connect them with services. However there are only a few jurisdictions throughout our state that have outreach teams. This is due to limited funding sources for the work and geographic area. Most people you encounter in Baltimore City will have an outreach worker who they are working with or know of. Outside of Baltimore, many jurisdictions have mobile teams of physicians, nurses, psychiatrists etc. who can go to a person in need and assist as needed.
  • What if the person seems to be out of sorts or upset or refuses to speak to me?
    • That’s OK, don’t place yourself in a situation that could lead to something dangerous. Use your best judgment and don’t force yourself or your help on someone. If you see or encounter someone who seems upset posing a threat to themselves or others, feel free to call 911 and report your location and what you observe.
    • More importantly if you encounter someone who is not responsive or unconscious you should also call 911 and report only what you see “the person is unresponsive, appears to be sleeping, is in a dangerous location such as a street or driveway and will not get up etc.” Don’t feel the need to include details that you think will make EMS or the police arrive faster, just state the facts and be patient. The dispatcher may ask you to stay with the person until help arrives, when they do, thank them for coming to help.